Let’s take a look at The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki!
This book was a big influence on the development of KING BEOWULF. I pulled it off the shelf at just the right time to turbo-charge where KING BEOWULF needed to go, and what it needed to address as a book. I had a lot of unformed questions, and King Hrolf was there to answer.
Funnily enough I read this one on the beach below Bamburgh Castle earlier in the year, not so far from where the initial inspiration for The Hermit’s Sanctuary was found – the Farne Islands. IS THIS PLACE MAGICAL?
Before we get into the book, some background.
Like many of the norse sagas, the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki comes to us by way of Christian writers in Iceland who wrote down what we believe to be older stories, which had been previously passed down as part of an oral tradition. Just how old, we do not know. How accurately they were recorded, likewise we do not know.
Hrolf Kraki is an interesting one for two reasons:
1: it’s a latesaga – this was first written down in the 14th century, and is believed to be based on material collected in the 13th century – so a long time after the BEOWULF Age of Heroes era – which is roughly speaking 500 – 1000CE (we don’t need to absolutely pin this down).
The Beowulf poem is believed to have been written down somewhere between the 9th and 11th Centuries, depending on who you believe.
2: The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki holds many things in common with Beowulf. Similar characters, characters with the same name, characters and places with different names that are clearly the same places and characters that appear in Beowulf. Like Beowulf, it appears to be have been assembled from parts. The action all takes place in and around Denmark – much like in Beowulf. King Hrolf Kraki appears in Beowulf as Hrothulg, the uncle of Hrothgar, builder of Heorot.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is an Icelandic saga, and forms part of a grand tradition of Icelandic sagas. These were written down by a number of Christian scholars – most notably Snorri Snurluson in the 12th Century. With BEOWULF Age of Heroes, we largely steer clear of stuff from the so-called “viking” world – the later sagas, and so-called Viking mythology. But for Hrolf Kraki we make an exception. It’s parallels to Beowulf make it a fascinating read, pointing to a larger tradtion of stories about these emblematic characters. So while it’s later than our period of focus, it has things to tell us for our games.
In terms of history, we can certainly choose to believe that the Icelanders, being separated to a degree from the main thrust of so-called “viking” life, preserved a uniquely faithful set of earlier spoken stories. But we must also remember that, due to their isolation, these stories may have drifted and developed in ways unique to Iceland. The hand of the Christian chroniclers, and the concerns of their day are also present – as they are in almost all the norse stories that we have today.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is one of the so-called “mythic sagas”, “Legendary sagas”, or “Sagas of the ancient times”, which unlike many of the other Icelandic sagas, don’t detail the norse arrival and life in Iceland (and thence beyond), but rather they concern themselves with an earlier time. They frequently have more magical or fantastical aspects than the other Icelandic Sagas.
This is perfect material for BEOWULF Age of Heroes – that’s what we’re doing with our setting too! Imagining people in the later period remembering an earlier one, which allows us to put all kinds of stuff from across about 500 years of history into a BEOWULF adventure and have it all make at least poetic sense. It also means we don’t need to be experts in the field to enjoy a broad strokes “Early-medieval” or so-called “dark ages” adventure. If we have a broad feel for the period, we’re good!
Where The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (and I have challenged myself not to abbreviate the title) serves us with regard to KING BEOWULF is that it concerns itself less with the actions of the hero Beowulf (who appears as a parallel character in The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki as Bodvar Bjarki, the bear warrior.) but is largely about the doings of kings and queens.
That this story is about Kings and Queens is an invaluable resource to us. What do rulers do in this time, or in this mode of story telling? What do they care about? What sort of things are they bothered by? What makes them take action, and what makes them stay their hand? What sort of things do they do? The best way to find out is to read the Saga. It’s a mercifully short read, and like many of the Icelandic Sagas it is rendered in prose, rather than verse, which makes it even more approachable. I love Beowulf, but sometimes, gosh, it’s hard going to unpick verse and kennings, and the beautiful but arcane nature of poetry.
The Saga of Hrolf Kraki is told as a story, and it’s full of wonderful stuff. Being an Icelandic saga, be warned there’s some grim stuff too. CW for all kinds of stuff.
In this edition, from Penguin Classics, we’re treated to a lot of really useful contextual information in the introduction, and a helpful appendix of names and characters, giving us far more background on the Icelandic story traditions, the influence of Christianity on all of these tales, and more.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, translated by Jesse L Byock, published by Penguin Books, ISBN 9780140435931