The Saga of King Hrolf Kracki
All Shelter Filled by Snow, (Part One)
Warrior sagas from the far north are not for everyone, though they certainly were for Tolkien. But for those that aren’t jumping up and down with joy over this epic five-part journey, I will also be adding alongside fairytales and also in-situ tellings from locations on my Irish tour to vary the palette. This story shows a glimpse into what the anthropologists name an ancient ‘life-world’ that is pretty dark at times, and I’ve made no attempt to clean that up, or spin it for a modern audience. It is what it is. There are scenes that make strong the case for Christ (!) in their unremitting grimness. One way or another, we learn something on such a long, salty journey.
This labour is an early 73rd birthday gift for my father Robert Shaw – news from his ancestors. What follows is a short introduction before the first part of the saga.
The Icelandic sagas have a small romantic influence, but no French axe ever cleaved them from their Norse root. The sagas aren’t showy, and they build slowly. You don’t always meet the main characters right away. Their episodic patterning can seem simple but rarely is. Saga authors were blowing on the embers of fires already started – everyone knew that – and that was what girded their tales with much of their power. No teller alone was seen as the origin point of a story. The sagas are conservative in nature, and too much comedy reveals a continental touch. Most of the time they were intended to be spoken aloud, so have a pleasing drive and conciseness. When a character is not to be seen again it’s often noted, serving as a kind of chapter ending.
In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, we find ourselves in a slight spiritual limbo – the main characters are no longer pagan but not Christian either. Oddly like today. You will locate a touch of Beowulf to it, though that has far more of a Christian overlay. Berserkers roam throughout Hrolf Kracki: though some critics would have them entirely as a literary device, within these pages they are breathlessly close. The great Snorri Sturluson described them as men biting their shields with the strength of bears, fighting without armour. Berserkers are disciples of the dream-memory of Odin, king of warriors.
There are touches of Norse magic here both alarming and provocative. What would it mean to be struck with a sleep thorn, or to clamber onto a trance platform and divine what should not be known? Huge forests soaked in mist, sorcerer-kings, women that are also elves, a farmer with one eye standing by the road in the dying light. There’s even the heart-breaking tale of a king who unwittingly marries his daughter. These are images from the deep underbelly of Scandinavian myth, and not easily forgotten. Though the gods are fading from the bright minds of this saga’s heroes, they are still pulling strings behind the scenes.
There are two verse styles within the Icelandic saga: eddic and skaldic. I tend to think of the eddic as holding the matter of the story and the skaldic as the sense. That’s oversimplified, but it’s a start. The skaldic has some of the word-charisma of the individual teller, as well as the eddic task of relating the bones of the tale. Good storytelling is always a matter of both tradition and innovation. I especially enjoyed Dr. Jackson Crawford’s weave of the two as I consulted several translations. Mine is a version soaked in oral storytelling, rather than a literary translation from the old language. Something is always lost in this approach, so we must toast the scholars.
Wonderfully, it is likely that some of the kings threaded throughout this saga – Hrolf, Helgi, Halfdan, Frodi, even wicked Adils – can be located in history around the time of the Danish migration period of the fifth and sixth centuries. Hrolf comes from a well-known dynasty, he’s a Skjoldung, a name well known in both Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon worlds. First composed in literary form in the fourteenth century, we have over forty manuscripts with either some or all of the saga contained.
I have sometimes struggled with tellings of the sagas. It’s always hard to keep something alive whilst also cleave to the translation. That struggle will also be evident here. However, I have no desire to over-ornament the power of this tale. You will find occasional phrases in italics to add a little poetical skip but not too much. This is an incredible story, and my gratitude to the skalds of old is huge.
Listen to the audio of this post and Part One of The Saga of King Hrolf Kracki: