Saturday, July 4, 2015

From Whence Came Our Grendels: The Northern Germanic Link Between Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki

Hello again, History Fans! I bet you didn't expect to see us back up and at it so soon. Well, the joke is on you, haters! We've got a whopper today that I am sure will keep our only three (reluctant) readers absolutely floored:


Classic Pun

But we aren't just looking at the text; we are making CONNECTIONS!

Back in 2010, while on tour, we made a trek to the Grand Canyon. On the way, I read The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, translated by Jesse Byock. I read it in the backseat of the hot, stuffy Fart Van, which was named not just for the sticker on the back that said, "FART," but rather for its delightful habit of trapping the worst stenches that seemed to originate from the bowels of hell. Really it was our bowels.

Anyway. It was a quick read, stinky but real nice. In Byock's introduction, he discusses the close relationship between the story of Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf (Byock 1999). I stored that nugget away for a future comparative study, which has finally manifested into a blog post five years later. You might say we are on top of things.

Here's what makes this study so interesting: Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon text, one of the earliest manuscripts of its kind. The experts date its composition to as early as 700, while it was written down around 300 years later, not unlike our Icelandic sagas of the Viking Age. However, Beowulf takes place IN SCANDINAVIA. Remember: During the age of migration, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes picked up from Northern Germany and settled into England. This is an easy historical fact for some folks to pass over. But when you pick out these places on a map, you will see how closely related these folks were to the Scandinavian population. The Jutes, for instance, often overlooked in the English emigration (Saxons and Angles get place names in the British Isles, while the Jutes remain aloof) come from Jutland, the main peninsula of the modern Danish kingdom. So it is entirely possible that the Jutes, themselves basically Danish, took the story of Beowulf with them across the sea to England where it was written down in a magnificent poem.

Not only that, but Shakespeare himself took his classic story of Hamlet from the incestuous and kooky story of Helgi and Yrsa from The Saga of Hrolf Kraki. What a world!

Beowulf, like many of our Icelandic sagas, contain historical information that is mixed in with fantastic folklore, myth, and simply ficticious elements. Gregory of Tours confirms that there was a king Hyglac who led a raid into Friesland in the 6th century (Kacani 2015). Hrolf Kraki's royal center of Hleidigard is thought to be near modern day Lejre in Denmark (Heaney 2001). The court that Grendel haunts in Beowulf, the magnificent Heorot, could also be placed at this site. Interestingly, there seemed to be a royal or important hall at Lejre during the Viking Age but nothing that predates 660 which is the time period when both stories took place. There was certainly an important center in Denmark that the authors knew about, and the royal line of the Skjoldungs also seems legit. Beowulf predates the other sources by a good couple hundred years. Because the setting is in Scandinavia, that means our earliest information of pre-Viking Age Scandinavia comes from an Old English poem. Weird, huh?

The legendary Heorot from Beowulf

Before we dive into a comparison, I have to get you up to speed on some abbreves. For the Old English/Beowulf references, we'll be using OE (Old English), while the Scandinavian/Icelandic/ Saga of Hrolf Kraki will be referred to as ON (Old Norse).

The main element that links these two accounts is the names associated with them. Both texts deal directly with the legendary line of kings from Denmark, the Skjoldungs (ON)/ Scyldinga (OE), known today as the Shieldings family. This is a famous story in the ON traditions. In fact, Hrolf Kraki himself is mentioned not only by Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda but is also discussed at length by Saxo Grammaticus in his lengthy Gesta Danorum, or The History of the Danes (Davidson 1979). Saxo's account adds to the confusion in that it was written in Latin and many of the names find themselves oddly translated. More than that, though--it gives us further evidence that these people and these stories, if not totally true, were widely known and popular.

Saxo looking absolutely sinister

Both Beowulf and The Saga of Hrolf Kraki introduce a hero from Gautland, probably Gotland in modern day Sweden, who travels to Denmark to assist a king who is being plagued by a monster.  Hrolf Kraki's tale is much more involved, with many other scenes. Yet it is not nearly as eloquently described as the beautiful Beowulf. Hrolf Kraki's story is echoed again by Snorri, Saxo, and is backed by the anonymous Icelandic poem Bjarkarimnar and The Saga of the Skjoldungs, neither of which we here at History Books could get our hands on.

The ON traditions tell an overall story yet vary in many different ways. We discussed in the last post about how Icelandic sagas were based on a known structure, but depending on the oral performer (gross) and the scribe who wrote it down, the story could be very different by the time it reached its IMMANENT FORM.

Jesse Byock sets out a nice little table of the common names in his book, Viking Language (2013). We will attempt to recreate it so that you can get an idea of the characters that appear in the different ON traditions, the OE Beowulf, as well as Saxo's Latin tittering.

Hrolfs SagaSkoldunga SagaGesta DanorumBeowulf
Bodvarr BjarkiBodvarusBiarcoBeowulf
Hrolf KrakiRolfo KrakeRoluo KrakeHrodulf
SkjoldrSkioldusSkioldusScyld Scefing

As you can see, the main players are present in every tradition. Their roles, locations, and relationships, however, change from source to source. Beowulf in particular is the odd man out. While Helga plays a role in the story, it is not nearly as involved as his counterpart Helgi in Hrolf Kraki's story. Beowulf's counterpart, Bodvarr Bjarki, is not the main character in the ON tradition. However, as we learned from Margaret Clunies Ross, the written accounts were accumulations of oral stories (Clunies Ross 2010). Could Bodvarr Bjarki's tale in the saga be related to Beowulf's?

There are a couple of similarities. First, the names can be loosely translated as having to do with bears. Beowulf literally means "bee-wolf" which can be, with some persuasion, a loose translation of bear (Byock 2013). Bjarki is very straightforward and means "little bear." Bodvarr Bjarki has a much stronger connection to the bear theme. His father, Bjorn (bear), married Bear (she-bear) and was cursed by a sorceress to transform into a bear. They had three sons, all of which are weird creatures, including Bodvarr, who, according to the Icelandic poem about him, was born with a bear claw (Byock 1999).

Bodvarr's story follows a very old folktale motif known as "Bear's Son." In this tradition, a man mates with a female bear, or the other way around, to create a hero with bear-like qualities. Often he has to retrieve a family heirloom to fight a creature or rescue someone. Bodvarr Bjarki's father was killed as a bear but not before leaving a sword stuck in a stone that his other creepy brothers couldn't unstick (Byock 1999).

The sad and horrifying truth behind the Bear's son tale

While the closest Beowulf gets to a bear is his name, which is a stretch, and that the poet refers to him as a cub, which is just cute. The monster fight scene, however, links the two not only together, but to a wide northern Germanic tradition. Indeed, J. Michael Stitt believes that this fight scene connects both traditions to an ancient oral tradition that can be traced back to some of the earliest Indo-European myths and folktales (1992). In the OE version, Beowulf first fights the creature Grendel, ripping off his shoulder. Grendel escapes but dies later in his underwater lair (Heaney 2001). King Hrothgar CONVENIENTLY forgets to mention to Beowulf that more than one monster was seen stomping around in the moors until after one of Beowulf's buddies is torn to shreds by Grendel's mother. So Beowulf goes under water to the lair and fights Grendel's mother, killing her with his bare hands.

Bodvarr, in the ON tradition, takes on a troll that threatens the royal hall at Hleidargard. Interestingly, the sword with which he kills the troll is named Golden Hilt while Beowulf's sword is described as having a golden hilt. COOL, HUH?! Bodvarr takes care of the troll, which is a very generic term in ON, then has to face another monster who is this time described as a boar (Byock 1999). Like Beowulf's encounters, Bodvarr Bjarki's sword fails to penetrate the monster and he is therefore left to fight it with his bare hands. He, too, rips off a part of the boar.

