The Gesta Danorum, Hrólfs saga kraka and Beowulf are three historical analogues; each describes the Danish court of the Scyldings/Scioldungs/ Skjöldungs and the rule of Hroðgar/Roe/ Hróarr and his nephew Hroþulfr/Roluo/Hrólfr. Much of the action of Beowulf takes place at Hroðgar’s court, the second half of Book II of the Gesta Danorum tells the story of Roluo Krage[i], his family and his court and Hrólfs saga kraka tells a version of the same story. The three texts are separated by time, geography, language and genre. Therefore the courts and the ideology of kingship depicted in all three texts differ vastly from each other, despite the common subject matter. Kingship is an important theme to all three, and each explores in depth what it is to be a good king. That there is this tradition of using this Danish royal line to explore kingship demonstrates the importance of lineage and family to kingship for all three authors. The texts do not exclusively see lineage as what makes a king worthy to rule; instead all three texts are engaged in active negotiations about where the authority of the king is derived from. Does it come from below, bestowed on the king by the people; from within, rule belonging to people who possess kingly virtues; or from above, bestowed on the king by God, by fate and by the rights of his lineage. No text depicts kingship as derived from only one of these sources, nor are the three sources of authority always clearly demarcated, as for instance it is not always clear whether the kingly virtues are an innate trait of the person or are bestowed on them by their lineage or God. And all three texts negotiate the balance of sources of kingly authority differently depending on the age, geography, language and genre of the text. But the very use of the legendary Danish court privileges kingly authority that is bestowed on the king from sources that come from above, specifically from family. Due to the legendary nature of the kings, tales of the Danish court are both historical enough to allow discussion of contemporary kingship to enter the depictions and to be politically relevant to courtly audiences, and are distant enough from their contemporaries to allow aspects of the ideology to be symbolic. Therefore, the Scylding/Scioldung/Skjöldung court is a politically and literarily expedient setting for teasing out issues of royal authority, although the very subject matter implies a familial distribution of power.
Hwæt, wē Gār-Dena in geārdagum,
þēodcyninga þrym ġefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Listen! We have heard of the glory in bygone days
of the folk-kings of the spear-Danes,
how those noble lords did lofty deeds. (1-3)[ii]
The implication of these opening lines is, first, that the audience is interested in a tale about Danish kings, and second, that tales of Danish kings are familiar to them. Beowulf, leader of the Geats, may be the protagonist, but the opening lines proclaim that this is a poem about the Danish kings. And the use of þēodcyninga, despite its metrical and alliterative significance, is not without meaning for the source of a king’s authority to rule.
Knowledge of the Scyldings comes from sources, such as those analyzed here, which detail a historic/legendary past. Locating the Scyldings in a real past will only reveal so much about these texts because the point of having this legendary setting was to have a tale that was set off from the present by posterity. Peter Clemoes, examining kingship in Beowulf, has pointed out that the Danish kings had glory by “common repute” and that “these Danish kings had given their people the kind of fighting leadership which Anglo-Saxons wanted their own rulers to exert” (Clemoes 4). The introduction to the fourth edition of Klaeber’s Beowulf points out that attempts to root the text of Beowulf, and consequently the analogus Scandinavian texts, in real world events brings up the question of objectivity (Klaeber li). But a modern audience appreciates context differently from the Anglo-Saxons, thirteenth century Danes or fourteenth century Icelanders. Explaining what we know about the history of the Scylding/Scioldung/Skjöldung court helps place the tradition that these texts were drawing on into our own conception of the European timeline.
The editors of Klaeber indicate that while identification of Hygelac with Chlochilaicus, and the grounding of the Frisian raids in a historical text that gives a date, has placed the time of Hroðgar and the Scyldings to around the year 521 C.E., that correlation has also recently been questioned (Swanton 84, Klaeber li). However, this gives us a time frame to work with. This time has also been labeled the Migration Age, when Germanic tribes were carrying their language and political customs across Europe. Likewise, it is the Heroic Age, because of the heroic material it creates for later literary productions, such as Beowulf. The historical analogues have also made a solid case that the location of the Scylding court, Heorot in Beowulf, “corresponds to the ON Hleiðr (Hleiðargarðr, Lat. Lethra) of Scandinavian fame” (Klaeber lviii). This is probably modern Danish Lejre, and archeologists excavated a Viking Age (though not Migration Age) hall there in the 1940s (Byock xviii).
According to Paul Acker, while a description of the Danish dynasty was an odd way to open a great national epic, “from Anglo-Saxon genealogies, however, we learn that Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) was (purportedly) descended from these very kings, Beow, Scyld, and Scef” (Acker 3). Therefore tales of the Danish court carry extra political significance for Anglo-Saxon identity and for Anglo-Saxon kingly identity. Even if Beowulf was not composed for a courtly audience, the opening lines of the poem suggest a narrative tradition that makes the setting particularly relevant to Anglo-Saxon audiences, regardless of when the poem was composed.
The Scylding dynasty descends from Scyld Scefing, the description of whom follows the poem’s opening lines:
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum.
monegum mǣġþum meodosetla oftēah,
eġsode eorl[as], syððan ǣrest wearð
fēasceaft funden. Hē þæs frōfre ġebād:
wēox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þāh,
oð þæt him ǣġhwylċ þāra ymbsittendra
ofer hronrāde hȳran scolde,
gomban ġyldan. Þæt was gōd cyning.
Often Scyld Scefing seized the mead benches
from many tribes, troops of enemies,
struck fear into earls. Though he first was
found a waif, he awaited solace for that –
he grew under heaven and prospered in honor
until every one of the encircling nations
over the whale’s-riding had to obey him,
grant him tribute. That was a good king! (4-11)
This description of Scyld sets up, right away, what it means to be a good king. His strength as a military leader allowed him to subdue enemy nations, to get tribute and to make his power felt over a large group of people. Despite the fact that people did not believe he possessed sufficient character for it, he proved them wrong. After Scyld Scefing comes Beowulf (not that Beowulf), Healfdene and then his sons Heorogar, Hrothgar and Halga the Good. Hroðgar is the most important Scylding in the text, though it is interesting that Halga is Halga the Good, since he will be more prominent in the Scandinavian analogues. We know Hroðgar’s sons and nephew Hroþulf will succeed him, though it is alluded to and not mentioned. But they are not the only kings. There are Geats as well as Swedes in this Scandinavian monarchical stew. It is truly a tale of kings. But where do Scyld and the other kings get their power from? Not how do they exercise their power, or who are the perfect exempla of kingship, but how, in the text is the office of king constructed? What sources supply the king’s authority over his people?
Clemoes, looking at the different synonyms for king in Beowulf, demonstrates that: “from an institutional point of view kings in Beowulf were regularly rulers of peoples (not countries), as conveyed by the generic compound noun þeodcyning, ‘ruler of the people’ (2a and six (or seven) other places), and less often by fold- and leodcyning, and as expressed by the simplex þeoden, ‘leader of a people’, nearly forty times” (Clemoes 4-5). The importance of the people to the rule of the king is emphasized in Beowulf. Levin Shuking also noted that the popularity and good relations of the people and the king runs through the entirety of the poem (Shuking 41). Hroðgar is repeatly called the ’protector of the Scyldings,’ which is a prime element of his role as king. The synonym for king could be construed as ironic, as Hroðgar can’t seem to protect his people, but that is not the sentiment expressed when Beowulf promises to fight the dragon:
Grendle tōġēanes, swā guman ġefrungon,
seleweard āseted; sundornytte behēold
ymb aldor Dena, eotonweard’ ābēad
The glorious king
had set against Grendel a hall-guardian,
as men had heard said , who did special service
for the king of the Danes, kept a giant watch (665-668).
In this context Beowulf is an extension of Hroðgar’s might. Hroðgar’s protection of his people comes from his ability to attract a suitable hero, which does not necessarily lessen his worth as a protector. Shuking and D.H. Green see power from below as an aspect of tribal Germanic customs, where election occurred, and where the will of the people was an important determining factor in who would lead. Hroðgar alludes to the people’s ability to bestow power when he says to Beowulf that “Sǣ-Ġēatas sēlran næbben/ tō ġeċēosenne cyning ǣniġne,/ hordweard hæleþa, ġyf þū healdan wylt/ māga rice” the Sea-Geats could not select a better choice anywhere for king, hoard-guard of heroes, if you will hold the realm of your kinsmen (1845-1853). His role as protector of the people, and as popular with the people is emphasized throughout the text and shows how this is the source of a king’s power, from below.
The process of gift-giving and treasure dispensing also demonstrates the importance of the people to the king’s power. When he is dying Beowulf is glad for the “māðma hord” hoard of treasures because “fremmað ġēna/ lēoda þearfe” they will attend to the needs of the people (2800-1). This indicates that the choice of king is important to the people, because it helps determine the wealth of the nation and of individuals. Gift-giving ensures martial might. Wiglaf rebukes his companions because they have forgotten Beowulf’s generous gifts to them, so he deserves their help in his fight with the dragon. Beowulf also gives his treasure to his king, as a sign of fealty, indicating that the king gets his economic might from his followers as well.
Synonyms for Danes, Geats and Swedes abound throughout the text. The people are very present all through Beowulf, and good kings are synonymous with good people. Beowulf’s death will result in the decimation of the Geats:
nu ys lēodum wēn
orleġhwīle, syððan under[ne]
Froncum ond Frȳsum fyll cyninges
this folk may expect
a time of trouble, when this is manifest
to the Franks and Frisians, and the fall of our king
becomes widespread news (2910-2913).
The people must choose a strong leader that can defend them and provide for them, so they have a large stake in who becomes king.
Generosity, consequently, is a trait that people look for in a king. It shows the source of authority comes from below, from the people, but it also shows how important it is that kings possess kingly traits. Without good qualities kings will not be able to rule, or certainly not rule effectively. Greediness is the worst quality that a king can possess. Heremod is set as the example of a bad king, who does not give out rings to the Danes as he should.
But courage is equally important. The text is full of other terms for king, depicting them “
in their active personal capacity as leaders of their close followers, their comitatus: for example, dryhten (formed in the same way as þeoden), ‘leader of a dryht, a troop of active soldiers’, occurs fifteen times, and its compounds, frea-, freo-, gum-, mon-, tige- and winedryhten, were used twenty times between them (Clemoes 5).
Scyld is certainly a good military leader, and Hroðgar was. Hroðgar does not lack courage to face Grendel, but he does lack strength, a deficit that is finally made up when Beowulf arrives. Celebrating Beowulf’s victory, the people of the Danes comment that
moniġ oft ġecwæð
þætte sūð nē norð be sǣm twēonum
ofer eormengrund ōþer nǣniġ
under sweġles begong sēlra nǣre
rondhæbbendra, rīċes wyrðra.
Nē hiē hūru winedrihten with ne logon,
glædne Hrōðgār, ac þæt wæs gōd cyning.
it was often said
that south or north, between the two seas,
across the wide world, there was none better under the sky’s expanse
among shield-warrior, nor more worthy to rule –
though they found no fault with their own friendly lord,
gracious Hrothgar, but said he was a good king. (857-863)
Hroðgar’s ability to protect the people makes him a good king, though in this context Beowulf’s courage and martial strength are more pronounced, a.k.a. he is exhibiting even more kingly traits than Hroðgar.
Beowulf may be missing part of what it takes to be a good ruler. Leo Caruthers identifies Beowulf’s tragedy as the inability to transition from being a hero to being a king (Caruthers 28). Beowulf leaves no heir and leaves his people in ruin, suggesting a deficit in some important kingly traits.
The personality of the king is important may bring the support of the people, establishing the king’s power, but it also manifests traits bestowed upon him from higher more authoritarian sources from above. For instance, courage is a personal trait that can bring fate on your side, though fate is playing a role in the outcome of your life: “wyrd oft nereð/ unfǣġne eorl, þonne his ellen dēah!” fate often spares an undoomed man, when his courage endures! (572-3). Courage here is a manifestation of wyrd’s decree. Wyrd, or aspects of fate, control the destinies of men, which includes the destinies of kings. Beowulf makes provisions for Hroðgar to distribute his belongings after his fight because “gǣð ā wyrd swā hīo scel” fate always goes as it must (455). Before the dragon fight, fate is no longer with Beowulf: “ac unc [feohte] sceal/ weorðan æt wealle, swā unc wyrd ġetēoð/ metod manna ġehwæs” but for us it shall be at the wall as fate decrees, the Ruler of every man (2525-2527) Kevin Wanner sees fate as a Germanic quality, and that the dragon fight is less influenced by the Christian God than earlier fights, partly because of this importance of this earlier Germanic force (Wanner 5).
However, at various points througout the poem, God is the source of all authority. Even Heremod’s rule is ultimately derived from God, even though he could not live up to the ideals of kingship, to the personal characteristics that were necessary or to the ideals of the people (Swanton 129). Swanton identifies the importance of the Christian ideology of kingship to the strict stratification of the Anglo-Saxon society: “the increasing association of regal authority with that of God results in a proportionally increasing detachment of the king from his people; and society subsequently hardens into this posture throughout all its ranks” (Swanton 72). There are statements throughout the poem that describe God’s effect on the world, including “sōð is ġecȳþed/ þæt mihtiġ God manna cynnes/ weold wīdeferhð” it is a well-known truth that mighty God has ruled mankind always and forever (700-3) and “wundor is tō secganne/ hū mihtiġ God manna cynne/ þurh sīdne sefan snyttru bryttað,/ eard ond eorlscipe” it is a wonder to say how mighty God in His great spirit allots wisdom, land and lordship to mankind (1724-7), which both say largely the same thing about the nature of God’s power in the world. Known as Hroðgar’s sermon, before Beowulf sets out for home Hroðgar gives him a speech about how to be a good king. According to Clemoes,
with Hrothgar as his spokesman, the Beowulf poet brought to bear on traditional personal rule commonplaces of Christian morality which were part of the actual conduct of kingship in the eighth century. The poem and the practice both alike drew on a corpus of didactic themes, images and techniques of expression which was common to Latin and the vernacular (Clemoes 43).
