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Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka (Hálf)

Skaldic vol. 8; ed. Hubert Seelow

verse introduction manuscripts contents

Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka ‘The saga of Hálfr and Hálfr’s champions’ (Hálf) is a fornaldarsaga which relates the story of the tragic fate of the Norwegian viking king Hálfr and his warriors. After eighteen summers of successful plundering in distant countries, they fall victim to a treacherous invitation in their own country, Norway. Hálfr’s stepfather, Ásmundr, sets fire to the hall when his guests have fallen asleep after much heavy drinking; they succeed in breaking out of the burning building, but in the ensuing battle Hálfr and most of his champions are killed.

This story of Hálfr proper is preceded by a series of anecdotal accounts dealing mainly with Hálfr’s ancestors, among them his father, Hjǫrleifr inn kvensami ‘the Womaniser’, and their adversaries, as well as a short chapter on a disastrous viking expedition conducted by Hálfr’s elder brother, Hjǫrólfr. Following the main narrative, there is an account of how Hálfr’s death was avenged and how his descendants settled in Iceland.

The main narrative is expressed through three longer poems in fornyrðislag, Innsteinskviða ‘Poem of Innsteinn’ (Innkv), Útsteinskviða ‘Poem of Útsteinn’ (Útkv) and Hrókskviða ‘Poem of Hrókr’ (Hrkv), connected by comparatively short prose paragraphs. The genealogical anecdotes at the beginning and end of the saga consist of prose with interspersed lausavísur, many of which convey prophecies that look forward to the main story or, in the case of Bragi Lv 1b (Hálf 78), further into historical times. The early part of the saga is distinguished by a number of prophetic utterances expressed by a range of supernatural beings, from a water-polluting spirit, to an animated mountain, to a merman, to an unknown voice. All these lausavísur contribute to a powerful sense that Hálfr’s ancestors have violated natural laws in their quests for power and dominance through polygynous sexual liaisons (cf. Torfi H. Tulinius 2002, 115-18). The titles given to the three long poems in Hálf can be traced back to Heusler and Ranisch (Edd. Min.), who were followed by Andrews (Hálf 1909). In the course of the twentieth century their titles, or similar ones, have become standard among most scholars and editors. Edd. Min. uses the titles Das Innsteinslied ‘The Poem of Innsteinn’, Das Hrókslied ‘The Poem of Hrókr’ and Útsteins Kampfstrophen (eine Lausavísurgruppe) ‘Útsteinn’s Battle-stanzas (a group of lausavísur)’ for the three stanza sequences. Such titles do not appear in the earliest ms. nor in early editions before Edd. Min., although Björner (1737), who took his chapter titles from the paper ms. Holm papp 68 folˣ, makes explicit mention of Hrókr’s poem at the beginning of chapter xvi (Björner 1737, 33). This may have influenced Vigfusson and Powell in their Introduction to an appendix to CPB II (1883, II, 547) entitled ‘Spurious Epic Poetry’, to refer to ‘The Death Song of Rook the Black’.

The story of Hálfr’s death is among the earliest documented traditions in Old Norse and must have been known already c. 900 because the kenning bani Hôalfs ‘slayer of Hálfr’ [FIRE] appears in Þjóð Yt 6/7I (cf. SnE 1998, I, 39). On the other hand, references to the story both in these and other sources, such as Ldn, are quite stereotypical, and this suggests that the Hálf tradition cannot have been very rich in literary times. The anecdotal parts rely on genealogies and make use of many folklore motifs, such as the laughing sage, together with motifs taken from Norse myth and heroic legend. What was probably an older version of the saga, called there Hróks saga svarta ‘Saga of Hrókr the Black’, is mentioned in Geirmundar þáttr heljarskinns ‘The Tale of Geirmundr the Dark-skinned’ (Geir) in Stu. This version seems to have been extant already between c. 1220-80, although the text that has been preserved as Hálf (see below) probably dates from the fourteenth century.

There is only one vellum ms. of Hálf, GKS 2845 4° (2845), which dates from c. 1450 (see further Introduction to Vol. VIII, Section 4). This ms., which contains several other fornaldarsögur, is the basis for all published editions of the saga and its stanzas, including the present one. There are a great many later paper mss of this saga, all derived from 2845; fifty-six have so far been identified on the database Stories for All Time, accessed 4 January 2016.

There is a facsimile edition of 2845 by Jón Helgason (1955b). The first printed edition of the saga was by Erik J. Björner (1737), and C. C. Rafn edited it in FSN 2, 25-60. The first scholarly edition was that of Sophus Bugge (Hálf 1864), followed by that of A. Le Roy Andrews (Hálf 1909). It was also edited by Valdimar Ásmundarson (1885-9, 2, 21-46) and in FSGJ 2, 93-134. The present editor produced a diplomatic edition of the saga (Hálf 1981). The following editions of the saga have been cited here, along with the verse-only editions in Skj A and B, Skald and Edd. Min.: Hálf 1864, Hálf 1909, FSGJ and Hálf 1981.

Runic data from Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, unless otherwise stated