Deep mythic roots

Replica Sutton Hoo helmet © C A Lovegrove

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.
Translated by Jesse L Byock.
Penguin Classics, 1999.

Put together in this form around 1400 CE, Hrolf’s Saga is a wonderfully barbaric tale, a composition with roots deep in northern mythology and, for its time, hardly touched by Christian values or notions of chivalry. The modern reader may recognise many elements and motifs familiar from other narratives and traditions – Beowulf and Hamlet, for example, the Nibelungenlied, even Arthurian legend – all of which suggests that the well of story is broad as well as deep.

Although for modern tastes it’s a narrative that may somewhat meander, switching its focus from one individual to another, there’s no doubting that the saga’s thrust is towards the story of a certain Hrolf, a part-historical, part-legendary figure around in fifth- or sixth-century Denmark, localised on the island of Sjælland (anglicised as Zealand).

Yet even though its action takes place in lands surrounding both the North Sea and the Baltic this saga was to find its final form across the North Atlantic in Iceland, settled by Norse descendants.

Swedish warrior and berserker

Jesse Byock’s 1998 translation, the most accessible one currently available, is equipped with a detailed introduction, copious notes, family trees, a glossary of proper names and a map of the saga’s principal locations. The tale is told in 34 relatively short chapters, each effectively an episode, to which Byock has added succinct headings like ‘The Death of King Frodi’, ‘The Elfin Woman and the Birth of Skuld’, and ‘King Hrolf Tricks King Hjorvard’.

For anyone interested in history, archaeology, mythology, folklore, or storytelling, for example, there is much to relish in the translated narrative and not just in the apparatus of the commentary; and all of that is tethered around the succession of male and female characters who push the action forward. These include royal figures like Danish kings Helgi, Hroar and Hrolf, Queen Olof of Saxland, Ogn the daughter of a Northumbrian king, King Hring of Norway, King Adils of Sweden, and so on. But it also includes commoners like the warrior Svipdag and a freeman’s daughter called Bera; and then there are the more uncanny individuals – trolls, witches, and sorcerers, and shapeshifters like Bodvar Bjarki, the Icelandic cognate of the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf.

At times it might seem that Hrolf’s Saga is, in the words of Wordsworth, only about “old, unhappy, far-off things, And battles long ago,” about dynasties from distant times, and about petty quarrels and cruel conquests. But truly this is about very human emotions and passions: jealousy and love, greed and generosity, loyalty and treachery, despair and hubris. It all may get complicated by natural misunderstandings or supernatural happenings, but there’s no denying that the stories of Hrolf’s forebears (including Yrsa, who’s his mother as well as his sister), of his champions including Bodvar Bjarki (who like Arthur draws a sword from a stone), and of Hrolf, his adversary King Adils, and his last great battle all have the potential to engage our attention and encourage investment in their fates.

With my student cap on I want to keep returning to this, consider its analogues in legends, folklore and myth, and draw out the history of its transition from oral tradition to manuscript; but as an ordinary reader I’ve found this important saga as enjoyable as any novel, contemporary or classic. It’s well worth more than a passing glance, I feel.

Nordic FINDS 2023:

An Icelandic title read for @annabookbel’s #NordicFINDS2023

11 thoughts on “Deep mythic roots

  1. Pingback: Deep mythic roots – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

    1. I’ve got The Saga of the Volsungs (from the same translator) to revisit in detail, Karen – though not in time for Nordic FINDS – and then perhaps a belated return to my battered copy of The Nibelungenlied and other medieval European texts.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so satisfying, isn’t it? 🙂 To anyone unfamiliar with the world and culture this book conjures up, and even the analogues to the motifs it uses, this saga and others would likely come across as confusing and nonsensical.

      But the motifs that appear for example in Hamlet (fratricide, the spy hidden behind a tapestry and so on, all derived from the Norse myth of Amleth), or in Beowulf (the bear-like strength, the fight with Grendel, here a troll with wings, as in the final fight with a dragon in the epic) reappear in the saga in a different form. In fact all the primitive human passions – treachery, incest, greed, revenge – are here, I suspect as in most the Mahabharata!


      1. True, the basic emotions and passions are the same everywhere but even things like the pulling of the sword or in the mahabharata, the breaking of a bow are surprisingly similar. The bear-like strength can likewise be compared with Bhim in the Mahabharat, the strongest of the pandavas

        Liked by 1 person

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