The IMDb info about the soon-to-be-released Beowulf film suggests that Neil Gaiman and his partner in literary mutilation probably waded into the tale with a raft load of Viking stereotypes – buff boys called Leif or Olaf or Arnulf wearing horned helmets and tight, fur-lined shorts (with the fur on the inside. Eek!), waving battle axes around, and quaffing ale by the hornful. You know the deal. As I noted the other day, some of the characters in the film are not in the original story and are sporting names which would never have been found there.
I see that one of the hits I’ve had was someone searching for a list of names of characters in Beowulf and added Ursula for good measure. Perhaps the searcher couldn’t recall whether there was a character of that name in the epic poem.1 Anyway, whoever you were, I can assure you that there’s no character called Ursula in the film and that Ursula isn’t even an Anglo-Saxon name. (Yes, I know Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, but whoever composed the poem wasn’t big on trying to add local flavour in a milieu which would’ve been familiar as part of the Germanic world anyway.)
I had thought that Ursula might’ve been inspired by the name Yrsa, but the latter is also a character in the film. Actually, Yrsa is not actually mentioned in Beowulf. Line 62 of the poem says
Hyrde ic þæt… wæs Onelan cwen “I heard that… was Onela’s queen”
Yrse/Yrsa is often supplied as the missing name, but it’s a guess. Although I don’t know the etymology of the name, it may well be related to Ursula which, to me, looks like a hypocoristic form. Yrse, on the other hand, is probably from *Urs-jōn- (bit of guesswork on my part, so don’t quote me without consulting a decent reference library first).
Yrse may not have much of a claim to be in Beowulf, but Ursula has no claim whatsoever.
1. Probably most decent editions of Beowulf will include a list of personal names. I know Alexander’s edition (Penguin Classics) does (it’s sitting here beside me), and I’m certain Klaeber’s edition does as well. I expect there’s probably a list somewhere on line.
[10.09.14. I’ve seen the film of several of Gaiman’s books , which have all been utterly dreadful. Possibly his books are unfilmable, or the films reveal what a bunch of arse the books are. Beowulf is not particularly filmable either, but he managed to make it worse.
I read Neverwhere a few years ago and didn’t rate it. I’m a little sceptical about recommendations for books from people whose critical faculties are rather questionable because I’ve had people rant about Anansi Boys who were on drugs. I suspect Gaiman’s works are only good if you’re stoned when you read them. A survey of some of the reviews for his books on Amazon suggests that being stoned helps a lot.
My other feeling about Gaiman is that though he might be a Brit, he’s too Americanised. Mind you, that’s Britain all over, which is one thing annoys me about the UK. Americans are a bunch of foreigners who merely happen to speak some antique [sic] version of our language, but are otherwise not as like us as we like to think. (Straying off topic. –ed.)
For some reason he makes me think of Jane Goldman, Jonathan Woss’s amply bosomed wife. No, I don’t know why. Is it because Kick Ass isn’t really American, but British, and my mind is going?]