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The Saga of Hrolf Kraki - 1: Frodhi's Greed, Downfall of a Usurper

The runes foresaw Frodhi's end...

Memorial runestone - note the rider below the runes brandishing his sword, ready to strike

Memorial runestone - note the rider below the runes brandishing his sword, ready to strike

Halfdan and Frodhi were brothers, sons of a king.

They ruled their own halves of the kingdom of the Danes. Whereas Halfdan was easygoing, quiet and good-natured, Frodhi was one of the harshest and greediest of rulers. Halfdan had three offspring. One was a daughter named Signy, by now wedded to Jarl Saevil. Halfdan's sons were young yet, Hroar and Helgi. Their foster-father Regin loved the lads deeply.

A little way from Halfdan's stronghold lay an isle on which dwelt the freeman Vifil, life-long friend of the king. Vifil had a pair of hounds, Hopp and Ho. If threatened Vifil could turn to sorcery to help himself out.

King Frodhi was apt to stay at home in his part of the kingdom, bitterly jealoud of his brother Halfdan, who alone ruled the whole of the kingdom of the Danes. As he felt he had not done well after their father's death he gathered a following of armed men and set out for Halfdan's part of the kingdom. He made landfall in the dead of night, burning and wrecking everything. Halfdan was seized and killed but some of his followers were able to flee. all those still alive in the king's garth were made to swear oaths to Frodhi - on pain of death.

Regin helped Helgi and Hroar flee to Vifil's isle, hoping the freeman would be able to hide the lads from Frodhi, yet fearing all the hiding places would be filled with snow. Vifil acknowledged that their foe was powerful and dangerous, but added that his duty lay in helping Halfdan's sons. He led them to an underground room where they had often stayed before on visiting with Regin. During the day, Vifil told Regin, they could move freely in his woods and thickets. Regin left. Having lands to see to as well as a wife to care for, he saw no other way out but to swear loyalty to Frodhi, who took over the whole kingdom, levying crippling tithes and tribute to pay his men. Most yielded, however unwillingly, as he was deeply loathed. The king also laid tribute on Jarl Saevil.

For all it seemed he had all he wanted, Frodhi was restless. Neither of his nephews had been found - dead or alive - despite sending out spies to all corners of the kingdom. He offered gifts to those who could find - or knew the whereabouts of - Helgi and Hroar. Even the outlying isles were combed for them but no-one knew what to tell the king.

Frodhi sought the help of seeresses and soothsayers everywhere. The land was scoured but still he learnt nothing. Sorcerers were sought next, who might pry everywhere with their second sight. They told him Halfdan's sons were not being hidden,

'We have searched all over and I would say', one of the sorcerers told him, 'that they are unlikely to be nearby. Yet there is an isle where we have not sought them thoroughly. Only a poor freeman lives there'.

'Then that is where you search first', a sorceresss counselled. 'Mists can hide much there around his dwelling. He must be a man of deep learning and I would say there is more to him than would first seem'.

'We shall search there again, although it seems odd to me that any poor fisherman could hide these lads from me', the king answered.

Early one morning Vifil was filled with foreboding and roused the lads from their sleep,

'The air and ways are filled with magic and mighty spirits have come to the holm. Rise, Helgi and Hroar. Keep yourselveshidden in the undergrowth of my woodland'.

The brothers fled to the woods and as the freeman foretold, King Frodhi's men came to the isle to look for them. They searched everywhere they could think of, but could find neither Helgi nor Hroar. Although the freeman did not seem very open with them the king's men left.

'You have not searched very well!' the king told them angrily. 'That fellow's magic skills duped you. Go back the way you went straight away, so that the freeman will have little time to hide them again!'

They did so, hastening back to the holm. Vifil told the brothers to hide again,

'This is not the time to idle about in here'.

The king's men left empty-handed once more. King Frodhi he would not treat Vifil so easily,

'I will go there myself in the early morning'.

Vifil awoke troubled. He knew he had to think differently for the king's search. He told the lads to listen out for him,

'If I call loudly to my hounds, Hopp and Ho, run to your underground shelter. My calling to the hounds will mean there is danger on the isle. You will have to look after yourselves because now your uncle, Frodhi will be on the hunt for you. He wishes you dead and will use any wiles and tricks he can to find you. I may no longer be able to keep you safe'.

Vifil went to the strand where the king's ship had already come to rest on the shingle. He looked for all the world to have seen nothing and walked on as if looking for his sheep. He carried on like this, making out he had not seen the king, not even looking his way. Frodhi had Vifil brought to him and snarled,

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'You are a crafty one, and cunning too!' Frodhi laughed cheerlessly, 'Tell me where I can find my young kinsmen Helgi and Hroar. You know, I am sure!'

'Greetings, Lord', Vifil finally spoke to the king. 'Do not keep me, or wolves will catch my sheep and I shall have nothing with which to pay your tithes'.

He called loudly,

'Hopp and Ho - take care of the sheep as I cannot keep them from harm!'

'What is it you are shouting at?' Frodhi snapped, annoyed at the old man's dallying.

'My hounds, lord. They are named Hopp and Ho. Search as you will, my Lord king. I hardly think I could hide anything from you', Vifil looked up at Frodhi.

'Sly you are, no doubt. This time Helgi and Hroar may try to hide, however well they may hitherto have done. It would be well for me to have you killed', Frodhi looked around the strand.

'That is within your power, Lord, should you do so then you will have achieved something here, rather than leave with things as they are'.

Frodhi dismissed Vifil, teling him,

'I cannot be bothered to have you done away with, although as you rightly said your tithes come in useful. However, I may yet live to regret that!' the king growled and had his men ready the ship to leave'.

When the king had gone Vifil told the brothers thry could no longer safely hide on his isle,

'I shall send you to your brother-in-law Jarl Saevil. One day you will achieve renown, should you live that long'.

Hroar was at the time just twelve summers old; his brother Helgi, although only ten was the taller of the two - and braver. They left Vifil's isle and on reaching Jarl Saevil's garth gave their names as Ham and Hrani. Thry let a week pass before asking Saevil if they could stay with him.

'From the pair of you I will gain little, but I do not begrudge you your food - for a while longer at least, until winter passes', was Saevil's answer.

The brothers stayed, but proved troublesome. They did not give themselves away, however, and even the jarl know nothing of them or where they came from. Some said they were born scurvy-ridden and mocked them as they always wore hoded cloaks. As they never pushed back the hoods many thought their heads might be covered with sores and fleas.

Helgi and Hroar stayed with Jarl Saevil three winters before king Frodhi summoned Jarl Saevil to a feast. The king believed the jarl might have hidden his nephews from him because he was their sister's husband. So the jarl readied his party for the midwinter ride, taking a great following. The lads wanted to go with them but the jarl turned them away. Their sister Signy went along to the king's garth at Hleidar.

Ham - Helgi in disguise - found an unbroken colt to take him and, beaming broadly andseated backwards in the saddle, galloped headlong after the jarl's train. Hrani - Hroar - found another colt but mounted it the right way. Jarl Saevil saw the brothers following, albeit hampered by their lack of riding skills. The shaggy colts were unruly and in their efforts to stay in their saddles their hoods fell back.

Signy knew who they were and began to weep. Jarl Saevil asked why she shed tears so bitterly and her answer came in a riddle, to stay wagging ears,

'The whole royal kindred

of the Skjoldungs'

princely line

have become limbs only.

My brothers riding bareback, I saw,

yet Saevil's men are mounted

on saddled horses'.

'Although this is good news, keep it to yourself for now', Saevil told her and rode back to speak to Helgi and Hroar. Loudly he told them they made a mockery of his company and told them to ride back to his garth. Both the brothers were by this time walking the colts, but instead of turning back for the jarl's hall they walked to the back of the troop and hitched a ride on the last waggon.

On reaching Frodhi's hall Helgi and Hroar began running back and forth, clowning again. In this way they came to where their sister Signy rode, she whispered to them not to stay in the hall,

'As neither of you is fully grown'.

Nevertheless they paid no heed to her warning. Frodhi spoke, telling everyone he wanted Halfdan's sons found, and told of great renown that would be heaped on those who could speak of their whereabouts. A seeress named Heid showed just then, to be told by the king to use her art to 'see' where the brothers were. Frodhi had a great feast laid on for her and bade her sit on the dais. He asked then what she might see in the days to come,

'I know much will be made clear to you. I see there is great luck in you, so perhaps you will answer me as soon as you can?'

Her jaws opened and she yawned widely. She began to chant as if in a dream,

'Two are the youths,

I trust in neither,

they the wondrous ones

who sit by the hearth'.

The king was puzzled,

'Are you speaking of Halfdan's heirs, or those who saved them?'

'They who long

lived on Vifil's isle

and were there hailed

with the names of hounds

Hopp and Ho-'

Heid had not finished when signy threw her a gold ring. Happy with her gain wanted to stop there,

Heid told Frodhi when he stared askance at her,

'This is how things are, Lord. What I said was only a lie

and all my forecasts have now gone awry'.

'Should you choose unwisely', King Frodhi told her. 'we will use torture on you. With so many around us here, I know as little as before of what you babbled. Why is signy not seated - are the wolves plotting with the bears?!'

'Signy has been made ill by the smoke, Lord', Frodhi was told, 'Jarl Saevil has asked her to stir herself so that she will not be overcome'.

'Behave so that your thoughts cannot be read', Saevil told Signy. 'It may keep your brothers alive. As it is there is little we can do to save them'.

King Frodhi pressed the seeress for an answer he could understand. He told Heid to tell the truth if she did not wish for pain. She gaped wide, but the spell was hard-won. In the end she merley uttered,

'I see where they are seated,

the sons of Halfdan.

Hroar and Helgi,

healthy youths both.

They will rob Frodhi of his life'.

She added,

'Unless dealt with quickly.

But that will not happen'.

Having said this she leapt down from the dais and went on,

'Hard are the eyes

of Ham and Hrani,

princes they are,

wondrously bold''.

Frightened, Helgi and Hroar ran from the hall for the woods nearby. Regin, their foster-father knew them and was stirred by their plight. Heid, meanwhile, also ran from the hall having warned the brothers.

Frodhi called on his men to give chase after the youths, upon which Regin doused all the hall lights. Men grappled with one another, with Frodhi's being held back to let the brothers gain on their pursuers.

'This time they came close, and there are those here who helped them!' the king snarled. 'When I have time I shall deal with them. For now you are free to drink through the night. The princes should be so happy at fleeing they will save their skins'.

Regin served ale, being joined in this by several friends. They plied Frodhi's men with ale open-handedly on the king's behalf so that many of them passed out, falling across one another. Meanwhile Helgi and Hroar hid nearby amongst the trees.

They had been there for some time when they saw a lone rider come from the hall. It was Regin, their foster-gather, whom they eagerly joined. But Regin paid no heed to them, instead turning his horse back towards the hall. They wondered about this, asking themselves what this meant. Regin turned his horse back toward them and looked threateningly at them, as though he were about to attack them. Helgi told his brother,

'I think I know what he is about'.

Regin turned his horse again and they followed, Helgi telling his brother,.

'Our foster-father acts in this way because he cannot go back on his oath to the king. This is why he says nothing to us, but will help us nevertheless'.

Near the hall stood a grove of trees owned by Frodhi. On reaching it Regin said out aloud,

'Should I seek redress on the king for all his wrongs, I would burn this grove'.

Hroar wondered what Regin meant.

'He wants us to go back into the hall and set it ablaze - all but for one doorway to the outside'.

'What should we do?' Hroar asked, 'We are mere youths who should be outnumbered by those inside'.

'Yet we must do it!' Helgi told him. 'We will do it, as we will have to stake our lives on it one day if we are to avenge our loss'.

They carried out the deed. Jarl Saevil came out of the hall next with his men. The jarl called out,

'Let us build up the fire and help the brothers. I owe the king nothing!'

