Kraka’s Paradox

The Story of Kraka and Ragnar Lodbrok

by Barbara Bluestone

Published in Parabola‘s “Imagination” issue, Vol 34/1

Imagination is a heroic trait in Norse lore, as seen in stories as diverse as the pranks of the trickster god Loki and this legend, adapted from Ragnar Lodbrog’s Saga, which tells how a young girl won the heart of a king.

Mårten Eskil Winge (1825-1896)-Kraka-AslögOne summer day, the mighty Viking king Ragnar Lodbrok sailed his dragon-headed longships into a small harbor called Spangerejd along the coast of Norway. The king sent his men ashore to find a farm where they could bake bread. But when they returned, the bread was burned. The king asked angrily, “How could you fools let this happen?”

The men stammered, “Sire, we forgot to watch the bread, for the maiden who helped us bake was the most beautiful woman we’ve ever seen.”

Now, Ragnar Lodbrok’s beloved queen had died and he was in need of a new wife. But not just any woman would do. No, he had vowed that the woman he would marry must be as wise as she was beautiful. So he said to his men, “Bid this maiden come to me now. And tell her she must be neither dressed nor naked, neither eating nor fasting, neither accompanied nor alone.”

The messengers went ashore and made their way up to the little farm. When the girl heard the king’s command, she drew herself up proudly and said, “Tell him I will come not today, but tomorrow.” She was not afraid of the king, for she was no ordinary peasant girl.

Her real name was Aslog. Her father was the great hero Sigurd and her mother the fierce battle maiden Brynhildr. After her parents’ harrowing deaths, Aslog’s foster father had hidden her for safety in a giant harp and taken her far away. But he was robbed and killed by cruel peasants, who decided to pretend the little girl was their own. The old couple called her Kraka, meaning Crow. They dressed her in rags and smeared her with soot and tar to hide her beauty. They treated her like a slave, making her herd goats, gather firewood, and carry water. But through the years, as she grew into a lovely young woman, Kraka never forgot that she was the last of the noble Volsungs and that she had a special destiny.

And so Kraka prepared to meet the king.

Early the next morning, Ragnar Lodbrok stood at the railing of his ship, peering through the mist. Slowly the sun rose. A playful breeze sprang up, scattering light on the water and tossing the birches on land. And then he saw her, walking slowly towards the shore.

Her radiant body was covered only by a fishnet and the golden veil of her long silken hair.

With her pearly white teeth, she was biting into an onion.

And behind her trailed a large dog.

She was neither naked nor dressed. She was neither eating nor fasting. She was neither accompanied nor alone.

Is it any wonder that Ragnar Lodbrok asked Kraka to be his wife? For along with her beauty, she had that rarest of qualities, imagination, which can rise to any challenge and transform the impossible into the possible.

 

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