Wednesday, October 5, 2016

From Whence Came Our Grendels Part Two: Hrolf Kraki and The Jumble of Narratives

Welcome back, History fans! Today we are working on the most anticipated sequel since Smurfs 2! 

You may recall the last year, we snooped around the connection between The Saga of Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf. That was a lifetime ago when I did not know anybody who would ever be interested in this sort of thing or tear my flimsy ideas apart! So now, I am forced to use things like italics and actually site my work. But this is still my blog, and we will fight for our right to informally explore ideas AND use potty words along the way!

Crap! Boobs! Fart!

Anyway, tomorrow I will be visiting Lejre and I will be discussing on site some of the strange connections that Hrólfs saga kraka and Beowulf, not to mention the connections to a lot of different types of sources. I chose to do my presentation on Hrólfs saga kraka because I had read it a couple times before and had done that small research project on my own here on History Books. But as I read Oscar Ludvig Olson's work, revisited J. Michael Stitt's book, Beowulf and the Bear's Son, and followed up with Paul Acker's article on the Skǫldunga saga, I noticed that the web of influences, shoot offs and versions of the story presented in Hrólfs saga kraka was much more tangled than I thought. This is just a brief and informal thinking-through of that tangled web with plenty of missing ideas, misspellings, and underdeveloped ideas. Please don't tear me apart!

Some fellas at Lejre fighting in their panties

Much has been made over the years about the tantalizing connection between Beowulf and Hrólfs saga kraka, and for good reason! To have such distant (both geographically and chronologically) stories share characters and elements is a scholar’s wet dream. Look at all the connections! However, when it comes to Hrólfs saga, the buck doesn’t stop at Beowulf. This saga is a veritable crossroads of different ancient literary motifs and reused and confused narratives. Hrólfs saga appears to have been the fever dream of a scribe who tried cramming nearly ever piece of history and literature he knew into one incredible and confusing story.

Let me explain:

Beowulf and Hrólfs saga kraka share certain characters, certain places, and some plot elements if not motifs or tropes. Yet the story of these characters show up in many other sources. This is both exciting, as it shows that this was a well-known story in the ancient Germanic world, but also increidbly confusing, as the names are changed and the story itself does not continue solidly. Sometimes the story is mirrored in other sources almost identically. Other times, there are great chunks missing or different elements entirely.

The easiest place to start is the beginning. Beowulf is the oldest out of the bunch, its manuscript dating to around 1000 while the composition believed to be near 700AD (Acker 2008). Beowulf begins a line of Danish kings from the Scyldings dynasty. As Paul Acker points out, this is a very strange way for an Anglo-Saxon national narrative to begin. But when you think about it, those Angles and Saxons come from a Germanic background that was doubtless shared with the Danes. Makes sense to me!

This dynasty. Not only does it contain the characters that go on to play out the events in Hrólfs saga kraka, but it is based on a well-known line of legendary kings that can be found in plenty of other places. In fact, there is a lost saga called Skjǫldunga saga. Now, I think Beowulf is certainly older than this lost saga, but it is important to discuss this to understand how Hrólfs saga kraka just came to be a jumbled mess.

Skjǫldunga saga survived in manuscript form up to the sixteenth century when Arngrímur Jónsson used a portion of it in a history of the Danish kings in his work Renum Danicarum Fragmenta—a work which burned in the Copenhagen fire of 1728, but not before someone making a handwritten copy (Acker 2008). So what we have left of Skjǫldunga saga is a handwritten copy of a summarized portion stretched over multiple centuries. Talk about survival of the fittest!

Snorri also mentions this dynasty in his Ynglinga saga, which begins his tremendous work Heimskringla. So what do we have at this point? We have a legendary dynasty of Danish kings, whether fabricated or borrowed from history, that survived for centuries and seemed very popular. This shared background helps in understanding the worlds of Beowulf and Hrólfs saga kraka. However, it gets even more complicated!

Hrólfs saga kraka, much like Völsunga saga, appears to be a strange, inattentive or hasty compilation of different poems that the scribe attempted, far from seamlessly, to tie into an understandable and linear narrative. This obviously did not work out perfectly as there are multiple dead ends to certain stories, seemingly pointless characters, repetetive tropes and apparently lazy writing (Olson 1916). One example of the lazy writing is when Hrólf and his champions run into Hrani (Odin) in the woods. Hrani invites them to stay with him and during the night they have to face some difficult test. The next day, they run into Hrani again. And the same deal: He invites them to stay and during the night they are forced to face a different difficult task. Naturally, our literary brains expects the following day to repeat itself in a perfectly round 3 nights in a row being tested by Odin. However, the scribe simply points out that they stayed again with Hrani and that night faced another test. We do get our third part of this part of the story, however the champions do not, as we expect them to, travel from Hrani only to run into him again. They simply stay put. The test, too, is vaguely mentioned, while the ones before are described in detail. LAZY!

Hunky Hrani: Odin in disguise!

But we are getting off topic. We want to stick with sources.

The story of Hrólf Kraki appears in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum around 1200. This work was in Latin and so many of the names are changed. And he appears to have based his work on Hrólfs saga kraka, which then gave way in the fifteenth century to a poem on the Scyldings called Bjarkarímur. Saxos work and the rímur appear nearly identical, while some of the details differ from Hrólfs saga kraka.

It is important to note here that the main characters in Hrólfs saga kraka are simply side characters in Beowulf, though the hero of Beowulf is said to come from this legendary line of kings, the Scyldings.

If we step back at this point, we can see that we have some sort of common and shared narrative. Yet through all these, the names get confused and sisters become mothers, father-in-laws become brothers, etc. In principle, the story survives, but trying to get a handle on where these stories come from and if there was some kind of mother that spawned these changlings. Does that make any sense?

At the point, let us dive deeper into the relationship between Beowulf and Hrólfs saga kraka. We are going to skip a few of these similiarties, as we have already covered this last year! A lot of H names that are easily confused show up in both. But we want to narrrow in on the hero of Bjarki Boðvar. I think out of all the characters in Hrólfs saga kraka, he is the most mysterious. You can line up the other characters from both stories pretty easily based on their names. Bjarki, however presents a challenge. Gregor Sarrazin was one of the first scholars to attempt to identify Bjarki as the Scandinavian version of the (also Scandinavian but Anglo-written) Beowulf. He stretches the name Boðvar as a misunderstanding of vargr that the Anglo-Saxons translated as wulf (Olson 1916). I’M SO SURE, GREGOR! Jesse Byock also attempts to wet his whistle on this etymological leap: Byock  translates Bjarki as “little bear” while he claims Beowulf literally means “bee-wolf” which, as everyone knows, is a cool name for a bear (Byock 2013). GET A LIFE, JESSE! Sophus Bugge (awesome name) argues that the names are NOT etymologically linked but the “boðvar” is the genitive form of ON “boð,” which means battle and this of course ties Bjarki to Beowulf because they both kill things. YOU STRAIGHT BUGGIN, BUGGE! (Olson 1916).


As you can see, the similarities between the stories have scholars scrambling to make the pieces fit. But do they fit?

It is my belief that the story behind Hrólfs saga kraka is simply a collision of known stories, a pile-up of confused plots and similar names. Leaving aside the archaeology discrepancies of Lejre (which scholars want SO BADLY to be Heorot), we will now look where some of these ideas come from, and will find ourselves sandwiched between narratives from all sides.

Some have suggested that the character of Bjarki is based on the life of Siward, who was an earl in Northumbria under King Cnut. Don’t ask me how those names connect; I am just expanding on Olson’s ideas (Olson 1916). Siward invaded Scotland in 1054, causing the king of the Scots to run for his life. This king was MacBeth. THE VERY SAME MACBETH WHO BECAME FAMOUS THROUGH BILL SHAKESPEARE! Okay, so that came way, way later but MacBeth was a real dude from this time period (before the saga was written) and when you read the story of MacBeth, you can tell Shakespeare pulled material from Hrólfs saga Kraka, or from whatever story these similar elements came from.

