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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Beyond Beowulf: Curses, Shapechangers, and Doomed Love

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

The Saga of King Hrólf Kraki features two warriors, man and son, who fight as bears. The father is cursed to roam as a bear by day. The son goes into a trance to inhabit the bear. Untitled image used by permission by Korean artist, WooJin HO.

In a tale of shape changing and oddity, Bera and Bjorn didn’t stand a chance. Their alliterating names are both very old words that mean bear, for starters. He was a prince and she, the farmer’s daughter he grew up with and loved from the beginning. They are also characters in a saga that cuts straight to the point of greatest drama and then moves to the next tale. The Saga of King Hrólf Kraki has long been on the shortlist of works that a student of Beowulf has read or meant to read, but I am here to tell you that it will probably appeal more to the modern reader than Beowulf itself. There’s more scandal and drama than a Netflix mini-series and the finale, with its army of walking dead draugr and giant quill-firing boar commanded by an elfin sorceress, is worthy of a big budget HBO treatment.

But the descriptions I’ve read of Hrólf Kraki from Wikipedia are so Beowulf-centric that they don’t do Hrólf Kraki justice. Take the moment that the evil queen forces Bera to eat morsels of bear meat that were her lover Bjorn, while she is pregnant with his children. Then there is the completely different evil queen (this one dresses like a warrior) who seeks out her daughter, happy in marriage, to tell her that her husband is also her father. These moments of tragic romantic loss are mostly absent in Anglo-Saxon warrior poetry, in which the loss of a lover is rarely touched upon.

The creepy wooing of Yrsa by her father Helgi (unbeknownst) by Swedish illustrator Jenny Nyström, 1895.

Years after first reading Hrólf Kraki, the enduring detail for me was Elk-Frodi, a character overshadowed by his more famous brother Bodvar Bjarki. Elk-Frodi is a man to the navel and an elk below. Unhappy that he is shunned in games for maiming the other children and dissatisfied with his inheritance, he makes his way in life by killing travelers for their gold. He admits that he spares weaklings and children when his boy scout like brother Bodvar refuses to accept wealth earned in this manner. Hrólf Kraki has not been illustrated anew in some time and I sorely yearn for images of Elk-Frodi and the third brother, Thorir Hound's Foot, whose feet from the instep down were doglike, “otherwise, he was the most handsome of men.”

In “Rolf's Last Fight” Bodvar enters a trance-like sleep and fights as an enchanted bear that cannot be struck with weapons. Illustration by Norwegian illustrator Louis Moe, 1898.

My favorite story of the famous Bodvar, who has drawn comparisons to Beowulf, has naught to do with fighting a creature that attacks Hrolf’s hall by night and cannot be harmed by weapons, à la Grendel. It is rather the tale of the sidekick he rehabilitates and makes into a hero in his own right. The character Hott, who will become Hjalti the Magnanimous, is so comically cowardly and pathetic that he complains when Bodvar pulls him out of the pile of dinner bones Hrolf’s men have pelted him with for so long that he has built them into a barrier to protect himself. Hott’s aged mother begs Bodvar, if he should find her son, “that you throw smaller bones at him rather than larger ones; that is, if he is not already dead.” Bodvar saves Hott from the pile and kills the first man to throw another bone at him. Just as Sigurd the dragon slayer does, Bodvar feeds Hott some of the night-raiding troll’s heart and blood, which makes him braver and stronger than other men.

For the Beowulf fan, Hrólf Kraki treats us to a daring childhood story of King Hrothgar and his brother Halga (here named Hroar and Helgi). If we want to see Beowulf continuing the tradition of tales about Hrothgar, we are also given some context to the marriage plans between Hrothgar’s daughter Freawine and Ingeld. In Beowulf, Ingeld is the son of Froda, whom Hrothgar must have killed (directly or indirectly) in order for the blood feud to continue. This is suggested in the speech by an old warrior who identifies a piece of armor that his father wore, which is followed by “murderous hate well[ing] up in Ingeld” and the wedding party turning into a slaughter. It is an interesting story in that it does not literally happen in Beowulf, Beowulf simply expects it to happen. In Hrólf Kraki, Hrothgar has an uncle named Frodi (not to be confused with Elk-Frodi), who kills his father (Halfdan) and usurps his land. Hrothgar and Halga spend their childhoods hidden from Frodi by various friends and relatives. Frodi repeatedly tries to locate and kill the brothers. The boys finally trap Frodi in his hall and burn him alive in it with the help of friends and relations.

The genealogies between Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki are tantalizingly similar, if not entirely the same. For instance, Hrothgar’s elder brother Heorogar is not present and Halga outlives Hrothgar. We learn that Hrolf/Hrothulf is both Helgi/Halga’s son and grandson as he unwittingly marries his daughter Yrsa. An Yrse is mentioned in Beowulf after the three sons of Halfdane that suggests she is their sister. Curiously, in Beowulf, she is said to have married Onela, the Swede whose family is later in conflict with Beowulf’s family. In Hrólf Kraki Yrsa is said to marry a king Adils, a name which is thought to correspond in Beowulf to Onela’s son Eadgils. These kinds of changes are not unusual in Beowulf. The Beowulf poet also shifts father and son in the story of Sigurd the dragon slayer.

Hrólf foils King Adils's attempt to kill him by scattering Adils's gold rings on the road to distract his men. Hrólf cuts off Adils's right and left buttocks when Adils tries to rcover his most famous ring from horseback. Illustration by Swedish illustrator Jenny Nyström, 1895.

The events of Hrólf Kraki, as in Beowulf, are based on legendary figures from the 5th and 6th centuries, common era, but this story of King Hrólf dates to the 14th century, making it some centuries later than Beowulf. The Scylding/Sköldung characters are present in other works of literature: Sköldunga Saga, “Widsith” and Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum. The last work preserved details from a lost work named for Bodvar, Bjarkamál. Hrólf Kraki strikes me as a blending of old sagas with the medieval romances that would take on the mantle of fantasy writing. The transition seems to be with the introduction of Bodvar, whose sense of justice and adherence to a personal code make him different from Helgi, the saga’s first focal character, who uses sexual violence as a form of revenge when Yrsa’s mother bewitches him, shaves his head and covers him in tar.

Clocking in at seventy-eight pages, Hrólf Kraki could be your beach read, or, as I read it, on an overnight April trip to the Berkshires where it snowed and my wife and I kept the gas-fireplace burning as I alternated reading to myself and sharing crazy details from this surprising and delightful little set of tales.

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