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Hrólf Kraki (Old Norse), Rolf Kraki or Rolf Krake was a legendary king at Lejre on the isle of Zealand, Denmark, described in several old sagas and other documents such as the Leire chronicle and Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus. The content of the saga is also related by Snorri Sturluson in his Ynglinga saga and summarized in the Latin epitome to the now-lost Skjöldunga saga. The same personage appears in the Old English poem Beowulf as Hrothulf. The following summary is a composite which ignores variations between accounts.
Hrólf Kraki's father is Helgi son of Halfdan. His mother is Yrsa who is also his elder sister, being Helgi's daughter fathered upon a Saxon queen who was either raped by Helgi or seduced into marrying him. In revenge, the queen tricked her daughter and her husband into having a liaison. After Yrsa learned that Helgi was her father, she went home to Saxony to live with her mother.
Later Yrsa married Adils (Eadgils) the king of Sweden, the son of Ottar (Ohthere), Helgi died and was succeeded by his brother Hróar (Hrothgar) since Hrólf was still a young boy. After Hróar's death, Hrólf became the king of the Danes. Many heroes came to advise and fight for Hrólf, most notably Bödvar Bjarki (bödvarr means "battle"), who may be the Scandinavian version of Beowulf. Twelve in particular were recognized as his best men. Not long after Hrólf became king, Adils requested his assistance in battle against his uncle, Áli (Onela). Hrólf sent his twelve companions, led by Bödvar Bjarki, Áli was defeated and Adils gained the kingdom.
But when Adils refused to pay Hrólf's men the expected tributes for their help, Hrólf Kraki set off to Gamla Uppsala. Hrólf and his men evaded traps set for them by Adils. When Adils gathered reinforcements, Hrólf's mother/sister Yrsa then gave him a silver horn filled with gold and jewels and a famous ring called Sviagris 'Pig of the Swedes' (the pig was a symbol of wealth and fertility). Hrólf was also joined by a young man named Vögg (Wig) who gives him the nickname Kraki, perhaps 'spindly pole' in reference to height and gangliness. With the treasure given them by Yrsa, Hrólf and his men flee over the Fy´risvellir (Fyris Wolds). When Adils and his men pursued them, Hrólf spilled out the gold to occupy the pursuers with treasure collecting. Adils, however, overtook Hrólf who in desperation threw away Sviagris. When Adils stooped to pick it up with his spear Hrólf ungloriously cut him in the back screaming that he had bent the back of the most powerful man in Sweden, stole the ring once again and fled
(Incidentally, the meaning of kraki is unclear. The word does refer to a primitive ladder consisting of a conifer trunk with only the stubs of its branches left. It could indicate that Rolf is physically unimpressive, especially compared to some of his twelve companions—or it could be applied to someone of unusual tallness.)
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Death by burning
After a long and peaceful reign, Hrólf was burned to death by his relative Hjörvard (see Heoroweard for more about this personage). In this battle all Hrólf's men are killed but Vögg. Vögg pretended to swear loyalty to Hjörvard, but as he accepted the new king's sword, he stabbed Hjörvard to death and so avenged Hrólf Kraki's death. With Hrólf's and Hjörvard's deaths the rule of the Skjöldung (Scylding) dynasty came to an end. The sources vary greatly about who succeeded Hrólf on the Danish throne.
Origins of the tale
The Hrólf Kraki saga has several interesting similarities to that of Beowulf. The character names given in parentheses here are the Old English names from Beowulf of characters who correspond to those in Rolf's story. See Origins for Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki.
The concept of Hrólf ruling over a golden age and surrounded by legendary heroes may be compared to the myths of King Arthur and the Round Table and to those of Charlemagne and his twelve peers in the chansons de geste.
A modern version
The American writer Poul Anderson used this story in his novel Hrolf Kraki's Saga. Anderson's story begins in earlier generations and differs in some events from the account given here. The book was well received by many fantasy fans. However, it has been criticized on the grounds that its frequent explanations, especially of the characters' feelings and motives, are incompatible with the saga traditions.
Rolf, Roulf, Rolf Krake.
Bibliography and external links
- English translations of the Old Norse Hrólfs saga kraka ok kappa hans :
- The Saga of Hrolf Kraki and his Champions. Trans. Peter Tunstall (2003). Available at Norse saga: The Saga of Hrolf Kraki and Northvegr: The Saga of Hrolf Kraki.
- The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. Trans. Jesse L. Byock (1998). London: Penguin. ISBN 014043593X. Selection from this translation are available at The Viking Site: Excerpts from The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.
- "King Hrolf and his champions" included in Eirik the Red: And Other Icelandic Sagas. Trans. Gwyn Jones (1961). Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192835300.
- Original texts:
- Anderson, Poul (1973). Hrolf Kraki's Saga. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0345235622. New York: Del Rey Books. ISBN 0345258460. Reprinted 1988 by Baen Books, ISBN 0671654268.
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