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The Long Arm of Coincidence

The Long Arm of Coincidence: The Frustrated Connection Between 'Beowulf' and 'Grettis saga'

Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 216
  • Book Info
    The Long Arm of Coincidence
    Book Description:

    Scholars in Old Norse and Old English studies have for years sought to find connections between Beowulf and Grettis saga, despite great differences in the composition, time period, and country of origin of the two works. Based on some striking surface similarities, the assumption of kinship, or genetically related analogues, has inspired scholars to make more and more daring conjectures regarding the actual relationship between the two works.

    Magnús Fjalldal has written a lively challenge to those notions, carefully demonstrating how even tangential resemblances that at one point would have been considered questionable, have become progressively assimilated into mainstream Old English and Old Norse scholarship. The author?s refutations are closely tied to the primary texts, and he makes constructive and plausible suggestions of his own as to how the apparent parallels could have arisen in two texts so separated by time, culture, and geography.

    Passionately and engagingly written, occasionally forceful, The Long Arm of Coincidence successfully reopens a classic argument in Old Norse and Old English studies, and will be sure to provoke strong reactions on both sides of this question.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7680-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-x)

    For over a century most scholars in the fields of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse have been convinced thatGrettis sagaandBeowulfare related, although the two works are on the whole very different, separated by several centuries in time and composed in different countries in different languages. This belief in a mutual relationship of some kind has rested on the perception that certain passages in both texts are so similar that the resemblance between them ruled out any possibility of accidental likeness. And there are indeed striking similarities, at least at first glance: Grettir and Beowulf both cleanse haunted...

  4. Part I: The Proposed Genetically Related Analogues

    • 1 Determining Analogous and Genetically Related Material
      (pp. 3-16)

      This chapter presents a survey of the five episodes inGrettis sagathat have been proposed as genetically related analogues¹ toBeowulf,as well as a look at the methods and the arguments of the scholars who originally suggested them. Criticisms concerning the validity of individual analogues – when such criticisms are to be found – are limited to those that were offered in the scholarly debate that took place at the time. In short, my aim in the following pages is primarily to sum up the academic work that established these five episodes as analogues toBeowulf,and in doing so,...

    • 2 The Making of Heroes and Monsters
      (pp. 17-36)

      The purpose of this and of the next three chapters is to examine the basic ingredients of the five genetically related analogues that critics claim to have found inGrettis sagaagainst the relevant sections ofBeowulf.Although a great deal of literature has accumulated around these five texts, comparisons have never been very detailed or thorough, even in the case of the most widely accepted analogues, namely, the Sandhaugar and Glámr episodes. Critical discussion has in most cases revolved around a few fragments of a given analogue, usually to reach the quick conclusion that they presented ample evidence to...

    • 3 The Hero’s Fight against the Monsters
      (pp. 37-53)

      The five episodes inGrettis sagawhich have been claimed to be analogous and genetically related toBeowulfall contain battle scenes, and in all five the battle between the hero and his adversary is the climax of that episode. If there was indeed an old legend about a hero who overcame two monsters – a story that served as a common source for the authors of bothBeowulfandGrettis saga– there is no reason why the form of the struggle, or parts of it, might not have survived intact, even if the original protagonists were no longer the same....

    • 4 A Sword by Any Other Name
      (pp. 54-66)

      When Guðbrandur Vigfússon proclaimed the Sandhaugar and Glámr episodes ofGrettis sagato be analogous and genetically related toBeowulf,he offered theheptisax-hæftmeceparallel as his best evidence. Vigfússon gave three reasons for the special importance of this pair: as far as he was concerned, the two were one and the same word, they occurred at the same place in the legend, and they were unique in their respective literatures.¹ Although the first two points are obvious exaggerations, the idea of equating the two words has gone unchallenged for more than a century, and such is the faith of...

