The Norse Sagas of Poul Anderson: Hrolf Kraki's Saga and "The Tale of Hauk"

*This article originally appeared in the Sword and Sorcery in Heavy Metal column of the now-defunct Echoes of Crom Records website, March 2012. The first part of this article, concerning The Broken Sword, can be found here.

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Hrolf Kraki’s Saga

This novel is a retelling of the ancient myths regarding the legendary Danish King, Hrolf Kraki. He was in fact a real person and holds his place in Norse Mythology alongside such greats as Beowulf, Sigmund, Brynhild and other famous Northern heroes.

Just like The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is another dark Viking tale with many grim themes such as rape, violent betrayal, murdering of kin and incestuous relationships.  Again, there is a degree of witchcraft and sorcery that takes place, as well as quite a bit of great fighting and battle scenes.  

The book is a collection of stories that are connected—each concerning various characters who somehow played a role in the life of Hrolf Kraki.  The tales are presented in a unique way as being told by a female storyteller throughout the winter in an Anglo-Saxon court during the 10th century.  The woman, Gunnvor, wife of Eyvind the Red, a guest in the royal household of King Æthelstan, is asked by the King to tell a story that was overheard she had been relating to some of the ladies of the court.  She hesitates when asked, saying that it is a heathen tale that would be unfit for some of the king's company, who are Christian. Nevertheless, Æthelstan insists and the story begins.

Set in the Dark Ages, Halfdan, King of Denmark, has two young sons, Helgi and Hroar.  Halfdan is murdered by his sinister brother, Frodhi, who then usurps the throne.  Fearing for their lives, Helgi and Hroar go into hiding, aided by their foster father.  Frodhi knows of the two lads and tries desperately to find and kill them—even resorting to using sorcery—but fails repeatedly.  Eventually, the king assumes the boys are dead and gives up on searching for them, though he always remains skeptical.  Once Helgi and Hroar are close to adulthood, the rightful heirs to the throne take vengeance on their uncle by burning him and his followers alive.  They reclaim the throne and vow to rule justly together, side by side, unlike their father and uncle.

As the two grow into men, Hroar becomes a great and wise well-loved king who maintains most of the responsibilities of the kingdom. Helgi is more reckless and becomes a warrior and Viking, traveling the land to bring wealth and fame to the kingdom.

Helgi eventually decides to sail to the island of Als in an attempt to court Olof, who is queen of the Saxons, and take her as his wife. Unaware that Olof is a ruthless, war-bringing queen who has no interest in being his wife, he is denied and humiliated. Returning home, he spends days alone, brooding on how to take vengeance on the queen for her outrageous denial against him.  At length, Helgi returns to the island and manages to kidnap Olof.  He takes her aboard his ship for several days in which he rapes her and then returns her to land.

Olof becomes pregnant and conceives a child due to the event. It is a girl, who she names Yrsa.  Ashamed and disgusted, Olof gives the child away to her servants, shunning her as if she never existed.  Eventually, Olof has her vengeance on King Helgi when he encounters Yrsa in his travels and later weds her. Unknowing of their relation to one another, the father and daughter fall in love and have a child together. Olof then reveals the truth, ruining the marriage and devastating the king and queen.  Yrsa then leaves Helgi and goes off to marry Adhils, king of the Swedes.

The child born of this incestuous marriage is named Hrolf.  He is raised in the household of his uncle Hroar and eventually becomes king himself.  Hrolf grows to be a great king and builds up the realm, establishing a band of warriors, many who are famous in Norse legend, who travel and fight alongside with him.  The story goes on to relate the individual tales of each of these champions, as well as the epic tale of the heroic deeds of King Hrolf Kraki.

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Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf

The saga takes place around the same time as the heroic tale told in the classic, Old English poem, Beowulf (although in Hrolf Kraki's Saga, his name is spelled Bjovulf) and the two stories are linked in many ways. Although not a main character, Bjovulf is mentioned several times throughout Hrolf Kraki's Saga.  At one point, word comes to Leidhra of how Bjovulf slew the troll Grendel who had been terrorizing the land. Also, there is a lot of mention of King Bjovulf ruling simultaneously in Geatland as King Hrolf is ruling in Denmark.  Hrolf names him an ally more than once.  Finally, news comes of Bjovulf being killed in the battle with the dragon.  

Likewise, there are similar links in Beowulf which connect Hrolf Kraki and his kin to the old, Anglo-Saxon legend, although there are some minor differences.  In the common version of the poem, Beowulf rids the monster from King Hrothgar's hall. In the homeland version, however, it is not Hrothgar, but Hrolf's uncle, Hroar.  Also, Hrolf is actually mentioned in the poem but is called Hrolfwulf.

An interesting link between Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is the character Yrsa.  She plays a major role in Hrolf Kraki and is also mentioned in Beowulf. But again, regarding her, the stories conflict with one another in several ways; it is constant in most of the stories of Norse literature that Yrsa was the daughter of Olof and Helgi who then married her father without either having the knowledge of her heritage, and conceived Hrolf. Things get confusing however in the Beowulf tale. There she was not the daughter of Helgi, but of Halfdan and was sister to Halga, Hrothgar and Heorogar.  She was also not the mother of Hrolf, who in this story is her sister Halga's son.  There are other conflicting relationships as well so it is a bit confusing as to who Yrsa was actually meant to be be related to in the Skjoldung line.

Anderson went to great lengths to accurately translate and reconstruct the story of Hrolf Kraki, while still making it feel like an exciting and enjoyable fantasy novel, rather than some kind of bland history lesson. I think it was very well done.  The book was nominated for the British Fantasy Award in 1973.


The Tale of Hauk

Here is a great and obscure short yarn by Mr. Anderson.  The first time I came across “The Tale of Hauk” was in Andrew J. Offutt’s short story anthology, Swords Against Darkness #1.  I have to say that I greatly enjoyed this tale, partly because it is in fact a horror story set in the Viking age.

The story is about the Viking trader Hauk who returns from his voyage abroad only to find that the vengeful ghost of his father Geirolf has been terrorizing his homestead.  Hauk must do battle against his undead father and give him his second death in order to put the apparition’s soul to rest and stop the murdering of his kin.    

This one is very short compared to the others I mentioned, so there's really not much else to say except that it's a highly enjoyable read for fans of dark fantasy.  “The Tale of Hauk” can also be found in the Poul Anderson collection The Armies of Elfland.      

Influence In Heavy Metal:

Just like Poul Anderson, over the years there has become a growing number of heavy metal bands who also seem to be possessed by the “Northern Thing”.  It is not a rare occurrence nowadays to hear Metal lyrics that speak of Viking rampages, dragon ships, prayers to Odin, and other Norse themes.  There are even a handful of bands that label themselves as “Viking Metal”.  While I think this is somewhat of a broad term (certainly not all bands that sing about Norse subjects are considered Viking Metal), it does show that the topic is still of much interest and many of these bands have grown to be quite successful over the years.

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Whether or not the writings of Poul Anderson had a hand in inspiring BATHORY’s “Valhalla or MANOWAR’s “Sign of The Hammer” remains uncertain. They did however have a bit of an influence on a particular song by U.S. Metal band CAULDRON BORN entitled “The Sword’s Lament,” which can be found on the 1997 release Born of the Cauldron.  The song is about a cursed, magic sword wielded by various champions down through time.  In the liner notes of the 2007 reissue, Howie Bentley cites Anderson along with others as an influence on the lyrics.  Later, in one of the many email discussions between Howie and I, he told me how The Broken Sword had a big impact on him and partially inspired the song.  He is perhaps the only metal artist I know of who has paid tribute in a direct way.

Here is an excerpt from the liner notes for “The Sword's Lament” written by Howie, that can be found in the Born of the Cauldron reissue CD booklet:

This song is about a magick sword wielded by various champions down through time. The sword makes he who wields it invincible in battle but it also comes with a curse: it destroys all those around him whom he cares about. The sword is called by many names from different lands as it makes its way down through time. One of my favorite parts of the song is the intro. In the intro the vocalist is chanting “Tyrfing, Thorn, Tyrfing, Thorn”. Tyrfing was a magick sword from the Norse Eddas. It was forged in darkness by malefic powers. Thorn is the rune representing Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. Thor broke Tyrfing with his hammer in battle. He then threw it away but someone found the broken sword and restored it. The chanting of “Tyrfing, Thorn” represents the clashing of the two magickal weapons in battle.

