Essay Comparing the Runes and Magic in Beowulf and The Saga of the Volsungs

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Runes and Magic in Beowulf and The Saga of the Volsungs

In the Old English poem Beowulf and in the Icelandic The Saga of the Volsungs, a saga representing oral traditions dating back to the fourth and fifth centuries, we see the mention of runes, which were used with connotations of magic or charms.

An unknown author wrote the The Saga of the Volsungs in the thirteenth century, basing his story on far older Norse poetry. Iceland was settled by the Vikings about 870-930, who took there the famous lay of Sigurd and the Volsungs. Native Icelandic poets loved the story of Sigurd and the Huns, Goths, Burgundians, with whom he interacted. This prose story is based on traditional Norse verse called Eddic poetry, a form of mythic or heroic lay which developed before 1000 in the oral folk culture of Old Scandinavia. In The Saga of the Volsungs the hero Sigurd is the one who corresponds best with the hero Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. George Clark in “The Hero and the Theme” mentions: “The form of Beowulf taken as a whole suggests both the ‘Bear’s Son’ folktale type (especially as we find it in Scandinavia) and the ‘combat myth’. . . .” (286). The “combat myth” is what this saga is. When Sigurd was born, he was the grandson of King Eylimi; when Beowulf was born, he was the grandson of King Hrethel. The king said of Sigurd that “none would be his like or equal” (55), and this proved true; Beowulf as a young man was so strong that “he was the strongest of all living men” (196). The similarities between Sigurd and Beowulf continue through both works.

The Icelandic skald is the equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon scop. He was a storyteller. Icelandic material builds on a long oral tradition just like Anglo-saxon, going back in their stories to the fourth and fifth centuries (Byock 2). Skalds stayed in the royal courts of Scandinavia like their counterparts to the south.

Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon narrative poem whose oral traditions date back to the sixth century. 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.

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