The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.

 

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is one of the major Scandinavian legendary tales and belongs to the group of mythic-heroic Icelandic stories known as the “sagas of ancient times,” or fornaldar sagas. These texts, which are also sometimes called the ‘legendary sagas,’ are distinctive in that they tell of events that occurred, or are supposed to have occurred, long before the ninth-century settlement of Iceland. A narrative about pre-Viking Age kings and their rivals, Hrolf’s saga, as the text is often called, tells of King Hrolf, a warrior chieftain who ruled in Denmark about the sixth century AD. Called Kraki (tall, angular and slender like a pole ladder), Hrolf was widely remembered in the medieval North as one of the most magnificent kings of “ancient times,” and the saga draws on a long oral tradition as it describes Hrolf’s often treacherous family and recounts the exploits of his famous champions.

Hrolf’s Saga, which was written in prose in fourteenth-century Iceland, has close affinities with the Old English verse epic Beowulf, written sometime in the period from the eighth to the early eleventh centuries. Both compositions draw on a common tradition of storytelling, recounting events that may or may not have occurred in the fifth- and/or sixth-century Danish kingdom of the Skjoldungs (Old English: Scyldinga). And both, though differentiated by centuries of independent transmission in different lands, have many of the same characters and settings. The relationship is based on an ancient core of shared storytelling, which displays the extent of a common oral tradition in the medieval North and may echo long-past historical events. Hrolf’s Saga and Beowulf share a further similarity. Each provides information about a powerful champion whose bearlike character may reflect the distant memory of early cultic practices.

Medieval Iceland was a suitable place for passing down the memory of King Hrolf and his twelve champions. The settlement of Iceland, an island country first colonized by Norsemen in the ninth century, was an offshoot of Viking Age (ca. 800-1070) exploration and westward expansion across the North Atlantic. At considerable distance from Europe, Iceland was a frontier country. As in such communities elsewhere, the settlers and their descendants tended to venerate the traditions of the mother-culture. The Icelanders’ knowledge of the Scandinavian past was so broad that in medieval times they were acknowledged throughout the North to be master storytellers and the keepers of ancient poetic lore. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, writing about 1200, credits the trustworthiness of Icelanders, who:

spend their time improving knowledge of others’ deeds, making up for their poverty by their intelligence. They take great pleasure in discovering and commemorating the achievements of all nations; in their view it is as enlightening to discourse on the prowess of others as to display their own.

In recounting their own past and the history of other peoples, Icelandic saga tellers made prose narration a high art. Their sagas were unusual among the literatures of medieval Europe, where with the exception of Ireland, traditional narrative stories were usually told in verse. The introduction in Iceland of the written saga in the twelfth century invigorated the process of narrative innovation. Writing provided Icelandic saga tellers with broader possibilities for reworking and preserving the lore of the past. In the case of the legends surrounding King Hrolf and his retinue of champions, the saga tellers had at their disposal an extensive body of existing heroic lore.

The various stories concerning Hrolf and his heroes were first assembled in a coherent, single text possibly as early as the thirteenth century. In its present form, Hrolf’s Saga was composed around 1400. In 1461 a copy of a saga about Hrolf was included among the “books in the Norse language” in the library of the monastery of Modruvellir in northern Iceland. Today, the earliest of the forty-four known manuscripts dates from the seventeenth century, and all of these are copies deriving ultimately from a single common ancestor. The saga author, well aware that he was arranging a compilation of older material, retains the episodic structure of his sources, often telling the audience when one sub-tale ends and another begins: “Here ends the tale of Frodi and now begins the story of Hroar and Helgi, the sons of Halfdan.”

If the underlying, individual episodes are often discernible, the saga is, nevertheless, a unified work, very much in the matter-of-fact style of the Icelandic family sagas. Even in the passages that treat fabulous events and creatures, the text uses an understated tone, relying on realistic-sounding description to create an almost believable story. So too the physical world of the saga is presented in non-fabulous geographical terms, and one can place most events on a modern map. Centered on the court at Hleidargard (Old Norse Hleidr, modern Danish Lejre) on the island of Sjælland, the action spreads across the legendary landscape of northern Europe from Lapland in the far north to England in the west.

Because the saga, like many medieval tales, is fashioned from disparate parts, it is helpful to keep the basic structure in mind. The text falls into five main sections, each one focusing on a different set of characters. The common connection with Hrolf, the male and female members of his family, and his court unites the episodes, giving the saga a consistent narrative focus. The first section (chaps. 1-4) gives the often modest Hrolf an illustrious pedigree. Opening with a dynastic conflict, the saga plunges into the struggle between King Halfdan and his brother Frodi, who were greatly dissimilar in character. At issue was control of the Danish kingdom. In this first part the saga teller uses the unfolding conflict to introduce Hrolf’s tempestuous ancestors. These include the young princes: Helgi, Hrolf’s father; Hroar, his uncle; and Signy, his aunt.