To add proof that these stories all had roots in an ancient tradition, Stitt offers an eerily similar scene in Grettir's Saga (1992). In this ON version, Grettir fought a troll woman and sliced off her arm at the shoulder. She then escaped to a deep chasm below a waterfall. Grettir follows her to the lair only to find a different giant there who he then kills. Two monsters, a severed arm, and a descent into an under/otherworldly cavern. Stitt traces these elements back to very early Indian traditions, both what he deems the "Two - Troll" tradition and the "Dragon Slayer" tradition (1992).

Traditional Two-Troll story. AND I MEAN TRADITIONAL!

The consensus is that both Beowulf, The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, and Grettirs Saga all could have originated from these Indo-European tradition that then branched out and changed elements to fit the culture in which they were written (Stitt 1992). For instance, the early Indian versions have a distinct water motif that is represented by a monster cutting off a population from its water source. This motif makes sense when transplanted into the dry climate of India where water is such a necessary resource. It appears to get confused in the later OE and ON traditions that insead show characters like Beowulf and Grettir plunging into bodies of water in order to reach their adversaries (Stitt 1992). Perhaps because of the abundance of water in Northern Germany, the water motif was tweaked but not altogether dropped.

Does that mean that all these stories derive from one common oral genesis? Some scholars have their doubts. The removal of a limb appears to have come from an Irish folk tale tradition known as "The Hand and the Child (Stitt 1992)." In this tradition, a monster or villain reaches its arm through a window or doorway into a hall and it is severed by the hero. Both Grendel and Grettir's troll woman suffers this unfortunate fate. Does that mean that story of Beowulf, which appears to have been transplanted from a Northern Germanic tradition into an Anglo-Saxon masterpiece, was mixed with a traditional Irish folktale motif? Jan de Vries argues that "the Hand and the Child" is Celtic in nature anyway and would predate the Celtic migration to the British Isles (Stitt 1992). This would not only date these traditions to WAY VERY OLD but also could explain how both the Anglo-Saxon and Northern Germanic could be so similar and yet have some gaping holes and very noticeable differences.

So what about the bear connection? It would appear that "The Bear's Son" is simply another motif, much like "Two-Trolls" or "the Hand and the Child." These are common stories, common scenes that are used in hundreds of different stories over the centuries. That shouldn't discredit any of the works themselves. Both Beowulf and The Saga of Hrolf Kraki are masterpieces in their own rights. This connection, to me, makes them all the more fascinating. How did these motifs spread? What caused the differences in the texts? What cultural clues can we pick out to help us understand both the stories in their contexts but also where they came from? These are the exciting questions that must be probed. We aren't sure if they are totally interrelated, but in Stitt's words, "it seems clear that the Beowulf poet and the saga redactors after him created specific versions of a widely known tradition (1992)."

Once again, History Fans, we are left in a quagmire of doubts and assumptions. But that doesn't stop us! We press on and gather more and more information. It's not the answers that keep our engines running, it's. . .I couldn't think of a very good metaphor. Until next time, History Fans. Keep looking for those connections!

Byock, J. (2005) translated, Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. London: Penguin Books
Byock, J. (1999). translated The Saga of Hrolf Kraki. London: Penguin Books
Byock, J. (2013). Viking Language. Clibri: Jules Williams Press
Clunies Ross, M. (2010). The Cambridge Intorduction to The Old Norse-Icelandic Saga.Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press

Davidson, H. and Fisher, P. (1979) translated, Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes, Book I-IX. BOYE6

Kacani, R. (2015). "Ragnar Lothbrook and the Semi-Legendary History of Denmark" senior thesis (online). Available from

Heaney, S. (2001). translated Beowulf. New York: W.W. Norton Stitt, J. (1992) Beowulf and the Bear's Son : Epic, Saga, and Fairytale in Northern Germanic Tradition. New York: Garland Publishing

Um, disregard this weird blank chart that I can't get rid of.


No comments: