"He was most renowned of all ancient kings for munificence, valor, and graciousness."
In Hrolf's Saga, tales of virtue are vividly articulated. Characters in the saga personify ethics as conflicts unfold in an epic of honor & treachery, valor & cowardice, generosity & greed. These tales elucidate ancestral Norse cultural ethos within the context of its own warrior-poet story-telling tradition. The ancient skaldic author(s) wisely leaves it to audiences to interpret whatever moralistic lesson may be being conveyed.
The summary series presented below preserves this tradition, sharing story as the primary means for articulating virtues that characterize ancestral Norse cultural ethos, asking readers to interpret for themselves. There is no universally accepted doctrine of Norse cultural virtue, but epic stories like Hrolf's saga can offer insight into ancient ancestral worldview and inform personal practices in the present day. Universally, story and story-telling traditions connect humanity to its cultural heritage, identity and sense of virtue.
Scholars agree that traditional cultural knowledge is transmitted through story, along with values and instructions for living in relation to the world. Fixico (2003) characterize story as a, "vehicle for sharing traditional knowledge and passing it from one generation to the next... its purposes include sharing information, lessons in morality, confirming identity and telling experiences of people,” (pp: 22); Salmon (2008) echoes this, characterizing cultural histories, stories, and mythos as, “…cultural metaphors of our relationship with place…,” that articulate a "moral landscape,"(pp: 100-101). In Hrolf's saga, ascriptions of virtues to characters and actions are explicit throughout the narrative and reveal aspects of an ancestral Norse cultural and moral landscape.
Moralistic allegories are embedded throughout the narrative of Hrolf's saga. Hrolf's character virtues are on full display in the story of his final days. It tells that a great army grew to challenge him, but, "King Hrolf paid no attention... his thoughts were more on generosity, magnificence and courage. He dwelt on the valor in his heart pondering on how to provide for all his guests in a way that would allow his fame to travel the farthest" (Byock, 1998; pp: 71).
The virtues exhibited in Horlf's final days - hospitality, generosity, joyfulness, discernment, valor and reputability - are also exonerated in the Havamal. Havamal is a narrative poem, told in the words of a wise man, traditionally said to be Odin, offering counsel to those who seek wisdom. Stanzas directly articulate instruction on behavior. Occasionally, characters in Hrolf's saga emulate Odin's role in the Havamal, offering wise council to other characters in the story. Consistencies suggest a common ethos and worldview articulated within the context of a widespread warrior-poet tradition.
Havamal on Hospitality
2. Hail to the giver! | a guest has come;
Where shall the stranger sit?
Swift shall he be who, | with swords shall try
The proof of his might to make.
Havamal on Generosity
41. Friends shall gladden each other | with arms and garments,
As each for himself can see;
Gift-givers' friendships | are longest found,
If fair their fates may be.
Havamal on Joyfulness
15. The son of a king | shall be silent and wise,
And bold in battle as well;
Bravely and gladly | a man shall go,
Till the day of his death is come.
Havamal on Discernment
1. Within the gates | ere a man shall go...
Full long let him look about him;
For little he knows | where a foe may lurk,
And sit in the seats within.
Havamal on Valor:
16. The sluggard believes | he shall live forever,
If the fight he faces not;
But age shall not grant him | the gift of peace,
Though spears may spare his life.
Havamal on Reputation:
77. Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one's self;
But a noble name | will never die,
If good renown one gets.
(Trans. Bellows, 1916)
Attestations of King Hrolf occur in several ancient literary sources, including the Prose Edda (Skaldskarparmal), the Poetic Edda (Grottasongr), and the Ynglinga Saga (Of King Adil's Death and Death of Rolf Krake). Although there may be some historical basis for the stories told of him, these sources are not reliable for historical accuracy, and in some instances even contradict each other. However, one theme that is consistent, in the context of the skaldic tradition, drama unfolds around characters in who embody various virtues. In Skaldskarparmal, Snorri explicitly exonerates King Hrolf's character, stating, "he was most renowned of all kings...," and proceeds to tell why.
