A Comparison of the Runes and Magic in Beowulf and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
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There are runes and magic in the narratives of the poem Beowulf and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, an Iceland saga representing 1000 years of oral traditions prior to the 1300’s when it was written.
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon narrative poem whose oral traditions date back to the sixth century (Ward v1,ch3,s3,n11). Beowulf opens with a short account of the victorious Danish king Scyld Scefing, whose pagan ship-burial is described. His body was carried on board a ship, piled up with arms and treasures: the ship passed out to sea, whence Scyld had arrived to the Danes as an abandoned child – a likely indication of a charmed, magical life. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki we meet Yrsa (also found in Beowulf), who is an impoverished child of uncertain birth (Byock xi); she later becomes queen – another charmed life. But re,markably she grows into one of the few women in the saga who do not employ magic. In Beowulf the reigns of Scyld’s son and grandson, Beowulf and Healfdene, are mentioned, and we then meet Hrothgar, the son of Healfdene. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki we also meet a Hrothgar, but his name is abbreviated into Hroar. He and his brother Helgi saw their father, King Halfdan, killed by King Frodi, who would have killed the two sons except for the magic of the commoner Vifil with whom they were hiding. King Frodi, in his attempt to kill them, “sought the aid of seeresses and soothsayers,” and when that failed, of “sorcerers” (2). But the magic of Vifil was so strong that it obscured the supernatural vision of the women (witches?); Vifil knew that “powerful spirits have visited the island [where he lived] (3) and thus saved Helgi and Hroar. Later Hroar is a notable figure, just as in Beowulf, ruling over the northern English kingdom of Northumberland until forced into a disastrous conflict. Meanwhile, as kids, Hroar and Helgi’s sister, Signy, manifests an uncanny poetic ability of speaking in beautiful verses when Jarl Saevil is escorting a group to King Frodi’s celebration; to me this seems magical. At Frodi’s feast a seeres named Heid is placed high up on a trance platform and asked to reveal any information about Hroar and Helgi.
Heid chanted her response in poetic verses just as Signy had before (6) – a characteristic of magical types? Heid foresaw Helgi and Hroer killing Frodi in revenge for their father’s killing by Frodi. The latter, angered, sent his men in search of them(8). Aided by a friend in the court, Regin, the boys set fire to a woods nearby, which burns down King Frodi’s court along with the king. Just the evening prior the king had a magical, foreboding dream wherein he was called to Hell (9). At this time Helgi became kin go the Danes; he later tried to marry a Valkyrie-like queen who dressed in a coat of mail, carried sword and shield, and wore a helmet. The Valkyries were supernatural female warriors mentioned in many Scandinavian tales.
In Beowulf King Hrothgar builds a splendid hall, called Heorot, in which to entertain his numerous retinue. The fun, however, is stopped by Grendel, a monster sprung from Cain, who attacks the hall by night and devours as many as thirty knights at a time. No one can withstand him, and the hall has to remain empty. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki Bodvar Biarki’s monster visits only at night; Beowulf’s monster does the same. When the Grendel problem has continued for twelve years, Beowulf, a nephew of Hygelac, king of the Geats, and a man of enormous strength, decides to go to Hrothgar’s assistance. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, Bodvar, a hero very similar to Beowulf in some ways, is represented as coming to Leire, the Danish royal residence, from Götaland, where his brother was king. Bodvar is the grandson of a king (Hring); in Beowulf the hero is the grandson of a king (Hrethel). Bodvar’s father has been expelled from his country, Gautland; Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow has been expelled from Geatland. Bodvar’s father is dead; Beowulf’s father is dead (Hrothgar says,”his father, now dead, was named Ecgtheow”) (373). Bodvar as a boy was so strong that he was not permitted to take part in the king’s games past the age of twelve because he injured too many of his opponents; Beowulf as a young man was so strong that “he was the strongest of all living men” (196). Bodvar was huge; Beowulf was “noble and huge” (198). Bodvar was more noble than the people around him; Beowulf risked his life various times for the benefit of others, put his own welfare last instead of first, and distributed his wealth generously. “Though Beowulf is careful to collect his winnings, he shows little interest in keeping them” (Shippey 40). Bodvar’s name means “little bear;” and Beowulf’s name means “bee wolf,” which is the equivalent of “bear.” Bodvar’s brother becomes king of the Gauts; Beowulf’s uncle becomes king of the Geats. Bodvar is different from Beowulf in one big way; that is the magic involved in his life. Because his father Bjorn rejected the advances of Queen Hvit, she struck him with her wolfskin gloves, cursed him and turned him into a bear (37). That is the reason that Bodvar is so big and strong. Inherited from Bjorn also are some other powers: the ability to see into the future, and the ability to use the magic runic alphabet (38).