The second section (chaps. 5-13) traces events in the lives of Helgi and Hroar. In particular, the narrative at this point follows the actions of Helgi, a man with large and sometimes uncontrollable appetites. Despite the fact that on each occasion the women caution him not to act on his impulse, Helgi plunges into a series of unfortunate sexual liaisons. The stories of the women then enter the tale, and here we first meet Hrolf’s mother Yrsa, a person of uncommon heritage. The events of Yrsa’s life, including her marriages and wishes, form a narrative thread, linking different sections of the saga and touching the lives of many of the characters. Toward the end of the second section King Hrolf is born, the offspring of a curious parentage. In the next section (chaps. 14-16) the saga turns to Hrolf’s champions, explaining how the Swede Svipdag battles the berserkers of King Adils of Sweden before coming into King Hrolf’s service.

The fourth section (chaps. 16 -24) takes the tale to Norway and Lapland and is one of the saga’s episodic gems. Virtually a fully formed tale in itself, it recounts the fate of Bjorn, the “man bear.” This tragic tale of ancient magic offers insight into the supernatural gifts of Bjorn’s sons, including the bearlike nature of Bodvar Bjarki. A sword hidden in a cave and embedded in stone awaits the rightful heir among Bjorn’s three sons. In this section each occurrence is more extraordinary than the preceding one. Not the least of these is the shield wall constructed of bones with its occupant Hjalti, the champion who confronts and conquers fear.

Up to this point Hrolf himself plays a relatively minor role in the saga. Like Charlemagne in the sequence of Norse stories named after him or like Arthur in medieval Romance tradition, Hrolf the great king of the North is often overshadowed by the individual stories about his champions. With all the pieces in place, however, the fifth and last part of the saga (chaps. 24-34) concentrates on King Hrolf himself and his unfolding destiny. The retinue of champions has reached its full strength, and the central female characters have been introduced into the saga. In the Scandinavian dynastic struggles that form the major underlying theme in the rest of the saga, King Adils of Sweden emerges as Hrolf’s principal opponent. Here both Bodvar Bjarki and the god Odin (in the guise of Hrani) play crucial, though very different, roles.

Hrolf’s Saga devotes a significant share of the narrative to the destiny of female characters, and a significant feature of the text is that important events turn on decisions made by women. Queens, sorceresses, a freeman’s loyal daughter, and an elfin woman and her daughter all change the destiny of those who encounter them. Kings and jarls (earls) frequently seek the advice of women, and the intimate details of marriages, whether good or bad, are exposed. This emphasis is possible because a number of prominent male heroes in Hrolf’s saga are only marginally involved in stories of maturation, whereby a boy, such as Sigurd in The Saga of the Volsungs, comes of age. According to the basic maturation story, a ‘helper’ or ‘donor’ assists the boy in acquiring special weapons and/or knowledge. The youth uses these acquisitions to prove himself through deeds, finding in the end a bride and thereby consummating the transition to manhood. To be sure, elements of this traditional pattern are found in Hrolf’s saga, as for instance in the intertwined stories of Bodvar Bjarki and Hjalti. In the main, however, Hrolf’s Saga, like Beowulf, is about mature people. The action concentrates on adults such as Queen Yrsa and her husbands, King Helgi and King Adils, and the saga probes deeply into the often complex emotional and sexual needs of such individuals.

While King Hrolf remains the central focus, it is frequently the women who connect the saga’s different episodes, binding the individual pieces of story into a cohesive whole. Consider Queen Yrsa: she first enters the tale as an impoverished child of uncertain birth. Taken captive at an early age, Yrsa is forced to marry King Helgi. Against the odds, the union is good; she comes to love Helgi and he her. The ramifications of this love, and the psychological unease caused by the abrupt termination of the marriage, affect the lives of almost all of the saga’s subsequent characters. And what a story it is. Yrsa, forced by conventions of morality, throws her happiness away and as a grown woman returns to live with Queen Olof, the mother who hates her. From this point on, Yrsa’s life is a dilemma. Her previous husband, King Helgi, remains in love with her. But, Helgi, although normally a forceful man, becomes immobilized, his heart broken. In what we now would understand as a deep depression, Helgi retires to his bed. Yrsa, too, suffers cruelly. Her only route of escape from Queen Olof is marriage to King Adils of Sweden, a man whom she dislikes. From Yrsa’s second forced marriage will come her greatest loss.

Queen Yrsa does not employ magic, but many of the other women of the saga do. Queen White, the Lapp king´s daughter, Heid, the seeress, and Queen Skuld all find strength in magic and sorcery. Skuld, the enigmatic half-elfin woman, proves to be a fearful opponent, conjuring up among other feats a monstrous boar. Men in the saga also utilize magic as we see in the behavior of Vifil the commoner, the warrior Bodvar Bjarki, and King Adils. The example of these characters makes The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki a valuable text for understanding the northern perception of magic and sorcery in the late medieval period.

 

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