Notable ancestry seems to have been obligatory for Norse heroes. The first time that I read The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, I was surprised that the first chapter introduces no one called Hrolf. Instead, it tells of how a good king, Halfdan, was murdered in cold blood by his brother, Frodi. It is written in the saga that Frodi came in the middle of the night, burning everything.
Halfdan’s sons, Helgi and Hroar, were saved by their foster-father, Regin. They were smuggled on to an island belonging to a fisherman and sorcerer, Vifil. When Frodi came to the island looking for the boys, Vifil concealed the princes and then sent them to stay elsewhere – with their sister’s husband, Jarl Saevil.
However, even there the boys were not safe, as a seeress revealed their identities to a visiting Frodi and, in a trance, told the murderous king that the princes would go on to “rob Frodi of life”. Helgi and Hroar were – once again – rescued by Regin and went on to fulfill the prophecy and kill their Uncle. Hroar, the milder of the two, married an English princess, and Helgi took control of Denmark.
Helgi wished to marry the beautiful and powerful, but cruel, Queen Olof. However, she bewitched the king, using a ‘sleep thorn’ to induce a charmed sleep, and ran away. To take his revenge, Helgi tricked the queen into coming to meet him and impregnated her. The child, Yrsa, was disowned by her mother, and her father – who did not know of her existence – married her after they fell in love at first sight.
Hroar, living in Northumberland with his wife, Ogn, had been granted a beautiful ring by his brother. However, their nephew, Hrok, also desired to own the ring and tricked Hroar into allowing him to hold it, whereby he threw it into the sea. Furious, Hroar ordered Hrok’s foot to be chopped off and sent him away. Hrok, however, came back, killed Hroar and tried to marry Ogn who was forced to agree, providing the wedding was delayed. This was because, as Ogn informed Helgi, she was pregnant with Hroar’s child. When her son, Agnar, was born, Helgi took his revenge on Hrok by breaking his arms and legs and sending him back to his kingdom, in agony and shame. Agnar grew up to be a very powerful warrior, and he even retrieved his father’s ring from where it had been thrown by Hrok.
Helgi, however, was beginning to have serious problems of his own. Although Yrsa had given birth to a son, Hrolf, his joy was short-lived as the evil queen Olof came and informed Yrsa of her true parentage. Although she loved her husband and son, Yrsa left Helgi to go and live with her mother, who gave her hand in marriage to a powerful and greedy king, Adils.
King Helgi was heartbroken and became reclusive, sleeping alone in a small, detached building. One Yule night, Helgi was awoken by a knocking at his door and, when he opened it, he saw a loathsome woman. He let her in and gave her a bed out of pity, but she asked to sleep in his bed with him, to which he agreed when she said her life would otherwise be in danger. When he awoke from his slumber a short while later, Helgi found himself laying next to a beautiful young woman, who told him that he had freed her from her stepmother’s curse. When Helgi asked her to stay, she agreed and they spent the night together. In the morning, the woman told him that she would have his child and that, if he did not visit it the following winter, he would have to pay. He forgot the woman’s words and, three years later, the child was set down in front of Helgi, who was told that her name was Skuld (meaning “a debt”) and that Helgi’s kinsmen would pay for ignoring the woman’s earlier request. It was also revealed that the woman Helgi had slept with was of the elfin kind and Skuld is said to have had a vicious temperament from an early age.
A while later, Helgi decided to retrieve his beloved wife, Yrsa, from Adils. Yrsa told Adils that she loved Helgi more than any other man, and he decided to receive Helgi in a seemingly friendly way, putting on a feast and showering him with gifts. However, Adils instructed his twelve mighty berserkers to kill Helgi and, in a vicious battle, Helgi and his men were killed. Yrsa vowed vengeance on the berserkers and remained very subdued, despite Adils’ attention. King Adils, however, continued on his evil path, full of dark magic, and he also committed sacrifices.
Although perhaps the idea of revenge seems slightly barbaric to a modern audience, the importance of justice in the Norse society is undeniable: Hroar and Helgi are perfectly within their rights to kill their father’s murderer. However, more interesting is Helgi’s decision to allow Hrok to live, albeit completely maimed and humiliated. Although it may be controversial to describe this punishment as “enlightened”, personally I can see how it would be an improvement to the death penalty. After all, how can someone regret their actions when they’re dead? Hrok is described as being “utterly ruined” by Helgi’s revenge for his brother. He was forced to return to a place where he should have commanded respect but instead would have been ridiculed as a failure and a cripple.
Revenge in its cruellest form is found in the women of the saga, primarily in the evil queen, Olof, who disowns her (and Helgi’s) daughter and then allows her to marry her father, waiting for the moment when Yrsa is feeling happiest before telling her of her parentage and effectively ruining her life. Also, Helgi’s other child, Skuld, daughter of an elf, is given to the king as a punishment for forgetting to visit her as a baby. She comes not only as a problem to her wife-less father, but also as a curse to his relations.
The saga tells of events that apparently took place in fifth century Denmark, when sorcery was clearly at its most powerful. However, the saga itself was not written until the fourteenth century, when the author would certainly have been a Christian. This makes it difficult to know whether or not sorcery is linked with evil. After all, the only good magic-wielding character we have met so far is Vifil.
Many of the small stories within this saga have at least some resonance with others I have read. The idea of a ring that men are willing to kill and die for is clearly reflected in J. R. R. Tolkien’s most famous work, “The Lord of the Rings”, unsurprisingly as Tolkien drew much of his literary inspiration from the Norse sagas. Helgi’s experience with the elfish mother of Skuld can be linked to the very similar Arthurian legend of “Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady”, where the knight marries the loathly lady before discovering that she is really a beautiful woman under an enchantment.
As for Hrolf Kraki, although we are a third of the way through the book telling his story, he has only just become king, and I will leave you with the following quote from the saga:
“Here ends the tale of King Helgi” (!)