Beowulf takes some warriors to the Danes, where King Hrothgar relates how he had known and befriended Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki Biarki journeys over water to come to the Danish court, just as Beowulf did. Bodvar goes to King Hrolf, widely known for his generosity, magnificence and courage; Beowulf goes to King Hrothgar, widely known for the same virtues. In Denmark Bodvar meets a farmer who thinks that the hero is imposing; in Denmark Beowulf meets a coast-guard who considers him imposing. The farmer’s wife says to Bodvar, “Your hand seems to be strong. . . .” (48); Beowulf’s handgrip was so strong that he had “the strength of thirty in his mighty hand-grip (380-81). Bodvar has a magic advantage which Beowulf is without, and that is, he carries with him a magic sword, which were popular in scandinavian sagas. If the sword is removed from its scabbard, it has to cause the death of a man before being returned to the scabbard. In Beowulf then, Queen Wealhtheow, after commending her sons to Hrothulf (implying a future seizure of the throne by the latter), fills Beowulf’s cup, and he announces his determination to conquer Grendel or die. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki there is also the theme of betrayal and danger in the relationship between Hroar and Hrothulf/Hrolf which is found in Beowulf. In the latter we see that the father of Hrothulf is Halga, the son of Healfdene. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki we see that King Halfdan/Healfdene is Helgi’s (Halga) father and Hroar is his brother.
In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki the king’s warriors/retainers are helpless against the monster; likewise in the Anglo-Saxon poem. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, in the Danish hall there surrounds Bodvar the same type of warriors as surround Beowulf in Hrothgar’s Danish hall – men who have distinguished themselves “in battles and bloodlettings” (53). Bodvar is taunted in the king’s hall, just as Beowulf is taunted by a drunken Unferth in the king’s hall. Bodvar’s king is gifted with fluency; Beowulf’s King Hrothgar is gifted thus. In Beowulf, as night draws on, King Hrothgar and his retinue leave the hall, and Beowulf takes off his armour, declaring that he will not use his sword. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki Bodvar’s companion thought that he was going to be killed by the monster; likewise Beowulf’s companions when facing Grendel. “I will either kill the beast or find my own death” (52) – these words appear in Bodvar’s monster episode; similar words are uttered by Beowulf. Grendel bursts into the hall and devours one of the knights. Beowulf seizes him by the arm, which he tears off, and the monster flees. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki the monster is described as a “great troll,” and as a winged dragon breathing fire (50), similar to the third monster which Beowulf fought. Beowulf displays the arm, and the Danes tell stories of heroes of the past, of Sigemund and his nephew Fitela and of the Danish prince Heremod. Then Hrothgar congratulates Beowulf and rewards him with rich gifts. The king’s minstrel recites the story of Hnaef and Finn. The queen comes forward and thanks Beowulf and presents him with a valuable necklace . This necklace was afterwards worn by Hygelac. Hrothgar and Beowulf now retire. During the night Grendel’s mother appears and carries off Aeschere, the king’s chief councillor. Beowulf promises to exact vengeance. Beowulf plunges into the water and reaches a cave, where he has a desperate encounter with the monster. Beowulf and Bodvar both fight monsters protected perhaps by magic “No weapon can bite into it” (50) is the characterization made of Grendel’s mother and Bodvar’s monster. Eventually Beowulf succeeds in killing her with a magic sword which he finds in the cave. He then comes upon the corpse of Grendel and cuts off its head. With this he returns to his companions. The head is brought in triumph to the palace.
