Monday, May 25, 2009

The Saga of Hrolf Kraki

The Saga of Hrólf Kraki is a 13th century Icelandic tale which bears remarkable similarities to Beowulf at many points. Like its forbear, Hrólf's saga is tale of tragedy and strife set in the Danish royal hall, and is, in fact, the source for the location of Heorot at Lejre, a pivotal bit of information not given in Beowulf.

It was due to the mention of Hleidargard that excavations were begun at Lejre on the isle of Zealand in the 1940's, with the remains of an enormous Viking-era great hall discovered there in 1986. The largest hall found thus far in all of Scandinavia, it measured 142 feet in length by 38 feet wide, covering an area of roughly 5400 square feet - a mansion even by today's affluent standards.

More importantly, the saga provides corroboration and/or clarification of many details in Beowulf that might at best remain sketchy otherwise. For example, it is here we find the name of YrsaOnela's wife, and hear the story of her incestuous relationship with Halga, her own brother (on which I drew heavily for my own novel). In addition, the characters of Hrothgar, Halga, and Healfdene appear as members of the Skjöldung clan (the Danish Scyldings of Beowulf), along with the Heathobard king Froda (whose story we get much of here) and the young Eadgils as the king of Swedes. Their names appear here in their Icelandic form, so that one might not at first make the connection that Hrólf himself is the Hrothulf of Beowulf. Here their stories are as different as they are like those of Beowulf, bearing witness to the changes that take place in oral tradition over time, and much debate has since ensued as to their common thread, and how and where and when the stories came to be.

But Hrólf's Saga was written down in Iceland some three hundred years after Beowulf was committed to parchment around the year 1000. Scholars date the Icelandic variation from between 1230 to 1450, but their common roots go back much further. At present there are 44 existing manuscripts, with the earliest extant copy dating from the 17th century, although there are records of a copy housed at the monastery of Möðruvellir in Iceland as early as 1461.

Was the tale of Beowulf transmitted down the years from mouth to ear until three hundred years had passed and it was written down at last a thousand miles across the sea?

For a more detailed comparison see Origins for Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki at Wikipedia, or pick up a copy of the Penguin Classics edition, which has thorough notes.