Origins for Beowulf and Rolf Krake
[Rev 0.1], 2003-07-10, Written by
(work still in progress).
Beowulf and Rolf Krake (Hrolf Kraki) are two
well-known characters in the myths and sagas of ancient Scandinavia. Both
are supposed to have lived sometimes around 450 - 550 AD, and much have
been discussed over the years regarding the origin of them both.
There are several characters in Beowulf that
apparently match the names known from other ancient northern tales and
A common assumption is that Rolf Krake, would be
the 'same' as the character of Hrothulf in Beowulf (Hrothgar's
There seems to be some foreshadowing in
Beowulf that Hrothulf will attempt to usurp the throne from Hrothgar's
sons, and there is another reference to the future burning of the hall of
Heorot in the beginning of the poem - which is the legendary death of Rolf
Krake, who is believed to have been burnt to death by his brother-in-law
Hjorvard, over a matter of taxes.
Then, the standard view seems to be that -- if
Beowulf himself indeed does have a 'cognate' character in Rolf Krakes Saga
-- it is Bodvar Bjarke (Bodvar Biarki), who also has a younger companion,
Hjalte (Hialti) - perhaps matching the Beowulf character Wiglaf.
According to this theory, also the name of
Beowulf is assumed to origin from:
beo (bee) + wulf (wolf), i.e. Bee-Wolf, i.e.
Bear (the wolf/hunter of bees).
This is another reason why people see Biarki as
Beowulf's 'cognate' (because of the names).
As for the king of the Danes, Hrothogar, he is
consequently identified as Ro, or Roar, an uncle of Rolf Krake who have
been known to reign in England at the time when Rolf's father Helge ruled
Furthermore, the Swedish kings referenced in
Beowulf is adequately matched with the alleged 5th and 6th century Svea
kings in Ubsola:
Table 1: Personas of Beowulf and Rolk Krake
Rolf Krake, Heimskringla etc.
father of Ottar and Ale
brother of Ale
brother of Ottar
son of Ottar
The geographical placements of Beowulf's
Weder-Geats as well as the other geograhically referenced places in
Beowulf are subject to much debate.
A lot of the various names seemed to be used and
re-used by different peoples. The Geats have been identified with quite a
number of different peoples and areas - the Goths, the Jutes, the Gauts,
etc., etc. (for good review of relevant discussion see the Chambers book
referenced below). And as a learned fiction (see the Leake ref.
Whereever 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, however, is just as well thought of to
be a distance not totally reliable - which in turns leave the field open
for various interpretations that accommodates the different views on where
to place the Geats.
Roar is supposed to have founded Roskilde (e.g.
Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum), by which modern and middle age town in
northern Själland (Zeeland), Denmark, also the ancient kingdom seat
Leire was located. This then would seem appropriate a place for Hrothogar
to have built the great hall of Heorot.
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
Wikipedia page for
. 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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