In some particularly difficult lines, Beowulf attributes his current dragon miseries to some sort of covenant that has been broken with God: wēnde se wīsa þæt hē wealdende/ ofer ealde riht, ēċean dryhtne/ bitre ġebulge” the wise one believed he had bitterly offended the Ruler of all, the eternal Lord, against the old law (2327-2331). God gives authority and God takes it away.
If early Germanic kings did not have to pass the throne within the family, Beowulf shows that in the Anglo-Saxon England when the poem was composed family was important. Take, for instance, the problem of succession after Hygelac’s death:
þǣr him Hyġd ġebēad hord ond rice,
bēagas ond bregestōl; bearne ne truwode,
þæt hē wið ælfylċum ēþelstolas
healdan cūðe, ðā wæs Hyġelāc dead.
Nō ðȳ ǣr fēasceafte findan meahton
æt ðām æðelinge æniġe ðinga
þæt hē Heardrēde hlāford wǣre,
oððe þone cynedōm ċīosan wolde
Hygd offered [Beowulf] the hoard and kingdom,
rings and royal throne; she did not trust
that her son could hold the ancestral seat against
foreign hosts, now that Hygelac was dead.
But despite their misery, by no means
could they prevail upon that prince at all
that he should become lord over Heardred,
or choose to rule the kingdom (2369-2376).
The people want to confer power on him, and he has the personal traits to be worthy of that power, but there is a matter of succession that Beowulf gets honour by respecting. There is an explanation of kingship at Beowulf’s death: “him wæs bām samod [Beowulf ond Wiglaf]/ on ðām lēodscipe lond ġecynde,/ eard ēðelriht, ōðrum swīðor/ side rīċe þām ðǣr sēlra wæs” both of them [Beowulf and Wiglaf] held inherited land in that nation, a home and native rights, but the wider rule was reserved to the one who was higher in rank (2196-2199). This is somewhat ambiguous, but it suggests a set nobility or hierarchy. Likewise, when Beowulf is dying he expresses sadness that he has no son or heir, no one to pass his war-gear on to. The link to the line of succession is made more explicit when he tells Wiglaf that he must take over as “endelāf ūsses cynnes” the last survivor of our lineage (2813). Family is so important a social dynamic that the poem reserves special criticisms for people who commit violence against their kin. Beowulf offers Unferth the ultimate insult: “þīnum brōðrum tō banan wurde,/ hēafodmǣgum; þæs þū in helle scealt/ werhðo drēogan, þēah þīn wit duge” you became your brother’s killer, your next of kin; for that you needs must suffer punishment in hell, no matter how clever you are (587-89). And the poet refers more than once to the harm that will arise during the feud between Hroðgar and Hroþulf: “þā cwōm Wealþēo forð/ gān under gyldnum bēage þǣr þā gōdan twēgen/ sǣton suhterġefædran; þā ġȳt wæs hiera sib ætgædere” Wealtheow came forth/ in her golden crown to where the good two/ sat, nephew and uncle; their peace was still whole for them (1162-1165.) People are named by their relations; Hroðgar is the son of Healfdene, and Beowulf the son of Ecgþeow. Family is a source of authority for kings. Their courage and honour show they are from worthy families, and kinship ties are how they give themselves identity.
Compare the description of the bad king Heremod to the good king Scyld mentioned above:
lemedon tō lange; hē his lēodum wearð
eallum æþellingum tō aldorċeare;
swylċe oft bemearn ǣrran mǣlum
swiðferhþes sið snotor ċeorl moniġ
sē þe him bealwa tō bōte ġelȳfde,
þæt þæt ðēodnes bearn ġeþēon scole,
fæderæþelum onfōn, folc ġehealdan,
hord ond hlēoburh, hæleþa rice,
the surging of cares
had crippled him too long; he became a deadly burden
to his own people, to all noblemen;
for many a wise man had mourned
in earlier times over his headstrong ways
who had looked to him for relief from affliction,
hoped that the prince’s son would prosper,
receive his father’s rank, rule his people
hoard and fortress, a kingdom of heroes,
the Scylding homeland (904-915).
The people no longer approve of him, so he loses power, and the poem mentions that he becomes an exile. He fails as a protector and a dispenser of treasure. This means, also, that he is greedy and also that he does not possess the intellectual prowess to be a king. The people hoped that he would be made a good king, because of his good descent, but he fails to live up to his family’s legacy and to God’s wish: “ðēah þe hine mihtiġ God mæġenes wynnum/ eafeþum stēpte ofer ealle men,/ forð ġefremede, hwæþere him on ferhþe grēow/ brēosthord blōdrēow, nallas bēagas ġeaf” though mighty God exalted him in the joys of strength and force, advanced him far over all men, yet in his heart he nursed a blood-ravenous breast-hoard, no rings did he give (1716-9). In the ideology of kingship put forth in Beowulf, it is interesting that Heremod is mentioned without any reference to his family, whereas Scyld, the good king, becomes the namesake of a whole dynasty. Beowulf negotiates kingly authority as derived from below, within and from above - from the people, from the person of the king and from wyrd, God and kinship ties. God and the people, the ultimate source from above and from below, play a greater role in making kings here than in the other analogues, but kinship remains a deciding factor in all three texts.
The genre of Gesta Danorum is very difficult to define. In the introduction to Hilda Ellis Davidson and Peter Fisher’s 1980 translation of Books I-IX, Davidson identifies this work as worthy of study by both Latinists and Old Norse scholars (Davidson 9).According to Davidson, there was a trend in post-conversion countries to look back to their ancient past and to commemorate their history in the Roman manner (Davidson 1-2). Stefanie Würth notices a similar trend, an emergence of historiography on the continent in the eleventh century. (Würth 156). Attempting to define this particular genre in Old Norse literature, Würth points out that “since all Old Norse literature is characterized by a certain interest in history, it is very difficult to define historiography as a genre.” (Würth 156) Nevertheless, works such as Historia norvegia, Islendingabók and Gesta Danorum, each of which try and summarize the history of a people, fit into this category.
But it is not history as we understand it. Scholars debate whether the later books of the Gesta Danorum are historical, but often dismissed the history of the first half of the work because they are filled with legendary figures and mythical elements (Davidson 1). For instance, in Book II Frothi begins his kingship by replenishing his kingdom’s coffers with a dragon’s gold. This, and Saxo’s Latin style, have been subjects of scholarly derision (Davidson 2). However, scholars such as G. Dumézil have shown how instead of a haphazard collection of stories, Saxo’s work is an accumulation of the legends attributed to these Danish kings and K. Johannesson, through in depth analysis, has established the “deliberate intention on Saxo’s part to describe the past in such a way as to give his own picture of the world, and in particular of the way in which a nation should be governed.” (Davidson 7-8) By looking at Books 1-4 as each expressing a cardinal virtue of kingship –fortitude, liberality, prudence and temperance – Davidson asserts that the unifying theme of the book is “the kind of power which a king should strive for, and the responsibilities he must accept if he is to rule aright, and also in the composition of a modern Christian state, where the power of the bishops presented a new factor” (Davidson 6).The Gesta Danorum is more recognizable to us as history, a conscious collection of stories about the past, than Beowulf. Yet it is more like Beowulf than traditional history, as the stories are configured by Saxo for his own purposes.
