Beowulf and Grettir's Saga
IN THE DEAD OF THE NIGHT, someone or something, is murdering the local townsfolk. As fate provides, a stranger marches into the local bar announcing his intention to kill the menacing outlaw. The fiend returns to the scene of his crimes, and, as predicted, the outsider fights and mortally wounds the brute, which limps off to a hidden lair. The hero and his comrade(s) track the wounded villain to an underwater cave and the ensuing fray results in the death of the criminal's sidekick. The stranger/hero explores the cave, discovering the carcass of the original fugitive, treasure and booty. Meanwhile, the stranger's posse thinks the hero is dead and abandons him. The hero's surprising return marks the end of his mission. Excluding the underwater cave, the plot line of Beowulf and Grettir's Saga is the premise for countless songs, sagas, epics, stories and movies (especially western and horror films). Likewise, Christianity contains the story of a redeemer rescuing mankind from evil. Although these two oral tales contain similar action sequences, differences can be found in the details and underlying moral tenor. Elemental distinctions include seasonal differences, the role of women, the actual fight scenes, the style of the combatants and their foes, how plunder is qualified, and what happens to the hero at the end of his mission. Even as the details differ, the dogmatic tonal shift can be discovered by looking at how the differing communities act in relation to what they say, and noting the variation of the characters' attitudes, from the older Beowulf's world of a pagan society working to integrate Christianity, to Grettir's Christian population, whose older heroic heathens are cast out.
Dating oral works propose myriad problems, especially when considering these are older stories that, at a particular moment during their evolution, have been written down. There is historical evidence that the Anglo Saxon Beowulf was composed, or more exactly transcribed, 900 years earlier than Grettir's Saga. According to Howell Chickering, Jr. there is only one piece of verifiable historical data in Beowulf, Hygelac's death in 521 during a raid on the Frisians (247). It is believed Grettir's Saga was "originally written in Icelandic, sometime in the early 14th century" (Killings 1). Beowulf's scop describes the fluctuation of oral composition by saying he, "found new words, bound them up truly, / began to recite Beowulf's praise / a well-made lay of glorious deed, / skillfully varied his matter and style" (871a-874b). The time gap between the two works can be narrowed to 400 years if one considers Beowulf's transcription point in the 10th century, and Grettir's Saga in the 14th century. Chickering asserts Grettir's Saga and Beowulf, "go back independently to a common original" (254), and are not evolutionary partners.
The plot outlined above illustrates the many close parallels of books 64 to 67 of Grettir's Saga and the...