About Hrólfr Helgison Kraki
Hrólfr Kraki, Hroðulf, Rolfo, Roluo, Rolf Krage (early 6th century) was a legendary Danish king who appears in both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian tradition. His name would in his own language (Proto-Norse) have been *Hrōþiwulfaz (famous wolf).
Both traditions describe him as a Danish Scylding, the nephew of Hroðgar and the grandson of Healfdene. The consensus view is that Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian traditions describe the same people. Whereas the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and Widsith do not go further than treating his relationship with Hroðgar and their animosity with Froda and Ingeld, the Scandinavian sources expand on his life as the king at Lejre and on his relationship with Halga, Hroðgar's brother. In Beowulf and Widsith, it is never explained how Hroðgar and Hroðulf are uncle and nephew, but in the Scandinavian tradition, Halga conceived Hroðulf by raping Yrsa, not knowing that she was his own daughter.
The poem Beowulf introduces Hroðulf as Hroðgar's supporter and right-hand man. Later, the text explains that Hroðulf is Hroðgar's nephew and that "each was true to the other". Hroðgar is given three siblings, brothers Heorogar and Halga and an unnamed sister, all the children of Healfdene and belonging to the royal clan known as the Scyldings. The poem does not indicate which of Hroðgar's siblings is Hroðulf's parent, but later Scandinavian tradition establishes this as Halga.
Hroðgar and queen Wealhþeow had two young sons, Hreðric and Hroðmund, and Hroðulf would be their guardian in case Hroðgar dies. In a deliberately ironic passage it appears that the queen trusts Hroðulf, not suspecting that he will murder her sons to claim the throne for himself:
--Ic minne can glædne Hroðulf, þæt he þa geogoðe wile arum healdan, gyf þu ?r þonne he, wine Scildinga, worold ofl?test; wene ic, þæt he mid gode gyldan wille uncran eaferan, gif he þæt eal gemon, hwæt wit to willan and to worð-myndum umbor wesendum ?r arna gefremedon.
--For gracious I deem my Hrothulf, willing to hold and rule nobly our youths, if thou yield up first, prince of Scyldings, thy part in the world. I ween with good he will well requite offspring of ours, when all he minds that for him we did in his helpless days of gift and grace to gain him honor!
No existence of any Hreðric or Hroðmund, sons of Hroðgar, has survived in Scandinavian sources (although Hreðric has been suggested to be the same person as Hroerekr/Roricus, a Danish king generally described as a son or successor of Ingjald.) This Hroerekr is sometimes said to have been killed by Hrólfr, vindicating the foreshadowing in Beowulf.
The Scyldings were in conflict with another clan or tribe named the Heaðobards led by their king Froda and his son Ingeld. It is in relation to this war that Hroðulf is mentioned in the other Anglo-Saxon poem where he appears, Widsith.
The poem Widsith also mentions Hroðgar and Hroðulf, but indicates that the feud with Ingeld did not end until the latter was defeated at Heorot: lines 45–59: Hroþwulf ond Hroðgar heoldon lengest Hroðulf and Hroðgar held the longest sibbe ætsomne suhtorfædran, peace together, uncle and nephew, siþþan hy forwræcon wicinga cynn since they repulsed the Viking-kin ond Ingeldes ord forbigdan, and Ingeld to the spear-point made bow, forheowan æt Heorote Heaðobeardna þrym. hewn at Heorot Heaðobard's army.
This piece suggests that the conflict between the Scyldings Hroðgar and Hroðulf on one side, and the Heaðobards Froda and Ingeld on the other, was well-known in Anglo-Saxon England. This conflict also appears in Scandinavian sources, but in the Norse tradition the Heaðobards had apparently been forgotten and the conflict is instead rendered as a family feud (see Hrólf Kraki's saga and Skjöldunga saga).
Chronicon Lethrense and Annales Lundenses
The Chronicon Lethrense and the included Annales Lundenses tell that Haldan (Healfdene) had two sons, Helghe (Halga) and Ro (Hroðgar). When Haldan died of old age, Helghe and Ro divided the kingdom so that Ro ruled the land, and Helghe the sea. One day, Helghe arrived in Halland/Lolland and slept with Thore, the daughter of one of Ro's farmers. This resulted in a daughter named Yrse. Much later, he met Yrse, and without knowing that she was his daughter, he made her pregnant with Rolf. Eventually, Helghe found out that Yrse was his own daughter and, out of shame, went east and killed himself.