    • 5 Hell and High Water
      (pp. 67-78)

      In this chapter we round up the examination of the proposed genetically related analogues by inspecting the dwellings in which the monsters of saga and poem live, and the landscape through which Beowulf and Grettir must travel to reach them. The logic behind this comparison is much the same as in chapter 3, namely, that similarities in respect to settings, or perhaps some details relating to their description, might have survived in the two stories that supposedly developed from the same original legend. Landscape and other settings are indeed one of the main areas of comparison where Guðbrandur Vigfússon’s followers...

  5. Part II: To Cement a Relationship

    • 6 The English Hypothesis
      (pp. 81-87)

      It goes without saying that postulating a genetically related analogue to a literary work demands that some form of contact be established between the work in question and the source of the prospective analogue. In presenting his original discovery, Guðbrandur Vigfússon did not shirk from the duty of informing his readers how certain episodes inBeowulfandGrettis sagahad come to be related:

      [The Beowulf legend] gives the clue to Grettis Saga, which is otherwise obscure. The old legend shot forth from its ancient Scandinavian home into two branches, one to England, where it was turned into an epic,...

    • 7 Panzer’s ‘Bear’s Son’ Thesis
      (pp. 88-95)

      In 1910 there appeared in Munich a remarkably ambitious and impressive work under the innocuous title ofStudien zur germanischen Sagengeschichte I. Beowulf.The author, Friedrich Panzer, had collected and collated more than two hundred versions of a particular folktale, known as ‘The Bear’s Son Tale,’¹ from a variety of different languages and cultures. From these Panzer reconstructed in the first part of his book what he believed to be the original elements of the different versions of the tale. In the second part, he turned his attention toBeowulfand proceeded to argue that both the Grendel section of...

    • 8 The Common Origin Theory
      (pp. 96-107)

      Among the different theories that compete to offer an explanation as to howGrettis sagaandBeowulfmight be related, there is no question that the original one suggested by Guðbrandur Vigfússon more than a century ago has always been the most popular among medievalists. As with the English Hypothesis, the Common Origin Theory is here used as an umbrella term, because there are, as we shall see in this chapter, considerable differences in how Vigfússon’s followers imagine contact between the poem and the saga to have come about. However, the core of agreement that all variants of this theory...

    • 9 The Big Bang Theory
      (pp. 108-116)

      The history of twentieth century research into the supposed genetic relationship ofBeowulfandGrettis sagafalls into two clearly marked stages. During the first half of the century, critics applied old-fashioned philological methods and presented their results in a careful, almost defensive, manner. They generally looked toGrettis sagafor something that could match the double fight of the Grendel story, and only the Sandhaugar episode was generally accepted as a candidate that could meet that demand. Only the most daring researchers were prepared to admit the possibility that the ‘old legend’ might somehow have split into two, and...

  6. Part III: The Genetically Related Beowulf Analogues in Grettis saga in View of Icelandic Sources

    • 10 A Saga Author Shops Around: The Eclectic Composotion of the Glámr and Sandhaugar Episodes
      (pp. 119-129)

      It is, of course, no good to reject the various theories that attempt to explain the origin of the supposed genetically relatedBeowulfanalogues inGrettis sagaif no alternative explanation can be offered instead. In this chapter I shall, accordingly, try to do so. I shall, however, concentrate exclusively on the Glámr and the Sandhaugar episodes, because it is on their ‘proven’ existence as genetically relatedBeowulfanalogues that other episodes of the saga that have been thought to be related to the Old English poem must rest.

      It has been shown that the author ofGrettis sagawas...

    • 11 Conclusion
      (pp. 130-134)

      Three centuries ago the great manuscript collector and antiquarian, Árni Magnússon, observed that there were only two kinds of scholars in the world: those who devoted themselves to helping spread errors in their field, and those who trailed after the first lot and cleaned up their mistakes. This scheme of things ensured, according to Magnússon, that both groups had something to keep themselves busy.¹ This was probably a sound assessment of the state of affairs in Old Norse scholarship in Magnússon’s time, and I do not think thatBeowulfstudies have reached such a level of perfection in our day...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 135-160)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 161-170)
  9. Index
    (pp. 171-176)