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Origins for Beowulf and Hrˇlf Kraki
Both are supposed to have lived sometime around 450–550 AD, and much has been discussed over the years regarding their origins.
There are several characters in Beowulf that apparently match the names known from other ancient northern tales and sagas.
- A common assumption is that Hrˇlf Kraki, would be the same as the character of Hrothulf in Beowulf (Hrothgar's nephew). There seems to be some foreshadowing in Beowulf that Hrothulf will attempt to usurp the throne from Hrothgar's sons Hrethric and Hrothmund, a deed that 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 Hrethric to take in Danish and we find personages named Rorik or Hrok or similar in most version of the Hrˇlf Kraki story but differently accounted for, seemingly indicating that Scandinavian tradition and Icelandic tradition had forgotten who exactly Hrethric/Rorik/Hrok was and various story tellers subsequently invented details to explain references to this personage in older poems. The future slaying of Hrethric 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 Hrˇlf Kraki who in Norse souces is said to have died in the burning of his hall by his brother-in-law Hj÷rvard.
- The standard view seems to be that – if Beowulf himself has a 'cognate' character in Rolf Kraki's story – it is B÷dvar Bjarki (Bodvar Biarke), who also has a younger companion, Hjalti (Hialte) – perhaps matching the Beowulf character Wiglaf.
- Beowulf comes from Geatland (= G÷taland) and one of B÷dvar Bjarki's elder brothers, Thorir , becomes a king of G÷taland. Morever, like Beowulf, B÷dvar Bjarki arrives to Denmark from G÷taland (Geatland), and upon arriving to Denmark he kills a beast that has been ravaging the Danish court for two years.
- 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.
- As for the king of the Danes, Hrothgar, he is identical to Hrˇar or Ro, the uncle of Hrˇlf Kraki who in other sources outside of Beowulf rules as a co-king with his brother Helgi. But in those sources it is Hrˇar/Hrothgar 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 Hrothgar is the primary ruler with Hrothulf son of Halga as a junion 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||Hrˇlf Kraki, Heimskringla etc.||Relation|
|Ongentheow||Egil (Angantyr)||father of Ottar and Ale|
|Ohthere||Ottar||brother of ┴li|
|Onela||┴li||brother of Ottar|
|Eadgils||Adils||son of Ottar|
In some of the Hrˇlf Kraki material, B÷dvar Bjarki aids Adils in defeating Adils' uncle ┴li. In Beowulf, the hero Beowulf aids Eadgils in Eagils' war against Onela. As far as the Swedish adventure is concerned, Beowulf and B÷dvar Bjarki are one and the same. This match supports the hypothesis that the adventure with the dragon is also originally the same story.
It is thus likely, that Beowulf and Hrˇlf Kraki's story are two versions of the same original Germanic heroic epic. Like the Volsunga saga and Nibelungenlied, there are similar patters and corresponding personalities. It is also possible that Beowulf and Hrˇlf Kraki's tale are based on real events in the same way as the Volsunga saga and Nibelungenlied.
However, B÷dvar Bjarki and Beowulf are given distinct genealogies. Although Beowulf does have some bear-like characteristics, he is never said in the epic to change his skin or project his fetch (in the shape of a bear) as Bjarki did. Some of the similarities could perhaps be accounted for by common literary traditions and devices. For instance, both accounts resemble in various ways a Bear Son Tale.
The geographical placements of Beowulf's Weder-Geats as well as the other geograhically 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 SjŠlland (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. From a linguistic point of view, the question has a simple answer since Geat is plainly the Anglo-Saxon form of Old Norse Gaut and modern Swedish G÷t. 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 SjŠlland and the estuary of G÷ta ńlv (the narrow riverine gate of the traditional G÷taland between Viken (a former Norwegian province) and Halland (belonged formerly to Denmark)). However, this distance may not be totally reliable – which in turns leave the field open for various interpretations that accommodates 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). 
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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