Both Helghe and Ro being dead, a Swedish king, called Hakon in the Chronicon Lethrense proper, and Athisl in the Annales – corresponding to Eadgils – forced the Danes to accept a dog as king. The dog king was succeeded by Rolf Krage.
Rolf Krage was a big man in body and soul and was so generous that no one asked him for anything twice. His sister Skulda was married against Rolf's will to Hartwar or Hiarwarth (Heoroweard), a German earl of Skåne, but reputedly Rolf had given Skulda to him together with Sweden.
This Hartwar arrived in Zealand with a large army and said that he wanted to give his tribute to Rolf, but killed Rolf together with all his men. Only one survived, Wigg, who played along until he was to do homage to Hartwar. Then, he pierced Hartwar with a sword, and so Hartwar was king for only one morning.
The Book 2 of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus contains roughly the same information as the Chronicon Lethrense and the Annales Lundenses, i.e. that Ro (Hroðgar) and Helgo (Halga) were the son of Haldanus (Healfdene). When Haldanus died of old age, Ro took the land and Helgo the water. One day during his sea roving, Helgo arrived at Thurø, where he found and raped the young girl Thora, which resulted in Urse (Yrsa). When Helgo after many years returned to Thurø, Thora avenged her lost virginity by sending Urse to Helgo who, unknowingly raped his own daughter. This resulted in Roluo, who was a gifted man, both physically and intellectually and as brave as he was tall. After some time Helgo repelled a Swedish invasion, avenged Ro by killing the Swedish king Hothbrodd, and made the Swedes pay tribute. However, he committed suicide due to shame for his incestuous relationship with Urse. Roluo succeeded him.
The new king of Sweden, Athislus (Eadgils), thought that the tribute to the Daner might be smaller if he married the Danish king's mother and so took Urse for a queen. However, after some time, Urse was so upset with the Swedish king's greed that she thought out a ruse to run away from the king and at the same time liberate him of his wealth. She encited Athislus to rebell against Roluo, and arranged so that Roluo would be invited and promised a wealth in gifts.
At the banquet Roluo was at first not recognised by his mother, but when their fondness was commented on by Athisl, the Swedish king and Roluo made a wager where Roluo would prove his endurance. Roluo was placed in front of a fire that exposed him to such heat that finally a maiden could suffer the sight no more and extinguished the fire. Roluo was greatly recompensed by Athisl for his endurance.
When the banquet had lasted for three days, Urse and Roluo escaped from Uppsala, early in the morning in carriages where they had put all the Swedish king's treasure. In order to lessen their burden, and to occupy any pursuing warriors they spread gold in their path (later in the work, this is referred to as "sowing the Fyrisvellir"), although there was a rumour that she only spread gilded copper. When Athislus, who was pursuing the escapers saw that a precious ring was lying on the ground, he bent down to pick it up. Roluo was pleased to see the king of Sweden bent down, and escaped in the ships with his mother.
A young man named Wigg was impressed with Roluo's bodily size and gave him the cognomen Krage, which meant a tall tree trunk used as a ladder. Roluo liked this name and rewarded Wigg with a heavy bracelet. Wigg, then, swore to Roluo to avenge him, if he was killed.
Roluo later defeated Athislus and gave Sweden to young man named Hiartuar
(Heoroweard), who also married Roluo's sister Skulde. Skulde, however, did not like the fact that her husband had to pay taxes to Roluo and so encited Hiartuar to rebell against him. They so went to Lejre (a town which Roluo had built) with arms hidden in the ships, under the pretense that they wanted to pay tribute.
They were well-received, but after the banquet, when most people were drunk asleep, the Swedes and the Goths (i.e. the Geats) proceeded to kill everyone at Roluo's residence. After a long battle, involving Roluo's champion Bjarki, who fought in the shape of a spirit bear until he was awakened by his comrade Hjalti, the Geats won and Roluo was killed.
