A Comparison of the Runes and Magic in Beowulf and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki

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Comparing Runes and Magic in Beowulf and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki

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.

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