This week the section of The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is split into two sections. Once again, Hrolf plays a relatively minor part, the protagonist of the first section being Svipdag and the second being Bodvar.
Svipdag was the son of a wealthy farmer, Svip, and his brothers were called Beygad and Hvitserk. Svipdag, tired of his farming life with his father, mother and brothers, decided to join the followers of King Adils. Svip counselled against the decision, but when he realised that his son’s mind was made up, he gave Svipdag armour, a horse and a fine axe before farewelling him with some words of wisdom.
Svipdag made it to the stronghold of King Adils, where he impressed the king with his strength and confidence and, when the berserkers challenged him to a fight, he agreed to take them on one at a time, killing four of them. Yrsa was exceptionally pleased by this and, when Adils demanded Svipdag’s life in payment for those he had taken, Yrsa told Adils that he would be better off taking Svipdag’s offer of service. Later, Svipdag picked a fight with the berserkers, who were subsequently outlawed for being unable to kill a man on his own.
The berserkers began to raid Adils’ kingdom and, even after Svipdag had led one successful force against them, they kept returning. Whilst Svipdag fought them, Svip was awoken from a dream and instructed his other two sons to go and help Svipdag, who he knew was gravely wounded. Although the brothers successfully defeated the berserkers, Svipdag was left with only one eye and many serious wounds. Queen Yrsa nursed him back to health, after which he left the king’s service, telling Adils that he thought the king ought to have honoured him more for his hard work. He also knew that Adils had hidden in the forest whilst Svipdag was fighting the berserkers, as the king did not care who won.
Svipdag and his brothers returned to their father for a time, who suggested that they join the company of the good, brave and generous King Hrolf. The brothers offered their services to Hrolf, who admitted that he had not thought to have allies amongst Adils’ men. Svipdag nearly got into a fight with one of Hrolf’s berserkers but, unlike Adils, Hrolf stood between them and forbade their fighting, saying that they were both his friends.
Hrolf told his mother that he wanted the treasure that King Adils had offered Helgi before having him killed, and Yrsa agreed that he should have it, although she warned him that King Adils would not willingly let it go. In the meantime, Hrolf met with his brother-in-law, Hjorvald (the husband of Skuld), and asked him to hold his sword while he undid his belt. He then quoted an old adage that claimed that he who holds the sword of a man undoing his belt is the lesser of the two, thereby tricking Hjorvald into being his underking. Hjorvald and Skuld were furious, but were unable to do anything but deliver the due tribute to Hrolf.
Some years previously, a king called Hring ruled Norway. His son was called Bjorn, and when Bjorn’s mother died, Hring was encouraged to remarry. The wife his subjects chose for him was Hvit, the illegitimate daughter of the King of the Lapps. Hring consented, although his new wife was many years his junior.
Bjorn meanwhile had fallen in love with his childhood playmate, Bera, and intended to marry her. However, one day when Hring was away, Hvit came to Bjorn and offered herself to him, to which he responded by giving her a slap. Furious at not getting her own way, Hvit turned Bjorn into a bear and forced him to spend the rest of his life as a menace to his father’s land.
When Bera saw the bear, she recognised the eyes as Bjorn’s and followed him back to his cave, where he became a man. Bjorn and Bera repeated the meeting for many nights until Bjorn told her that he felt the next day he would be killed. He said that Bera would have three sons and told her how to name them and that he had also ensured an inheritance for them. He warned her that Hvit would try and make her eat the bear-meat and, if she did so, the effect would be visible in her children. The following day, Bjorn was killed and, despite Bera’s protests, Hvit managed to force her to eat the bear-meat.
When she had her children, she saw the effects that Bjorn had warned about. The first, Elk-Frodi, was a man above the navel but an elk below. The second, called Thorir, had dog’s feet but was otherwise very handsome. The third – and Bera’s favourite – was Bodvar, who looked normal!
When they were still young, Elk-Frodi decided to leave and Bera told him about his inheritance; which was some treasure and one of the weapons in a rock in Bjorn’s cave. Although he tried to get the long sword and then the axe, he could only retrieve a short sword, which made him very angry. He left his mother in order to become a footpad high in the mountains. When Thorir left, he was unable to take the sword, but the axe came easily to him. Elk-Frodi suggested that Thorir became a king of the Gauts, and this he did.
Bodvar found out about his father’s story and killed Hvit in revenge. A short while later, King Hring died and Bodvar inherited the title. After giving his mother in marriage to an earl, Bodvar took his inheritance – treasure and a long sword – and went to find adventure. First he went to see his brothers and Elk-Frodi suggested that he go and join the company of King Hrolf. Elk-Frodi also made a vow to avenge Bodvar’s death if it was in combat.
When he reached Denmark, Bodvar was disgusted to find that some of Hrolf’s men had been bullying a weak man, Hott, by throwing bones at him. Bodvar threw one of the bones back, killing the original thrower. Hrolf was furious when he found out what his men had been doing. He also asked Bodvar to join his company and Bodvar accepted, providing he would not be separated from Hott. That Yule, Bodvar secretly took Hott with him to slay a dragon that had been terrorising Hrolf’s kingdom. Bodvar slew the beast and then told Hott to drink its blood, which would make him strong and brave. When Hrolf asked about the beast, Hott was able to prove himself by pretending to kill it. Both Hott and Bodvar then became welcome members of King Hrolf’s group of champions.
Once again, The Saga Of King Hrolf Kraki centres around tales of revenge. Twice the outlawed beserkers attempted to avenge their dismissal, albeit unsuccessfully. Again, however, the cruellest revenge is by a woman and, once again, it is a queen. Hvit’s cruellest act is perhaps not even turning Bjorn into a bear, but forcing Bera to eat the bear-meat, causing deformity in two of her sons. The underlying theme to this is the fear and uncertainty with which even bold Norse warriors viewed women, especially those with power, and as well as this, women were considered to be associated with the supernatural. The example of Queen Hvit is definitely revenge and not justice, as Bjorn was punished for refusing the advances of his father’s wife.
Although the most obvious form of magic in this part of the saga is Hvit turning Bjorn into a bear (which is undeniably strong and dark sorcery) there have also been two other examples that I have picked out from this section. Both involve the gift of seeing something distanced either by time or by physical space. The first is Svip’s knowledge that Svipdag is in trouble. Although in the original saga Svip is said to be a master of the magical arts, it seems to me that this could be the natural “magic” that binds a parent to their child. The second is a reference to foresight, when Bjorn predicts his death and the number of children he will have with Bera. For me, these last two examples do not show ‘conventional’ sorcery but, as I said before, a natural “magic” that exists as part of a bloodline, or as a part of love.
Once again there are many references within the saga that can be linked to other stories and literary works. Each weapon that Bjorn leaves for his children can only be retrieved by the right son drawing the right weapon from the stone. This has clear resonance with what is possibly the most famous aspect of Arthurian legends. Just as with the last extract, there is also a clear link with the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, who also had a man who could turn into a bear, called Beorn, who appears in The Hobbit. Finally, I cannot shake off thoughts of a fragment of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” in which we are told that some witches in America turned children into hamburgers and fed them to their parents! This can clearly be seen as a reflection of Hvit feeding Bera the bear-meat, and Dahl’s own Norwegian heritage may be able to explain that link.
Still we have learnt little of King Hrolf Kraki, aside from his noble ideas of hospitality and the treatment of weak men. However, from this part of the saga we can learn the importance of judging a man by the company that he keeps. The next instalment of the story is the final one, and I promise you that Hrolf plays a bigger role in that!