Monday, May 5, 2008

Hrolf Kraki's Saga: A viking warlord in King Arthur's court

Though life is lost, one thing will outlive us: memory sinks not beneath the mould.
Till the Weird of the World stands, unforgotten, high under heaven, the hero's name.

--The Bjarkamaal

It is a glaring weakness of mine as a lover of fantasy literature that I haven't read deeply of the Norse sagas. For example, sitting on my shelf right now and staring at me like a thick challenge is The Sagas of Icelanders, a massive tome in the Penguin Classics line which has remained on my "to read" list for far too long. It's a shame because, in the few instances in which I've encountered the Sagas, either in translation or adaptation, I've enjoyed the heck out of them.

Hrolf Kraki's Saga by Poul Anderson falls into the latter camp. It's a terrific little novel (260 pages in paperback) that moves with the speed of lightning and hits with the impact of Thor's hammer. As I said in a past post about Anderson (see my review of The Broken Sword), he's an author that seems to be largely forgotten these days, and when his name is mentioned it's usually for his prolific career as a science fiction writer, or for Three Hearts and Three Lions. But Anderson loved the Viking Sagas too. While arguably a better book, The Broken Sword is Anderson's creation; Hrolf Kraki's Saga is a retelling of the life and times of an actual Danish king. From the foreward by Lin Carter:

He was a real man, he really lived; he was the greatest of the Kings of the Danes and his court was glittering and fabulous, like that of Arthur at Camelot; there gathered the foremost heroes and warriors, the champions of their age--Bjarki, who held the charmed longsword Lovi; Svipdag, the slayer of berserkers; young Hjalti, who owned the magic sword Goldhilt.

But the old myths and tales of Hrolf Kraki are scattered and piecemeal. Anderson brings them all together in Hrolf Kraki's Saga (he calls it a 'reconstruction'), spinning a wonderful, epic tale in the process. It's a tale that's not for the faint of heart, as Anderson admits in his own foreward:

Here is no Lord of the Rings, work of a civilized, Christian author--though probably it was one of Tolkien's many wellsprings. Hrolf Kraki lived in the midnight of the Dark Ages. Slaughter, slavery, robbery, rape, torture, heathen rites bloody or obscene, were parts of daily life ... Love, loyalty, honesty beyond the most niggling technicalities, were only for one's kindred, chieftain, and closest friends. The rest of mankind were foemen or prey. And often anger or treachery broke what bonds there had been.

Yet Hrolf Kraki transcends this time by carving out a shining kingdom reminiscent of Camelot, "a moment of sunshine during a storm which raged for centuries," according to Anderson, driving back the darkness and bringing a rough order to a savage, dark world. The basic story is as follows:

Kraki is the son of King Helgi and Yrsa. His father is slain by the treachery of King Adhils of the Swedes, whose lust for Yrsa leads to foul murder and Yrsa's capture. Kraki inherits the throne and gathers great heroes to his side, including Svipdag, the one-eyed slayer of berserkers, and Bjarki, the son of a shape-changer, who retains some of his father Bjorn's bear-like size and strength (hmm... name sounds familiar).

Together, the group reunite the Danish kingdom a-la the Knights of the Round Table, avenge themselves on Adhils, and begin a seven-year reign of peace and prosperity of such greatness that its legend survives the ages.

Of course, this is Icelandic Saga and no gold can stay. Ultimately all is undone by Skuld, Hrolf Kraki's jealous sister, who convinces her husband Hjorvardh to rise up against Hrolf Kraki. He brings with him an army of cutthroats and mercenaries, strengthened by trolls and demons summoned by Skuld, a practitioner of the black arts, and starts a final battle against Hrolf Kraki and his men Ragnarok-esque in proportion.

If this doesn't sound awesome, your blood must run cold.

I won't spoil any more, but will end by offering a simple encouragement to find a copy of Hrolf Kraki's Saga and read it. You can blow through it in two nights and it will leave you thirsting for more of the Northern myths. As for me, The Sagas of Icelanders is calling...


Terry L said...

