This article is about the Danish king. For other uses, see Kraki (disambiguation).

Hrólfr Kraki, Hróðulfr, Rolfo, Roluo, Rolf Krage (early 6th century) was a semi-legendary Danish king who appears in both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian tradition.

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.[1] 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.

Beowulf

The poem Beowulf introduces Hroðulf as kinsman.[2] Later, the text explains that Hroðulf is Hroðgar's nephew and that "each was true to the other".[3] 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.[4] 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[5] 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 ær þonne he,
wine Scildinga, worold oflætest;
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 ær arna gefremedon.[6]
--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![7]

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.[8]) 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.

Hrólf and Hroðulf

A common identification is that Hrólf Kraki is the same as the character Hroðulf (Hroðgar's nephew) in Beowulf. There seems to be some foreshadowing in Beowulf that Hroðulf will attempt to usurp the throne from Hroðgar's sons Hreðric and Hroðmund, a deed that also seems to be referred to in Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum (Book 2), where we find: "... our king, who laid low Rorik, the son of Bok the covetous, and wrapped the coward in death." Rorik is the form we would expect Hreðric to take in Danish and we find personages named Rorik or Hrok or similar in most version of the Hrólf Kraki tradition but differently accounted for, seemingly indicating that Scandinavian tradition had forgotten who exactly Hreðric/Rorik/Hrok was and various story tellers subsequently invented details to explain references to this personage in older poems. The future slaying of Hreðric may be the occasion of the future burning of the hall of Heorot in the beginning of the poem – though some take it instead to refer to the legendary death of Hrólf Kraki, who in Icelandic sources is said to have died in the burning of his hall by his brother-in-law Hjörvard.

Beowulf and Bjarki

The standard view is that, if Beowulf himself has a 'cognate' character in Rolf Kraki's story, it is Böðvar Bjarki (Bodvar Biarke),[9] who also has a younger companion, Hjalti (Hialte) perhaps matching the Beowulf character Wiglaf. Beowulf comes from Geatland (=Götaland) and one of Böðvar Bjarki's elder brothers, Thorir, becomes a king of Götaland. Moreover, like Beowulf, Böðvar Bjarki arrives in Denmark from Götaland (Geatland), and upon arriving in Denmark he kills a beast that has been ravaging the Danish court for two years. The monster in Hrólf Kraki's saga, however, is quite unlike the Grendel of Beowulf; but it does have characteristics of a more typical dragon, a creature which appears later in Beowulf. Just as Beowulf and Wiglaf slay a dragon at the end of Beowulf, Böðvar Bjarki and Hjalti help each other slay the creature in Denmark.

Proponents of this theory, like J. R. R. Tolkien,[10] argue that both the names Beowulf (lit. "bee-wolf", a kenning for "bear") and Bjarki are associated with bears. Böðvar Bjarki is constantly associated with bears, his father actually being one.

In some of the Hrólf Kraki material, Böðvar Bjarki aids Adils in defeating Adils' uncle Áli, in the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern. In Beowulf, the hero Beowulf aids Eadgils in Eadgils' war against Onela. As far as this Swedish adventure is concerned, Beowulf and Böðvar Bjarki are one and the same. This match supports the hypothesis that the adventure with the dragon is also originally derived from the same story.

Hrothgar and Hróar

As for the king of the Danes, Hroðgar, he is identical to Hróar or Ro, the uncle of Hrólf Kraki who in other sources outside of Beowulf rules as a co-king with his brother Helgi. But in those sources it is Hróar/Hroðgar who dies before his brother or who departs to Northumberland to rule his wife's kingdom leaving Helgi/Halga the sole rule of Denmark. In Beowulf Halga/Helgi has died and Hroðgar is the primary ruler with Hroðulf son of Halga as a junior co-ruler.

Furthermore, the Swedish kings referenced in Beowulf are adequately matched with the 5th and 6th century Swedish kings in Uppsala (see also Swedish semi-legendary kings): This has obviously nothing to do with a common origin of the Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki legends in particular but simply reflects a shared genealogical tradition.

Beowulf Hrólf Kraki, Heimskringla etc. Relation
Ongenþeow Egil (Angantyr) father of Ottar and Ale
Ohthere Ottar brother of Áli
Onela Áli brother of Ottar
Eadgils Adils son of Ottar

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.

Chronicon Lethrense and Annales Lundenses

Heoroweard and Hrólfr Kraki, by Jenny Nyström (1895).

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[11] 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.

Gesta Danorum

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 incited Athislus to rebel 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 incited Hiartuar to rebel 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.

Hrólfs saga kraka

In Hrólfs saga kraka, 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 Böðvar Bjarki.

After some time, Böðvar 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 leapt at Aðils. The Swedish king disappeared through a hollow tree trunk that stood in his hall.

Hrólfr Kraki and his warriors leap across the flames. Illustration by the Danish Lorenz Frølich in a 19th-century book.

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, Böðvar 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. Böðvar 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.

References

  1. Shippey, T. A.: Wicked Queens and Cousin Strategies in Beowulf and Elsewhere, Notes and Bibliography. In The Heroic Age Issue 5 Summer 2012. Archived 2014-02-03 at the Wayback Machine
  2. lines 1011-1017
  3. lines 1162-1165
  4. Lines 53-63
  5. Wright, David. Beowulf. Panther Books, 1970. ISBN 0-586-03279-7. page 14
  6. Lines 1181-1188.
  7. Modern English translation by Francis Barton Gummere
  8. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes. (1907–21) Volume I: "From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance".
  9. Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien (London 2001) p. 31
  10. T. A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth (London 1992) p. 73
  11. Halland according to Chronicon Lethrense proper, Lolland according to the included Annals of Lund
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