Origins for Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki

Origins for Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki

Hrólf Kraki Tradition

Hrólf Kraki's saga
Ynglinga saga
Lejre Chronicle
Gesta Danorum
Hrólfr Kraki
Bödvar Bjarki

Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki are two well-known characters in the myths and sagas of ancient England and Scandinavia respectively.

Both are supposed to have lived sometime around 450–550 AD, and much has been discussed over the years regarding their origins.


Character alignments

There are several characters in Beowulf that match to a large extent characters known from other ancient northern tales and sagas.

  • A common identification is that Hrólf Kraki is the same as the character Hroðulf (Hroðgar's nephew) in Beowulf. There seems to be some foreshadowing in Beowulf that Hroðulf will attempt to usurp the throne from Hroðgar's sons Hreðric and Hroðmund, a deed that also seems to be referred to in Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum (Book 2), where we find: "... our king, who laid low Rorik, the son of Bok the covetous, and wrapped the coward in death." Rorik is the form we would expect Hreðric to take in Danish and we find personages named Rorik or Hrok or similar in most version of the Hrólf Kraki tradition but differently accounted for, seemingly indicating that Scandinavian tradition had forgotten who exactly Hreðric/Rorik/Hrok was and various story tellers subsequently invented details to explain references to this personage in older poems. The future slaying of Hreðric may be the occasion of the future burning of the hall of Heorot in the beginning of the poem – though some take it instead to refer to the legendary death of Hrólf Kraki, who in Icelandic sources is said to have died in the burning of his hall by his brother-in-law Hjörvard.
  • The standard view is that, if Beowulf himself has a 'cognate' character in Rolf Kraki's story, it is Bödvar Bjarki (Bodvar Biarke), who also has a younger companion, Hjalti (Hialte) – perhaps matching the Beowulf character Wiglaf.
  • Beowulf comes from Geatland (= Götaland) and one of Bödvar Bjarki's elder brothers, Thorir, becomes a king of Götaland. Moreover, like Beowulf, Bödvar Bjarki arrives in Denmark from Götaland (Geatland), and upon arriving in Denmark he kills a beast that has been ravaging the Danish court for two years. The monster in Hrólf Kraki's saga, however, is quite unlike the Grendel of Beowulf; but it does have characteristics of a more typical dragon, a creature which appears later in Beowulf.
  • Just as Beowulf and Wiglaf slay a dragon at the end of Beowulf, Bödvar Bjarki and Hjalti help each other slay the creature in Denmark.
  • According to this theory, the name of Beowulf originates from:

    beo (bee) + wulf (wolf), i.e. Bee-Wolf, i.e. a kenning for Bear (the wolf/hunter of bees).

    So Bjarki can be interpreted as cognate to Beowulf. Bodvar Bjarki is constantly associated with bears, his father actually being one.
  • As for the king of the Danes, Hroðgar, he is identical to Hróar or Ro, the uncle of Hrólf Kraki who in other sources outside of Beowulf rules as a co-king with his brother Helgi. But in those sources it is Hróar/Hroðgar who dies before his brother or who departs to Northumberland to rule his wife's kingdom leaving Helgi/Halga the sole rule of Denmark. In Beowulf Halga/Helgi has died and Hroðgar is the primary ruler with Hroðulf son of Halga as a junior co-ruler.
  • Furthermore, the Swedish kings referenced in Beowulf are adequately matched with the 5th and 6th century Swedish kings in Uppsala (see also Swedish semi-legendary kings):

Beowulf Hrólf Kraki, Heimskringla etc. Relation
Ongenþeow Egil (Angantyr) father of Ottar and Ale
Ohthere Ottar brother of Áli
Onela Áli brother of Ottar
Eadgils Adils son of Ottar

In some of the Hrólf Kraki material, Bödvar Bjarki aids Adils in defeating Adils' uncle Áli, in the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern. In Beowulf, the hero Beowulf aids Eadgils in Eadgils' war against Onela. As far as this Swedish adventure is concerned, Beowulf and Bödvar Bjarki are one and the same. This match supports the hypothesis that the adventure with the dragon is also originally derived from the same story.

