The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf

The Anglo-Saxons were well aware that their own ancestry derived, at least in part, from the Danes. It is therefore not surprising that the earliest accounts of the characters in Hrolf's Saga come from Anglo-Saxon England, where writing in Roman letters had been adopted in the seventh century, several centuries earlier than in Scandinavia. For the Anglo-Saxons, the kings of Norse legend represented the heroic era of their own history. This trans-North-Sea connection is made especially clear in the poem Widsith, written perhaps as early as the seventh century though it may be later. Widsith is shaped to resemble the song of a wandering Anglo-Saxon bard, unfolding his knowledge of the Germanic heroic age. The poet tells of Hrothgar (Hroar) and Hrothulf (Hrolf) and, in agreement with the genealogy of Hrolf's Saga, calls them uncle and nephew. According to the poem, these chieftains ruled for many years in peace at Heorot, overcoming their foes.

Both Hrothulf/Hrolf and Hrothgar/Hroar also appear in Beowulf, and a comparison shows some differences between the Old English and Icelandic stories. In Hrolf's Saga Hroar is a notable figure, though a secondary one, ruling over the northern English kingdom of Northumberland until forced into a disastrous conflict. In Beowulf, King Hrothgar is a character of central importance. He is the builder of the magnificent hall Heorot, the object of the monster Grendel's depredations. Moreover, Hrothgar, as in Widsith, is king of the Danes. The poet of Beowulf hints darkly, however, that there will be strife among the kinsmen: "their peace still held, each one to the other was true." When Hrothgar's wife, having no real choice, commends her sons to her nephew Hrothulf, she fears that he will do them harm. Although the stories are somewhat different, the theme of betrayal and danger in the uncle-nephew relationship exists in both the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian stories.

Other figures in Hrolf's Saga also appear in Beowulf, attesting to the extent of the common legendary tradition. Halga (the Old English equivalent of Helgi) is noted in Beowulf as a son of Healfdeane and the brother of Hrothgar. These relationships agree with the saga, where King Halfdan is Helgi's father and Hroar is his brother. But it is the central character of the Anglo Saxon text, the young champion Beowulf, who, in his similarity to the Old Norse champion Bodvar Bjarki, offers the most intriguing agreement between the Old English poem and the saga.