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Literature / The Saga of Hrolf Kraki

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Hrolf Kraki's Last Stand. (c) 

The Saga of Hrolf Kraki (Hrólfs saga kraka) is a 13th century Icelandic Legendary Saga about the legendary Danish king Hrolf Kraki, who would have lived — if he lived — in the early 6th century.

King Helgi of Denmark, of the famous Skjöldung line, is an accomplished Viking raider. On one of these raids, Helgi rapes Queen Oluf of the Saxons. Years later, on another foray to Saxony, he kidnaps a beautiful shepherd girl, Yrsa. He marries her. Queen Oluf waits until Yrsa is pregnant, then reveals to Helgi that Yrsa is his own daughter.

Devastated, Yrsa leaves Helgi and their infant son Hrolf, and later marries King Adils of Sweden. But Helgi fails to hold his yearning for Yrsa in check, and thus he is lured to his death in Sweden by Adils.

Eventually, the young Hrolf takes over the kingship of Denmark. Noted for his generosity, the best warriors of all the Northlands flock to Hrolf’s service, and the twelve greatest of them become known as Hrolf’s champions. With their help, Hrolf finally ventures to Sweden to demand compensation for his father’s death from Adils. But the devious and sorcerous King of Sweden turns out a less dangerous opponent than Skuld, Hrolf’s own half-sister that Helgi begot with an elf-woman.

By design or coincidence, Hrolf Kraki has several similarities to Arthurian Legend: Like King Arthur, Hrolf is born from a scandalous relationship as the offspring of a brave but morally defective father whom he never gets to know; and like Arthur, he does not so much excel in heroic feats himself, but lets his trusty band of heroes do the grunt work. Like Arthur, Hrolf has a sorcerous half-sister who is only part human, hates her brother, and eventually is the reason for his destruction. It also goes with the Arthur parallels that Hrolf spends much time in the background while the narrative focuses on the adventures of his famous champions, the most prodigious of whom is the near-invincible Bödvar Bjarki. Other champions that have their own stories are Svipdag the Swede, a former retainer of King Adils, and Hjalti, who grows from Bödvar Bjarki’s wimpy sidekick into a kickass hero in his own right.

The Hrolf Kraki legend shares some of its cast with Beowulf: Etymologically, Hrolf can be equated to Hrothulf, who is mentioned in Beowulf as the son of Halga and nephew of King Hrothgar, who in turn correspond to Helgi and his brother Hroar from Hrolf's Saga; their common ancestor Skjöld figures as Scyld Scefing in Beowulf. Some have also proposed that Bödvar Bjarki, Hrolf's greatest champion, is the Norse equivalent of Beowulf himself. Still, the Saga of Hrolf is not the "Norse version of Beowulf"; both stories have an entirely different plot and are clearly set in mutually exclusive continuities. Certain (fairly minor) parallels will most likely escape the reader without someone pointing them out. It is however true that Bödvar Bjarki and Beowulf share much the same personality.

Hrolf Kraki's Saga is also the name of a novel by Poul Anderson, a retelling of Hrólfs saga kraka augmented by various other sources on King Hrolf, such as Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum and the Prose Edda.

Can be read online here.

Tropes in the Saga of Hrolf Kraki:

