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"Why did it have to be snakes?"[1]

The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and Tale of Ragnar’s Sons are two 13th century Icelandic sagas, of the 'Legendary Sagas' genre, telling the story of a prestigious clan of enterprising warlord-kings, set in a fictionalised 9th century, in the heyday of the viking raids. The authorship is anonymous. Despite what the titles suggest, the two narratives are not sequels, rather different treatments of the same story, but with a shift in emphasis, and also a few inconsistencies between them. The Tale is much shorter than the Saga.

Ragnar succeeds his father as king of Sweden and Denmark. While he is still a youngster, he kills a giant snake, wearing special clothes made of fur for protection, which earns him his rid … unique nickname Lodbrok - “Hairy-Breeches”[2] - and also the jarl’s daughter that the monster guarded, Thora Hart-of-the-Town[3].

But Thora dies young, and Ragnar takes another wife – Kraka, a mysterious girl raised by a poor couple, who will eventually reveal a lofty heritage. Thora’s sons are Erik and Agnar; Kraka’s sons are Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Hvitserk, Rognvald, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. In time, the sons follow in the footsteps of their father and take up careers as viking raiders and conquerors — and soon, father and sons find themselves competing against each other in a quest for glory that ravages half of Europe, drips of blood, and entertains the reader.

Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons were popular stuff of legend of medieval Northern Europe; however the details of the story vary considerably – especially the number and names of the sons. Nevertheless, many of the episodes are obviously based on history: Ragnar is implied to be identical to a certain viking warlord Reginer who sacked Paris in 845, Ivar the Boneless is modelled on a certain “Hinguar”[4] who, together with his brothers, invaded England in 865, and the Ragnarssons’ foray to the South mirrors a real-life viking invasion of the Mediterranean that occurred in 859-862. Altogether, the saga is cleverly stitched between the age of legend and history – while the Ragnarssons are descended from mythic heroes, they are also (supposedly) the ancestors of the historical royal houses of Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

The sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons are among those medieval works that deal explicitly with viking expeditions (even if they are not strong on the realism), and portrayal of Vikings in fiction often takes inspiration from them. This begins, of course, with all the fictional Viking chiefs called Ragnar.

A free translation of Ragnar's Saga can be found here (pdf file); Tale of Ragnar's Sons can be read here.

Tropes in Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and Tale of Ragnar's Sons:

  • Angel Unaware: The wandering stranger that dissuades the Ragnarssons from attacking Rome is obviously an angel or a saint in disguise.
  • The Archer: Ivar the Boneless.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Your mileage may vary on "Ivar the Boneless", but "Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye" and "Bjorn Ironside" definitely have a nice ring to it.
  • Cinderella Circumstances: The way Kraka is raised.
  • Clothes Make the Superman: The eponymous "Hairy Breeches". Also, the impenetrable silk shirt made by Kraka.
  • Continuation: The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok is ostensibly written as a continuation of the Saga of the Volsungs.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: A lot. [5]
  • Badass Family: Ragnar, Kraka and their sons.
  • The Conqueror: Ragnar.
  • Damsel in Distress: Thora Hart-of-the-Town.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: This was undoubtedly relished by the author.
  • Evil Cripple: Ivar the Boneless: "He had no children, because of the way he was: with no lust or love — but he wasn't short of cunning and cruelty." (Tale of Ragnar's Sons)
  • Fluffy the Terrible: For being supposedly the probably most feared Viking warlord ever, Ragnar Lodbrok has a curiously comical nickname. The real reason for the epithet is probably that it's a garbled form of a foreign nickname — maybe Old English leódbroga, 'the people's terror' (that's more like it!).
  • Genius Cripple: Ivar the Boneless is the mastermind of the Ragnarsson troupe.
  • Girl in the Tower: Thora Hart-of-the-Town is trapped in her tower when her pet dragon grows too big and fierce to let anyone in or out.
  • Glory Seeker: The main motive of Ragnar and all his sons.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Don't rear baby dragons if you don't want a giant fire-breathing monster living on your property.
  • Handicapped Badass: Ivar the Boneless is unable to walk, and therefore is carried onto the battlefield on a shield.
  • Horny Vikings: Apart from the horns, this story is among the Trope Makers.
  • Lady of War: Kraka commands an army in the campaign to Sweden.
  • Lamarck Was Right: Kraka has inherited the ability to understand bird talk from her father, but her father only acquired this ability by eating a certain dragon's heart.
  • Mama Bear: An interesting variant: Kraka vehemently drives on her sons to avenge Erik and Agnar — even though Erik and Agnar were just her stepsons, and her biological sons are initially rather unwilling to go to war for the sake of their half-brothers. Yet Kraka prevails, and even personally heads an army in the resulting campaign.
  • Marital Rape License: Kraka wants Ragnar not to sleep with her for three nights after their wedding, as she foresees that a child thus conceived will “have no bones”. But Ragnar “follows his own advice.” Cue Ivar the Boneless.
  • Memetic Outfit: The "hairy breeches".
  • Mood Whiplash: The beginning, with Ragnar slaying a dragon and marrying a princess, reads much like a Fairy Tale. But the princess dies almost immediately, and the rest of the story is less and less fairy-tale like, and increasingly bloody.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: An interesting quality of the giant snake in Ragnar’s Saga is that it hatches gold: The heap of gold magically grows together with the dragon.
  • The Protagonist: While Ragnar and his sons are the eponymous characters, and have starring roles in the first and the second half respectively, a closer look reveals that the protagonist of the whole cycle is actually Kraka.
  • Rape, Pillage and Burn: "They killed every man’s child who was in the town, and they took all the goods and burnt the town before they went on their way." (Ragnar's Saga)
  • Red Baron: When Kraka leads an army to Sweden, she earns the nickname 'Randalin', "Shield-Lady" (also a poetical term for 'Valkyries').
  • Rescue Romance: Ragnar and Thora.
  • Secret Legacy: Kraka, although it seems she was always aware of it herself: She is actually Aslaug, the orphaned daughter of Sigurd Fafnisbane and Brynhild the Valkyrie.
  • Snake Pit: The manner of Ragnar's death.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Kraka has inherited the ability to understand animal talk from her father.
  1. "Because we don't have the technology for shark pools yet?"
  2. Or "Shaggy-pants" if you want so.
  3. The “hart” is supposed to mean that she is especially beautiful.
  4. A Latinization of "Ingvar", Ivar for short.
  5. Erik is impaled on spears, Ragnar is thrown in a snake pit filled with venomous vipers, King Ella has his back cut open, Hvitserk is burnt alive on a pyre.