The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki by Anonymous
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(This is a review of Jesse L. Byock's translation in Penguin Classics, and if we can talk of spoilers in a legend, here are lots of spoilers.)
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is a legendary tale and one of the greatest Old Icelandic legendary sagas.
Hrolf Kraki, king in ancient Denmark, was not as many of the other legendary heroes; he was among the quiet and mild rulers, which, of course, didn’t prevent him from taking action and revenge when required. He is famous for having sowed pieces of gold on the Fyri’s Plane (in Sweden) to distract King Adils and his warriors. Hrolf was fleeing after having regained the gold Adils stole when he killed Helgi, Hrolf’s father. Hrolf also threw a gold ring in front of the pursuing king. When King Adils stopped to acquire the ring, Hrolf said that now “I have made the greatest of the Swedes stoop like a swine.” When Adils bent forward to fetch the ring, Hrolf sliced off both his buttocks “right down to the bone.”
Hrolf was the result of an incestuous relation. His father, King Helgi, was also his grandfather. It started when Helgi met Olof, a powerful Saxon warrior queen who wore mail and weapons. Olof had no intention of marrying, and when Helgi wanted to force her, she tricked and humiliated the king, who wreaked a cruel vengeance by repeatedly raping her.
As a result, Olof gets pregnant and gives birth to the girl Yrsa, who grows up in poverty not knowing her parents. Queen Olof tells nothing to Helgi, who later, on a raid to Saxland, captures Yrsa, falls in love with her, marries her, and gets a son with her.
When Queen Olof learns that King Helgi’s and Yrsa’s marriage is a happy one, she travels to Denmark and tells Yrsa that she is her mother and that Helgi, her husband, is her father. Yrsa feels forced to leave Helgi and returns to Saxland with her mother, who marries her to the Adils, the Swedish king.
When Helgi returns from his Viking raids and hears what has happened, he mourns his loss, mates with an elf-woman and gets Skuld, a girl who from an early age shows a vicious temperament. After some time, however, Helgi prepares a voyage to Uppsala to retrieve Yrsa. King Adils receives Helgi in honour, but deceives and kills him and takes all his gold.
Thus, young Hrolf, Helgi’s son, becomes king in Denmark. In his time, Hrolf is the greatest of the Scandinavian kings, so powerful he can live in relative peace. The only one he is forced to subdue is his brother-in-law, Hjorvard, who is married to Skuld, Hrolf’s elfish half-sister.
In the saga of Hrolf and his family, women play an important part; their doings set off the action and their relations to the male heroes bind the tale together. Most of the tragedies in Hrolf’s family are the results of characters living out their problematic sexual desires.
Despite the focus on Hrolf’s family, in large parts of the saga Hrolf is overshadowed by the feats of two of his champions: Svipdag and Bodvar Bjarki. Twined into the action, Svipdag and Bodvar have their own sagas within the saga. Both the champions have supernatural powers, as do several of the other characters, most notably King Adils and Skuld. The gods too, especially Odin, both helps and works against the characters. All in all, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is an exceptionally rich in Old Norse magic.
Bodvar Bjarki, the champion, is the Scandinavian equivalent of Beowulf, the Old English hero. They both have bear-like qualities and both fight and kill threatening monsters. The final battle between King Hrolf and Hjorvard, his brother-in-law, was in fact a fight between Bodvar and Skuld and their supernatural powers. During the fight, Bodvar went into a trance, changed shape and fought like a bear on which no weapons would bite. Skuld, skilful in magic and sorcery, fashioned a spell of high potency. Her spells, however, only gained full effect after one of Hrolf’s retainers woke Bodvar up from his trance and the bear disappeared from the battlefield. From then on, the battle-luck changed, and Hrolf and his retainers had to fight draugar or living dead: fallen enemies that kept on fighting.
Hrolf and all of his champions were all killed in the battle, and Skuld seized the power in Denmark. But her rule was short. One of Bodvar’s brothers took revenge, killed Skuld, and Hrolf’s daughters became rulers of Denmark.
Jesse L. Byock’s translation is excellent, and the book, published in Penguin Classics, is equipped with informative endnotes, maps, a glossary of proper names, and a very instructive introduction. These extras are very helpful and make the book a memorable read.
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