We see the first mention of runes in this poem in connection with the magic sword. When the hero is in deadly combat with Grendel’s mother in the mere, he is at the point of being killed by the monster when suddenly God shows to him the presence of a special sword nearby on the wall. Beowulf seizes the giant weapon and kills the monster. Then:
had begun to melt in battle-bloody icicles;
that it melted away was as much a marvel
as ice itself when the Father unwinds
the bonds of frost, loosens the freezing
chains of water, Who keeps the power
of times and seasons; He is the true God. . . .
Already the sword had melted away,
its blade had burned up; too hot the blood
of the poisonous spirit who had died within. . . .
the wave-sword burned up, quenched in that blood. . . .
then the strange gold hilt was placed in the hand
of the gray-bearded king, wise war-leader
old work of giants; after the fall of devils
it came into the hands of the lord of the Dane-men,
from magic smithies; once the fierce spirit,
long God’s opponent, guilty creature,
and his murderous mother had quitted this world,
it came to the power of the best overlord
between the two seas, of all world-rulers
in Scandanavia who gave good treasures.
Hrothgar spoke, examined the hilt,
great treasure of old. There was engraved
the origin of past strife, when the flood drowned,
the pouring ocean killed the race of giants. . . .
On its bright gold facings there were also runes
set down in order, engraved, inlaid,
which told for whom the sword was first worked,
its hair-keen edges, twisted gold
scrolled in the hilt, the woven snake-blade(1605ff).
Chickering in his “Commentary” would have us believe that the melting sword is a reference to patristic theology, to St. Augustine’s conception of evil as ice as presented in his comments on Psalm 125 (341). I, however, tend to think that such an interpretation would have been too difficult an allusion for the Anglo-Saxon audience to grasp. I simply think that the melting blade is a manifestation of the magic associated with the sword, and further evinced through the runes on the hilt. Beowulf is represented as finding in Grendel’s cave a sword of ancient workmanship, with runes on the sword-hilt, giving the name of the warrior for whom the sword had first been made. Historically there is a lot to be said about the magic of runes. There is uncertainty as to the earliest purpose of the runes, whether they were originally used as real characters of writing, or as mystical signs, bearers of potent magic. The earliest Germanic literature, which was a source for Nordic literature which in turn gave being to Icelandic literature like The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki abounds in proofs of the magic nature of runes; there is continuous evidence of their mystic influence over mankind. Runes could raise the dead from their graves; they could preserve life or take it, they could heal the sick or bring on lingering disease; they could call forth the soft rain or the violent hailstorm; they could break chains or bind more closely than bonds or fetters; they could make the warrior invincible and cause his sword to inflict none but mortal wounds; they could produce frenzy and madness or defend from the deceit of a false friend. The origin of runes was believed to be divine. Christianity laboured to eradicate all traces of practices and beliefs that smacked of the devil. Nevertheless, we have some evidence which speaks of old beliefs, and how they hung around. Bede furnishes us with proof that the English, at a comparatively late date, believed in the magic properties of runes. In his The Ecclesiastical History of the English People he relates the fate of a nobleman called Imma, who was made a prisoner in the battle between Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria, and Aethelred, king of Mercia, A.D. 679, and whose fetters fell off whenever his brother celebrated Mass for him:
It was on account of these celebrations [Masses] that, as I have said, noone could bind Imma because his fetters were at once loosed. Meanwhile the gesith who kept him captive grew amazed and asked him why he could not be bound and whether he had about him any loosing spells such as are described in stories (bk4,ch22,p208).
Bede’s narrative shows the popular belief in the magic that written runes provided – even as late as the seventh century.
The king praises Beowulf’s exploits and contrasts his spirit with that of the unfortunate prince Heremod, moralising on the evils of pride. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki after the defeat of the monster, King Hrolf praises Bodvar; after Beowulf’s victory King Hrothgar praises him too. Bodvar forces his weakling friend, Hott, to consume meat and blood from the monster, and magically Hott becomes superstrong like Bodvar. Beowulf bids farewell to the king, and the king rewards him with further gifts. Beowulf and his companions return to their own land.
The virtues of Hygd, King Hygelac’s wife, are praised, and she is contrasted with Thrytho, the wife of Offa, who, in her youth, had killed any man who looked her straight in the face. Beowulf greets Hygelac. Part of his speech mentions Hrothgar and his future son-in-law Ingeld, prince of the Heathobards, whom Beowulf expects to feud with the Danes. Then Beowulf hands over to Hygelac and Hygd most of the presents which Hrothgar and Wealhtheow had given him, and Hygelac rewards him with a sword, etc.
