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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Is the Georgian Folktale "Asphurtzela" an unrecognized Beowulf Analogue?

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Beowulf Mural, Robert Eva, photographer, Sheerness, Kent, Great Britain, 2017

I've found some details in a Georgian folk tale that align with tales that are said to be related to the origins of the Beowulf story. The background theory here is that Beowulf, the long, Old English poem, had been told in different folk traditions and that perhaps more than one story came together and was eventually crafted into the work of literature we have today. The details I will provide here relate to the Beowulf analogues and wouldn't necessarily be recognized by readers of the poem.

The Georgian tale “Asphurtzela” includes mortal struggles with trolls and a dragon, but those details weren't the clincher for me. What struck me was the journey he makes with two super-powered companions in which Asphurtzela is lowered into a cave to find princesses and is then betrayed by his companions, who drop the rope and shut up the cave. Various scholars (including Tolkien and Chambers) believed that Beowulf's encounter with Grendel was originally a story where three heroes each took their chance sleeping in the hall and the first two were eaten. Both scholars suggested that Hondscio, the unfortunate Geat whom Beowulf essentially lets Grendel eat, would have been one of these companions, and that the event in Beowulf is basically a calcified remnant of a character that doesn't especially make sense anymore, but would have if Hondscio stayed in the hall alone on a previous night.

Tolkien's 2014 Beowulf; A Translation and a Commentary includes a rendition of the Beowulf story, titled "Selic Spell," as if it were a folk tale precursor of the epic poem. In this version, Tolkien emphasizes the fairy-story nature of Hanscio and Hrothgar's Asher by naming them Handshoe and Ashwood. Handshoe has magic gloves and Ashwood has a magic spear, and as is familiar in fairy stories, these characters each try and fail to defeat the troll, raising the stakes for Tolkien's Beewolf to succeed. In "Asphurtzela," the hero Asphurtzela's companions are the aptly-named "clod-swallower" and "hare-catcher," because the one is able to eat clods of dirt and the other is so fast, that even with mill wheels tied to his feet, he can catch rabbits. As in Tolkien's "Selic Spell," Asphurtzela and his companions take turns facing a troll opponent and only Asphurtzela is successful and only on the third try.

Another similarity between Beowulf and "Asphurtzela" is that in both stories, the hero is abandoned by his comrades in a troll cave. In Beowulf, the Danes all think that Beowulf is dead when he fights Grendel’s Mother when blood bubbles up in the mere. The Danes lose hope and leave the mere, but Tolkien believed this was a remnant of a purposeful betrayal and in "Selic Spell" actually has the Unferth figure, named Unfriend, abandon the rope he lowers Beewolf into the cave on, purposely leaving him to die. Asphurtzela's companions purposely close the cave entrance with stones leaving him to find his own way out after Asphurtzela provides them with captive princesses for wives.

I have not completed my survey of literature related to a recognized analogue of Beowulf, called Grettis Saga, which could provide a sort of missing link between Beowulf and the Georgian “Asphurtzela.”  Like Beowulf and “Asphurtzela,” the hero Grettir defeats successive trolls. Like Asphurtzela and Beewolf of Tolkien's "Selic Spell," he is also lowered down a cliff (or into a cave) and as in Beowulf he is thought to be killed by the troll and he is abandoned. In Grettis Saga, the hero is left by a priest named Stein, who, like the Danes, believes his hero to be dead. I have searched, so far in vain, for a theory I believe I have read that suggests that Stein in Grettis Saga may also have started as a folktale figure with supernatural powers, the power over stones. If this is correct, Stein would seem to have something in common with Asphurtzela's earth-eating companion. This is my final task in bringing together the details from sources I had read years apart from one another, but have had the nagging sensation that I should review to pull together meaningful correspondences.

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