I love this book as well. It was the first thing I read by Anderson, so that may colour my perceptions, but for my money this is the best thing he wrote (of what I've read anyway). I find that Anderson tends to either hit the nail right on the head, or to just not work for me...and with _Hrolf Kraki's Saga_ it was definitely the former.

Have you ever read _The Worm Ouroboros_ by E. R. Eddison? It's certainly different from Anderson, and definitely idiosyncratic (the language is highly wrought elizabethan), but Eddison knew what he was doing and creates a truly swashbuckling adventure with something of an old-norse feel to it (he even translated _Egil's Saga' and 'novelized' another Norse saga in a book called _Styrbiorn the Strong_, neither of which I've yet been able to find yet). I'd recommend giving him a try too (and don't get put-off by the prose until you've been immersed in the adventure...Eddison really did know what he was doing with the writing unlike many other more modern hacks who think they're writing old style prose by inserting incorrect 'thees' and 'thous' into the dialogue).

I hear you about _The Sagas of Icelanders_ it glares accusingly at me from my bookshelf as well!

Cheers and thanks for the great blog posts.


Badelaire said...

Another book to mark down on my "seek and acquire" list. Looks great, and with any luck, I'll be able to find a copy of it in the used book stores around here sometime this summer.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Terry, glad to hear from another Hrolf Kraki's Saga fan! I thought I was a lone voice in the wilderness. I agree that it may be the best thing he wrote--I fluctuate between this and The Broken Sword. People know Anderson for Three Hearts and Three Lions, which isn't a bad book, but it's not nearly his best IMO.

I have read The Worm Ouroboros and agree that it's a fantastic book. I plan on doing a review of it on The Silver Key, but I haven't read it in a couple years and it's not fresh in my mind. But this will give me an excuse to read it again. It's one of my favorites. If you go back to one of my old posts under "books," I've rated a bunch of books I've read with a 1-5 star system and I have Ouroboros rated pretty highly, as I recall.

I'm glad you like the blog and thanks for stopping by.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Badelaire, that's the one problem with Hrolf Kraki's Saga--I believe it's currently out of print. I bought my copy in a used book store in Wakefield, MA for $2. But I've seen it used online so it shouldn't be too big of a hassle to acquire.

Rick said...

Never read Hrolf Kraki's Saga. I have read both Broken Sword & Three Hearts. I remembering enjoying them but don't rank Anderson as one of my favorite authors. That said, I have 'There Will Be Time', 'Winter of the World', 'Orion Shall Rise', & 'Avatar' on my bookshelff from back in my scifi days. So I guess I counted him as respectable. Perhaps someday I'll add the Saga to my summer reading list.

If you like older styles, you might consider C.J. Cherryh's 'The Dreamstone' & 'The Tree of Sowrds and Jewels'. Though it is old Irish rather than Norse. They are stories that feature the Sidhe. I enjoy much of what C.J. Cherryh has done in fantasy and scifi.

Rick said...

I also noticed I have 'The War of the Gods' on my bookshelf. It has been so long since I read it or 'The Broken Sword' that I couldn't review either of them. Hmmmmm, re-reads I guess.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Rick, I have heard good things about C.J. Cherryh and will have to give those a try. So much to read, so little time!

War of the Gods was another fine novel by Anderson that draws its inspiration from the Norse myths. Down the line I expect I'll have a review posted here.

Anonymous said...

You should consider reading 'The Merman's Children,' another fantasy from Anderson. It's quite a romp, and features human/merman hybrids, selkies, russalkas and a vodianoi. The ending is too dark even for me, but it's a great ride.

Anderson Hrolf follows the old Hrolf Kraki's saga very closely, and I think he did a great job of fleshing out the spare Icelandic prose.

Curt - who has a dog named Hrothgar

Ryan Rasmussen said...

If you like Anderson's novel you might consider Jesse Byock's translation of Hrolf Kraki--I stumbled upon it in a used book store. It's really great stuff and certainly on a par with the The Sagas of Icelanders.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for stopping by Ryan. I hadn't heard of Byock's translation. Consider it added to my list of books to purchase.

Ryan Rasmussen said...

Sure thing. It was fun to find your nice site while doing some research.