Hiartuar asked Wigg if he wanted to fight for him, and Wigg said yes. Hiartuar wanted to give Wigg a sword, but he insisted on receiving it by taking the hilt. Having the hilt in his hand, Wigg pierced Hiartuar with the sword and so avenged Roluo. Swedes and Geats then rushed forward and killed Wigg. The Swedish king Høtherus (based on the god Höðr), the brother of Athislus, succeeded Roluo and became the king of a combined Sweden and Denmark.
Hrólfr Kraki's saga
In Hrólfr Kraki's saga, Halfdan (Healfdene) had three children, the sons Helgi (Halga) and Hróarr (Hroðgar) and the daughter Signý. The sister was the eldest and married to Sævil Jarl, with whom she had the son Hrókr. Halfdan was murdered by his own brother Fróði (Froda) and the two brothers had to seek refuge with a man called Vivil on an island, until they could avenge their father and kill Fróði.
Whereas Hróarr moved to Northumbria and married the king's daughter, Helgi (i.e. Halga) went to the Saxons wanting to woo their warlike queen Oluf. She was, however, not interested and humiliated Helgi by shaving his head and covering him with tar, while he was asleep, and sending him back to his ship. Some time later, Helgi returned and through a ruse, he kidnapped the queen for a while during which time he made her pregnant.
Having returned to her kingdom, the queen bore a child, a girl which she named Yrsa after her dog. Yrsa was set to live as a shepherd, until she was 12 years old, when she met her father Helgi who fell in love with her, not knowing it was his daughter. Oluf kept quiet about the parentage and saw it as her revenge that Helgi would wed his own daughter. Helgi and Yrsa had the son Hrólfr.
Learning that Helgi and Yrsa lived happily together, queen Oluf travelled to Denmark to tell her daughter the truth. Yrsa was shocked and although Helgi wanted their relationship to remain as it was, Yrsa insisted on leaving him to live alone. She was later taken by the Swedish king Aðils (Eadgils) as his queen, which made Helgi even more unhappy. Helgi went to Uppsala to fetch her, but was killed by Aðils in battle. In Lejre, he was succeeded by his son Hrólfr.
Hrólfr soon assembled twelve great berserkers named Hrómundr harði, Hrólfr skjóthendi, Svipdagr, Beigaðr, Hvítserkr inn hvati, Haklangr, Harðrefill, Haki inn frækni, Vöttr inn mikilaflaði, Starólfr, Hjalti inn hugprúði and Bödvar Bjarki.
After some time, Bödvar Bjarki encouraged Hrólfr to go Uppsala to claim the gold that Aðils had taken from Helgi after the battle. Hrólfr departed with 120 men and his twelve berserkers and during a rest they were tested by a farmer called Hrani (Odin in disguise) who advised Hrólfr to send back all his troops but his twelve berserkers, as numbers would not help him against Aðils.
They were at first well received, but in his hall, Aðils did his best to stop Hrólfr with pit traps and hidden warriors who attacked the Danes. Finally Aðils entertained them but put them to a test where they had to endure immense heat by a fire. Hrólfr and his berserkers finally had enough and threw the courtiers, who were feeding the fire, into the fire and lept at Aðils. The Swedish king disappeared through a hollow tree trunk that stood in his hall.
Yrsa admonished Aðils for wanting to kill her son, and went to meet the Danes. She gave them a man named Vöggr to entertain them. This Vöggr remarked that Hrólfr had the thin face of a pole ladder, a Kraki. Happy with his new cognomen Hrólfr gave Vöggr a golden ring, and Vöggr swore to avenge Hrólfr if anyone should kill him. Hrólfr and his company were then attacked by a troll in the shape of a boar in the service of Aðils, but Hrólfr's dog Gram killed it.
They then found out that Aðils had set the hall on fire, and so they broke out of the hall, only to find themselves surrounded by heavily armed warriors in the street. After a fight, king Aðils retreated to summon reinforcements.
Yrsa then provided her son with a silver drinking horn filled with gold and jewels and a famous ring, Svíagris. Then she gave Hrólf and his men twelve of the Swedish king's best horses, and all the armour and provisions they needed.
Hrólfr took a fond farewell of his mother and departed over the Fyrisvellir. When they saw Aðils and his warriors in pursuit, they spread the gold behind themselves. Aðils saw his precious Svíagris on the ground and stooped to pick it up with his spear, whereupon Hrólf cut his back with his sword and screamed in triumph that he had bent the back of the most powerful man in Sweden.
