Hrolf Kraki’s Saga by Poul Anderson
Poul Anderson took the Viking saga of Hrolf Kraki and crafted this magnificent fantasy novel from the legendary king’s story. Hrolf was a sort of Arthurian equivalent in the northern folk tales and myths, but Anderson brought him to life in this novelized retelling of his exploits.
Like much of northern mythology the story is dark in spots, dealing with such themes as murderous sibling rivalry, incestuous relationships, and the everyday brutality that must have been common in the era that was rightly called “the Dark Ages.” Even so, Anderson captured the heroic nature of the story, as well as the courageous outlook of the original saga recorders.
Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is a myth retold, rather than historical fiction, although the opening framework sequence is set in more recent historical times with a woman being asked to recount the old myths to a royal gathering during a feast time. Anderson also pens a good introduction which gives some of the historical and legendary background to the tale; tales, rather, as the saga is actually a series of stories about several of the warriors who end up in the service of Hrolf, much as the Arthurian legends revolve around the Knights of the Round Table. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga builds towards an apocalyptic final battle and, like most of the Northern mythology that has come down to us, there is courage and hope even in the face of tragedy and loss.
The parallels to some of Arthurian legend seemed rather marked to me, and made me want to go back and reread some of those tales. In my mind this is what the best books do, they plant a seed which makes you want to read more. At his best, (and this book is definitely one of his best) Poul Anderson does this.
Anderson was probably best known for his great science fiction, but he penned several fantasies and historical romances set in the Viking era and world. Besides Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, I would also highly recommend The Broken Sword, The Merman’s Children and The Demon of Scattery (co-authored with Mildred Downey Broxon) among others. I’d also suggest The High Crusade which, although a science fiction story, is one in which medieval knights are captured by an advanced alien civilization, but turn out to be not as simple or as lacking in intelligence as their alien kidnappers assume. Several of these books are still in print, while some others are out of print, but all are worth finding and reading.
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