In addition to Howie, I was also able to discuss the matter of Heavy Metal and Norse mythology with two more of my favorite musicians, David DeFeis of VIRGIN STEELE and Mark “The Shark” Shelton of MANILLA ROAD. Here's what they had to say about the subject:

I am a big fan of the Myths of all cultures, so I am indeed also intrigued by the Norse. I have occasionally referenced Nordic Myth in VS tracks like TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, or RISING UNCHAINED, and to a lesser extent even in the new bonus track, ANOTHER NAIL IN THE CROSS from the current AGE OF CONSENT reissue... I link Odin with Dionysus and various other dying and resurrecting God-men... not that Odin is all that similar, but in his quest for knowledge he did sacrifice himself to himself and did hang upside-down on a tree for nine long nights...
— David DeFeis (VIRGIN STEELE)
I was asked once why I do so much Viking stuff in our music and my answer was ‘because Vikings are fucking cool’. I do believe Vikings are cool but the main reason I touch on the subject so much is because of my heritage. I can see why so many bands want to jump on the Viking bandwagon though. Personally, I think the culture’s history and the myths and legends of the people are just incredibly interesting and they played a huge part in the history of the world. We are relentless in researching anything before we write about it.
— Mark “The Shark” Shelton (MANILLA ROAD)

I also spoke with Russ Smith of Black Tears Distribution about the story after reading an interview in the Cimmerian Shadows zine, in which he mentioned The Broken Sword after being asked about Sword & Sorcery. Here's what Russ had to say when I asked him what he thought about the relationship between Anderson's work and Heavy Metal:

I wouldn’t say that “The Broken Sword” has any direct influence on a lot of Heavy Metal bands. Of course, it is interwoven with Norse Mythology and Heavy Metal has a direct connection with that. Norse mythology has an influence on a lot of Metal bands. It has that kind of romantic epic story telling in the sagas that leads itself very well to be used as a topic in Metal. War, conflict, heroism, with a dash of the mystical. However, a lot of band members were maybe introduced to the themes via the works of Tolkien. Unlike Tolkien, “The Broken Sword” goes directly for the throat with its story telling. It’s like Tolkien, but how a brutal Heavy Metal fanatic would write it... Take out all the peripheries and get right to the brutal core of the whole thing.

I couldn't agree more with Russ' words. These stories would be perfect for concepts in Heavy Metal and it is surprising that no “Viking Metal” bands have yet to pay homage to The Broken Sword or Hrolf Kraki's Saga.  


Poul Anderson was truly one of a kind. To this day his stories are the stuff of legend and I highly recommend these brilliant works to anyone who enjoys dark, heroic fantasy with a touch of the Northern Lore.

I would like to conclude this segment with a few appropriate lines from The Broken Sword, where Anderson uses the phrase “Black Sabbath” when telling of the witch‘s ride to the dark ritual in the woods:

She began to increase her powers, raising spirits out of the earth and speaking with demons of the upper air. To the Black Sabbath on the Brocken she rode, high through the sky on a broomstick with her rags streaming in the wind. A monstrous feasting it was, with ancient hideous shapes chanting about the dark altar, and steaming kettles of blood from which they drank deep; but perhaps the most frightful of all were the fair, white young women who joined in the rites and the dreadful matings…

If those lines don't scream heavy metal, sword and sorcery and Blood on Ice, I don't know what does…

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Matthew Knight and his band ETERNAL WINTER are currently hard at work in the studio recording their next full-length album, Archaic Lore Enshrined: Songs of Savage Swords and Dark Mysticism. The cassette version will include an epic bonus track entitled “Swords and Ice Magic,” which—despite its title being a homage to Fritz Leiber—is based on Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword.