Opening Passages: Sagas and thaettir (short stories) are often masterly in their to-the-point openings, so it makes sense to give a taste of each. From Hrafnkel's Saga:
It was in the days of King Harald Fine-Hair that a man called Hallfred brought his ship to Iceland, putting in at Breiddale east of the Fljotsdale District. On board were his wife and their fifteen-year-old son Hrafnkel, a handsome and promising youngster. (p. 35)
From Thorstein the Staff-Struck:
There was a man called Thorarin who lived at Sunnudale; he was old and nearly blind. He had been a fierce viking in his younger years, and even in his old age he was very hard to deal with. He had an only son, Thorstein, who was a tall man, powerful but even-tempered; he worked so hard on his father's farm that three other men could hardly have done better. Thorarin had little money, but a good many weapons. He and his son owned some breeding horses and that was their main source of income, for the young colts they sold never failed in spirit or strength. (p. 72)
There was a man called Thorhall who lived at Thorhallsstead in Blawoods. He was a wealthy man and getting on in years when this story happened. Thorhall was small and ugly, with no particular skills except for being a good carpenter and blacksmith. He used to make money at the Althing brewing ale, and through this he got to know all the important people, who bought more ale than most. As often happens, not everybody thought much of the ale, and the man who sold it wasn't always well liked either. Thorhall wasn't open-handed -- indeed he was said to be rather stingy. His eye-sight was poor, and he used to wear a hood, particularly at the Althing; and since the people there couldn't always remember his name, they started calling him Ale-Hood, and the nickname stuck. (p. 82)
From Hreidar the Fool:
There was a man called Thord, a small, good-looking man. He had a brother, Hreidar, who was ugly and so stupid he could scarcely take care of himself. Hreidar was an exceptionally fast runner, very strong and even-tempered. He stayed at home, but Thord was a sea-going trader and a retainer of King Magnus who thought very highly of him. (p. 94)
From Halldor Snorrason:
Halldor Snorrason had been with King Harald in Constantinople, and came with him west from Russia to Norway. He was thought highly of and favoured by the king, staying with him the first winter in Norway at Kaupang. As winter wore on and spring was coming, traders started early preparations for their voyages, as there had been little trade between Norway and other countries because of hostilities with Denmark. (p. 109)
From Audun's Story:
There was a man in the Westfjords called Audun; he was not well off and worked as a farmhand for a kinsman of his, a man called Thorstein. (p. 121)
From Ivar's Story:
A man called Ivar was staying at the court of King Eystein. Ivar was an Icelander, well-born and intelligent and a good poet. The king thought highly of him, and his fondness for Ivar is borne out by the following episode. (p. 129)
From The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki:
Here begins the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, and first is written the tale of King Frodi.
A man was named Halfdan and another Frodi; the two were brothers. They were the sons of a king and each ruled his own kingdom. King Halfdan was mild-mannered and easygoing; he was quiet and good-natured, but King Frodi was the harshest and greediest of men. King Halfdan had three children: two of them were sons. The third, a daughter named Signy, was the eldest. She was married to Jarl Saevil. At the time of these events Halfdan's sons were young; one was named Hroar and the other Helgi. Their foster-father was named Regin, and he loved the boys deeply. (p. 1)
Summary: In Hrafnkel's Saga, Hrafnkel is a ruthless bully and an enthusiast for the god Freyr; he has a horse, Freyfaxi, half of the ownership of which he has given to Freyr, and about whom he has sworn a sacred oath: if anyone rides Freyfaxi without Hrafnkel's permission, Hrafnkel will kill him. One of Hrafnkel's men, Einar, in an emergency rides Freyfaxi, and the violation of the rule is soon made obvious; Hrafnkel to some extent sees where this is going, but his oath is on the line. He kills Einar, which naturally leads to bad blood with Einar's family; Hrafnkel refuses to pay wergild on the grounds that he pays wergild to no one, but he concedes that this killing is the worst thing he is ever done, and so is willing to give support for Einar's family. What Hrafnkel offers is, in monetary terms, far more than the wergild would have been, but this is of course not the point of wergild, the real point of which is honor as recognized by law. The deliberate refusal to render the legal due and recognize Einar and his family as equals is an active insult, and Einar's family is furious over it. They set out to get justice by bringing a lawsuit against Hranfkel, but it's tricky. Because Hrafnkel is a powerful chieftain, they will need chieftains to support their side, but Hrafnkel is both powerful and notorious for being a vindictive bully, so nobody really wants to get into an unnecessary fight with him. By great luck, however, they meet up with Thorkel, a man of powerful family who has been away from Iceland for some years; Thorkel, who is usually away, does not have the worries about facing down Hrafnkel that others do, and he manages to maneuver his family into supporting the family of Einar. With that help, Hrafnkel is declared outlaw -- that is, literally outside the protection of law, so that if anyone kills him or takes his property, there is no legal recourse. He is surprised by Einar's family, and given a choice by Einar's cousin Sam, to die or become Sam's subordinate. Hrafnkel chooses to live, although Thorkel warns that it is entirely a mistake to let Hranfkel live. Being so humiliated will mellow Hrafnkel and break his devotion to Freyr, but that is not the end of the story; Hrafnkel will get his revenge.
