The Saga of Hrólf Kraki

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Hrólf Kraki's Last Stand. [1]

The Saga of Hrólf 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 the King Arthur story: Like 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 used in The Saga of Hrólf Kraki include:
  • 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.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Prince Bjorn, son of a king in Norway, is cursed by his sorcerous Wicked Stepmother to transform into a bear.
  • The Berserker: Bödvar Bjarki in the battle of Hleidragard. "He stormed on as if he was insane."
  • Best Served Cold: Oluf gets her revenge and except for the fact that it involved punishing an innocent girl in the process it is most delicious.
  • 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.
  • Cinderella Circumstances: Yrsa is raised as a servant, without knowing that Queen Oluf is her mother.
  • 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.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Helgi tries to kidnap Oluf and is embarrassed by Olof whereupon Helgi rapes Oluf whereupon Oluf gets her revenge as described above.
  • Death of the Old Gods: In a metafictional sense in the Poul Anderson version. The story begins when Athalstan is holding court with a bishop as guest. A woman is telling a story in another room. When asked to tell the tale she replies that it is a "heathenish tale" and not fit to be told in a bishop's presence. Whereupon the bishop says it is all right. This displays the the onset of Christianity and hopefully civilization and thus creates a more happy side to a rather Dark Fantasy.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Lady of Black Magic: Skuld. She has her own page on Badass of the Week.
  • Lady of War: Queen Olof of Saxony is used to leading her warriors in battle.
  • Last Stand: Hrolf and his champions at Hleidragard.
  • 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 Weapons: 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.
  • Rape and Revenge: as described above
  • 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.
  • 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.

  1. Copyright holder's message: Picture is retrieved from the project "Old educational posters" at the Centre for Texts in Teaching, the College of Vestfold, at