  • All Trolls Are Different: The term "troll" in this saga is used in the broadest sense, referring to any seemingly unnatural or monstrous creature, ranging from daemonic boars to dragon-like beasts.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: King Helgi tries to force Queen Olof to marry him by landing an army in her kingdom. It doesn't work.
  • Angel Unaware: The homesteader Hrani that offers his help to Hrolf is actually Odin in disguise.
  • Animal-Themed Superbeing: Bodvar Bjarki's parents are Bjorn and Bera ("bear" and "she-bear"), Bjorn was a were-bear when Bera conceived Bodvar, his nickname means "bear cub", he is as strong as a bear, and in Hrolf's Last Stand, he appears in the shape of a giant spirit-bear.
  • Animorphism: Prince Bjorn is turned into a were-bear, and while under that spell begets Bodvar Bjarki. Much later, in the Battle of Hleidragard, Bödvar Bjarki's spirit charges into battle as a giant bear.
  • Blood Magic: After Moose-Frodi has tested the strength of his brother Bodvar by shoving him and found that Bodvar is not as strong as he, he cuts himself in the calf so blood comes out and makes Bodvar drink it. He then tries again to shove Bodvar and is pleased when Bodvar does not budge, affirming that drinking Frodi's blood has made Bodvar stronger.
  • The Berserker: Bödvar Bjarki in the battle of Hleidragard. "He stormed on as if he was insane."
  • Catch and Return: The retainers in Hrolf’s hall provoke the newcomer Bödvar Bjarki by throwing bones at him. It doesn’t end well for them.
  • Child by Rape: Queen Oluf gets pregnant with Yrsa after being raped by Helgi.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: "Bjorn, the king’s son, and Bera, the farmer’s daughter, played together as children and they got on well. (...) Bera and Bjorn loved each other a lot and were always meeting."
  • Cool Sword: Bödvar Bjarki's sword willed to him from his father is a supreme weapon, but it has also many magic limitations: If drawn, it can only be put back into the scabbard after having killed a man, and Bödvar is not allowed to put it under his head when sleeping, to whet it more than three times in his life, and to use it at all during certain intervals.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: When the superhumanly strong Elk-Frodi is called out for maiming or killing other kids, he argues that it's not his fault that they are so frail.
  • Depending on the Writer: Hrolfs saga makes it a point that Hrolf is physically unimpressive. This is the exact opposite of Hrolf’s description in Gesta Danorum, where he is unusually tall and strong. Gesta Danorum has also the scene when Vögg (Wigg) wonders at Hrolf’s size – only he wonders at Hrolf being so big, while in Hrolfs saga he wonders that he is so short.
  • Draw Sword, Draw Blood: The sword left to Bodvar Bjarki by his father "could never be drawn without being the death of a man."
  • Ethnic Magician: Queen Hvit.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: When Vögg meets King Hrolf the first time, he is much surprised that Hrolf is so short and lean.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Svipdag is one-eyed after his battle with Adils' berserkers.
  • Evil Sorcerer: King Adils, Queen Hvit, and Skuld all use magic to further their villainous goals. But not every sorcerer is evil, as shown by Vifil who uses his magic to protect the boys Hroar and Helgi.
  • The Fair Folk: While probably not categorically evil, elves in Hrolfs saga are cast in a rather sinister light, as demonstrated by Skuld's proud and devious personality, her mastership of black magic, and the elf warriors that reinforce her in her attack on Hrolf.
  • Fighting Spirit: During the Battle of Hleidragard, a huge bear appears on the battlefield and fights for King Hrolf. Meanwhile, Hjalti goes looking for Bodvar Bjarki and finds him seemingly sleeping in his quarters. When Hjalti wakes him, Bodvar blames him, but goes with him to the battle where the bear has now disappeared; thus revealing to Hjalti that the bear was Bodvar's spirit.
  • Forced Transformation: Prince Bjorn, son of a king in Norway, is cursed by his sorcerous Wicked Stepmother to transform into a bear.
  • Full-Boar Action: Two times, Hrolf and his champions face off against a giant demonic boar (more specifically, a troll in boar form) — one summoned by Adils, another one by Skuld.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Skuld is a half-elf. Elk-Frodi is an elk from the waist downward because of evil magic, despite both bis parents being human.
  • Identical Twin ID Tag: Thorir Dogfoot and Bodvar Bjarki would look exactly the same if it weren't for Thorir's Do we really have to spell out that he has dog feet?
  • In the Hood: When both Thorir Dog-foot and Bodvar Bjarki, each on their own, depart from their grandfather's kingdom, both of them first seek out their brother Elk-Frodi, who lives as a highwayman. Both times Frodi is not at home when his brother arrives, and both of them sit down in Frodi's cabin and pull their hoods down over their faces. Frodi comes home and behaves menacingly toward the stranger. Thorír reveals himself before they come to blows, but Bodvar simply ignores Frodi's threats until Frodi is about to attack him, and they wrestle with each other. In wrestling, the hood falls from Bodvar's face, and Frodi finally recognizes his brother.
  • Lady Macbeth: Skuld drives on her husband Hjorward to treacherously attack Hrolf Kraki.
  • Lady of Black Magic: Hrolf's half-sister Skuld can raise the dead and summon a demon ("troll") in boar form.
  • Lady of War: Queen Olof of Saxony is used to leading her warriors in battle.
  • Last Stand: Hrolf and his champions at Hleidragard.
  • The Low Middle Ages: About a legendary Danish king.
  • Meaningful Rename: After his miraculous character transformation, the farmer's son Hott changes his name to Hjalti.
  • Mugging the Monster: When Bodvar Bjarki first arrives at Hleidragard, the retainers in Hrolf's hall think it's a good idea to pick on the newcomer. They are wrong.
  • Named Weapon: Hrolf’s sword Skofnung, and Gullinhjalti ('Goldenhilt') which he gives to Hjalti.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: Bödvar Bjarki's father Bjorn leaves his three sons three weapons struck into a wall of rock. When the sons later arrive to retrieve the weapons, everyone of them can only take the one weapon intended for him: Elk-Frodi a short-sword, Thorir Dogfoot a battle-axe; only Bödvar can pull out the most precious weapon, a longsword.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: Cursed with Queen Hvit's spell, Bjorn is a bear by day but a man by night.
  • Parental Incest: King Helgi marries his own daughter, though neither of them knows it at the time.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: In the Battle of Hleidragard, Bodvar Bjarki delivers a long rant on what a cowardly jerk Odin is.
  • Rape and Revenge: Queen Oluf avenges herself on Helgi by consciously letting him beget a child with his own daughter.
  • Retcon: Hrólfs saga describes a situation where Hrolf has twelve "champions" and twelve "berserkers" in his service, but a few decades prior, Snorra Edda was clear that Hrolf's twelve champions were Hrolf's twelve berserkers. An oversight of the author when making that change has left a slight Continuity Snarl in the expedition to Sweden, when the saga first says that Hrolf takes both the berserkers and the champions with him, but a little later it becomes clear that only the "champions" are there.
  • Same-Sex Triplets: Elk-Frodi, Thorir Dogfoot, and Bodvar Bjarki.
  • Shapeshifting Lover: Bera and Bjorn, who is a bear by day but turns back into a man by night.
  • The Stoic: Svipdag, more so in Poul Anderson's retelling, and in marked contrast to the berserkers he faces.
  • Supervillain Lair: King Adils' fortress at Uppsala is riddled with traps and secret doors and passages.
  • Surprise Incest: Helgi has to find out that he unwittingly married his own daughter.
  • Take Our Word for It: Quite cleverly used to top off the climax, the last stand of Hrolf and his champions:
    No need to spin it out with words: there fell King Hrolf and all his champions with good glory. But what a slaughter they dealt out there, words cannot describe it.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Hjalti, a farmer's son, transforms from a wimp into a ferocious champion by eating the heart of a dragon-like monster.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Queen Olof has the sleeping Helgi’s hair shorn off to humiliate him.
  • The Undead: When Skuld and Hjörvard attack Hleidragard, Skuld’s magic makes her fallen warriors come alive again to continue fighting.
  • Warrior Prince: Even though he normally prefers to send his champions on quests while he stays in his court, in his last battle Hrolf Kraki proves to be a truly badass warrior, second only to Bodvar Bjarki.
  • We Named the Monkey "Jack": After being raped by Helgi, Queen Olof gives birth to a daughter. She names her Yrsa after one of her dogs and has her raised as a serf.
  • Werewolf Theme Naming:
    • Prince Bjorn is cursed by Queen Hvit to be a bear between sunrise and sunset. As it happens, his name means 'bear'.
    • Bjorn's son Bodvar Bjarki reveals himself as a shape-changer at the Battle of Hleidragard: While Bodvar appears to sleep, his spirit fights in the shape a giant bear. Interpreted literally, 'Bodvar Bjarki' means 'Little Battle-Bear'.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Queen Hvit who curses her stepson Bjorn with a Forced Transformation.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Elk-Frodi, Thorir Dogfoot and Bodvar Bjarki are triplets, but Bodvar is born last, and is the last to leave home. While Thorir rises to the highest position of the three, as he becomes a king, it is Bodvar who takes revenge for his father, receives the most valuable of his father's three heirlooms, and becomes the most famous of the three brothers.

Alternative Title(s): Saga Of Hrolf Kraki, Hrolf Krakis Saga