In Thorstein the Staff-Struck, Thorstein gets involved in a horse-fight (like a dog-fight but with horses, a popular medieval Scandinavian sport) with a man named Thord, one that goes very wrong when Thorstein strikes Thord's horse with his staff and Thord strikes Thorstein (hence is derogatory nickname). Thorstein recognizes that this can get bad quickly, and is willing to pretend that Thord's strike was an accident, but Thorstein's old viking father, Thorarin, is furious that his son is such a coward. He presses the matter until Thorstein kills Thord. Thord was the servant of another man, the chieftain Bjarni, and Bjarni, also seeing where this is going, tries to minimize the matter by having Thorstein declared outlaw but not pursuing the matter any further. People will not let this rest, though -- as chieftain, one of Bjarni's major responsibilities is protecting those under him -- and so inevitably has to go after Thorstein. After Thorstein kills two more of his servants, Bjarni decides that his only real option is to go against Thorstein himself, one on one. With some very clever thinking, Bjarni is able to use the duel bring the matter to a happy conclusion, but it's dicey business.
Ale-Hood is the story of a lawsuit (a perennially interesting subject for medieval Icelanders) over an accidental fire and how the (very disliked) title character managed to get justice by a stroke of luck. Halldor Snorrason is about the deteriorating friendship between the title character and King Harald, who start as close companions and end up hardly being able to stand each other. The rest of the 'other stories' in the collection are making-one's-fortune tales. Hreidar the Fool is a comedic tale about a good-natured idiot who manages to become extremely successful by doing everything wrong. Audun's Story is a charming story about a clever poor man who, seizing an unexpected opportunity to buy a polar bear (a major luxury item in medieval Scandinavia) despite its costing him everything he has, manages to get a pilgrimage to Rome out of it, as well as the respect of two feuding kings whom he brings closer together. Ivar's Story is about how King Eystein helps the title character get over having lost the woman he loved to his brother.
And this brings us to The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, which in our modern vernacular is a story about superheroes. The ruthless Frodi murders his brother Halfdan. Halfdan's sons, Helgi and Hroar, are hidden by a clever farmer with knowledge of magical arts, and therefore survive despite Frodi's attempts to use every magical means to track them down; they will eventually succeed in avenging their father and set out to become kings, with Hroar moving to Northumbria (he is the King Hrothgar of Beowulf) and Helgi, the wilder of the two, trying to woo Queen Olof of the Saxons. Helgi's attempt, which is far too rough, goes very wrong; Olof humiliates him, in response to which he eventually returns the humiliation on her by kidnapping her and raping her. She bears a daughter, whom she spitefully names Yrsa after the name of her dog, and rather than raising her in court sends her to be raised by shepherds. Helgi, in the meantime, after an extended period of exciting adventures has decided to see what other adventures can be found in Queen Olof's lands. He disguises himself as a beggar and while venturing about comes across a teenaged shepherd girl and falls in love with her. You can see where this is going. Helgi and Yrsa marry, not knowing that they are father and daughter, and they have a son, Hrólfr or Hrolf, whose destiny will inevitably not be that of normal men. Olof eventually gets further vengeance against Helgi when she busts up his otherwise happy marriage by letting Yrsa know the real story; Yrsa flees and eventually marries King Adils (Adhils) of Sweden, a powerful and dangerous king who likes to dabble in dark arts. Helgi tries to reclaim her, but is killed by Adils; Hrolf, still a young man, succeeds his father as king and, as he is brave, open-handed, and trustworthy, champions begin collecting around him.
