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  • "Sumar eptir fornkvæðum eðr fróðum mönnum ok stundum eptir fornum bókum":Some Observations on the Sources of Göngu-Hrólfs saga1
  • Philip Lavender

Göngu-Hrólfs saga (The Saga of Hrólfr the Walker) was one of the latest of the so-called fornaldarsögur (legendary sagas or sagas of ancient times) to see print, avoiding any concerted critical attention until the start of the nineteenth century in Johannes G. Liljegren's (1818) translation and Carl Christian Rafn's Old Norse edition (as part of his three-volume corpus-establishing collection, 1829–1830). Nevertheless, it has intrigued and entertained a great number of readers since that time (as well as before). From a scholarly perspective, this is in no small part due to the presence of material of extremely diverse origins and the ways in which the author (or authors) and scribes have sought to create a cohesive whole out of such disparate sources. As Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards have pointed out, "much of the virtue of the story lies in the skill with which the narrator [End Page 78] blends the unlike (and often unlikely) material he draws upon" (1980, 14). This material has been identified as having its roots spread over a wide geographical area. Marina Mundt, for example, taking a cue from the inspiration for Hrólfr's exceptional horse, Dúlcifal, states: "Die Gǫngu-Hrólfs saga enthält ansonsten noch eine ganze Reihe literarischer Bilder, die morgenländischen Ursprungs sind" (1993, 199) [Göngu-Hrólfs saga contains moreover a whole string of other literary motifs of oriental provenance]. The ease with which source material can be identified varies. Jacob Wittmer Hartmann realized this when he said that it would be difficult "to point out actual borrowings from other sagas, or from the continental romances of chivalry that were imitated so assiduously in the North. The borrowings, however, that lend themselves most readily to distinct investigation, are the crude cases in which a passage has been taken over bodily or has been changed but slightly" (1912, 28). The case he was referring to was the textual map of Denmark, inserted, he believed, rather clumsily toward the end of the saga. In addition to such apparently glaring intercalations, a fair number of paratexts are explicitly name-dropped in the course of the narrative, among them Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar (The Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason), Yngvars saga víðförla (The Saga of Yngvarr the Far-Traveller), and Sturlaugs saga starfsama (The Saga of Sturlaugr the Hard-Working).2 Yet despite the array of commentators who have shown an interest in the possible connections between the precocious equine Dúlcifal and Alexander the Great's Bucephalus, or investigated the links between Hrólfr's proxy wooing of Ingigerðr and Siegfried's of Brünhild, a number of questions regarding sources and influences remain unanswered.3

Göngu-Hrólfs saga tells the story of an unlikely youth, so large that a horse cannot bear him for long, who ultimately proves himself to be a worthy hero. After various adventures, he ends up at the court of Earl Þorgnýr, who then sends him on an adventure to find the owner of a golden hair that a swallow has dropped into his royal lap. While on this quest, Hrólfr is blackmailed at swordpoint into instead helping an unscrupulous villain named Vilhjálmr attain a desired bride. The [End Page 79] eponymous hero must pose as a mere squire while carrying out three extremely demanding tasks, which Vilhjálmr then takes the credit for. Hrólfr meets the imposed requirements and is then free to follow his own imperatives once again. Troublemakers such as Vilhjálmr and a dastardly dwarf by the name of Möndull are eventually dealt with, battles won, quests for princesses completed, and the story ends happily with marriage and territorial gain for the hero and his friends.4

This narrative is found in one form or another in a relatively large number of manuscripts: around seventy partial or complete witnesses are extant and bear testimony to its popularity. Of these...


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