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

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.

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

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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