Most of the saga consists of the tale of how the most important of these champions end up in Hrolf's court. Svipdag is an extraordinary warrior who attempts to make his fortune in the court of King Adils, but coming to regard Adils as stingy, leaves and ends up with King Hrolf, along with his almost equally impressive two brothers. The star of the show, though, is Bodvar Bjarki. His father Bjorn (whose name means 'bear'), having repudiated the love of a queen, Queen Hvit, was cursed by her to be a a werebear, turning into a bear every day; his mother Bera (whose name means 'bear'), who is the reason Bjorn refused Hvit's seduction, discovers this but stays with him anyway. Bjorn eventually is killed, but not before prophesying that she will bear him three sons, but she must not eat any bear offered to her by the queen. Bjorn is killed, but Bera is not able to avoid eating one morsel and tasting another, and the result is that her first two sons are visibly beast-men. The third, Bodvar (whose name means 'battle'), is, however, handsome and human-looking, although there is more to him than meets the eye. Bodvar avenges his father, and then makes his way to Hrolf's court, where he shows himself to be an unstoppable warrior, able to take on multiple strong men simultaneously. There he meets a puny wimp named Hott, who is mocked and mistreated by the warriors. He discovers that an evil dragon-like winged monster preys on Hrolf's hall each winter, and sets out to kill it, forcing the frightened Hott to go with him. After Bodvar kills the beast, he forces Hott to drink its blood and eat its heart. He then picks a fight with Hott, in the course of which Hott sees what Bodvar has done: the monster's heart has given Hott extraordinary strength. They beat each other up a while as only good friends can do, and the result is that Hott now has confidence as well, since he can almost match the superhuman Bodvar. When another monster menaces the hall, Hott kills it and is renamed by the king Hjalti ('hilt'), after the king's own sword. He eventually becomes known as Hjalti the Magnanimous because, despite his previous mistreatment, he doesn't hold it against anyone. Thus we get the key champions:
The hall was now arranged in the following manner: Bodvar, who had become the most esteemed and the highest valued, sat at the king's right. Then came Hjalti the Magnanimous....On the king's left hand sat the three brothers -- Svipdag, Hvitserk and Beygad -- so important had they become. Next came the twelve berserkers. All the other heroes were then seated on both sides the length of the stronghold, but they are not named here. (pp. 54-55)
Hrolf sets out to avenge his father. This is not an easy task; Adils has only grown more powerful. As they are heading to fight Adils, they meet a one-eyed farmer named Hrani and stay at his house. There is something strange about him, because despite continuing and making progress, they keep meeting him, and end up staying at his house three nights in a row. Each time he gives them some kind of advice, which they take; in particular, Hrolf sends most of his men home, keeping only the twelve best men. They make it to the court of Adils, and manage to survive despite the deceptions of Adils; when they are attacked, the wreak havoc on Adils's court, and he is forced to flee. Hrolf and his men meet Hrani again; Hrani tries to give them some weapons, but they decline the gift because the weapons are so ugly. Hrani is furious and kicks them out; Bodvar later realizes that they have made a potentially fatal mistake, because Hrani is Odin, and thus if they keep pursuing Adils, their luck will not hold. They return home and Hrolf attempts to stay out of trouble.
But it's not so easy to stay out of trouble when you are a Scandinavian king. There is a king, Hjorvard, who is Hrolf's vassal, but only because Hrolf had early on managed to trick him. Hjorvard is married to a woman named Skuld, who is an immensely powerful sorceress. She is in fact Hrolf's half-sister (and, I suppose, also his aunt), being the daughter of Helgi and an elfin woman from the sea. Hjorvard and Skuld rebel against Hrolf, and it is civil war. But arrayed against Hrolf and his champions is Skuld and Odin, and they are not fighting just an ordinary army but also a host of trolls and, what is worse, the warriors they kill do not stop fighting. Hrolf and his champions are more than a match for any human army, but it's another story when it comes to fighting eldritch creatures and the undead. Nonetheless, in the great battle that follows, they do extraordinarily well. At one point, they find that a great and indestructible bear is fighting along with them, and none of Skuld's creatures or the undead can stand against it. But Hjalti notices that Bodvar is missing and finds him sitting alone in a room; Hjalti, bewildered, protests his avoidance of battle, but when they return to the battlefield, they discover that the bear has vanished (it was, of course, a sort of dream-form of Bodvar himself), and the tide of battle is turning against Hrolf. Hrolf and his champions die, the end. Well, not quite the end; there's always an avenging.
