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Two Trolls and a Dragon Walk into a Tale; Bridging the Grettir-Fafnir Divide in Beowulf

Updated: Sep 23, 2020


Two devis relax over a game with pieces that look suspiciously like human bones at Musthaid Park in Tblisi, Georgia. Devs are troll-like creatures in Georgian folk tales. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.


Books I’ve read about Beowulf analogues are invariably broken into two parts: the stories that resemble events from the first half of the poem and stories that resemble the second half. It’s the Grettir-Fafnir divide. The stories about protagonists fighting trolls or other giant humanoid horrors resemble the Grendel section and stories about dragon slayers resemble the dragon section. And this has always seemed reasonable because I hadn’t ever seen a story that incorporated both. That is, until I read “Asphurtzela.” The Georgian folktale, translated by English scholar Marjory Wardrop in 1894, opens with a hero killing two trolls (and a troll’s mother) and finishes up with conflicts with two dragons. I have not seen scholarly analyses of the tale by Beowulf scholars and feel that "Asphurtzela" must be entered into the record and addressed. Not only does Asphurtzela battle trolls and dragons, but many of the details of his encounters in these conflicts also exist in Beowulf. This article lays out the concordances between the poem and the folk tale with the understanding that these moments of agreement, as striking as they are, may still be the result of coincidence. That said, “Asphurtzela” deserves a place in Beowulf scholarship to rival those of Grettis saga and European folk tales like "Strong Hans." I also analyze the nature of the similarities between the folk tale and poem and offer suggestions for how the similarities could be based on a missing tradition of tales or traditions. This is the third of a series of articles investigating the possible relationship between “Asphurtzela,” Beowulf and the Beowulf-analogues Grettis saga and “Strong Hans.” There are links to those pieces at the bottom of this article.


Missing Fathers


In keeping with Friedrich Panzer's Bear’s Son tales, Beowulf and Asphurtzela are separated from a father. In Beowulf’s case, he knows of his father Ecgtheow and speaks of him proudly, but it is not clear what became of him or if he was part of Beowulf’s life. Beowulf has a father-son relationship with his uncle Hygelac and was raised by his grandfather and uncles. Hrothgar provides what we learn about Ecgtheow, whom he rescued from a feud by paying wergild, which seems to have motivated Beowulf’s expedition to Heorot Hall: his desire to repay his father's debt. Asphurtzela is born after his brothers and sister go searching for their father and are captured by a devi, a creature that resembles and functions very much like trolls in the Scandinavian tradition. His mother had mysteriously recommended that they go searching for their “patrimony,” but the story is silent on exactly what that means. As with Bear's Son tales, Asphurtzela is born through magical means, via an apple given to his mother by a stranger. When Asphurtzela is old enough to learn of his sibling's captivity, he goes on a quest to rescue them.


Dominating Through Words


Beowulf and Asphurtzela’s first physical battles are preceded by a battle of words and wills. Beowulf’s famous flyting scene with Unferth establishes Beowulf as the alpha male in Heorot, a man able to face down a verbal attack and a challenge to his ego. This verbal competition seems to prove him worthy to face Grendel. When Asphurtzela faces the hundred-headed devi, he first establishes himself as the devi's better in ways that his brothers previously failed. Granting hospitality to his guest, the devi asks Asphurtzela if he would prefer a bed or a stables; meat or the bone; the small or large container of wine. Whereas his brothers repeatedly choose the smaller or lesser choice, Asphurtzela always chooses the better. In choosing the lesser offers, Asphurtzela's brothers mark themselves as unworthy of respect and doomed to lose. Asphurtzela marks himself as a man of courage and self-respect. He not only chooses the better lot each time, but he berates the devi for offering him less than he deserves. When offered bones or flesh, Asphurtzela says: “Why should I eat bones? Am I a dog that I should do this?” (75). When offered a bed or stable, he says: “I am a man, what should I do in the stable? Give me a bed,” (75). Aspurtzela thus forces the devi to take the lesser accommodations and food and thereby places himself above the devi in the devi's own house.


