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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

"Asphurtzela" and the Bear's Son Tradition

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

Public statue of the giant- and dragon-slaying Georgian culture hero Amirani, ამირანი, a figure associated with the Greek Prometheus myth. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A year or more ago, I read the Georgian tale “Asphurtzela,” collected, translated and published by the English scholar Marjory Wardrop in 1894, and immediately I recognized elements I knew I had seen in various scholarly texts related to Beowulf. I recently began working through all of the sources I have that deal with the topic to determine which works of literature share the closest affinity with “Asphurtzela” and at this time, I’ve come to the conclusion that “Asphurtzela” falls into a category of tale described by Friedrich Panzer as Bear’s Son tales, one or more of which may have been an orally-transmitted antecedent to the Grendel section of Beowulf. In 1910, Panzer identified more than 200 such tales, with the purpose of identifying the roots of this particular section of Beowulf. He published his findings in a volume titled Studies in German Saga History. The theory found resonance in scholarly Beowulf circles and the larger purpose of my posts on “Asphurtzela” is to determine the nature of the relationship between the folk tale and the Old English poem. This post will begin by laying out an argument for “Asphurtzela” as a Bear’s Son Tale in the mold of “Strong Hans,” a tale in the Grimm collection that is often used as the exemplar of the type, which is also described as Aarne-Thompson type 301, “The Three Stolen Princesses,” and as AT type 650A, “Strong John”. To say that “Asphurtzela” qualifies as a Bear’s Son Tale does not give it a direct relationship with Beowulf. It would give the tale a relationship with a tradition of tales that the Beowulf poet may have drawn from. The next step of this study will investigate similarities and differences “Asphurtzela” shares with the premier Beowulf analogue, Grettis Saga.

The Bear’s Son Tale narrative, Bärensohn, Jean l’Ours, is widespread in Europe and has been identified as far away as Asia. The tales refer to an unusual child parented by a bear in some way. In the French tradition, the character may even have the ears of a bear, but bear-like strength is the most common element. Because these tales were transmitted orally in different cultures, there are differences among them, and the element of bear parentage may present as simply as the child being raised in a cave. Beowulf scholar R.W. Chambers identified six aspects of the Bear’s Son Tale narrative: a young man of extraordinary strength:

  1. Sets out on adventures and joins with companions;

  2. Resists a magical being in a house which his companions have failed to resist;

  3. Follows the path of the magical being to a spring, or hole in the earth;

  4. Is lowered into the earth by a rope or cord;

  5. Overcomes foes in the underworld, sometimes with the help of a magic sword which he finds below;

  6. Is betrayed by his companions, who leave him in the hole when it was their duty to have helped him back out.

Those with a knowledge of the plot of Beowulf will already recognize some of these elements but not others. Chambers, J.R.R. Tolkien and others identified what amount to the fossilized remains of some of the less apparent Bear's Son motifs in Beowulf. These elements seem to have existed in source material for Beowulf because they tend to coincide with moments in Beowulf where the text is ambiguous or doesn’t seem to follow the logic of the story. The most striking example of this for me, and for the many students I have taught Beowulf, is the death of the Geat, Hondscio, whom Beowulf allows Grendel to eat without raising a finger. From Benjamin Slade’s online translation, Grendel “bit into the bone-locks, from the veins drank blood, swallowed great chunks, soon he had the unliving one all devoured, feet and hands” (742-745). It is hard to imagine lying still while a companion was devoured in this manner. It is grossly inconsistent with what we’ve been taught about an Anglo-Saxon comitatus, or what we would expect of any band of warriors in any time period. Chambers argues that Hondscio is a vestigial remnant of a folktale element where Beowulf and two other companions take turns facing a marauding creature on successive nights. Tolkien goes further in his “Selic Spell,” a tale he wrote to emulate a lost antecedent of the Beowulf story, in which Hondscio and Hrothgar’s adviser Asher were not only Beowulf’s two companions, but they were companions with magic powers of their own; Hondscio (whose name means glove) had magical gloves; Asher (whose name is related to the tree that spears were made of) had a magic spear. Tolkien surmised that Asher in this tradition may also have related to the coast guard who raises his spear to challenge the Geats upon their landing in Hrothgar's lands. Tolkien renamed the characters Handshoe and Ashwood to help them relate to make their natures clearer to English speakers. Again, the Bear’s Son Tales do not need to agree in all details, and some of the typical elements of the Bear’s Son Tale narrative are definitely absent from Beowulf: the rescue of a princess from the hole, for instance. Furthermore, this tale is thought to relate only to the part of Beowulf in which the hero faces Grendel and Grendel’s mother and obviously eschews the courtly particulars of later legendary figures, like Hrothgar, and places, like Heorot.

