03.03.19, Bruce, Scyld & Scef

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George Clark

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.019


Bruce, Alexander M.. Scyld & Scef: Expanding the Analogues. New York: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xiii, 209. ISBN: 0-8153-3904-6.

Reviewed by:
George Clark
Queen's University, Ontario

Much of the value of this diligently researched book rests in its second part where the reader will find all what seems to be all the relevant genealogies naming Scyld and Sceaf together, separately, or either of them singly along with translations of the Latin, Anglo-Saxon, or Norse originals. Where published translations are wanting, Bruce has supplied the lack. The work's revolutionary argument aims at overthrowing R. W. Chambers' conclusion that "Scyld-Skjold is hardly a personality: he is a figure evolved out of the name Scyldingas, Skjoldungar, which is an old epic title for the Danes...the Scyldingas did not get their name because they were really descended from Scyld, but Scyld was created in order to provide an eponymous father to the Scyldings" (Beowulf: An Introduction, 77-8). Chambers observes that similar people names -- "Rondingas, Helmingas, Brondingas...people of the shield, of the helmet" (ibid, n. 2) appear in old Germanic texts. Chambers' view implies that the meaning of Scyld Scefing in Beowulf 4-52 lies in that narrative sketch.

For Bruce the meaning of the Scyld Scefing prologue resides in a fuller narrative, which we must reconstruct in order to understand the prologue and indeed the poem. Bruce summarizes some important interpretations of Scyld Sefing's place in Beowulf, suggests that these theories fail because "there must have been more elaborate legends surrounding Scyld and his progenitor. We know this precisely because the poem does not tell the audience the full story; it merely alludes to a tale outside the main narrative, a tale the audience presumably would be expected to know" (5). For this contention, Bruce has the support of Thomas D. Hill's "Scyld Schefing..." (Magister Regis, ed. Arthur Groos, 37-47). Eventually, Bruce writes that the "narrative -- or rather the narratives -- of the two heroes" are "fragmented and incomplete" (86).

That conclusion suggests Scyld had no definitive narrative. Bruce's work is intellectually honest, but needed another rewrite. His conclusions on the multiple and conflicting narratives for Scyld and Scef should have been a starting point for the analysis. This reviewer concludes that Chambers was right on the meaning of Scyld Scefing in Beowulf. Bruce's less revolutionary but more convincing contention that Scyld Scefing unites a fertility figure and a warlike ruler or defender supports Hill's position and is consistent with Chambers' reading of Scyld and Scef. Bruce's claim that these genealogies contribute to a "myth of origin" for the English and the Danes especially seems sound but not startling in the wake of Nicholas Howe's work. As he moves from Anglo-Saxon poetry to the Danish historians, Bruce's commentary on his sources guides the reader through the thicket of available facts clearly and economically. He shows that Scyld appears very widely, sometimes at the head of a genealogy, sometimes as a son of Odin, once as a god, at times as part of a genealogy reaching back to Adam and that Scef appears less often and frequently neither as Scyld's father or son, but simply as one name in a list including Scyld's. Various genealogies treat both Scyld and Scef simply as names. Whenever Scyld appears at the head of a genealogy, that position in itself creates a basic assumption for any politically correct story about him, that is, Scyld was a royal success, in some sense a good king.

Later Danish historians characterize the good king Skjold with specific details not paralleled in the prologue to Beowulf. A wide variety of narrative motifs can be called upon to fill out any historian's idea of a good king. Some heroic exploits and even victory in duels can authenticate the obvious truth that the first king in a royal line was a good (virtuous, wise, heroic) king. Saxo's Skjold, at the age of fifteen, overcomes a large bear. Later he wins his wife in a duel with her other suitor. Grettir defeated a troublesome bear early in his career; the youthful Eyjolf (Viga-Glum's father) defeated a young bear in his visit to Norway where he subsequently fought a duel and won a wife.

Bruce has confined himself strictly to texts naming Scyld and/or Scef, but does not compare these with other royal genealogies. A number of these appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of which the first installment or common stock dates to ca. 900. The references just below are to the A text of the Chronicle. Some readers will not realize that the ASC repeatedly implies that a legitimate claim to royal power in Wessex required putative descent, in the male line, from Cerdic. For example, in the famous Cynewulf and Cyneric annal (755), both principals are identified, near the close of the entry, as descendants of Cerdic in the paternal line as was Cynewulf's successor (s. a. 784). The extension of royal genealogies beyond Cerdic seems politically inessential yet one genealogy after another traces a king's descent back to Woden (or to an alleged son of Woden). Cerdic's son Cynric is traced back to a son of Woden (552), but in 855 Alfred's father, and thus Alfred himself, has a vastly expanded genealogy reaching back to Cerdic and at length to Scyld (alias Scealdwa) and finally to Adam. No Scef or Sceaf appears in this genealogy and Scealdwa is the son of Heremod. Heremod was, of course, the bad king who mysteriously disappears from the scene in Beowulf leaving the Danes lordless until the foundling Scyld Scefing grows to manhood and leads them to triumph and prosperity.