It is thus likely that Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki's story are two versions of the same original Germanic heroic epic. Like the Volsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied, there are similar patterns and corresponding personalities in the tales. It is also possible that Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki's tale are based on historical events, as is the case with the Volsunga saga and Nibelungenlied.

However, even though Scandinavian sources often give contradictory information, some critics stress that Bödvar Bjarki and Beowulf have different genealogies. They also suggest that it may be a significant difference that Beowulf is not said in to change his skin or project his fetch (in the shape of a bear) as Bjarki did. They maintain that, in spite of a host of similarities between the traditions, some of the similarities could perhaps be dismissed as common literary traditions and devices. For instance, both accounts could be based on a type of legend called a Bear Son Tale. However, it is not at all clear in what way such an origin would be more likely than the one suggested by the alignment, since both are based on the assumption of common traditions.

Geographical definitions

The geographical placements of Beowulf's Weder-Geats as well as the other geographically referenced places in Beowulf are subject to much debate.

  • Hroar is supposed to have founded Roskilde (e.g. Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum). This modern and medieval town in northern Sjælland (Zealand), Denmark, is where the ancient kingdom seat Lejre was located. This then would seem appropriate a place for Hrothgar to have built the great hall of Heorot.
  • The identity of the Geats has been contested, though from a linguistic point of view, the question has a simple answer since Geat is plainly the Old English form of Old Norse Gaut and modern Swedish Göt. This is also the generally accepted view. Moreover, in the Liber Monstrorum, Chlochilachus or Huiglaucus who is identified with Hygelac (Hugleikr) is described as rex Getarum. However, the Geats have been identified with quite a number of different peoples and areas, by different authors for various purposes – such as the Gotlanders, the Goths, the Jutes, etc., etc. However, in Beowulf, there is no such confusion. The Geats, the Danes and the Jutes (Eotenas) are described as three distinct nations (for good review of relevant discussion see the Chambers book referenced below). And as a learned fiction (see the Leake ref. below).
  • Wherever the Weder-Geats place their origin, it is supposedly (according to Beowulf) located only two nights sail-way from the Danes great hall Heorot. This distance corresponds well to the distance between Sjælland and the estuary of Göta älv (the narrow riverine gate of the traditional Götaland between Viken (a former Norwegian province) and Halland (belonged formerly to Denmark)). However, this distance may not be totally reliable – which in turn leaves the field open for various interpretations that accommodate the different views on where to place the Geats.


Alignment of characters in the Sagas

There has been some work on possible equivalences between the Beowulf characters and the characters from the various Norse sagas and king-lists, etc.

Here are some references:

  • Malone, Kemp. Studies in Heroic Legend and in Current Speech. S. Einarsson & N.E. Eliason, eds. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1959.
  • Lukman, Niels Clausen. Skjoldunge und Skilfinge. Hunnen- und Heruler-könige in Ostnordischer Überlieferung. Classica et mediaevalia, dissertationes III. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel Nordisk Forlag, 1943.
  • Hemmingsen, Lars. By Word of Mouth: the origins of Danish legendary history - studies in European learned and popular traditions of Dacians and Danes before A.D. 1200. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Copenhagen (Dept. of Folklore), 1995.
  • Anderson, Carl Edlund. Formation and Resolution of Ideological Contrast in the Early History of Scandinavia. Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic (Faculty of English). [1]

For possible sailing times and the account of a "Beowulfian" voyage on the Cattegat see: Overing, Gillian R., and Marijane Osborn. 'Landscape of Desire: Partial Stories of the Medieval Scandinavian World.' Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994: 1-37.

General Beowulf discussions

For other references on Beowulf, see the page for Beowulf. Also the following sources are of interest.

  • Chambers, Raymond W. Beowulf: an introduction to the study of the poem with a discussion of the stories of Offa and Finn. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni. Press, 1921 (2nd rev. ed., 1932).
  • Leake, Jane Acomb. The Geats of Beowulf: a study in the geographical mythology of the Middle Ages. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.
  • Smithers, George V. 'The Geats in Beowulf'. Durham University Journal 63.2 (1971).

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