Regin led his own men out through the main hall door, saving also friends and kindred in marriage. Just then King Frodhi awoke and said out aloud to whoever might be listening,

'I dreamed, friends, a dream that offers no fair wind and I will tell you it. I dreamed someone was calling to us, saying 'Now you have come home King Frodhi, you and your men'. I answered angrily, 'Home to where?' The answer came from so near. I felt the hot breath of the one calling 'Home to Hel. Home to Hel'. Then I awoke'.

'He and his men heard Regin outside the hall,

'*Regin is without,

and the warriors of Halfdan,

tough foes

say this to Frodhi:

Var the careful forged nails

and Var the wary made the heads

but the smiths worked

warnings for the wary'

[*Regin, pron. 'Reyin' was also the word for rain]

'It is against a man's nature to harm a fellow kinsman'.

'So you say. No-one trusts you. You could betray us no less than you did your brother Halfdan, our father. Now you will pay for your deeds'.

Frodhi turned back from the hall door and made for his underground pathway, but on entering found Regin there, armed and ready to strike. He went back into the hall where he and many of his followers burned to death. His queen and Halfdan's widow Sigrid burned with them, choosing to die with Frodhi rather than join her sons outside.

The brothers thanked Jarl Saevil and regin as well as their followers. Many were given rich treasures from Frodhi's hoard. They also claimed all his lands and the kingdom.

Next - 2: After Frodhi's Death, Helgi and Hroar's Kingship

Early Viking Age Valsgaerde helm with its welded visor and neckguard strapping, found near Uppsala (North of Stockholm)

Early Viking Age Valsgaerde helm with its welded visor and neckguard strapping, found near Uppsala (North of Stockholm)

The Skjoldungas (pron. 'Shuldungas') - Skjoldung dynasty, kings of the Danes

Charts the timeline of the last of the Skjoldungas, King Hrolf and parallel dynasties in early mediaeval Scandinavia

Charts the timeline of the last of the Skjoldungas, King Hrolf and parallel dynasties in early mediaeval Scandinavia

See description below

See description below

The Saga of King Hrolf 'Kraki' - Penguin Classics

The Saga of Hrolf Kraki. Marked by error and tragedy, is the tale of the last of the Danish Skjoldung dynasty. The uncanny plays a large role, Odin enters the story more than once, a curse is laid on Hrolf's father Helgi and Hrolf's half-sister Skuld proves to be a formidable enemy. There is weakness and strength, love and passion, sadness and joy in equal shares. For each stroke of luck there is a drawback.

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster


Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on November 09, 2012:

Be my guest, be seated and drink away at the mead of legend!

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on November 09, 2012:

Wow, a veritable feast. I'm getting there slowly and enjoying it immensely. You are a brilliant writer.

Alan R Lancaster (author) from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 23, 2012:

Thanks Dan. The story is public property, received knowledge passed from mouth to ear in the dark ages, set down by an Icelandic cleric in the 13th Century and given a new lease of life by me, with a southern Scandinavian/English twist.

I read a different version of this by Poul Anderson back in the mid-70's, and sadly lost it. Read side by side, this, the Penguin version and Poul Anderson's, I think you'd see a real 3D image. For now get yourself a good drink, a strong table lamp and thank your lucky stars you've got a nice, indulgent girlfriend (saw the picture). Start with part one - a very good place to start - and work your way through. I've got part 7: 'The Claim' in progress on paper and will transfer it onto my sub-domain when I've got another half-dozen pages of notes completed. Parts 8-9 will take a little longer. Meanwhile you could follow HUNDING HROTHULFSSON from his beginnings in Jylland (Jutland) via Jorvik, east to Holmgard (Novgorod), Miklagard (Constantinople) and back again through Koebenhavn (Copenhagen, then a trading post), Roskilde and back to England in -so far - 44 easily digested episodes.

Dan Barfield from Gloucestershire, England, UK on October 23, 2012:

Fabulous writing with superbly researched historical context! Voted up - great writing!!

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