In other kingdoms, royal genealogies know no Cerdic or Scyld or Scef but commonly reach back to Woden or, more often, a son of Woden suggesting that a claim of such descent was politically vital. The ealdormann Aethelweard's Latin chronicle of ca. 1000 (based on the ASC including some texts now lost) makes Scyld the father. Scef Scylding miraculously arrives among the Danes who eventually elect him as their king. Aethelweard claimed descent from King Aethelwulf and thus had a personal stake in the glory of this line. Aethelweard gives no names above Scef, perhaps realizing that little social distinction attaches to one's descent from the putative father of the entire human race. Oral traditions often reverse the order of generations or attribute the deeds of the father to a son -- or vice versa -- which might account for the new order of Scyld (Scealdwa) as the shadowy father and Scef as the famous son. The Anglo-Saxon poem "Widsith" has no Scyld and its Sceafa who ruled the Langbeardas may have been associated with the sheaf, but the name could mean "shaver," an intriguing thought considering he ruled the "longbeards."

Bruce argues that Scyld Scefing represents the resolution of the thesis and antithesis of a warrior class (Scyld) versus a agricultural class (Scef), hence Scyld Scefing reflects the conflict of the Aesir and the Vanir and its resolution. The marriage of a Skjold said to be a son of Odin to Gefjon unites a warlike figure with one associated with fertility and agriculture as Bruce notes. Gefjon also seems gifted with powers befitting a divinity or one skilled in magic. Bruce refers (64) to James Earl's belief that the story of Scyld Scefing "defines the dynamic relations between the agricultural and warrior classes" and cites Earl's claim that "war follows upon agricultural but agriculture is prior in time and importance." Earl is a distinguished literary critic, but I would agree only that the surpluses the agricultural revolution produced supported larger forces and more extensive campaigns that those enjoyed by hunter-gatherers or nomadic herdsmen. However, violence between groups in pursuit of political or economic aims, or for its own sake, has accompanied the human race as far back as we can trace. Indeed some of our primate cousins conduct wars.

To find the reconcilation of the ancient gods, the Aesir and Vanir, reflected in the prologue to Beowulf seems attractive, but even this reviewer finds the case less than convincing. Bruce's assurance that the prologue to Beowulf alludes to a fuller story known to the Anglo-Saxons simply assumes the existence of that "fuller story." We could equally well argue that Scyld's mystery virtually excludes a more circumstantial narrative of his origin and his fathering (if Scefing means "son of Scef") by a god or spirit or force of fertility makes the possibility of an allusion to a fuller story even more remote. If Scef is the divine, hidden, father of Scyld the founder of the Danish dynasty, he plays a part rather like that of Woden who often appears at the head of Anglo-Saxon dynasties not in his own person but in the patronymic Wodening (son of Woden). Cynric's genealogy ends (ASC A s.v. 552) "...Beldeg Wodening," and so too Ceolwulf's (ASC A and C s.v. 597), and Offa's closes (ASC C s.v. 755) "Wegdeg Wodening." Though the chroniclers were Christians (and monks), their genealogies imply that the king at the top of the list was a human son of the god. Naturally the implication is theologically incorrect, but in Scandinavia Christian authors reported that Thor visited various distinguished persons in vain attempts to regain their loyalty. Although the older Icelandic sources are directly influenced by the English tradition, Scyld and Scef are separated in them, or only Scyld appears. The Danish sources begin with authors familar with Icelandic materials, but Scef never appears in any of them. Various genealogies (with and without Scyld/Scef) add names above Woden and, as first in the case of King Aethelwulf and his famous son Alfred, genealogical overkill can lead back Adam.

