Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Royal Ideology and Genre of Hrolfs Saga Kraka

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Royal Ideology and Genre of Hrolfs Saga Kraka

Article excerpt

The Royal Ideology and Genre of Hrolfs saga kraka


HROLFS SAGA has long been regarded as a kolbitur, an ugly duckling, among the mediaeval Icelandic sagas as it does not fit easily into any of the generic definitions of the sagas and is very different from the best known among them. But it also poses some challenges to the student of the sagas: among them are how to deal with the relationship between saga and history, how to distinguish a heroic from a highly divergent chivalric ideal, in addition to the question of how to understand the ever present problem of mediaeval saga genres.

None of the existing manuscripts of the saga dates from mediaeval times. In all, thirty-eight manuscripts survive, all carefully listed by Desmond Slay in his 1960 edition, but none of them antedates the seventeenth century. According to Slay, all are undoubtedly derived from one lost common original from the second half of the sixteenth century (Introduction vi-xi; See also Manuscripts; "More Manuscripts"). "Thus although parts of the subject-matter of Hrolfs saga kraka are very old in origin, the recension of the saga preserved for us appears to be rather late" (Introduction xiii).

The abundance of seventeenth-century manuscripts and the lack of anything older raises the question of whether Hrolfs saga in its present form is a mediaeval saga at all. Typically the existence of many manuscripts dating from a certain period and a lack of anything older suggest that the saga is likely not much older than the manuscripts. However, in the case of Hrolfs saga, there is some evidence to the contrary: a Hrolfs saga kraka is listed among books in the Icelandic cloister at Modruvellir in 1461 (Diplomatarium 290). In addition, one must take into consideration the fact that narratives about Hrolfr kraki were certainly in vogue in the early thirteenth century. The saga was, thus, very probably originally composed no later than the fourteenth or early fifteenth century.

Would this relatively late dating necessarily make Hrolfs saga younger than other fornaldarsogur? Some scholars believe most fornaldarsogur date from the fourteenth century (cf. Jonas Kristjansson "Bokmenntasaga" 242-3) although others are of the opinion that they were composed during the thirteenth century (Torfi H. Tulinius, "Matiere du Nard" 45-52). For my part, I conclude that the saga could have been composed any time between 1230 and 1450 and that no more precise dating is likely to win general approval. It must nonetheless be taken into consideration that the episodes dealing with the life of Hrolfr kraki in Gesta Danorum, Chronicon Lethrense, Skjoldunga saga, Ynglinga saga, and Snorra-Edda are, for the most part, in accordance with the narrative in Hrolfs saga kraka. The legends of Hrolfr were, thus, viewed as historical narrative which could be retold and reshaped in the legendary saga in accordance to chivalric tastes, but historical facts could not be altered. Thus it is erroneous to regard Hrolfs saga as an ahistorical fourteenth or fifteenth-century saga: the historical foundation of the saga is much older and has not changed dramatically from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century (cf. Olrik, Danmarks heltedigtning 11-222; Lukman 125-45; Bjarni Gudnason, Um Skjoldunga saga 51-69, Bjarni Gudnason, Formali lii-lxvi; Jones 45-51). The saga has, in addition to its entertainment value, a historical function which should not be completely discarded, since the material in it is found in the earliest Icelandic works on the prehistory of Scandinavia, Skjoldunga saga and the Gesta Danorum.

Although the recension of the saga is late, Hrolfs saga is, thus, a late mediaeval saga with links to more ancient literature.


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when sagas were perceived mainly as sources of information about the prehistory of Scandinavia, a relatively recent legendary saga about Hrolfr kraki received little scholarly attention. …

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