Even if we accept the latest possible date for the composition of Beowulf in the eleventh century, the Gesta Danorum is separated by several hundred years, and likely more than that. Saxo wrote the Gesta Danorum over many years, and not in chronological order. According to his preface, Saxo was still writing after his patron Absalon, who had charged him with this task, had died, which external sources date to 1202 (Davidson 12). And we know much more about Saxo than we do about the Beowulf poet, though it is still not clear whether he was a monk or a learned, more secular man serving as a secretary to Absalon (Davidson 10). There are sixteen books of the Gesta Danorum altogether, but Books I and II are the texts which are historical analogues with Beowulf and Hrólfs saga kraka. Of the three, this is the only text that comes out of Denmark. It is more obvious why he would choose the Danish court as his setting. In the preface Saxo sets up both the tradition that this work falls into and the reason he undertook it: “cum cetere naciones rerum suarum titulis gloriari, uoluptatemque ex maiorum recordacione percipere soleant, Danorum maximus pontifex Absalon patriam nostrum, cuius illustrande maxima semper” because other nations are in the habit of vaunting the fame of their achievements, and joy in recollecting their ancestors, Absalon, Archbishop of Denmark, had always been fired with a passionate zeal to glorify our fatherland (1). [iii] That the glorification of the Danish country means the glorification of the Danish kings is interesting because, unlike in Beowulf where the king is a protector of the people, the first among a group, here the king is a synonym for the people. The role of the king within the society is different, due no doubt to a combination of different influences in the different geographical locations, different traditions as well as a change in philosophy over time. The kings are the same kings, but the kingship depicted differs.
In the first two books, when describing the governance of the ancient Danish people, more than once Saxo points out the interesting, now discarded customs of their ancestors. One such instance, occurs in Book I, where, after Dan and Angul die, it seems that by descent both Humbli and Lother have a claim to the throne. Saxo states that “lecture regem ueteres affixis homo saxis insistore, suffragisque promere consueurant, subiectorum lapidum firmitate facti constanciam omniaturi” when they were to choose a king it was our forebears’ custom to proclaim their votes while standing on stones fixed in the ground, as though to augur the durability of their action through the firmness of the rocks beneath them (10-1). The firmness of their choice is symbolized by the rocks. But the sequence of events shows that the firmness is symbolic, not real, since Lotherus takes the kingdom from Humbli, the elected king, by force. Election is not then mentioned afterwards. The text suggests that the king’s authority was in part derived from the people, but that martial prowess and other factors are more important in determining the legitimacy of the ruler. Lotherus, the bad king, who had genealogy but had not inherited the proper kingly virtues, is removed from power: “nec diu scelerum impunitus, patrie consternacione perimitur, eadem spiritum eripiente, que regnum largita fuerat” nor did he remain long unpunished for his enormities he perished in a mutiny of the nation, which snatched away his life as it had formerly bestowed the kingdom (11). The people, then, have the power to remove a king, to take away his authority to rule. And while, in Beowulf the conflicts are between peoples, for instance between the Geats and the Swedes, in the Gesta Danorum conflicts are between kings and queens, and often between family members. The king’s authority, in this tale of kings, does not ultimately derive from the people, though vestiges of that source of power remains.
Kingly authority comes more from within the person of the king. After Gram and Halding comes Frothi, whose biography takes up the first half of Book II. Frothi’s sons are Roe, Skat and Haldan. Haldan is another bad king, who, once he eliminates his brothers, rules for the rest of his life in a rather uneventful reign, much to Saxo’s surprise: “cuius ex eo maxime fortuna ammirabilis fuit; quod, licet omnia temporum momenta ad exorcenda atrocitatis officia contulisset senectute” from that time onwards his good fortune was quite amazing; though, he devoted the whole of his time to committing atrocities he died of old age without being stabbed (50). Haldan’s sons Helgi and Roe bring us up to the action in Beowulf. Unlike in Beowulf, Roe (Hroðgar) has a very minimal role in this text. The most exciting thing about him is that he “Roskildia condita memoratur, quam post modum Sueno, furcate barbe cognomento clarus, ciuibus auxit, amplitudine propagauit” is remembered for his foundation of Roskilde, whose population was enlarged and increased later by Sven, well-known for his epithet of Forkbeard (51). Again, it is tempting to see traces of Heorot from Beowulf here, but we cannot without more evidence. No stories are told about Roe specifically, and he dies in an engagement with his nephew, the Swedish king Hothobard. Helgi, however, is interesting because he presents a paradox of kingship. He possesses some of the virtues necessary for a king, including boldness and martial prowess: “maris possessionem sortitus, regem Sclauie Scalcum maritimis copiis lacessitum oppressit” he obtained sway over the sea and with his navy attacked and subjugated Scalcus, king of Slavia (51). Military might, and particularly military agressiveness is an important kingly trait established in the preface since the contemporary king Valdemar II was also expanding his territory; Saxo praises him for this. However, Helgi also commits some terrible crimes. First, he marries his daughter, who was conceived through rape. However, this is not his ultimate sin according to Saxo: “siquidem genitus ex Vrsa Rolpho ortus sui infamiam conspicuis probitatis operibus redemit” for Yrsa’s son Roluo rescued his birth from discredit by striking and meritorious deeds (52). Instead, Helgi is punished for not allowing the Swedes, after a battle, to seek compensation for their losses. For this Helgi banishes himself and dies, Saxo implies, by suicide. By not espousing kingly virtues, Helgi was not fit for kingship, though Roluo, his son, is a king that is awarded a lot of power because of his actions and kingly virtues. At the end of Book II Saxo summarizes kingship, and moralizes about the death of King Hiarvarth, who died because of his killing of Roluo and his champions: “fraudulanter enim quesite res eadem sorte defluunt, qua petuntur, nullusque diuturnius est fructus, qui scelere ac fidia partus fuerit” whatever is obtained deceitfully melts away under the same conditions as men seek it by; no success is long-lived which has been won through crime and dishonesty (64). Kings gain authority by finding that kingly virtue inside themselves.
Saxo calls Helgi’s sleeping with his daughter a sin, but that is the closest the Christian God gets to making an appearance in the first two books of the Gesta Danorum. Nor is that what makes him unfit to rule. Thor is mentioned once, as the only thing that Regner, a prince and then king of Sweden, thinks is worth fearing, but Thor doesn’t convey authority to Regner to be king. Saxo says that Haldan stays on the throne because of his fortunes, and this is the largest presence of an ethereal force contributing to someone’s right to rule in this part of the text. God, gods and fate do not play the same role in kingship that they do in Beowulf, they do not grant authority to rule from above.
However, family is the most important kingly feature. Consider how family ties change the political landscape. To save himself and consequently his kingdom Andvan gives his daughter to Frothi. Andvan’s argument is that Frothi cannot both humiliate him and take his daughter because of the new ties of kinship they are establishing. Frothi’s sister Ulvild is treacherous and incites one husband to treachery, but Frothi forgives him for being a dupe and her because she is family. He marries her to a second suitor, Skotti, who turns into the most fruitful ally when Frothi is raiding in Britain because of kinship ties. Although all brothers seem to be equally legitimate choices for the throne in these first books, Saxo has harsh words to say about people such as Haldan, who betrayed his kin, who “naturam scelere polluit” contaminated his nature with brutality (51). The description of Scioldus also shows that personality traits are inherited: “naturam ab ipso, non mores sortitus, per summam tenerioris etatis industriam cuncta paterne contagionis uestigia ingenitis erroris deuio preteribat. Igitur, ut a paternis uiciis prudenter desciuit” inheriting [Lother’s] natural bent but not his habits, by the utmost perseverance during his youth made an instinctive detour, so that he bypassed all the traces of his father’s infection” by the excellence of his grandfather (11). Therefore, family is important to his kingship, not just for lineage but because they pass down kingly virtues. Dan, the first Danish king, is a good king, but he is not very important in Book I. The kings that are more important are ones that already have genealogy, like Scioldus, but even more his son Gram and Gram’s son Haldingus. In this historical analogue family is the most important source for kingly authority.
But this is the Gesta Danorum’s raison d’être. Scholars discover Saxo’s goal of representing the qualities of good and bad kingship only through analysis. Saxo’s goal, according to his preface, is to create the list of kings which will honour his country and his monarch. Saxo means to praise Valdemar II’s lineage, which is therefore an important part of the contemporary kingship of Denmark and the other countries which employ this type of literary, historiographical genre. Denmark’s king must have lineage to give the king power and help set Voldemarus II in context with the other European kings. This is why it is politically expedient to set this tale of kingship in the ancient courts of Denmark, though unlike the other texts examined here, it is not limited to that court, but applies that same theory to every other Danish court up until Valdemar’s time. Since the traditions of that court is known, this text could hardly be written without reference to the Scioldungs.
Scioldus, “quindecim annos natus, inusitato corporis increment perfectissimum humani roboris specimen preferebat, tatntaque indolis eius experimenta fuere, u tab ipso ceteri Danorum reges communi quodam uocabulo Scioldungi nuncuparentur” already at fifteen had grown to such a stature that he presented a perfect specimen of manhood, and so forceful were the proofs of his talent that the other Danish kings assumed from him the common title of Scioldungs (11). Because he is the progenitor of the Scioldungs, Scioldus, like Scyld in Beowulf is given a special description, telling us what it is to be a good king. Scioldus’s father Lother was a bad king, though his faults are vaguely attributed to scelera or ‘crimes’ (11). However, good nature is not entirely inherited as Lotherus’s example proves. Scioldus is described as good looking, strong and very bold, attributes which he both inherits and has to manifest to be granted the authority of kingship. The king’s authority, therefore, comes from above, as in from his family, and from within. Unlike Beowulf, the king’s authority comes less from below, and, ultimately, less from above if we consider how little both God and fate play a role in kingship. However, authority comes down to the king from family and it is kept and expanded by kings who possess kingly virtues.
Hrólfs saga kraka
The material in Hrólfs saga kraka bears a very remarkable resemblance to the material in the Gesta Danorum, suggesting the historical sources have a much closer textual relationship between these two texts than between either of these texts and Beowulf. However, this is where it becomes tricky, and the three texts status as analogues and not sources for one another must be re-enforced. A great deal of the scholarship for Hrólfs saga kraka has focused on its status as an analogue of Beowulf. The character of Böðvarr in particular bears resemblance to Beowulf, and both bear resemblance to the Bear’s Son folktale motif. In his introduction to his translation of the text Jesse L. Byock summarizes the scholarship: both their names, Böðvarr and Beowulf, can mean bear; they both come from the land of the OE Geatas/ ON Gautar; they both travel across the sea to the Danish court and both come as land cleansers (Byock xxv). Less is said of the Gesta Danorum’s connection as an analogue of this kind, save that if the same tradition informs both Gesta Danorum and Hrólfs saga, that tradition may be an analogue of Beowulf. The connection between the sources for the Gesta Danorum and Hrólfs saga may be Icelandic, as Saxo expresses his indebtedness to Icelandic sources for his text in the preface. Other Icelandic analogues include the mentions in the Prose Edda, Ynglinga Saga and the no longer extant Skjöldunga saga, the tradition of which is mentioned in Ynglinga saga, and preserved in a sort of Latin abstract by Arngrímur Jónsson in the second half of the sixteenth century (Acker 4). Torfi Tulinius’s summary of the fornaldarsögur places the composition of Hrólfs saga around 1400 (Tulinius 459). Ármann Jakobsson says, more specifically, that it was “certainly in vogue in the early thirteenth century. The saga was, thus, very probably originally composed no later than the fourteenth or early fifteenth century.” (Jakobsson 140) Hrólfs saga is written approximately 150 years after the Gesta Danorum, and the tradition has changed, even if it had its preservation in Iceland, which can in no way be proved.
While the two latter texts, compared to Beowulf, share a lot more in their narratives of the Scioldung/Skjöldung court, they differ on many key points. In Gesta Danorum Bjarki does kill a bear, but doesn’t descend from a bear. Nor does he take on a bear’s form in Roluo’s last fight against Skuld and her husband. In Hrólfs saga Böðvarr Bjarki has a much larger role in the narrative, in part because the composer is less constrained to stick to just the story of the kings and to progress to the next in the Danish succession, but for many other reasons that include the possibility of difference in sources and the alteration of the tradition over time. As mentioned earlier, Saxo has had no reason to shrink away from the fantastic. And the succession of the dynasty is different, just as it was different in Beowulf and in the Gesta Danorum. Haldan, son of Frothi, was the killer of his brothers in the Gesta Danorum, but in Hrólfs saga Halfdan is killed by his brother Frodi. But in both cases Haldan/Halfdan is the father of Roe/Hrórr and Helgi. In Beowulf Hroðgar /Roe/Hróarr is the most important Scylding/Scioldung/Skjöldung, while Gesta Danorum and Hrólfs saga feature Helgi and his son Hroþulf/Roluo/ Hrólfr most prominently. The function of the narratives, and the sources of kingly authority, share many similarities, and are also very different.
As one of the fornaldarsögur, one of the twenty-five full Icelandic sagas and eight fragments about a legendary or mythical-heroic past, Hrólfs saga kraka is an entertaining tale, whose legendary characters are given more meaning through their foundation in well-known tales and legendary past kings (Tulinius 448). Its popularity is evidenced by the thirty-eight manuscripts that survive, although none of them are from earlier than the seventeenth century (Jakobsson 139). As compared to other genres, This is not entirely unlike the function of the first nine books of the Gesta Danorum, except that based on Saxo’s preface we know that his point is also specifically to glorify the past (and through the past, the present kings and people). We have no such declaration or assumptions about Hrólfs saga kraka. Tulinius laments that “the historical value of fornaldarsögur is practically non-existent, and the limit to which they can be studied as carriers of a tradition older than themselves has probably already been reached” (Tulinius 459). But Hrólfs saga kraka defies the genre categories because of its obvious reference to a real historical tradition.
According to Ármann Jakobsson the depiction of the king in Hrólfs saga kraka is wrapped up in its genre, even though it is hard to define. It is related to the konungasōgur, or kings’ sagas, and is classified as a fornaldarsögur, but the saga is indebted to the continental romances, including those that were being translated into Old Norse, or those that were written in Iceland based on the continental tradition. Jakobsson recognizes both courtly language, and sees in the description of Hrólfr’s champions, parallels to the list of knights at Charlemagne’s and Arthur’s courts. And this courtly idea helps influence the idea of kingship:
Hrólfr is thus right from the beginning depicted coming close to embodying the ideal of an almost perfect king. Hrólfs saga, like Norwegian and Icelandic kings’ sagas, concerns itself with various internal and external aspects of the monarchy … The name of a king is important and not to be taken in vain (Jakobsson 152).
Marianne Kalinke disagres, and sees Hrólfr’s defeat and the defeat of his royal line as critical of the king, regardless of how much this may be indebted to the romance tradition. Hrólfr’s praise, she argues, is spoken by characters and not by the narrator like it is in Beowulf. Likewise, another parallel with Beowulf is that both Beowulf and Hrólfr are left without heirs, which Kalinke sees in Hrólfs saga kraka as a criticism of Hrólfr’s failure as a king to use practical wisdom. But what would make Hrólfr a good king – where does he draw his authority from?
Unlike in Beowulf, Hrólfr’s defeat without an heir does not mean the end of his people. Over time, after the introduction of many different literary traditions, and over such geography, the people as a source of kingly authority has diminished to negligible proportions. Beowulf is the defender of his people, but in Hrólfs saga kraka the people have hardly been mentioned. The nation at large makes its biggest appearance near the beginning of the text: “lagði Fróði konungr nú allt Danmerkr riki undir sik með sköttum ok skyldum; gengu þar flestir nauðugir til, því Fróði konúngr var allra manna óvinsælastr” King Frodi took control of the Danish kingdom, levying tribute and taxes; most people submitted to him unwillingly because he was a much despised man (4-5). Here the people express disapprobation, but they can in no way influence the selection of who will be king. They cannot even depose cruel kings as they can at the beginning of the Gesta Danorum. Nor is it clear, save from that line where the greedy king takes taxes from them, that they suffer during the dynastic fighting that occurs throughout the text. For instance, it says that Fróði burned and destroyed everything. Halfdan is not concerned with the fate of his people like Beowulf is, but “kemr lítilli vörn við, er hann höndum tekinn ok drepinn” unable to defend himself, was seized and killed, the key point being he could not defend himself, not that he couldn’t defend his people (1). The fights and battles seem to be confined to the kings and their comitatus.
Champions and the comitatus occupy an interesting role in the text. They are followers who do convey status upon their kings, but they are not representative of the nation. Hrólfr’s champions are men of superhuman ability, strength or forbearance. Even before the arrival of the champions, Hrólfr’s court is manned by Berserks, who are likewise not members of the general population. We know they convey status on the king because “þá spurði Hrólfr konúngr Böðvar, hvort hann vissi nokkurn konúng slíkan sen hann, ok stýri slikum köppum” King Hrolf asked Böðvarr whether he knew of any king his equal, or of one who commanded such champions (76). Yet while Hrólfr is glorying in the power that his followers convey upon him, it is not a simple source of authority from below. He has many followers because he deserves many followers. Svipdag’s father sends him to Hrolfr’s court because of the many champions already gathered there, but also because of Hrólfr’s kingly qualities. So the authoritative qualities that come from within spur those that come from below, from the ‘people.’ Looking at Hrólfr’s boast to Böðvarr, we could not say that his champions make him more worthy to be king, but that it is an expression of his kingly nature.
More than either of the other texts, the right to be king is tied to one’s kingly qualities. When deciding who has the most right to the throne the author and, as Kalinke notes, the characters are busy negotiating which, among a myriad of kings, is the best one. The text sets the scenes by describing the relative merits of two brothers: “[Hálfdán ok Fróði] konúngasynir, ok stýrði sínu ríkí hvörr þeirra; Hálfdán konúngr var hýrr ok hægr ok góðlyndr, en Fróði konúngr van enn mesti rifbaldi” [Halfdan and Frodi] were the sons of a king and each ruled his own kingdom. King Halfdan was mild-mannered and easygoing. King Fróði was the harshest and greediest of men (3). He is greedy for wealth and for power. The kingdom that he ruled is never mentioned, but it is said he envies his brother his rule of Denmark, which is why he invades the territory. This is very different from the Gesta Danorum, where the expansion of territory is more often praised. Here the fault, however, is not the invasion itself, but the fact that it is done with motives of greed and because he usurps the throne from him who had a better disposition to be king. The description of King Aðils of Sweden is also indicative of how much a greedy nature detracts from a kingly one: “Aðels hèt konúngr, ríkr ok ágjaru” there was a king named Adils; he was powerful and greedy (29). But that a king should not be greedy we have already seen. However, it has less to do with his status as dispenser of wealth, though it may be inherited from that tradition, and more to do with good personal (possibly Christian) traits. Consider also that Hálfdán is mild-mannered. This is different from the other two texts. King Hrólfr must be brave, a trait Svipdag shows is necessary when he decides not to follow Aðils because he will not lead military expeditions. And yet Hrólfr does not have to be the best or most worthy of warriors, like Beowulf or Hroþgar did in Beowulf.
