The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written in the 14th century, author Icelandic but otherwise unknown. Although not of the quality of the finest Icelandic sagas, it is great fun and might well make an ideal Starter Saga for anyone curious but not that curious. It is, for example, only 78 pages long in the Penguin Classics edition (tr. Jesse L. Byock). And part of it stars Beowulf, here known as Bodvar Bjarki, the bear-warrior.
The line I put in the title can be found on page 36, and is not typical. This one, from two pages later, is: “The queen is a great troll.” In this saga that is meant more or less literally. Or how about this:
A little while later she fell ill and gave birth to a boy, though of an extraordinary kind. He was a man above the navel, but an elk below that. He was named Elk-Frodi. She bore another son, who was named Thorir. He had dog’s feet from his insteps down. Because of this he was called Thorir Hound’s Foot; otherwise he was the most handsome of men. A third boy was born, and this one was the most promising. He was named Bodvar and there was no blemish on him. Bera loved Bodvar the most. (40)
I do not think it is an aspersion on the Old English Beowulf to say that it would be even better is its hero had an older brother who was half elk. The father is a werebear, and then the mother – well, see for yourself. What I mean is, there is a logical explanation for those trollish children.
Some sagas have almost no supernatural material at all, and one of the best, Grettir’s Saga, has a lot but is fascinatingly ambivalent about its ghosts and monsters. King Hrolf Kraki is closer to a pure fantasy adventure, even if many of the kings and heroes have some connection to historic figures. Distant history, though, when witches and trolls were out and about more.
A scene you have to read to believe is Bodvar’s introduction to King Hrolf at his great hall, before the fight with Grendel that I know from Beowulf:
he heard a noise coming from somewhere in the corner. Bodvar looked in that direction and saw a man’s hand emerging from a huge pile of bones lying there. The hand was very black. (48)
This fellow has been living in a pile of bones that the king’s warriors throw at him during banquets. He has been busy trying to turn them into a fort to protect him from the hurled bones. Bodvar rescues the target. The first thing Bodvar does is throw him in the lake (see above, “very black”).
This sounds like invention, but a footnote says: “Throwing bones was apparently one of the rowdier games played at feasts, and killing by bone-throwing is specifically listed as an offence in a number of medieval Scandinavian law codes,” (83). So it is merely insane.
Jean of Howling Frog Books read this saga recently and made it sound fun, which it is. The Penguin Classics edition includes diagrams of archaeological digs of Viking great halls, giving a hint about how the book is now taught. Me, I read it for the werebears and the bone-throwing.
Anyone with a taste for a longer saga should read Njal’s Saga along with me and Alison of The Congeries. I am aiming for the last week of February. A little over 300 pages in 159 chapters. Often called the best of the bunch.