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Notes on Hrólfssaga Kraka

Compiled by Jonathan A. Glenn

The title means “the saga of Hrolf Pole-Ladder” (see Jones, Eirik the Red 298 for the naming), “King Hrolf and His Champions” in Jones’ translation. These notes follow the discussion in Jones’ Kings, Beasts, and Heroes.

Date and Materials

The shape of the story as we have it probably dates from ca. 1400. The story itself is undoubtedly much older; indeed, the basic material and some of the same characters are used in Beowulf. The action is set in the misty and legendary past, as Jones notes, “a romantic retelling of the legendary history of three generations of the Skjoldung kings of Denmark” (i.e., the Scyldings of Beowulf). Some of the name equivalents are listed here, though very little follows from the mere fact of their correspondence beyond the obvious—that two authors have used the same underlying materials to create very different works—in Hrólfssaga: Halfdan, Hroar, Helgi, and Hrolf; in Beowulf: Healfdene, Hroðgar, Halga, and Hroþulf.

Genre

As its title suggests, this work is a saga, that is to say “a prose story or narrative.” See Jones, Eirik the Red x ff. and his discussion of some of the types of saga; Hrólfssaga is an example of the fornaldar sögur ‘sagas of olden times.’ The saga can be distinguished from the þáttr (pl. þættir) ‘short story.’ The primary signification of þáttr is ‘a single strand of a rope’: a saga—Hrólfssaga, at any rate—can be seen as a whole rope, since a number of interweaving þættir make up the story as we have it.

Purpose

The saga is, above all, intended to entertain. Jones quotes from two sagas that support this assertion. “Since neither this nor any other thing can be made to please everybody, no none need believe any more of it than he wants to believe; but it is always the best and most profitable thing to listen while a story is being told, and get pleasure from it, and not be gloomy” (Göngu-Hrólfssaga; Jones, Kings 125). Again: “Whether this is true or not, let those who can enjoy the story; but those who can’t had better find some other amusement” (Hrólfsaga Gautreksonnar; Jones, Kings 125). For further discussion, see Jones, Eirik the Red x ff., and Kings 128-29.

Construction

The saga consists of six fairly well-connected þættir (note the several explicit transitional statements by the narrator: see 233, 249, 261, 285):

  1. Frothi and Halfdan (221-33)
  2. Helgi and Hroar; Athils introduced (234-50)
  3. Svipdag; Athils (251-61)
  4. Bothvar Bjarki (262-88) I quote Jones, Kings 129, n. 1, on the hero’s name: “The original name of our hero was Bjarki (Little Bear), the son of Björn (Bear) and Bera (She-Bear). He won his nickname böðvar (Warlike) for his prowess in battle. . . . In course of time the martial cognomen was in various sources, including Hrólfs Saga, taken to be the personal name and the personal name Bjarki to be the cognomen.”
  5. The Uppsala Ride; doom or fate appears in the shape of a displeased Oðin (disguised as the farmer Hrani) in this part (289-306)
  6. The Last Battle (307-18)

In putting these stories together, the author has created a number of echoes (most often doublets) in the larger story: two sorceresses on high scaffolds, two name-fastenings (see 285, 298), two cruel stepmothers, two drinkings of blood to make strong, three Yules. Generally, these echoes help create coherence in the story by providing links, emphasizing themes, and so forth.

Works Cited

Jones, Gwyn, trans. Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1961.

Jones, Gwyn. Kings, Beasts and Heroes. London: Oxford UP, 1972.