Hrólfr lived in peace for some time. However, his half-elven half-sister Skuld was married to Hjörvarðr (Heoroweard) one of Hrólfr's subkings, and she began to turn her husband against Hrólfr. Under the pretext that they would wait three years before paying the accumulated tribute at one time, Skuld assembled a large army which included strong warriors, criminals, elves and norns. She used seiðr (witchcraft) to hide the great muster from Hrólfr and his champions.
They then arrived at Lejre one yule for the midwinter celebrations, with all the weapons hidden in wagons. A fight started and like in the account found in Gesta Danorum, Bödvar Bjarki fought in the shape of a spirit bear until he was awakened by Hjalti. Skuld used her witchcraft to resuscitate her fallen warriors and after a long fight Hrólfr and all his berserkers fell.
Skuld became the ruler of Denmark but did not rule well. Bödvar Bjarki's brothers Elk-Froði and Þorir Houndsfoot went to Denmark to avenge their brother. The Swedish queen Yrsa gave them a large Swedish army headed by Vöggr. They captured Skuld before she could use her magic and tortured her to death. Then they raised a mound for Hrólfr Kraki where he was buried together with his sword Skofnung.
The Skjöldunga saga relates that Helgo (Halga) was the king of Denmark together with his brother Roas (Hroðgar). Helgo raped Olava, the queen of the Saxons, and she bore a daughter named Yrsa. The girl later married king Adillus (Eadgils), the king of Sweden, with whom she had the daughter Scullda.
Some years later, Helgo attacked Sweden and captured Yrsa, not knowing that she was his own daughter. He raped her and took her back to Denmark, where she bore the son Rolfo. After a few years, Yrsa's mother, queen Olava, came to visit her and told her that Helgo was her own father. In horror, Yrsa returned to Adillus, leaving her son behind. Helgo died when Rolfo was eight years old, and Rolfo succeeded him, and ruled together with his uncle Roas. Not much later, Roas was killed by his half-brothers Rærecus and Frodo, whereupon Rolfo became the sole king of Denmark.
In Sweden, Yrsa and Adillus married Scullda to the king of Öland, Hiørvardus (also called Hiorvardus and Hevardus, and who corresponds to Heoroweard in Beowulf). As her half-brother Rolfo was not consulted about this marriage, he was infuriated and he attacked Öland and made Hiørvardus and his kingdom tributary to Denmark.
After some time Adillus requested Rolfo's aid against king Ale (Onela) of Oppland, and Rolfo sent him his berserkers. Adillus then won the war, but refused to pay the expected tribute for the help and so Rolfo came to Uppsala to claim his recompense. After surviving some traps, Rolfo fled with Adillus' gold, helped by his mother Yrsa, and "sowed" it on the Fyrisvellir.
Hiørvardus and his queen Skullda rebelled against Rolfo and killed him. However, Hiørvardus did not live long after this and was killed. Rolfo was succeeded by his father's cousin Rörek, who, however, had to leave Skåne to Valdar and could only keep Zealand.
In the Skáldskaparmál by Snorri Sturluson, the story of Hrólfr Kraki is presented in order to explain why gold was known by the kenning Kraki's seed.
Snorri relates that Hrólfr was the most renowned king in Denmark for valour, generosity and graciousness. One day a poor boy called Vöggr arrived and expressed his surprise that such a great king would look like a little pole (kraki). Hrólfr said that Vöggr had given him a name and gave Vöggr a golden ring in recompense. In gratitude Vöggr swore to Hrólfr to avenge him, should he be killed.
A second tale was when the king of Sweden, Aðils (Eadgils), was in war with a Norwegian king named Áli (Onela), and they fought in the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern. Aðils was married to Yrsa, the mother of Hrólfr and so sent an embassy to Hrólfr asking him for help against Áli. He would receive three valuable gifts in recompense. Hrólfr was involved in a war against the Saxons and could not come in person but sent his twelve berserkers. Áli died in the war, and Aðils took Áli's helmet Battle-boar and his horse Raven. The berserkers demanded three pounds of gold each in pay, and they demanded to choose the gifts that Aðils had promised Hrólfr, that is the two pieces of armour that nothing could pierce: the helmet battle-boar and the mailcoat Finn's heritage. They also wanted the famous ring Svíagris. Aðils considered the pay outrageous and refused.
