Hrólfs Saga Kraka

Hrólfr Kraki's last stand by Louis Moe (1857-1945)

I’ve been working on a long term project that involves “translating” Hrólfs Saga Kraka into a large scale musical drama not unlike a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

I’ve loved the story for some time now, and am reading it (albeit slowly) in Old Norse…and working on a personal translation…(well, the late Icelandic Version–just wish the Skjoldunga Saga were still around in some shape or form).

I rather don’t care much for Saxo Grammaticus’ version in Gesta Danorum–though it is an important resource for research purposes–and many of the few other fragments as exist (e.g. Bjarkarimur, Bjarkamal, the few chapters in Sturlason’s Heimskringla, Hrothgar/Beowulf), date from well after the what is sometimes referred to as the Scandinavian Renaissance (ca. 900 a.d. to 1200 a.d.), or are only in manuscript form from that period (though they may very well be much older).

I suppose the biggest obstacle now is reconstructing music from the period (I once heard Benjamin Bagby’s ‘recreate’ a ‘performance’ of the first section of Beowulf–it was incredible)… The Völkerwanderung period is a fascinating one…

I was overjoyed when I realized the Hrolf Kraki Saga overlapped Beowulf (Hrothgar is Hroar=Hrolf’s uncle!!)…such a fascinating period of time–and interesting how we get all of these historical/lengendary concurrences right at the fall of the Roman empire–a rise of oral literacy/art in the “germanic” realms (e.g. Beowulf; Hrolf Kraki; Arthur; Siegfried; Atli/Attila…).

An other alternative reading that I have found to be very fascinating is Helen Damico’s Beowulf’s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. It brings to light some very interesting problems with language (as Wealhtheow has the connotation a ‘slave-taken-in-a-raid’), which allows Damico to identify Beowulf’s Wealtheow with Yrsa of the Norse Saga (who was actually Helgi’s (the brother of Hrothgar/Hroar) bride/daughter, and the mother/sister of Hrolf).

As you can see, geneology in Scandinavian/Germanic sagas can be quite convoluted (e.g. Sinfjiotli’s Mother and Father are also his Aunt and Uncle)

The most difficult part is finding a way to “reconstruct” the music…I have found little literature in English, and trying to read modern Danish or Norwegian is ike trying to read Modern English if all you know is Old English–too much difference!!

A recent recording that attempts to reconstruct how the sagas might have sounded if sung was released a few of years ago by the group Sequentia–I have been quite skeptical of it, and its intent (not that it might still be a valuable resource–liner notes came give more info than books sometimes). I will likely get it soon, but here is a review:

Edda – An Icelandic Saga – Myths From Medieval Iceland/Sequentia here performs a miracle of musical restoration, bringing to vibrant life medieval Icelandic texts about gods and heroes inhabiting a mythic past. Drawing on oral traditions and informed scholarly speculations about long-dead performing styles, they have come up with a hypnotic disc that startles with its power and beauties. The songs and recitations are interwoven with captivating fiddle tunes, and the singers wrench surprising emotions from the old texts. The late Barbara Thornton shines in her solos and duets, and Benjamin Bagby’s mesmerizing chanting, recitation, and singing brings us as close as we’re likely to get to sitting at the feet of the bards of old. An extraordinary disc that shouldn’t be missed. –Dan Davis

Benjamin Bagby also practices early music performance (I have a bit of a problem with the whole notion of being able to reconstruct anything–but not too much obviously, as I am attempting it as well )–but what was most amazing was that he had a 6th century Anglo-Saxon harp/lyre reconstructed for the puposes of using it in his reconstruction–it was amazing how fluidly he shifted from chant to speech to song–most of which followed the metre of the text which would be idiomatic of certain metrical patterns found in ancient Germanic poetry…it was phenomenal…

but whether or not it was ‘accurate’ (whatever the hell that means in this context) is questionable…since we are dealing with an oral based ‘art’ form which was likely to have been improvisatory…and we end up again with the Homeric Question

some resources:

Damico, Helen Beowulf’s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition

Hrólfs saga kraka ok kappa hans (in Old Norse)

Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda The Legendary Sagas

Olson, Oscar Ludvig The relation of the Hrólfs saga Kraka and the Bjarkarímur to Beowulf

Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum (in English)

Sturluson, Snorri Heimskringla The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway (in English)

originally posted here: