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
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.