Sneak Attack at Night


The Grendel episode can be compared to the Asphurtzela's contests with two separate devis. Like Grendel, the hundred-headed devi that Asphurtzela first faces lives with its mother. Asphurtzela first outwits the mother, who had facilitated the devi's kidnapping of his siblings. When the devi sees Asphurtzela, flames shoot from his eyes much as Grendel's do when he first sees the Geats sleeping: “From his eyes shone an unlovely light, most like a flame” (726-727). (Author’s translation, based on Benjamin Slade.) The elements of a sneak attack by night, and the hero outwitting the troll are present in "Asphurtzela." When Asphurtzela lies in bed, he is awoken by the sound of the devi sharpening a giant sword. Guessing his intentions, Asphurtzela puts a log in his bed and hides elsewhere. The devi chops the log in two and leaves and Asphurtzela then shakes off the bed and sleeps peacefully. The episode, along with the eating scene, is reminiscent of stories of the Norse god Thor's conflicts with trolls -- except that Thor is usually the one being outwitted. Asphurtzela and the devi wrestle when the devi, to his surprise, discovers Asphurtzela unscathed the next morning. The fight is short and the devi is outmatched: “The devi struggled and struggled, but could not move his brother-in-law. Then Asphurtzela attacked him, and buried him in the ground up to the neck” (76). Beowulf’s fight with Grendel is more developed than this, but it is similar in a crucial way. The moment Beowulf gasps him, Grendel is unable to gain power over him: “quickly (Beowulf) grasped his evil plan and clamped down on (Grendel’s) arm. At once the shepherd of atrocities discovered he had not met on earth, in the whole world a greater hand grip in another man on earth” (748-752). Beowulf and Asphurtzela then, immediately have their enemy in their power. Asphurtzela kills the devi and its mother with his arrows, which is unlike Grendel's escape, however, the second devi that Asphurtzela kills, by cutting it in half with an arrow, continues to move. Just as Grendel leaves a trail of blood to his lair, the second devi's head rolls to a hole in the ground, kicking off another episode in the story that resembles Beowulf's descent into Grendel's mere, and the analogous episode in Grettis saga.


Betrayals


In Beowulf and “Asphurtzela” the hero is betrayed or abandoned repeatedly. Beowulf's lack of a father reframes Beowulf as an orphan and outcast when he narrates his upbringing in the second half of the poem. Hrothgar and the Danes later leave him for dead when the blood bubbles up from Grendel’s mere after he kills Grendel’s mother. Finally, Beowulf’s men abandon him in his final battle with the dragon. Asphurtzela is similarly a figure who generally cannot count on the help of others. This begins when his mother deceives him about his missing siblings and his jealous brothers tie him to a tree after he saves them. They intend to abandon him, binding him so tightly “blood poured from his fingers” (77). Asphurtzela is again left to his death when he goes into the hole in the ground. His new companions draw up the princesses he finds and then cover the hole with rocks. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a folklore version of Beowulf intended to show what a missing link between the poem and the extant Bear’s Son Tales could have looked like. In Tolkien’s “Selic Spell,” the Unferth figure accompanies the hero to Grendel’s lair and lowers him down on a rope, only to abandon him. In a previous piece on Beowulf and “Asphurtzela” I investigate the similarities between “Asphurtzela” and the Beowulf-analogue Grettis saga, in which a companion abandons the rope Grettir expects to climb after facing a troll.


Voracious Enemies


Beowulf and Asphurtzela both face ravenous foes of fractional natures. Grendel, of course, eats thirty men in his first accounted attack on Heorot and then devours the Geat Hondscio, which the poet dramatizes in gross detail: “He quickly grasped a sleeping warrior, rended without restraint, bit into the bone-locks, from the veins drank blood, swallowed great chunks, soon he had the unliving one all devoured, feet and hands” (740-745). Grendel is also a physical being with magical protections and his cannibalism makes him beast-like while his emotions mark him as human. Protected by magic from the blades ordinary men could use to defeat him, it requires a man of superhuman strength to defeat him without weapons. Grendel is therefore invulnerable and torn apart; terrifying and, in a moment, pitiable. Asphurtzela’s second adversary is the lame devi, who demands food from him and his comrades and finally threatens to devour each of them: “'If thou wilt not give me to eat, I shall eat thee and thy food too'” (80). The lame devi's split nature makes him, like Grendel, strong and weak and as I wrote in a previous piece, this puts them in the position of an antagonist of the Bear's Son tales, as the giant dwarf from the Bear’s Son Tale “Strong Hans” is both large and small. The devi’s lameness is never described and plays no role in the plot. His family of devis leaves him behind in the house (hidden in a chimney) but they could just as easily leave a fully able devi behind to spy. And despite its lameness, the devi is more than a match for Asphurtzela's superpowered companions. The lame devi's name alone marks him as lame. This seems a significant detail because there is no obvious reason for the devi to be lame (or the dwarf to be a giant) and when details in stories are never followed up it makes me wonder if something may have been lost in their transmission. This is the logic that Beowulf scholar R.W. Chambers followed in determining that Grendel's mere was meant to be a cave behind a waterfall, and that the setting was imperfectly adjusted to address the new English audience that had no experience with Scandinavian waterfalls.

Dragons


St. George the dragon slayer, 15th Century enamel icon, Art Museum of Georgia, Tbilisi.