When Hrólfr heard that Aðils refused to pay, he set off to Uppsala. They brought the ships to the river Fyris and rode directly to the Swedish king's hall at Uppsala with his twelve berserkers. Yrsa welcomed them and led them to their lodgings. Fires were prepared for them and they were given drinks. However, so much wood was heaped on the fires that the clothes started to burn away from their clothes. Hrólfr and his men had enough and threw the courtiers on the fire. Yrsa arrived and gave them a horn full of gold, the ring Svíagris and asked them to flee. As they rode over the Fyrisvellir, they saw Aðils and his men pursuing them. The fleeing men threw their gold on the plain so that the pursuers would stop to collect the gold. Aðils, however, continued the chase on his horse Slöngvir. Hrólfr then threw Svíagris and saw how Aðils stooped down to pick up the ring with his spear. Hrólfr exclaimed that he had seen the mightiest man in Sweden bend his back.
The Skjöldunga saga was used by Snorri Sturluson as a source when he told the story of Aðils (Eadgils) and Yrsa, in his Ynglinga saga, a part of the Heimskringla. What remains of the Skjöldunga saga is a Latin summary by Arngrímur Jónsson, and so the two versions are basically the same, the main difference being that Arngrímur's version is more terse.
Snorri relates that Aðils betook himself to pillage the Saxons, whose king was Geirþjófr and queen Alof the Great. The king and consort were not at home, and so Aðils and his men plundered their residence at ease driving cattle and captives down to the ships. One of the captives was a remarkably beautiful girl named Yrsa, and Snorri writes that everyone was soon impressed with the well-mannered, pretty and intelligent girl. Most impressed was Aðils who made her his queen.
Some years later, Helgi (Halga), who ruled in Lejre, attacked Sweden and captured Yrsa. He raped Yrsa, his own daughter, and took her back to Lejre, where she bore him the son Hrólfr. When the boy was three years of age, Yrsa's mother, queen Alof of Saxony, came to visit her and told her that her husband Helgi was her own father. Horrified, Yrsa returned to Aðils, leaving her son behind, and stayed in Sweden for the rest of her life. When Hrólfr was eight years old, Helgi died during a war expedition and Hrólf was proclaimed king.
Snorri finishes his account by briefly mentioning that the Skjöldunga saga contained an extensive account of how Hrólf came to Uppsala and sowed gold on the Fyrisvellir.
The Gróttasöngr contains a stanza (nr 22) sung by the giantesses Fenja and Menja. It only names Yrsa and the situation that her son and brother (i.e. Hroðulf) will avenge Fródi (Froda):
Mölum enn framar. Mun Yrsu sonr, niðr Halfdanar, hefna Fróða; sá mun hennar heitinn verða burr ok bróðir, vitum báðar þat.
Let us grind on! Yrsa's son, Hálfdan's kinsman, will avenge Fródi: he will of her be called son and brother: we both know that.(Thorpe's translation)
This piece cannot refer to Hrólfr Kraki's saga where Froda was the half-brother of Healfdene because this Froda was killed by Hroðgar. It can, however, be interpreted through the Skjöldunga saga in which Hroðulf's uncle Hroðgar was murdered by his half-brother Froda.
Hrólfr Kraki is mentioned briefly in Gautreks saga, written around 1300, when the adventurer Ref comes to him with a gift consisting of two dogs. In return for this gift Hrólfr gives him a helmet and a chainmail, both made of red gold.
Danish playwright Johannes Ewald wrote a play about Rolf Krage (1770), based on Saxo's version of the story in Gesta Danorum. Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger wrote a poem, Helge: et Digt (1814).
The American writer Poul Anderson used this story in his novel Hrolf Kraki's Saga (1973). Anderson's story begins in earlier generations and differs in some events from the account given here. The book was well received by many fantasy fans. However, it has been criticized on the grounds that its frequent explanations, especially of the characters' feelings and motives, are incompatible with the saga traditions.
The Danish Navy's first ironclad warship was named Rolf Krake