Bruce sees these extensions as conscious attempts to link Germanic past as represented by Scyld and Scef with the "Judeo-Christian past," but expanded genealogies especially in Scandinavia seem to link the Germanic world with universal history and especially classical history. The ultimate compliment to one's ancestry becomes, as in Snorri, descent from the Trojans, the men of Asia, the Aesir as Snorri would have it. Thus the genealogy of Sigurur (below) links that Icelander with Adam and the patriarchs along with figures like Jupiter, Darius, and Priam and thence to Thor and his sons including, surprisingly, Hlorii (i.e. HlorriÝi, a name for Thor in the Poetic Edda) and a grandson Vingethor (i.e. Ving-thorr, a name of Thor in thrymskvia 1). The twelth-century Langfeatal makes Hlorithi Thor's son and Vingethorr his great-grandson.

Part II of Bruce's work, whether his revolutionary case be granted or not, makes a valuable contribution to Anglo-Saxon studies. Scholars will find the materials for their own arguments set out in careful detail. The Anglo-Saxon and Latin texts -- to judge from checking a generous sample of them -- seem free from typographical error, but a few minor slips appear in passages from Norse sources and I have a few minor quibbles with one or two of Bruce's translations. The basic materials are in very good order taken one by one, but appear in an order without discernable benefit or rationale, that is, in the order of the alphabet, by author if one is known, by the title if not. Thus Aethelweard's Chronicon (late tenth- or early eleventh- century) comes first, followed by the Aettartala fra Adam til Sigurar a Grenjaarstoum, a late sixteenth-century Icelandic genealogy listing 89 generations from Adam to Thorleifur Arnason who presumably fathered Sigurur who lived at Grenjaarstoum. Mercifully, Bruce cuts the list off at 44, one generation after Skjold's second appearance (he's at 37 also; Scef alias Sesep appears at 32). Bruce's decision not to give his sources in the same generally sensible order in which he discusses them (Anglo-Saxon poetry, Anglo-Saxon prose, later English, Icelandic, and Danish sources) seems unaccountable. But why segregate Anglo-Saxon verse and prose sources? Perhaps Bruce hesitated to take position on the relative date of Beowulf which he diplomatically calls an "Anglo-Saxon poem of uncertain date." Bruce more daringly describes Widsith as an "Anglo-Saxon poem of perhaps the sixth century." Although the 80s began with a determined effort led by the "Toronto school" to date Beowulf late, recent scholarship has made a strong case that our surviving MS preserves an early poem. In the Aettartala fra Adam generation 26 runs: "Hans son Lorika er ver kollum Hloria," which should be rendered " whom we call Hlorii" (nominative singular) and so too Eredia (generation 27) in Norse-Icelandic is Indrii.

Bruce precedes each of the ASC texts with the same remark (" historical chronicle started in the late ninth century and providing records from 60 BC until 1070..."), but the probable date of the several ASC texts (or of the cited passages) would have been helpful. He quotes the whole text of ASC A for 855, but thereafter truncates successive chronicle passages to the few lines immediately relevant to Scyld and Scef. Bruce might have observed how closely the several texts followed A up to the passage he quotes. In the Annales Slesuicenses the missionary Poppo chirotecam ferream ignitam illesus portauit inspectante rege Haraldo which Bruce translates "unhurt, carried a glove of iron containing fire to the observing king Harald" (101) but might be rendered "...uninjured, carried a red hot iron glove while king Harald watched." Bruce's citation from the bilingual Fragmentum...de rebus Dano-Norvegicis (111) begins in Norse "Uphaf allra frasagna i Norrenni tunga theirri er" which should be "tungu (dative singular) theirra (genitive plural)" to judge from the Latin Origine omnium historiarum in lingua septentrionali earum, quae, but I do not have Langebek's edition at hand and "i Norraenni tungu theirri" would be "in this Northern language." In the Saxonis Gesta Danorum (139) the clause a quo gramhaeraeth nuncupatur should be "for whom the district Gram is named." Bruce cites Zeller's edition of Snorri's Edda (145) which I have not, but clearly "ßaer e voru miklar ok..." (line 5 from the bottom) must have read "ßaer voru miklar ok..." and at 148 "ni u sonu" (first line) had to be "niu sonu." In Snorri's Ynglinga saga (149) "fyrir ßeim ofrii" (dative singular) is "because of that state of war" rather than "these hostilities" and d'ar is a computer glitch (which Bruce's translation has correctly). The same glitch appears in the index (208) in the entry beginning "Danasaga Arngr'ms..." In the Vibaetir vi Olafs sogu the first line cited runs "ßessu riki styrdi eingi einn milli..." which means that "no one ruled this kingdom singly (einn)" rather than "no one ruled this kingdom between..." The index is helpful as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. Bruce's work is, on the whole, valuable and should stimulate a deeper examination of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse treatments of Scyld and of royal genealogies in the Old Germanic world and its successors.

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George Clark

Queen's University, Ontario