Saturday, January 25, 2014

Time passed and nothing noteworthy took place - The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written in the 14th century, author Icelandic but otherwise unknown.  Although not of the quality of the finest Icelandic sagas, it is great fun and might well make an ideal Starter Saga for anyone curious but not that curious.  It is, for example, only 78 pages long in the Penguin Classics edition (tr. Jesse L. Byock).  And part of it stars Beowulf, here known as Bodvar Bjarki, the bear-warrior.

The line I put in the title can be found on page 36, and is not typical.  This one, from two pages later, is:  “The queen is a great troll.”  In this saga that is meant more or less literally.  Or how about this:

A little while later she fell ill and gave birth to a boy, though of an extraordinary kind.  He was a man above the navel, but an elk below that.  He was named Elk-Frodi.  She bore another son, who was named Thorir.  He had dog’s feet from his insteps down.  Because of this he was called Thorir Hound’s Foot; otherwise he was the most handsome of men.  A third boy was born, and this one was the most promising.  He was named Bodvar and there was no blemish on him.  Bera loved Bodvar the most.  (40)

I do not think it is an aspersion on the Old English Beowulf to say that it would be even better is its hero had an older brother who was half elk.  The father is a werebear, and then the mother – well, see for yourself.  What I mean is, there is a logical explanation for those trollish children.

Some sagas have almost no supernatural material at all, and one of the best, Grettir’s Saga, has a lot but is fascinatingly ambivalent about its ghosts and monsters.  King Hrolf Kraki is closer to a pure fantasy adventure, even if many of the kings and heroes have some connection to historic figures.  Distant history, though, when witches and trolls were out and about more.

A scene you have to read to believe is Bodvar’s introduction to King Hrolf at his great hall, before the fight with Grendel that I know from Beowulf:

he heard a noise coming from somewhere in the corner.  Bodvar looked in that direction and saw a man’s hand emerging from a huge pile of bones lying there.  The hand was very black.  (48)

This fellow has been living in a pile of bones that the king’s warriors throw at him during banquets.  He has been busy trying to turn them into a fort to protect him from the hurled bones.  Bodvar rescues the target.  The first thing Bodvar does is throw him in the lake (see above, “very black”).

This  sounds like invention, but a footnote says: “Throwing bones was apparently one of the rowdier games played at feasts, and killing by bone-throwing is specifically listed as an offence in a number of medieval Scandinavian law codes,”  (83).   So it is merely insane.

Jean of Howling Frog Books read this saga recently and made it sound fun, which it is.  The Penguin Classics edition includes diagrams of archaeological digs of Viking great halls, giving a hint about how the book is now taught.  Me, I read it for the werebears and the bone-throwing.

Anyone with a taste for a longer saga should read Njal’s Saga along with me and Alison of The Congeries.  I am aiming for the last week of February.  A little over 300 pages in 159 chapters.  Often called the best of the bunch.


  1. Oh, good, you read it! Your edition must have had lots more footnotes (well, mine had none)--I didn't know that Bodvar was Beowulf. I was quite willing to believe that feasting warriors would throw bones at some poor schlub, but I didn't know you could kill somebody with it. I am impressed.

    I need to look into the etymology of the words 'troll' and 'magic' and so on. In modern Danish, a troll is trold, a wizard is troldmand, so literally a troll-man, and 'at trylle' is to do magic which must be pretty much the same thing. When I read about the queens who were trolls, I tended to assume that it meant they were sorceresses--maybe actually trolls but maybe not? I would like to know the history of those words.

  2. Wonderful, as always - glad you're here to point us in the direction of these gems :)

  3. "When I read about the queens who were trolls, I tended to assume that it meant they were sorceresses--maybe actually trolls but maybe not?"

    There's another complication: trolls- or some trolls- could impersonate human beings if they wanted, but I don't think they were necessarily sorcerers as well.

  4. Grettir's Saga is amazing. All the trolls and zombies and sorcery mixed up with technical legal problems and The Development of Icelandic Society. Also the journey to Byzantium, which turns out to be a much less serious place than the Nordic countries. Grettir's death brings us to the end of the age of the saga and makes way for the urban romcom (though still with blood feuds and killing).

    I should obviously read Hrolf Kraki.

  5. Killing by bone-throwing? Is a bone heavy enough to kill someone with one throw? I am trying to imagine this offense in practice and I can't.

  6. Remember, Jenny, these are fresh bones- not dried out, so light and fragile- and dozens of men are throwing them. Also, what range are they throwing them from? Samson was famous for his feats with the jawbone of an ass A burly man at close range with a pelvic bone or femur could deliver a pretty heavy blow, and once the target's groggy they are much more vulnerable.

  7. In the Icelandic sagas, all sorts of people and things are trolls. That half-elk fellow is a troll, even though he is the child of humans, sort of. Egil is part-troll, Grettir is part-troll. Ghosts are trolls, giants are trolls. In Snorri's Edda Thor is always a way "thrashing trolls."

    So literal and metaphorical, depending. But wide coverage.

    Now, just after "Beowulf" washes off that poor fellow, he defends the sap by himself killing a warrior with a thrown bone. So, Jenny, you need to imagine a larger bone, and then imagine it thrown with much more force.

    I am glad I am not a Viking.

    Alison has described Grettir's Saga perfectly.

  8. This does sound like a more scintillating version Beowulf than the already scintillating Beowulf. I'm highly tempted to join you for Njal's saga.

  9. Incidentally, Beowulf appears- with King Arthur and Hamlet!- in Henry Treece's novel The Green Man.

  10. Scott - do. I have high expectations for Njal's Saga.

    Now, Henry Treece, that is a name I have not heard for a long time. I think I read one of his novels a long, long time ago, but I cannot figure out, from a list of titles, which one. Not The Green Man - I hope I would remember a cast like that. Look, Treece wrote a novel based on Njal's Saga - The Burning of Njal (1962)!

  11. (Rodger Cunningham)

    I just happened on this. For death by thrown bones, see the Martyrdom of St. Alphege, where the missile of choice was cow skulls.

  12. Yes, there itis - "pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle" says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - how horrible! Thanks for the grisly pointer.