This is a really interesting difference in all three texts because in Beowulf, Beowulf faces the dragon alone, at least at first, and although he has had a special shield of metal made, it defended him from the heat “lǣssan hwīle/ … þonne his myne sōhte” for less time than he might have liked (2571-2). In Gesta Danorum Roluo declares that the most kingly quality is forbearance, and stands before the heat until one of the flame with just a shield until someone takes pity on him and throws water on the flame. In Hrólfs saga kraka this episode is very different, since the focus is less on Hrólfr as warrior and more as a leader deserving of a comitatus. Aðils invites Hrólfr and his champions to his abode and places them before a continually stoked fire, because he “vildi sva verða vís, hvar et Hrólfr konúngr væri, því hann þóttist vita, at hann mundi eigi geta staðist hitann, sva sem kapparnir” wanted in this way to learn for certain where King Hrólfr was, assuming that Hrólfr would not be able to tolerate the heat as well as his champions (84). Hrólfr does stand it, so he forbears just as his men do, proving he can lead them, but the assumption is that a king gathers strong warriors, not that he is one. And in his own court Hrólfr is adjudicator and peace-maker, arranging the seating in his hall so that men are satisfied, but in a way that is clear that authority and prestige flow out from him. Good kings do have to fight, but they also have to make peace in their courts, which is not required in Beowulf or the Gesta Danorum. Helgi receives into his house what turns out to be an elf-woman under an enchanted spell and the narrator remarks that “honum kom nú í hug, at þat væri ókonúngligt, at hann lèti þat úti, sem vesalt var, en hann má bjarga því” it occurred to Helgi that it was unkingly for him to allow any person, however wretched, to remain outside when he could help (30). On several occasions King Hrólfr is peacemaker between the people in his service. On one such occasion, interceding between Böðvarr and a berserk, “Hrólfr konúngr hljóp í milli þeirra, ok sagði þeim skyldi þat ekki hlíðast, ok skyldu þeir heita jafnir þaðan í frá, ok ‘báðir mínir vinir” King Hrólfr, quickly positioning himself between the two, forbade their fighting. He said that they should be called equal from now on, declaring them ‘both my friends’ (45). The martial prowess which makes a king worthy to be king is different in Hrólfs saga kraka than the other texts. His comitatus is an extension of his own strength, and his generosity, his temperance and other kingly qualities give him that strength.
This is a tale of dynastic struggles; not a struggle between dynasties but within them. Compare this to Beowulf where kinslayer is the greatest of insults, and to Gesta Danorum where there are similar struggles, though Saxo still reserves the right of the narrator to criticize those who betray their kinship ties. Family is again, as in all three texts, the ultimate determining factor in what makes a king, but because this is the case in Hrólfs saga kraka these are the people that you must contend with for the kingship. These are not nations fighting nations but individuals fighting individuals, showing the importance of the qualities of the individual and the marginalization of the nation or people in this text. Consider the very interesting way Hrólfr places himself over his kinsman:
ok sem Hrólfr konúngr hafði brugðit um sik aptr brókabeltinu, tók hann aptr við sverðinu, ok mælti til Hjörvarðs konúngs: þat vitu við baðir, sagði hann, at þat hefir lengi verit mælt, at sáskal vera undirmaðr annars jafnan síðan, er tekr við sverði annars, á meðan hann bregðr brókabelti; skaltu nú vera undirkonúngr minn, ok þola þat vel, sem aðrir
when King Hrólfr had fastened his belt again, he took back his sword, saying to King Hjörvarðr, ‘We both know the old adage that he who holds the sword of a man who is undoing his belt, will from then on be the lesser of the two. Therefore, you are now a king under my rule and you must endure this status as patiently as the others do (46-7).
A king exercises his kingly nature and justice over others, and his rule, once established, is hard to dispute unless there is a king with more kingly attributes. Hjörvarðr is not that king, though he will try to assert himself over Hrólfr by attacking him and his comitatus. Hjörvarðr’s kingly nature is compromised by his listening to his wife, by the stealth of his attack and by the fact that he too is killed in the battle. Though he may not be the perfect king, as Kalinke suggests, of the two the justice, in the text, is always with Hrólfr.
If you are not born to kingship, to a royal line, you can prove your worth by seeking to submit yourself to a king. Svipdag does not want leadership duties, he “ekki er honum um þat, at vera fyrirmaðr hersins, en vill fara með konúngi þángat, sem hann vildi. Konúngr vildi ekki annat, enn hann sè fyrirmaðr” did not want that, to be the leader of the army; instead he wanted to serve the king, following him wherever he went. The king [Aðils], however, was adamant that he [Svipdag] be the leader (40). This is why he joins Hrólfr’s court. Likewise when asked, the champion “Böðvar kveðst ekki konúngr vilja vera, heldr kvaðst hann vilja meðkonúngi vera ok honum þjóna” Böðvarr replied that he did not want to be king; rather he said that he wanted to be with the king and to serve him (60). Hrókr is censured by the narrator because “Hrókr leggr undir sik landit, hann lætr gefa sèr konúngsnafn” Hrókr finished his conquest of the kingdom and had himself given the title of king, and in context here it means he was not born to it (25). Royal lineage and royal right makes a king.
Luck and fate, however, certainly affect the fates of men. Svipdagr warns Aðils that no one can tell how luck can turn. Before Höttr drinks the blood from the flying beast it is thought he won’t have much luck. This changes when the beast’s blood makes him find his courage. When Hrólfr and his champions ride home from the battle with Aðils and his men in Uppsala they encounter the same man whom they met on the way there, and refuse to take his gifts. When they realize they had upset Oðin Böðvarr remarks that Hrólfr’s luck in battle would change and Hrólfr replies that “auðna ræðr hvöra manns lífi, en ekki sá illi andi” fate rules each man’s life and not that foul spirit (95). Fate is not as important as family, but we do know that the luck that has run out means that Hrólfr’s next battle against his sister Skuld and her husband will be his last, or, if he doesn’t know it, both Böðvarr and the audience do.
God, in this romance and legendary mythic tale, plays almost no role. The text does say that:
En ekki er þess getut, at Hrólfr konúngr ok kappar hans hafi nokkurm tíma blótat goð, heldr trúðu þeir á mátt sinn ok megin, því þá var ekki boðuð sú heilaga trú hèr á norðrlöndum, ok höfðu þeir því lítit skyn á skapara sínum, sem bjuggu í Norðrálfunni
it is not mentioned that King Hrólfr and his champions worshipped the old gods at any time. Rather, they put their trust in their own might and main. The holy faith, at that time, had not been proclaimed here in the northern lands and, for this reason, those who lived in the north had little knowledge of their Creator (98)
Hrólfr had just said that he cared little for Oðin, his concession to his Christian audience, but the setting of this tale is not Christian. Setting the tale in a pre-Christian Denmark has meant that the tale can be one where the kings regularly interact with the supernatural without that being a comment on the piety of the characters. The brief mention that Christianity is still coming, and the perhaps that latent Christianity rests within them, is more than is mentioned in the first two books of the Gesta Danorum. Of course Saxo is going to get to Christianity and how God makes kings eventually, and this text never does. In Hrólfs saga kraka a king’s authority does not come from God, but his innately good qualities, even if they are not all overtly Christian qualities, show that the king’s line is set up for the future.
Consider Svipdagr’s father’s description of King Hrólfr:
Svá er mèr sagt frá HróIfi konúngi, at hann sè örr ok stórgjöfull, trúfastr ok vinavandr, sva at hans jafníngi mun eigi finnast; hann sparer eigi gull nè gersemar nær við alla, er þiggja vilja; hann er lágligr at líta, en mikill at reyna ok torveldr, manna fríðastr, stórlátr við ómilda, en ljúfr ok hógværr við vesæla, ok við alla þá, sem ekki brjéta bag í móti honum; manna lítilátastr, svà at jafn blítt svarar hann fátækum sem ríkum; svà er hann mikill ágætismaðr, at hans nafnmun eigi fyrnast á meðan verōldin er bygð; hann hefir ok skattgildt alla konúnga þá, sem at eru í nánd honum, því allir vilja homun fúsir þjóna
I have heard that King Hrólfr is open-handed and generous and so trustworthy and particular about his friends that his equal cannot be found. He withholds neither gold nor treasure from nearly everyone who wants or needs them. He is handsome in looks, powerful in deeds and a worthy opponent. The fairest of men, Hrolf is fierce with the greedy, yet gentle and accommodating with the unpretentious and modest. Toward all those who do not threaten him, he is the most humble of men, responding with equal mildness to both the powerful and the poor. Hrolf is so great that his name will not be forgotten as long as the world remains inhabited. He has exacted tribute from all kings who are near him, for everyone is willing to serve him (43).
King Hrólfr is supported by people willing to serve him, because he has good kingly qualities, which include justice, temperance, generosity as well as exhibiting kingly physical features. Most importantly, he is a king amongst kings, he wields more power than other kings, which is described as a personal trait. The sources of authority, as in Beowulf and the Gesta Danorum cannot be separated from each other. Just like in Beowulf and the Gesta Danorum physical features manifest both a king’s personal traits and his parentage. As opposed to the Gesta Danorum, where the line of kings was more important than the individual personalities due to its sweeping subject matter and focus on lineage, Hrólfs saga kraka is a portrait of a few kings jostling for position. Their lineage, while it is an important definitive kingly trait amongst these individuals, it is the lineage that manifests itself in their kingly personalities that is most important.
It may be exaggerating to say that the Scyldings in Beowulf get their power mostly from sources from below, from the people they rule, it is more the case than in either of the other analogues. The Gesta Danorum emphasizes family above all else, and has the most top down (familial based) source for kingly authority. Hrólfs saga kraka emphasizes the personal traits of the kings, the sources of authority that come from within, more than any other. But all three texts are involved in complex negotiations about the nature and source of kingship.
Looking at D.H. Green’s theory of Germanic kingship, the vocabulary that is used to describe kings is indicative of the kingship ideology being espoused in the texts. The Germanic word þiuda is the Gothic word for people, and þiudans is a word for ruler that takes into account the connection to the people. It is one of the oldest words, and even in Old English þēoden shows its age, employed only in poetry and not prose (Green 126). Truhtin is a word for war-leader, though it appears frequently in reference to God and in Old English appears as dryhten (Green 127-8). But Gothic kuning, or in Old English cyning and in Old Norse konungr, is the word that wins out. It is a word that poses many linguistic difficulties, but Green establishes the connection between this word and kinship and family ties. Perhaps it is not so surprising that examining three different texts about the same family, the mind is drawn to think of how family forms kingly authority, but it is interesting that the language shows also that there is a privileging of kinship in the concept of kings. It is tempting to read the texts chronologically based on their language usage. Beowulf, negotiating all three words, is on the cusp of the solidification of the kingship model in Anglo-Saxon England, trying to negotiate the different Germanic models and Romanized, more authoritarian top down models that it had before it. Hrólfs saga kraka, using just konungr, and being at least 400 years later, if not much more, is solidified in its one Romanized conception of Germanic kingdom, though it is still trying to set its current models of kingship in contrast to an antiquity and earlier kingship tradition. Unfortunately since the Gesta Danorum is written in Latin, it is harder to extrapolate about the meaning of the word rex to the nature of Germanic kingship. However, the Gesta Danorum shows a kingship that is trying to establish itself in the model of the rest of the European continent, already Romanized. Halfway between the two other examples, the Gesta Danorum glorifies the past while looking towards the future of Denmark. Of course, the word usage in Beowulf is also governed by alliteration, and the expediency of finding synonyms for king to fit the poetic form. This does not detract from the fact that all those words would be recognizable to its audience. Green, looking at how lexical differences privilege different aspects of kingship, states that “however precarious the tenure of royal power, subject to election, may have been in the earlier period, by the beginning of the sixth century most Germanic kingdoms had a royal dynasty and most of these dynasties were claiming a monopoly of kingship since before the migrations” (Green 138-9).
When Paul Acker says that Ingeld “has played a curious role in Beowulfian studies,” what he is saying is that tales of the Danish royal court has played an interesting role in Beowulf studies. The famous quote from Alcuin, ‘Quid Hinieldus cum Christo.’ [‘What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?’] , comes from a letter that he wrote to the Anglo-Saxon bishop around 797. In Beowulf, Ingeld is the Heathobard prince, the son of Froda, whose marriage to a Danish princess will not stop the outbreak of war: “
ġeong goldhroden, gladum suna Frōdan;
hafað þæs ġeworden wine Scyldinga,
Oft seldan hwær
æfter lēodhryre lytle hwīle
bongār būgeð, þēah sēo bryd duge.
She is promised,
young, gold-adorned, to the gracious son of Froda;
the ruler of the Scyldings has arranged this
But seldom anywhere
after the death of a prince does the deadly spear rest
for even a brief while, though the bride be good! (2024-2031).
In the Gesta Danorum Frothi is father of Haldan, who is the terrible one. In Hrólfs saga kraki Fróði is the evil one, not Hálfdán, and he is Hálfdán’s brother, not his father. The Frothi/ Fróði in the two later examples may not be based on the same tradition as the Froda that is Heathobard in Beowulf, but consider that in Skjöldunga saga, not examined here, Ingialldus, not Frodi, is the evil brother of Hálfdán. The stories of the Danish court and their exploits is passed around enough for the line of succession and the particulars of the court to be lost to time, but the characters fill the roles that they need to to complete the story of kingship.
The stories of the Scylding/Scioldung/Skjöldung court in a way that may aptly be compared to the modern obsession with Robin Hood. The stories are known, so they can be appropriated by authors in different ways for different purposes, and have been for several hundred years. And while you can change almost anything, the characters have to look like the ones the audience recognizes and in the case of Robin Hood, the story has to centre around wealth distribution; in the case of the Scylding/Scioldung/Skjöldung court, around kingship. The comparison between Robin Hood and the court can be carried further when it is considered how Denmark was important to the nobility of Anglo-Saxon England, to the politics of Iceland from the fourteenth century onward, and of course to the national history of Denmark, just as the history of England is important to the founding mythology of subsequent English speaking nations like the United States. The tales are rooted in an imaginary past that has enough grounding in reality to give the tales added depth. Though it may be the imaginary past of somewhere quite far away, it has bearing on our conception of our own identity. The ancient Danish line was appropriate subject matter for audiences interested in where kingly authority comes from, and looking to be confirmed in the idea that descent from a glorious line was a legitimate way of passing down power. A glorious line of kings, untouchable in their honour and place in society, are perfect subjects to explore kingship and to raise issues of what makes an ideal king for audiences in Anglo-Saxon England, thirteenth century Denmark and fourteenth century Iceland.
[i] This paper attempts to render names into the nominative form of the language of the text, in order to keep the characters separate from text to text, with some consideration being given for English audiences for names like Valdemar II.
[ii] The translations of texts in the paper are my own, referencing solid translations already in print. See bibliography.
[iii] The preface conflates the author with the narrator, so this paper will refer to the interpolations of the narrator as coming from Saxo himself.
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