Siward’s life is recorded in Scriptores Rerum Danicorum and it has some really interesting aspects to it. For instance, the daughter of the earl was kidnapped by a bear and later gave birth to a son with bear characteristics. Siward himself had killed a dragon at some point in his life and pursued another dragon in vain before settling down (Olson 1916). Now this is recorded in the 18th century, so it could very well be a slamming together of narratives from both  Beowulf and Hrólfs saga kraka. However, there are interesting insights that connect these two in a more substantial way. Bjarki Boðvar obviously has some bear characteristics, as his father was turned into a bear and the hint towards his shape shifting or inhabiting a bear in the final fight. J. Michael Stitt argues that these motifs come from an ancient folk tale known as the Bear’s Son Tale (Stitt 1992). The Bear’s Son Tale is extremely old, perhaps one of the oldest Indo-European motifs known to us. It also usually contains a monster that is followed by the hero to an underground lair. Hrólfs saga kraka does not include this motif, but another Icelandic saga does! Grettirs saga has an extremely similar monster-fighting scene to Beowulf, where the monster loses an arm to the hero and retreats to its underground, otherworldly lair. Stitt argues that this motif originated in India where the monster cut off the population from the water supply, where our Germanic versions have confused the story and have the monster living IN the water. The losing of a limb to a hero can also be traced to an ancient Irish folk tradition called “The Hand and the Child” (Stitt 1992).

Interestingly, when Bjarki fights the monster in Hrólfs saga kraka, he does indeed rip part of the skin off, but the limbs stay intact. Olson points out that the monster stories in Beowulf and Hrólfs saga kraka are not echoes of each other. His basis is how the monster behaves (1916). In Beowulf, Grendel is interested in attacking the hall and killing the men. Beowulf has to lie in wait for his monster to come to him. Bjarki, on the other hand, has to take the coward Hott out to find the monster, dragon, whatever the heck it is, which is solely interested in cattle. It kills men, yes, but it is not attacking the hall in the way Grendel is.

Oh, and there is something awfully familiar about the part of the story when Hott eats the dragon’s heart. . .

Sigurd, eat your heart out!

Switching gears to the Hroar-Helgi part of the Hrólfs saga kraka, we have a really crazy collision! Hroar and Helgi, brothers in exile, show up in Beowulf under different names and with different purposes. The story of these brothers resemble the early medieval stories of Havelok the Dane/Meriadoc stories which were created by Scandinavians in England around 950 (Olson 1916). Part of the story of Meriadoc takes place at King Arthur’s court! And the brothers, and their part of the story, are of course used for Shakespeare’s later concotion, Hamlet.

James Douglas Bruce, in describing the relationship between the story of Meriadoc with Hrólfs saga kraka uses the phrase “a confusion of motifs” (Olson 1916). I think the best describes the saga in general. The story of Hrólf Kraki is certainly old. However, the oldest extant manuscript we have of the saga is from the eighteenth century, which provides plenty of time and oppurtinity for some of these later motifs and ideas to sneak into the written version. I am not making this argument, however. I am simply stating the Hrólfs saga kraka is a confusion of motifs. In being such, I think that scholars are making too much out of the similarities of it and Beowulf. The small pieces that tie these together, many of which I did not go into in this particular essay, are stretches at best. The monster stories are very different, the sword with golden hilt, seems againt to be a confused motif, and the archaeological evidence at Lejre does not add up. The similarities, however seem to be too tantalizing for scholars to turn their backs on. Nor should they! But I think these similarities are the slamming together of ancient common narratives that, like Völsunga saga, seem to confusingly and poorly sewn together by the Icelandic scribes, who, by the thirteenth and fourteenth century, had plenty of stories and narratives to pull from in order to fill in the holes, spruce up, and complete what may have once had a shared origin.

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