"Why is gold called Kraki's Seed? In Denmark there was a king called Hrólfr Kraki: he was most renowned of all ancient kings for munificence, valor, and graciousness. One evidence of his graciousness which is often brought into stories is this: A little lad and poor, Vöggr by name, came into the hall of King Hrólfr. At that time the king was young, and of slender stature. Vöggr came into his presence and looked up at him; and the king said: 'What wouldst thou say, lad, for thou lookest at me?' Vöggr answered: 'When I was at home, I heard say that Hrólfr the king at Hleidr was the greatest man in the northern lands; but now there sitteth in the high seat a little pole, and he is called King.' Then the king made answer: 'Thou, boy, hast given me a name, so that I shall be called Hrólfr the Pole (Kraki); and it is the custom that the giving of a name be accompanied by a gift. Now I see that with the name which thou has fastened on me, thou hast no gift such as would be acceptable to me, wherefore he that has wherewith to give shall give to the other.' And he took from his hand a gold ring and gave it to him. Then Vöggr said: 'Above all kings be thou most blessed of givers! Now I swear an oath that I shall be that man's slayer who slays thee.' Then spake the king, laughing loudly: 'Vöggr is pleased with a small thing.'
"Another example is the tale told concerning the valor of Hrólfr Kraki: That king whom men call Adils ruled over Uppsala; he had to wife Yrsa, mother of Hrólfr Kraki. He was at strife with the king who ruled over Norway, whose name was Ali; the two joined battle on the ice of the lake called Vaeni. King Adils sent an embassy to Hrólfr Kraki, his stepson, praying him to come to his aid, and promised wages to all his host so long as they should be away; King Hrólfr himself should have three precious gifts, whatsoever three he might choose from all Sweden. King Hrólfr could not make the journey in person, owing to the strife in which he was engaged with the Saxons; but he sent to Adils his twelve berserks: Bödvar-Bjarki was there for one, and Hjalti the Stout-Hearted, Hvítserkr the Stern, Vöttr Véseti, and the brethren Svipdagr and Beigudr. In that battle King Áli fell, and the great part of his host with him; and King Adils took from him in death the helm Battle-Swine and his horse Raven. Then the berserks of Hrólfr Kraki demanded for their hire three pounds of gold for each man of them; and in addition they required that they might bear to Hrólfr Kraki those gifts of price which they had chosen for him: which were the Helm Battle-Boar and the birnie Finn's Heritage,--on neither of which iron would take hold,--and the gold ring which was called Pig of the Swedes, which Adils' forefathers had had. But the king denied them all these things, nor did he so much as pay their hire: the berserks went away ill-pleased with their share, and told the state of things to Hrólfr Kraki.
"Straightway he begin his journey to Uppsala; and when he had brought his ships into the river Fýri, he rode at once to Uppsala, and his twelve berserks with him, all without safe-conduct. Yrsa, his mother, welcomed him and led him to lodgings, but not to the king's hall: fires were made there before them, and ale was given them to drink. Then men of King Adils came in and heaped firewood onto the fire, and made it so great that the clothes were burnt off Hrólfr and his men. And the fellows spake: 'Is it true that Hrólfr Kraki and his berserks shun neither fire nor iron?' Then Hrólfr Kraki leapt up, and all they that were with him; and he said:
'Add we to the fire
In Adils' dwelling!'
took his shield and cast it onto the fire, and leapt over the flames, while the shield burnt; and he spake again:
'He flees not the flames
Who o'er the fire leapeth!'
Even so did his men, one after another; and they laid hands on those fellows who had heaped up the fire, and cast them into the flames. Then Yrsa came and gave Hrólfr Kraki a deer's horn full of gold, the ring Pig of the Swedes being with the gold; and she bade them ride away to the host. They vaulted onto their horses and rode down into the Plain of the Fýri; and soon they saw King Adils riding after them with his host all in armor, hoping to slay them. Then Hrólfr Kraki plunged his right hand down into the horn, grasped the gold, and strewed it all about the road. When the Swedes saw that, they leapt down out of their saddles, and each took up as much as he could lay hold of; but King Adils bade them ride on, and himself rode furiously . His horse was called Slöngvir, swiftest of all horses. Then Hrólfr Kraki saw that King Adils was drawing close up to him, took the ring, Pig of the Swedes, and threw it toward him, and bade him receive it as a gift. King Adils rode at the ring and thrust at it with his spear-point, and let it slide down over the shaft-socket. Then Hrólfr Kraki turned back and saw how he bent down, and spake: 'Now I have made him who is mightiest of Swedes stoop as a swine stoops.' Thus they parted. For this cause gold is called Seed of Kraki or of Fýri's Plain. Thus sang Eyvindr Skald-Despoiler:
God of the blade of battle,
We bear through Hákon's life-days
The Seed of Fýri's valley
On our arms, where sits the falcon.
Even as Thjódólfr sang:
The king sows the bright seed-corn
Of knuckle-splendid gold rings,
With the crop of Yrsa's offspring,
In his company's glad hand-grasp;
The guileless 'Land-Director
With Kraki's gleaming barley
Sprinkles my arms, the flesh-grown
Seat of the hooded falcon.
Trans. Brodeur 1916
33. OF KING ADILS' DEATH.
King Halfdan's son Helge ruled at that time over Leidre. He came
to Sweden with so great an army, that King Adils saw no other way
than to fly at once. King Helge landed with his army, plundered,
and made a great booty. He took Queen Yrsa prisoner, carried her
with him to Leidre, took her to wife, and had a son by her called
Rolf Krake. When Rolf was three years old, Queen Alof came to
Denmark, and told Queen Yrsa that her husband, King Helge, was
her own father, and that she, Alof, was her mother. Thereupon
Yrsa went back to Sweden to King Adils, and was queen there as
long as she lived. King Helge fell in a war expedition; and Rolf
Krake, who was then eight years old, was taken to be king in
Leidre. King Adils had many disputes with a king called Ole of
the Uplands; and these kings had a battle on the ice of the
Venner lake, in which King Ole fell, and King Adils won the
battle. There is a long account of this battle in the
"Skjoldunga Saga", and also about Rolf Krake's coming to Adils,
and sowing gold upon the Fyrisvold. King Adils was a great lover
of good horses, and had the best horses of these times. One of
his horses was called Slongve, and another Raven. This horse he
had taken from Ole on his death, and bred from him a horse, also
called Raven, which the king sent in a present to King Godgest in
Halogaland. When Godgest mounted the horse he was not able to
manage him, and fell off and was killed. This accident happened
at Omd in Halogaland. King Adils was at a Disa sacrifice; and as
he rode around the Disa hall his horse' Raven stumbled and fell,
and the king was thrown forward upon his head, and his skull was
split, and his brains dashed out against a stone. Adils died at
Upsal, and was buried there in a mound. The Swedes called him a
great king. Thjodolf speaks thus of him: --
"Witch-demons, I have heard men say,
Have taken Adils' life away.
The son of kings of Frey's great race,
First in the fray, the fight, the chase,
Fell from his steed -- his clotted brains
Lie mixed with mire on Upsal's plains.
Such death (grim Fate has willed it so)
Has struck down Ole's deadly foe."
34. ROLF KRAKE'S DEATH.
Eystein, King Adils' son, ruled next over Sweden, and in his
lifetime Rolf Krake of Leidre fell. In those days many kings,
both Danes and Northmen, ravaged the Swedish dominions; for there
were many sea-kings who ruled over many people, but had no lands,
and he might well be called a sea-king who never slept beneath
Trans. Laing, 1844
Let's grind still more!
And King Hrolf
will avenge Halfdan
on King Frothi.
He will be called
his mother's son
and also her brother,
we both know that.
Trans. Crawford, 2015