Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Sexual Ideology of Hrolfs Saga Kraka

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Sexual Ideology of Hrolfs Saga Kraka

Article excerpt

LIKE OTHER LEGENDARY fornaldarsogur, or sagas of ancient times, Hrolfs saga kraka draws on a centuries-long narrative tradition, one which in this case stretches back as far as fifth- and sixth-century Denmark. (1) Of the forty-four surviving manuscripts of the saga, however, none is older than the seventeenth century (2) and all descend ultimately from a single lost original, which is dated by Desmond Slay to the sixteenth century and which is now the earliest version of the text which can be reconstructed (Hrolfs saga xii-xiii; Manuscripts 132). (3) The saga is certainly older, however, than this date would suggest: a manuscript of a saga of Hrolfr kraki is known to have existed at the monastery in Modruvellir c. 14-61 (Diplomatarium v 290), and it is generally agreed that the saga assumed essentially the form in which it now survives c. 1400, possibly being based on a thirteenth-century version. (4)

Much of the scholarly attention that has been paid to Hrolfs saga has focused on its relationship to other accounts of Danish legendary history and has entailed painstaking comparative studies with texts such as the Old English Beowulf, Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum, and the Icelandic Skjoldunga saga. (5) It is indeed largely the relationship to these analogues, especially Beowulf, that has insured that Hrolfs saga has become one of the best known of the fornaldarsogur. Attention has also been drawn to the relationship of the saga to folktale, especially the type known as the Bear's Son Tale or the Three Stolen Princesses. (6) Rather than attempting to contribute to the already extensive body of scholarly work on the origins and analogues of the saga, this article will offer a synchronic, rather than diachronic, reading of the text as it now survives.

Hrolfs saga is an episodic text reflecting in part its dependence on narrative traditions of great, but varying, antiquity and of disparate geographical origin. Narratorial statements referring to the conclusion of a pattr at the ends of chapters four, twelve, sixteen, and twenty-three naturally divide the saga into six sections, some of which would make viable in&pendent narratives. (7) Despite this clearly episodic structure, the text is unified by its focus on the eponymous Hrolfr kraki. He is by no means central to all the action (and is not even bore until the ninth of thirty-four chapters), but the narrative is concerned at all times with characters who are either his blood-relatives or members of the band of warriors he assembles. Several women figure so prominently in the narrative that they help to give it formal coherence by connecting different episodes of the saga (see Byock xi). In addition, it is possible to discern ways in which the recurrence of certain kinds of subject matter gives the text a thematic coherence. Jesse Byock, for example, has referred to the social theme of "the tragedy of strife among noble kindred" which orders the narrative (xii). Sexual themes are also prominent in the saga, and they relate to that of strife among kindred both because kinship necessarily has a sexual basis and also because the saga reveals ways in which sexual desire and the transgression of accepted gender roles disrupt and threaten a peacefully ordered society. This article will examine the ideology of sex and gender that informs the deployment of sexual themes in the saga. (8) It will be seen that the treatment of sexual themes in Hrolfs saga is structured by social perceptions that "naturalize" an unequal division of power between men and women and that this inequality is structurally related to a view of same-sex sexual relations as shameful.

A basic premise of this inquiry will be that an examination of sexual themes in a medieval text will be impoverished if carried out in isolation from an analysis of that text's representation and construction of gender. (9) To recognize that sexuality is gendered is to acknowledge that forms of sexual behavior and the attitudes that inform that behavior relate to the gender system as a whole and that sexual behavior and ideology are both conditioned by inequalities between men and women and in tutu reinforce or bring into question those inequalities. …

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