I often look at adaptations, usually movies or radio, but this time, I looked at a literary adaptation, Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga. The book is essentially an adaptation of the saga as a fantasy novel; this is actually relatively easy to do, allowing for the shift from the dry spare narrativity of the saga to the more psychologically lush and chatty modes of novel, so it is a very faithful retelling. (Of course, as Anderson notes in his foreword, one major difference is that all of the characters in the saga are much more brutal and ruthless than you would expect in your typical fantasy novel.) There are some differences. Anderson has his version told by a tenth-century Englishwoman; this frame doesn't really affect the story much, except it gives Anderson an explanation of the shift of style, and it also allows him to bring in closely related English material without having to worry about anachronism or the fact that some of his names are Anglo-Saxon and some are Norse. There are some differences in the ending; a completely ordinary guy named Vogg manages to attach himself to Hrolf and his champions, promising to be faithful and to avenge the king if the king is ever killed; Hrolf obviously finds this funny, and notes that other men are more likely to do that. Both the saga and the novel let Vogg fulfill his promise (after all, all the champions are dead by that point), but they choose very different ways of doing so. And one very noticeable difference is that Anderson all the way through calls Bodvar Bjarki, 'Bjarki', treating 'Bodvar' as a nickname he gets from his excellence in battle. The saga actually does exactly the opposite, calling him Bodvar almost all the way through, and treating 'Bjarki' as the nickname. I suspect Anderson does this based on scholarly speculation -- some scholars speculate that the character's original name was Bjarki, which, like the names of his father and mother, means 'bear'.
But one thing even faithful adaptations do, perhaps especially do, is bring out aspects of the original, including aspects that don't get adapted. And one of things that I think really shifts between the saga author and Anderson is related to the saga author's explicit Christianity. Looking around, it seems common for people to treat the author's occasional Christian remarks (e.g., about Odin as an evil spirit) as Christian intrusions into an essentially pagan tale. But comparing the saga with Anderson's paganized version, I think it's clear that this is not true at all. The entire structure of the ending of the saga depends precisely on the things that saga author is pointing out when he makes his Christian comments. It is in fact integral to how he builds up to the end of the tale that Hrolf and his champions are (1) noble in such a way that their paganism is merely due to their ignorance and (2) doomed to fail because they are not Christian and therefore have no means of achieving victory against demonic powers. On the basis of this, the author is able to magnify both their nobility and their achievement, in a way that can't be done in a more pagan telling of the tale. Hrolf and his champions take on dark powers no human, however gifted, is equipped to fight, but through bravery, intelligence, and noble brotherhood they do astoundingly well. And what is more, despite the fact that they fail, only they could have done as well as they do; the only way they could have succeeded was with the help of God. As the author puts it, calling to evidence a learned authority:
'And events turned out as expected,' said Master Galterus. 'Human strength cannot withstand such fiendish power, unless the strength of God is employed against it. That alone stood between you and victory, King Hrolf,' said the Master; 'you had no knowledge of your Creator.' (p. 78)
From Thorstein the Staff-Struck:
One evening after Bjarni and his wife Rannveig had gone to bed, she said to him, 'What do you think everyone in the district is talking about these days?'
'I couldn't say,' said Bjarni. 'In my opinion most people talk a lot of rubbish.'
'This is what people are mainly talking about now,' she continued: 'They're wondering how far Thorstein the Staff-Struck can go before you bother to take revenge. He's killed three of your servants, and your supporters are beginning to doubt whether you can protect them, seeing that you've failed to avenge this. You often take action when you shouldn't and hold back when you should.'
'It's the same old story,' said Bjarni, 'no one seems willing to learn from another man's lesson. Thorstein has never killed anyone without a good reason -- but still, I'll think about your suggestion.' (p. 77)
From The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki:
Then Hott went boldly against the beast, thrusting at it as soon as he was within striking distance. The beast fell down dead.
Bodvar said, 'See, Sire, what he has now accomplished.'
The king answered, 'Certainly he has changed greatly, but Hott alone did not kill the beast; rather you did it.'
Bodvar said, 'That may be.'
The king said, 'I knew when you came here that few would be your equal, but it seems to me that your finest achievement is that you made Hott into another champion. He was previously thought to be a man in whom there was little probability of much luck. I do not want him called Hott any longer; instead, from now on he will be called Hjalti. You will now be called after the sword Golden Hilt.' (p. 52)
Recommendation: All Highly Recommended, including Anderson's novelization.
Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Stories, Hermann Pallson, tr., Penguin Books (New York: 1971).
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, Jesse L. Byock, tr., Penguin Books (New York: 1998).
Poul Anderson, Hrolf Kraki's Saga, Baen Books (New York: 1973).