In an prior piece, I established "Asphurtzela" as a tale with enough motifs to categorize it as one of Friedrich Panzer's Bear's Son tales, but the Bear’s Son tales were only meant to demonstrate how the Grendel section, including the fight with Grendel’s mother, could have been based on a folklore tradition. However, in addition to the Beowulf-like conflicts with trolls, “Asphurtzela” also includes a fight with a dragon. Like his conflicts with the trolls, the fight with the dragon is described in a sentence. I will therefore focus here on the point of greatest similarity between the dragon fights in the poem and folk tale, which is their settings. Both fights occur in or near a symbolic underworld, as Beowulf stands at the boundary of the dragon’s cave and Asphurtzela faces his dragon in a fairyland-like underworld.


“Asphurtzela’s” dragon episode introduces an entire kingdom underground that seems more like a fairyland, or in modern fantasy parlance, another dimension or plane of reality. Asphurtzela, trapped in the hole his companions shut him in, disregards instructions from the maiden he saved and puts his head under a stream and is “immediately carried to the lower regions” (80). This land is later contrasted with “the land of light” (82). There is no real physical detail to allow a reader to understand it as subterranean other than our knowledge that he has journeyed far underground. Asphurtzela is able to “wander about,” suggesting the land is large. He also finds an old woman’s cottage and travels to a well and meets a princess and the king of this land. The old woman and princess tell Asphurtzela that the dragon has stopped the water until it is given a human sacrifice. In this, the dragon resembles the Vedic serpent Vritra, a symbol of drought, and several other Indo-European myths dragons or serpents that cut off the water supply and must be defeated by a storm god to return the rains. As in Beowulf, “Asphurtzela’s” dragon is also a “fiery dragon” (80). Asphurtzela makes short work of the dragon with his arrows.


Beowulf’s dragon lives in a barrow from which issues a stream that is scalding hot: “the brook’s surge, hot with deadly fire, he could not near the hoard without burning” (2546-2548). As with Beowulf’s adventure in Grendel’s mere, the description of this stream is not very easy to follow. The text suggests that there is a natural spring flowing from a cave, but that it has been super heated by the passive heat of the dragon’s breath. Beowulf is burnt by the stream before he alerts the dragon to his presence. I have spent many readings of Seamus Heaney's translation of this passage unclear as to where the heat issues from and it may be that in looking at the original text I filled in blanks. Beowulf’s dragon is not a cause of drought, but as with the dragon from “Asphurtzela,” a source of water has been affected and it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to conceive of the water being more of a central issue in an earlier iteration of the tale. Beowulf’s dragon, in the Scandinavian tradition, is a hoarder of gold. This likens him to Fafnir of the Volsung Saga, a tale referred to in Beowulf. All evidence in Beowulf and other Old English texts clearly link good kingship with gift-giving and bad kingship with greed. Beowulf's Heremod shows that a king who stops the flow of gold stands in the way this culture operates, interrupts its economy, and Heremod's men betray him. If Anglo-Saxon kings were the central hub of the society, literally making it work, Beowulf's dragon is an inversion of a good king. The dragon in Beowulf is clearly a gold-hoarder and is also repeatedly described with the words and formulae otherwise reserved for kings. The dragon is a hordweard (2293), hoard-guardian, as opposed to kennings for king, folcesweard (2513) and a folceshyrde (2981), defenders of people. Hrothgar is also called goldwine gumena (1171), gold-friend of men, and the Old English poem "The Wanderer" twice uses goldwine as a kenning to indicate a king. Where the Anglo-Saxon culture and economy depended on the free flow of gold from the king to his thanes, perhaps the tradition of dragons hoarding gold grew out of a drought story of a dragon hoarding water. Perhaps the scalding, dragon-polluted stream in Beowulf reflects that earlier tradition.


In my study of “Asphurtzela,” Beowulf, “Strong Hans” and Grettis saga, I have found the closest correspondences between “Asphurtzela” and “Strong Hans,” and “Asphurtzela” and Beowulf. “Asphurtzela” definitely possesses the elements of the Bear’s Son Tale “Strong Hans,” but with its dragon episode, more closely resembles Beowulf than “Strong Hans.” There is more work to be done to chase this investigation to its end. A closer investigation of “Asphurtzela” in its original language and of translator Marjory Wardrop’s notes to the story are two ways to further this study that I don’t at the moment have access to. Neither have I investigated all of Friedrich Panzer’s Bear Son tales in order to see how closely they align with “Strong Hans” and “Asphurtzela.” These resources would be more easily obtainable if there were not a global pandemic affecting libraries, but I will surely continue looking for ways to answer my questions and satisfy my curiosity.


But what do you think? Is it worth while to even study Beowulf analogues? Do you think all of these similarities are evidence of a relationship, or shared history? Do you think it's all coincidence? Let me know in the comments.


This piece is the third in a series on “Asphurtzela” and a possible relationship with Beowulf. If you liked this post, read “No Stone Unturned,” and “‘Asphurtzela’ and the Bear’s Son Tale Tradition.” The first piece compares Steinn from Grettis saga with the Clod-swallower from “Asphurtzela,” and the second gives more context the theory that the Grendel-section of Beowulf could have been based on a folk tale.

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