Standing guard in a dwelling with companions against a monster is an element Beowulf readers will recognize that occurs in both “Strong Hans” and “Asphurtzela.” In both stories, the hero has gathered to him companions who, like him, have supernatural talents. Hans has the aptly named Fir-twister and Rock-splitter, who respectively can twist trees into twine and smash rock with his fists. Asphurtzela has the Clod-swallower and the Hare-catcher, a man who swallows clods of dirt that fly up while plowing, and a man so fast that even with mill stones tied to his feet can catch rabbits. Unlike in Tolkien's “Selic Spell,” the specific superpowers of the companions in “Strong Hans” and “Asphurtzela” do not play any particular role in the stories. The characters are introduced as having special powers, but those powers are not referred to again. Tolkien’s characters not only have special names that reflect their special talents, but use the talents to overcome particular challenges in the tale. Tolkien’s Handshoe uses his magic gloves to open a locked gate and Ashwood uses his magic spear to clear away enemies. I take from these details that Tolkien would have believed that in an earlier version of “Strong Hans,” the Ash-twister’s ash twisting must have played a more significant role in the tale, likewise with the Rock-splitter. Chambers saw the character Stein, in the Beowulf-analogue Grettis Saga as analogous to the Rock-splitter: Stein “seems to represent the faithless companions of the folk tale... for in the folktale one of the three faithless companions of the hero is called the Stone-cleaver, Steinhauer, Stenklover or even, in one Scandinavian version, simply Stein” (Chambers, Beowulf, An Introduction, 66). Detecting evidence of Stein’s power over stone would be thrilling and I will explore this in my next post, reviewing the similarities between “Asphurtzela” and Grettis Saga.

Not only do Asphurtzela and Strong Hans participate in staying alone in a haunted house, but both folk tales have another element, which is not to be found in Beowulf or Grettis Saga, but is notable in its similarity between the folk tales. In both tales one companion is left alone at the dwelling to cook a meal while the other two go hunting. In both tales the supernatural enemy, a dwarf in “Strong Hans,” a lame devi in “Asphurtzela,” appear and demand the companion for food or food and drink. Devis in Georgian tales function as trolls in Scandinavian tales. They can be gruesome and monstrous, but they can also be found living in families in houses just like humans. In both tales the companions refuse the enemy and are beaten or chased out of the dwelling. Finally, Asphurtzela and Hans rout the enemy, who escapes (in two pieces in “Asphurtzela”) to the hole where the next part of the story takes place. I have read that this enemy is sometimes called the giant dwarf in “Strong Hans,” stories, which brings to my mind the lame element of the devi, in that both have fractional natures; they are both powerful and weak. In Beowulf, Grendel’s nature is also split: he is both impervious and torn apart. Furthermore, although Grendel attacks while Beowulf merely keeps watch instead of preparing food, Grendel, like the dwarf and devi, has come for food and is by nature insatiable. When Hans faces the dwarf, he gives him food twice before refusing the third demand and coming to blows with the creature.

Tracking the monster to a hole in the ground is present in both folk tales, Grettis Saga and Beowulf, if one accepts Grendel’s mere to be a hole in the ground, which I do: it is a cave underwater. In the respective tales, the hero and companions follow the enemy to a hole, whereupon the hero is lowered down by rope by his companions. Both Asphurtzela and Hans find captive(s) in the hole; Hans finds one maiden; Asphurtzela finds three princesses. This element does not occur in Beowulf, but a remnant of the next part does, albeit in fossilized form. Both Hans’s and Asphurtzela’s companions strand the hero in the hole after the maiden, or princesses, are extracted from the hole. Chambers and Tolkien see this element in Beowulf when Hrothgar and the Danes lose heart and leave Beowulf behind in Grendel’s mere when blood from Grendel’s mother boils up the surface. A similar thing happens in Grettis Saga, when Stein, entrusted to watch the rope, sees blood below the waterfall and likewise abandons his post. Chambers found it unreasonable that allies would abandon a hero expressly going to kill an enemy when they saw blood bubble up in the water. Clearly blood was in the plan. This then is interpreted by Chambers and Tolkien as a detail from the source material that no longer made sense, but remained in the story in altered form. Unlike the faithless comrades who wish to make off with the reward of the maiden or princesses, neither the Danes, nor Stein, has a motive to betray their hero. In "Selic Spell" Tolkien actually has the Unferth figure, named Unfriend, abandon the rope on which he lowers the hero, here named Beewolf, into the cave. Unfriend purposely leaves Beewolf to die because he bears him a grudge for the insult which we know from Beowulf. Incidentally, it has always seemed suspicious to me that Unferth’s magnanimously-offered ancestral blade would then fail Beowulf in his fight with Grendel’s mother. In early readings, I always expected something to go wrong with Hrunting and I know that my students were always likewise suspicious.

I think that I’ve made it clear that “Asphurtzela” shares many remarkable similarities with the Grimms’ “Strong Hans,” and as such belongs to the tradition of tales identified by Panzer as Bear’s Son Tales, and by Aarne-Thompson type 301, “The Three Stolen Princesses,” or type 650A, “Strong John”. I’ve also shared details to explain why a further study and comparison should be made to determine how many degrees of separation exist between “Asphurtzela” and Beowulf and the Beowulf-analogue Grettis Saga. I will pick up my writing on the topic of “Asphurtzela” and Grettis Saga next.

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