After many years, Hygelac has fallen, and his son Heardred has been slain by the Swedes. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki Bodvar avenges wrongs done to his family by killing the one who did the injustices; Beowulf avenges wrongs done to his family in Heardred’s and Hygelac’s deaths: “I repaid Hygelac … with my bright sword,” “I was the killer of Daghrefin.” The big difference between Beowulf and Bodvar here is that Bodvar uses magic. At the outset of a key battle in his king’s fight for supremacy, Bodvar changes into a bear. He goes to the front line where he enables King Hrolf to be victorious; he uses no weapons (like Beowulf vs. Grendel) but only his strength and sharp bear-claws (74). During the pivotal battle, Bodvar is found sitting in human form in a shaman-like trance (85). Because his friend Hjalti woke him from the trance prematurely, Bodvar can be of only limited future assistance to his king (75). The result is that the magic of Queen Skuld, sitting in her witch’s scaffold, is stronger than that of King Hrolf, and the king begins to lose the struggle. The enemy dead were magically rising from death to fight again against the king (76). Finally the king and all his men were killed (78). In the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf has now occupied the Geat throne and reigned gloriously for fifty years. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki when King Hring took sick and died, Bodvar became ruler of the kingdom; in Beowulf when Heardred was killed in battle, Beowulf became king. Bodvar thought of others first; he found support for his mother before leaving his people; Beowulf likewise placed the concerns of others before his own, declining Hygd’s ofer of the throne when Heardred was young, and putting his life in jeopardy in order to satisfy a family debt to King Hrothgar for paying wergild for the hero’s father’s indiscretion as a young man.
In his old age the land of the Geats is ravaged by a fiery dragon which, after brooding for three hundred years over treasure, has had its lair robbed. Beowulf, preparing to attack it, considers his former exploits, in the course of which we learn that he had escaped by swimming when Hygelac lost his life in the land of the Frisians. On his return Hygd offered him the throne, but he refused it in favour of the young Heardred. The latter was slain by the Swedish king Onela. Vengeance was obtained by Beowulf later. Beowulf now approaches the dragon’s lair. He reflects on the past history of his family. Haethcyn, king of the Geatas, had accidentally killed his brother Herebeald; there followed war with the Swedes, in which Haethcyn and the Swedish king Ongentheow were slain. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki Bodvar survives many attacks protecting King Hrolf; Beowulf survives various attacks, even swimming for his life from the battle which killed his King Hygelac.
Beowulf orders his men to wait outside while he enters the dragon’s barrow. He is attacked by the dragon, and his sword will not bite. Wiglaf, one of his companions, now comes to the rescue. Beowulf strikes ithe dragon on the head; but his sword breaks, and the dragon seizes him by the neck. Wiglaf succeeds in wounding it, and Beowulf finishes it off with his knife. But the hero is mortally wounded.Wiglaf brings the treasure out of the lair. Beowulf gives him directions with regard to his funeral, presents him with his armour and necklace and then dies. The cowardly knights return and are censured by Wiglaf. A messenger prophesies that the Geats must expect hostility on all sides. The warriors approach the barrow and inspect the treasure which has been found. The dragon is thrown into the sea and the king’s body burnt on a pyre. Then a barrow is constructed and all the treasure taken from the dragon’s lair is placed in it. The poem ends with the mourning by twelve warriors who ride round the barrow. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki Bodvar shows great compassion for the weakling son of a poor farmer, and helps him to increase his strength through the use of magic; Beowulf’s compassion is best summed up by what they said of him at his death: “The mildest of men and the gentlest, the kindest to his people” (3181).
There are runes and magic in the narratives of the poem Beowulf and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, as the foregoiing essay illustrates, more emphasized in the Icelandic prose piece than in the Anglo-Saxon poem.
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Clark, Gorge. “The Hero and the Theme.” In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Collins, Roger and McClure, Judith, editors. Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle; Bede’s Letter to Egbert. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21; New York: Bartleby.com, 2000