The unique manuscript (ms.) Cotton Vitellus A. XV containing Beowulf is now in the British Library (formerly called the British Museum). The ms. was damaged in the fire at the Cotton Library, and although it is complete, parts of the ms. are very difficult. Two scribes penned this ms., the second beginning at line 1939 and continuing to the end. The Early English Texts Society has published a facsimile edition, and several excellent editions of the old English text with useful introductions and notes have been produced; the most complete are those edited by Frederic Klaeber (Boston: D. C. Heath, 3d ed., 1950); C. L. Wrenn, fully revised by W. F. Bolton (London: Harrap, 1973); and Elliot van Kirk Dobbie, Beowulf and Judith, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (ASPR) IV (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953). All these have useful bibliographies. The arrangement is best in Wrenn, the rehearsal of suggestions and emendations by scholars fullest in ASPR, but Wrenn's edition is the most recent.
Dating of the poem is still under debate. The references in the preceding paragraph all have something to say about it, and dates from the sixth century to the early eleventh century (the date of the ms.) have been proposed, only two very early linguistic forms occur and scholars have often edited these out. Those interested in linguistic questions must study the original poem. The note to line 1850 mentions the one early construction that affects the translation. Since in my own mind I must try to settle the question, I feel that eighth or ninth century consorts well with the language, the interest in Danish affairs, and the mixture of christian and Germanic virtues.
The tale, however, is not about times contemporary with the poet. The date of these intertribal quarrels is fifth century, a time of vessels made of hides stretched over a wooden frame and tarred for waterproofing. They were seaworthy, but best for coastal travel by sail or oars. Legend has it that one Irish hermit crossed to the New World, and a twentieth-century adventurer built such a ship and succeeded in making the same trip with it by using oars only to get beyond the coastal currents and then letting the ocean currents carry him north toward Iceland and then west toward Greenland. Those vessels were difficult to steer, for they had no keel and were hardly the "foamy-necked voyager" that the poet anachronistically introduced to take Beowulf south to Denmark. The poet describes the clinker-built Viking vessels that he knew, like that holding the ship-burial in the mound at Sutton Hoo, excavated just before the Second World War. The story of this discovery and the owner's gift of it to the British Library is told in detail in Rupert Bruce-Mitford's Sutton Hoo Skip Burial, 2d ed. (London: British Library, 1972); a two-volume version by Bruce-Mitford and others (same publisher, 1983); and Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology: Sutton Hoo and Other Discoveries, also by Bruce-Mitford (New York: Harper's Magazine Press and Harper and Row, 1974)
Scyldings Shelter Scyld.
The poem begins with the legendary coming of Scyld as a baby set adrift alone in a boat and arriving on the Danish coast penniless. But when he grows up he becomes unifier, leader, and king of the Danes, On his death he is again set adrift, but now the boat is piled high with treasure and the standard floats in the wind on the mast above him. He leaves a son, Beow, already famous as a king in South Sweden (the northern part of Denmark in the fifth century). In the poem Scyld's son is called Beowulf, probably by confusion with the later hero, but for better meter and conforming to Norse genealogies, like some other translators I have used the traditional name.
Danes, Danger, Daring.
Beow carries on the Scylding line as a good and able ruler and is succeeded by his son Halfdane. Halfdane in turn is a worthy king, and has three sons--Heregar, Hrothgar, and Helga--and a daughter, Yrsa, who marries Onela of the royal line of Sweden. Halfdane is succeeded by his eldest son, Heregar, who leaves a son, Hereward, but he is passed over for the inheritance, and Halfdane's second son, Hrothgar, becomes king when Heregar dies. Hrothgar shares the throne with Hrothulf, son of Helga, the youngest brother. Hrothgar rules long and well.
With the kingdom stable, Hrothgar orders that a great banquet hall be built. Workmen from far and near are brought to build and decorate this royal building. Its fine workmanship and gilded gables are famous abroad as well as in Denmark. Hrothgar names the hall Heorot or Hart. (Tradition places it near Leire on Zealand, a few miles south of Roskilde,) The drinking, laughter, and carousing of the warriors as they relax of an evening provoke a savage monster named Grendel. Only gradually do we learn details of the creature, but later it takes four men to carry his head on a spear, and his arm ends in a paw with sharp claws like steel spikes. For weeks and months Grendel visits Hart Hall nightly, devouring sleeping warriors and carrying off others to the moor to feed on later. At last only after drunken boasting to guard the stronghold does anyone linger in the hall after dark.
News of Hrothgar's assailant travels eventually to other lands, and Beowulf, sister's son to Hygelac, King of the Geats, with somewhat grudging consent from his uncle, sails with chosen companions from southwestern Sweden on the east coast of the Oslofjord. When the coastal watchman learns that they have come to Hrothgar's aid, he shows them the path to Hart. The Geats set out in marching order.
At Hart the Geats enter with greetings and courtesies on both sides that show the observation of etiquette in the court. King Hrothgar had earlier given protection to Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, when the Swedes did not wish to get involved in his blood-feud with an eastern Germanic tribe that he had offended, Hearing Beowulf's name, Hrothgar recalls hearing of the extraordinary strength and fine reputation of the Geatish hero. The Geats are warmly received and Beowulf is seated on the bench with Hrothgar's young sons. No Dane has confronted Grendel successfully. But the enthusiastic welcome to the Geats angers Unferth, Hrothgar's official spokesman. He taunts Beowulf for having been defeated in a swimming contest with Breca.
Beowulf sets the record straight by recounting the dangers--attacking sea-monsters, storms, vast distances--and claiming that they had merely arranged a kind of boyish hunt for sea-beasts, Separated by the storm, they swam different paths; Breca to Romerike in Norway, Beowulf to the land of Finns. Beowulf ends his retort with a taunt that Unferth has slain his own brother, the ultimate crime, even by accident. At nightfall Hrothgar and all the Danes leave Hart Hall to sleep elsewhere, leaving Beowulf and the Geats to occupy the hall benches, risking their lives.
As darkness descends Grendel comes trudging toward Heorot and pushes wide the doors with his huge paw. He lays hold and munches down the nearest warrior. Beowulf has vowed to use no weapon, since Grendel uses none. Later the Geats learn that Grendel has put a spell on all weapons so that none can harm him. Next he reaches for Beowulf, but the hero grasps his arm and rises to his feet. In the ferocious struggle that follows, the hero wrenches off the monster's arm. The sounds of the combat terrify the Danes outside: Grendel howling with pain, tables and benches torn up and overturned, Hart shaken to its foundations. Grendel, leaving a trail of blood, struggles back to the mere and dies. Beowulf fixes his arm high above the hall at the gable-end.
Hrothgar and all the Danes gather in the hall to admire the hairy paw and its vicious claws. Then, after following the bloody spoor to the mere they return in high spirits, composing a song of Beowulf's adventure. They tell also of the dragon-slaying of Sigemund and his nephew Fitela. The warriors race their horses and return rejoicing to Hart,
They come back to a banquet of celebration, After the feast a bard sings the story of Finnsburg and the sorrow of Hildeburh. (The early part of this feud is told in the Finnsburg Fragment, given after the poem of Beowulf.) In this story, we learn of the deaths of Hnaef and his sister's son, then in the renewed battle, the death of Finn, Hildeburh's husband. The banquet ends with most generous gift-giving by Hrothgar to Beowulf, Then Hrothgar and Wealhtheow, his queen, go to their room apart, and Beowulf, too, is favored by a room elsewhere, while the Danes at last dare to sleep in the hall.
Monster-Mother of the Mere.
During the night Grendel's grieving mother comes from the mere, snatches a sleeping Dane, then, spotting the arm, jerks it from the wall and carries that and the dead warrior back to the mere. In the morning Hrothgar is again plunged in sorrow, An honored leader, Ashhere, is dead. Unfortunately the Geats have been given benches less exposed to intruders.
When Beowulf hears of the new trouble, he again offers his help, Hrothgar tells him of a mysterious land not far away, where two strange creatures have been seen, one a huge male, the other a female. Unferth presents his heirloom sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf to use against this new foe. The king mounts his horse and conducts the Geats to the edge of a pool. When Beowulf leaves, he asks that the gifts he received the night before be sent to Hygelac, King of the Geats, if he himself never returns. Hrothgar and some of his men return to Hart; the rest and the Geats settle down to wait while their leader plunges into the pool.
Grendel's mother realizes someone is invading the mere and grasps Beowulf. He is attacked on all sides by submarine creatures, but his armor protects him as the sea-monster carries him down to the depths. He finds himself at last in a vaulted hall where the water cannot reach and a fire burns in the depths beyond. When he deals the creature a blow with Hrunting, the sword will not bite, and he tosses it aside and grabs her. But she upsets him and sits on top of him, trying to cut through his armor with her knife. Beowulf sees a giant sword on the wall, tosses her off and seizes it, With a powerful blow he decapitates her.
The fire flares up and he sees Grendel lying dead. He cuts off his head with the giant sword, and Grendel's hot blood melts all the sword-blade but the hilt. With the hilt, Hrunting, and Grendel's head Beowulf swims back to the surface. Meanwhile the Danes had seen Grendel's and his mother's blood discolor the water and, sure of the worst, had returned to Hart. But the Geats are all there to meet their chief on his return. They help him--four carrying Grendel's head--bring the spoils back to Hrothgar's court.
Beowulf tells briefly his adventure in the heart of the mere, mentions that Hrunting did not avail him, and tells how he saw the wondrous sword hanging on the wall and with it slew the great trolls. He presents the hilt to Hrothgar, who reads on it the runes telling of Noah's flood and the name of him for whom the sword had been made. In his acceptance speech Hrothgar praises Beowulf but warns him against becoming too self-confident and arrogant. An early Danish king, Heremod, is an example of how one greatly favored by God may become a selfish and violent ruler. Parsimony is the unforgivable sin of a ruler. Hrothgar presses this point in a lengthy sermon, a poor reward to a hero who has twice risked his life where no Dane would go to rescue these foreigners. Hrothgar concludes by promising to reward Beowulf in the morning.
A feast follows, but they retire soon after. In the morning Beowulf returns Hrunting to Unferth, thanking him but with great tact saying nothing of its having failed him. The Geats are now restless so the hero says farewell and they return to the seacoast where their ship rides at anchor. He offers further support to the Danes if ever they should need it, but Hrothgar takes a tearful farewell.
Happy with the treasure Hrothgar has donated, the Geats return to Hygelac. Once in his presence Beowulf gives him all that he has received, including the heirloom sword of Heregar that had been denied his son Hereward. To Hygd, the young queen, he gives the Brosings' necklace, gift of Wealhtheow. Hygelac matches the gifts with money and lands. Hygd is especially commended as not like Thryth in arrogance toward her suitors before she followed her father's counsel and crossed the sea to marry Offa.
Beowulf's account of his adventures in Denmark tells a number of details that had not been revealed before. Handscioh is the name of the Geat killed by Grendel before Beowulf laid a hand on him. The monster was equipped with a large pouch in which he stuffed the victims he did not devour on the spot. Then Beowulf foretells the fate of Hrothgar's daughter, not perhaps Wealhtheow's daughter, for her sons were younger and she pleaded with Hrothulf to treat them fairly. This story, like that of Finnsburg, was doubtless well known to the poem's audience. It is another of a young bride, Freawaru, married off to patch up a feud. But the old hard feelings are easily wakened and Ingeld falls out of love with Freawaru through no fault of hers.
The Dragon and Death.
Transitional matter is disposed of in a few lines. Hygelac is killed on the continent, fighting the Franks. Hygd asks Beowulf to become king and protect her young son Heardred. Beowulf refuses the rank, but promises to protect Heardred and lead the army for him until he is old enough to take command. Heardred as king gives refuge to the sons of Ohthere, who have rebelled against their uncle, Onela, King of Sweden. The Geat is killed in an engagement that arose from these Geatish wars with the Swedes. Thereupon Beowulf becomes king (and possibly marries Hygd).
A digression tells how the last survivor of an ancient race buried their treasures in a cavern. Long after, a dragon (wyrm) finds it and becomes its self-appointed guardian. Beowulf comes to the throne and rules for fifty years. During his last years as an old king a slave of one of his vassal lords discovers the cavern and investigates, finding the treasure and the sleeping dragon. He steals a rich cup to placate his master and brings the cup to his lord. The dragon wakes, realizes the hoard has been plundered, and then nightly flies about with its fiery breath burning stronghold, village, and countryside. Beowulf says it is his duty alone to bring peace. First, knowing no other way to face the blaze, he has an iron shield made to protect him from the flames.
By this time the cup has been turned over to the king. Beowulf takes eleven picked men with him, and the terrified thief--the thirteenth man--to show the way. Leaving his men at the entrance, he challenges the dragon with a mighty shout and enters the cavern to face it. In the ensuing combat, though his shield gives him some protection, the claws and jaws of the wyrm and its flames stronger than ever are overwhelming him. His men take to the woods, all but his kinsman, Wiglaf, a Swede referred to as prince of the Scylfings. Beowulf has had forebodings about this fight, and now his blow is weaker than he had hoped. Wiglaf urges the others of the troop to go with him to aid the king, but in vain.
The dragon makes a second attack, but Wiglaf dashes in to the shelter of Beowulf's shield. Beowulf strikes with his own sword, Naegling, but it shatters. At the third assault the dragon grasps Beowulf's neck in its poisonous jaws. Wiglaf strikes for the underbelly. Meanwhile Beowulf draws his dagger and slashes the wyrm open in the middle. The fire begins to subside; the two kinsmen together have killed the dragon.
But the bite was venomous. Exhausted and in pain Beowulf sits on a stone ledge while Wiglaf bathes him with water to revive him. The king asks him to bring some of the treasure that he may gauge its value. Wiglaf hastens farther into the cave and brings back an armload of precious heirlooms and a banner woven of golden thread. But on his return his king is near death. He sprinkles him with water and he rouses briefly, asking that they raise his tomb on Whale's Cape. Then he dies.
The other ten slink into the cave. Wiglaf lectures them on the duty of thanes to their lord in payment for the arms he gives them. Then they push the dragon over the cliff onto the rocks below and prepare the funeral pyre and the barrow on the headland.
The treasure is buried below the tomb, forever useless as before. A solemn procession of thanes tells Beowulf's glorious deeds and a Geatish woman croons a lament. In the final summing up it is not his strength and courage that they laud, but his kindness, thoughtfulness, and hope to be remembered with praise.
The Early Germanic Background
Although Beowulf does not appear in any of the Norse chronicles and it is to be guessed that he and the mythical monsters he encounters are fiction, yet the poem presents a world foreign to us, but very much that of the early middle ages when it was written. On the one hand we have references to old legends of the sorrows of Hildeburh, Ingeld and his wife Freawaru, Sigemund and Fitela, and the troubled wars of the Geats and Swedes, the Danish royal line, a glance at the taming of Thryth, and olden customs and assumptions. Because so much knowledge is assumed, perhaps some explanation at least of the important sense of values and motivations of those days of old can point the direction of further investigation and greater understanding.
Even commonplace matters--the kind of warfare and weapons, the differences between that world and the more recent Arthurian period--need clarification. The watchman at the coast has a horse so that he can oversee greater distances and get back to his lord before an intruder--friendly or hostile--invades his presence. Moreover, Hrothgar, an old king, rides to the mere to show Beowulf the way. All the fighting is done on foot. Armor is light to be a protection, not an incumbrance. The great hairyfooted destriers of the knights of Camelot had not yet been bred. Rather those who rode went on the plump, sturdy ponies of present Norway and Wales. Armor was either linked chain-mail or heavy leather studded with metal, reinforced with metal discs or rings, but surely no plate armor of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Spears or javelins were mainly for throwing, not the heavy rigid lances that the Arthurian knights used to poke each other from their steeds. Bows and arrows were used by trained bowmen. The art of fletching (mounting feathers on an arrow so that it would spiral in a straighter line) took special training. But the smiths were the most honored of the class of armorers, since they forged the great two-handed falchions, the claymores of the Celts, that we know most recently in the great weapons used for the execution of criminals in the fifteenth century. Often these were old, taken from a vanquished enemy or the gift of a lord to a vassal for unusual distinction in combat. They were heavy and awkward in a close encounter. Shorter one-handed weapons and daggers were better to manipulate except by the strongest and most experienced of warriors.
Although there was none of the ritual of vigil, vows, and prayers as for the knights of later centuries, there was a formal pledge to one's lord. In return the soldier was given his equipment for carrying out his duties. Wiglaf taunts the other members of Beowulf's picked troop of eleven who do not come to the king's aid against the dragon. Beowulf had given them their swords and armor; they offer him no return. Plundering the dead and defeated could also bring in equipment. It is recognition of some such sword of his father on an alien hip that causes the feud to break out between Ingeld's Heathobards and the Danes and leads eventually to the burning of Hart Hall (lines 81-85; the son-in-law is Ingeld, to whom Hrothulf betrays his uncle's banquet hall; see also lines 2022-2069). Since plunder and gifts were presented to the chief, as Beowulf gives those from Hrothgar to Hygelac, these were not only passed along to new members of the household, but also became part of the tribal hoard, like that the dragon presides over.
The treasures buried in the royal cenotaph (an empty tomb without a body) at Sutton Hoo contained shield ornaments, a sword, and a helmet that showed Swedish workmanship or Swedish design (see Bruce-Mitford, "The Swedish Connection," Chapter X of the 1983 edition of Sutton Hoo Skip Burial, and Mitford's Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, pp. 47-52), Although Beowulf is an English poem in a mixture of dialects, it shows no Swedish influence in the telling. Yet the hero's father was Swedish, although he marries the Geatish King Hrethel's daughter, as Hrothgar the Dane's sister is married off to the Swedish prince Onela, both princesses probably to cement friendship between warring nations. Of course any connection between the fictional adventures of Beowulf and a real king's cenotaph at Sutton Hoo is not to be assumed. But the mixture of treasure can lead to speculation that the closeness of various Germanic tribes was a reality in the view the poet gives us of his own world. The burial was early in the seventh century; one scholar has dated the poem from the late seventh and another places it contemporary with the manuscript, three centuries later. Archaeologists do not fully agree that the mound at Sutton Hoo was a cenotaph, but in any case the grave objects are a mixture of christian and pagan, just as the poet realizes that the Danes were still pagan, yet Hrothgar's counsel is compatible with the christian ethic, Usually Raedwall is thought to be the king honored, for he was the first East Anglian ruler to be converted, though his wife remained pagan and later he joined her in pagan worship. The burials of Scyld and of Beowulf are pagan in details, although by the eighth century England had accepted christianity.
Bowmen were called in when a village or fortress was under siege, but bows were not part of the equipment of the lord's special troop, This group is often called the "comitatus," a Latin term for English duguth, one of the Old English words lost with what it designated. The adjective "doughty" is all that remains. These were the best and most trusted of the men around the lord. Beowulf is the most trusted of Hygelac's "duguth," Wiglaf of Beowulf's.
"The enemy" is an important part of war. As in Northern Ireland today and in the Near East, as well as in many other parts of the world, the foe was not a stranger of vastly different culture, but very often a neighboring tribe. We are used to hearing that all we need is a common language or knowledge of each other's languages to come to an understanding, but there is no evidence that even the more widely separated Germanic tribes like the Danes and Heathobards had difficulty communicating with each other, Danish and Norwegian--and with only a little more difficulty, Swedish and Danish--are mutually understandable. The political divisions do not divide the cultures. Moreover, frequent intermarriages kept the bonds close,
Even more of a problem for us is understanding the role of women and what their lives were really like.
A Woman's Place
A woman was always under the authority of a man. At the same time, he was responsible and some women made a great deal of trouble for their husbands by promoting feuds, running up debts, even instigating the servants to steal for them. But in Beowulf the women are mere pawns in a man's chess game. A woman's freedom was very likely in the domestic sphere where she had her handiwork, her female companions, her decisions, and her responsibilities. Perhaps by comparison with some strict, secluded religious groups like the Catholic orders, the Moslems, and some of the strict Protestant groups like the Amish we can grasp what the women's satisfactions were in spite of their restrictions.
Beowulf tells of rebellious Thryth, harsh toward her suitors and apparently indulged by her father until King Offa fell in love with her and made her happy, but only after she did as her father wished. The other women in the poem are married off as "peaceweavers" to strengthen the temporary friendship of formerly hostile tribes. Wealhtheow may have been such a one, although the peace is broken outside the poem and merely hinted at in the tale. Even then the quarrel is not directly because of her, but she is a Helming from an East Germanic tribe from Pomerania, a Wylfing, like the warrior that Ecgtheow had slain, and from that same general area came the Heathobards. Hrothgar has married off his daughter to Ingeld, a Heathobard, to bring peace, but these rise up and storm Hart. Hrothgar's associate, Hrothulf, son of Helga, betrays Hart to Ingeld, and Wealhtheow's sons are killed, in spite of her earlier pleas to Hrothulf after the banquet for Beowulf's ridding Hart of Grendel and his mother.
The only duty we see a lady undertake is distributing mead, wine, or ale to her husband and his visitors. There was doubtless etiquette in the serving depending on where one sat. The ladies would offer superior drinks to their lord, his special guests, or the hero of the moment and possibly his family, Ale, perhaps sweetened with honey (you can still try it at the old capital of Sweden at Gamla Uppsala from one of their special goblets), then plain ale and beer to the warriors of less prestige than the duguth. Drunkenness was not frowned on. "Flushed with wine" is a frequent epithet in the tales and songs, but often in connection with foolish boasting or daring.
Perhaps you have already noted that the names given sons alliterate with their father's name in many of the western Germanic tribes. The Danes after Halfdane were Heregar, Hrothgar, and Helga, Helga's son was Hrothulf, Heregar's son Hereward. Another branch had Hoc, father of Hnaef and Hildeburh, but hers is the only woman's name that so alliterates. Hrothgar's sister is Yrsa, his daughter Freawaru. The Swedish royal line alliterated: Ongentheow, Ohthere, Onela; the next generation Eanmund and Eadgils. But Wiglaf is called "prince of the Scylfings" and his name does not alliterate with the others but with that of his father, Wihstan. The name of his kinsman Beowulf does not alliterate but is possibly a nickname--the bee-wolf, or bear--recalling his prodigious strength. In contrast note the names of the eastern Germanic Heathobards: Ingeld, son of Froda. This naming convention was surely useful to the poets composing verses praising a man and his ancestors, and we, too, can make use of it as a mnemonic to keep straight some of these relationships. Beowulf's father was Ecgtheow, a Swede; was he of the royal line? Some scholars have wondered if Beowulf may not be the nickname of Alfhere, unidentified, but mentioned as kinsman of Wiglaf.
What we know with more certainty is discussed in the introductions, notes, and appendices of the editions of the poem mentioned earlier, as well as in commentaries on the poem, Two excellent ones are R. W. Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of Offa and Finn, 3d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); and G. N. Garmonsway and Jacqueline Simpson, Beowulf and Its Analogues (London: J, M. Dent and Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1968). In this latter volume, the analogues are all translated as well as the poem, one further commentary gives an excellent account of some themes and the geography of the underwater cave: W. W. Lawrence, Beowulf and Epic Tradition (Cambridge, Mass,: Harvard Press, 1930). More recent but based on speculation rather than certainties is Edward B. Irving, Jr., A Reading of Beowulf (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968). Irving is a sensitive reader and his hunches are interesting, even when not compelling.
The historical sources are chiefly Scandinavian, presenting a world similar to that of the poem with many tribes associated by marriage and geography, for the most part following the same or similar customs. It was a pagan world, unlike England of the eighth or ninth centuries, which was largely christian. Just how christian the poem and its spirit are has been debated. For a variety of facets of this matter, see the essays (especially the one by C. L. Wrenn) in L. E. Nicholson, ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (Notre Dame, Ind,: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), and Bernard F. Huppé, The Hero in the Earthly City: A Reading of Beowulf (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, SUNY, Binghamton, 1984 [with translation]). Other topics that are of interest are also discussed in Nicholson's collection. It has been pointed out that only Old Testament characters and stories are referred to and the poet sees no conflict between christian and old Germanic values. Funerals of Scyld, Hnaef, and Beowulf follow pagan customs. The hero wishes praise after death from men, not permission to enter the Pearly Gates. None of the rituals of christianity is imposed on any characters, and once in a while the poet remembers that they worshipped at heathen altars.
Close family ties in Norse story led to two customs. One is the importance of the sister's son, who is sent to fosterage in his mother's family. The daughter of a household was often given in marriage to a warrior as a reward for outstanding service (Hygelac's daughter to Eofor for killing Ongentheow, the Swedish king), or more regularly--as pointed out in the discussion of women's place above--to a hostile tribe to fix a peace-bond (Hildeburh to Finn, Freawaru to Ingeld, probably Wealhtheow to Hrothgar, Hrethel's daughter to Ecgtheow, and Yrsa to Onela). Neither Wealhtheow nor Yrsa sends her children back to her family in the poem.
The second consequence of strong family feelings and coolness toward other tribes in Norse accounts is incest. From such unions comes the perfect hero with courage, strength, and all the "right stuff." In Norse stories Hrothulf's mother is Yrsa, sister of Helga, his father, Helga and Hrothulf are the great warriors and Hrothgar is a weakling. In the Norse version of the Sigemund story, Fitela is his son by his sister, who deliberately enters into the relationship in order to bear a son who can take vengeance on her husband. In Germany incest also appears in the story of Siegfried.
But the Anglo-Saxons took a different view. In tales from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries King Arthur's incest occurs unwittingly, at least on his part, and the child, Mordred, is a dark, treacherous figure who brings the end of Camelot. In Beowulf Hrothulf is called "brother's son," suhterga, for Old English had many specific words for relationships that the later language has lost.
The tensions of the poem stem from sibling rivalry and resentment of slights. Hrethel takes in Beowulf, his daughter's son, when he is only seven. (Her brothers are not eligible to do so; they are perhaps quite a bit younger than she, for Beowulf seems little younger than the youngest, Hygelac.) Hrethel treats his grandson like one of his sons (lines 2429-2434), but the young Geats, probably Hrethel's elder sons, Herebald and Hathcyn, might well have thought of their nephew as a potential rival and called him lazy and unpromising (lines 2183-2188). The rivalries in Hrothgar's house are even clearer, although many scholars have admired him as the nearly perfect king. He says of his older brother, Heregar, "He was better than I," but he denies his nephew, Hereward, his right, in contrast to Beowulf, who refuses the throne when Hygd offers it but guards the country until Hygd's son is of age. Heregar's splendid sword Hrothgar gives to Beowulf, not to the son, Hereward. Hrothgar's fellow ruler is not Heregar's son, but Hrothulf Helga's son. The outcome is only hinted at in the poem but explicit in some of the Norse versions: Hrothulf betrays Hart to the Heathobards and the stronghold is burned. But eventually Hereward shows his mettle and wins the Danish throne after slaying his cousin.
More has been said of the Danes than of other tribes, for Hrothgar and his court are defended in two of Beowulf's contests. But when the scene changes to the Geats and Swedes, other peoples become important. The Geats are the Hrethlings, descendants and followers of Hrethel. Herebald, his eldest son, is accidentally killed when his younger brother, Hathcyn, shoots amiss at a target. Hrethel dies of grief soon after, and Hygelac, the youngest son, succeeds, with Beowulf, his sister's son, as chief warrior.
The poem tells us little of campaigns and battles, but in a skirmish between the Swedes and Geats the Swedish king, Ongentheow, kills Hathcyn. This takes place before Beowulf goes to Denmark, but the chronology of the action is not clear in the poem. After Beowulf's return Hygelac undertakes his fatal expedition to the continent and Beowulf guards the Geats until Heardred assumes the kingship. Heardred offers shelter to Eanmund and Eadgils, Ohthere's sons who rebel against Onela, who, if the younger brother, would be a usurper, like Hrothgar who denies Hereward his birthright. It should be noted, however, that not primogeniture, but rather a pledge of loyalty from the duguth, determined the succession. By talking down Hereward's qualifications, Hrothgar could justify his action.
Heardred's support of the rebellious brothers is disastrous. Wihstan, whom we meet later as father of Wiglaf and relative of Beowulf, a Swede like Ecgtheow and loyal to Onela, kills the older of Ohthere's sons, Eanmund. Heardred, too, is cut down in one of the skirmishes with the Swedes. In other texts we learn that the second brother, Eadgils, eventually kills his uncle, Onela, and claims the Swedish throne himself.
We hear nothing of Beowulf's involvement in the actions that led to the death of his uncle and king, Hygelac, though he does slay Dayraven who killed him, Nor do we hear of him in the Swedish wars when Heardred is slain. Now, however, he becomes king of the Geats and lives as a distinguished ruler for "fifty years." Was it that Beowulf with a Swedish father had conflicting loyalties? The poet, too, seems sympathetic to the old king Ongentheow, bravely defending himself against the young Geat brothers, Wulf and Eofor. The old king badly wounds Wulf, but Eofor strikes him down, and Hygelac honors his warrior with his daughter as bride.
So much for what we can glean from historical documents.
Parallels with a number of folktales and some of the sagas suggest the background of Beowulf's battles in Denmark and Geatland. These analogues are given in the sources cited. But the structure of this "main action" of the poem deserves comment. Grendel is Beowulf's most easily destroyed opponent. They fight without shields or weapons, and it is as much Grendel's eagerness to get away as Beowulf's strength that pulls off his arm so that he bleeds to death in his underwater home.
Although before the encounter with Grendel's mother the poet says the hero was as much less troubled as a woman's strength is less than a man's, yet he takes his armor and Unferth's sword, Hrunting, when he dives into the pool. In the struggle she trips Beowulf, he falls, and she sits on him, trying to cut through his armor with her knife. But of course the hero is able to toss her aside and regain his footing. When he strikes her, Hrunting fails him, but he sees a magic sword on the wall (perhaps the motif of the monster to be killed only by its own weapon) and decapitates her. Not her blood but Grendel's when Beowulf takes his head as a trophy melts the swordblade, The hero is victor, but hardly as easily as when he tore the arm from the son.
In the final fight with the dragon Beowulf has misgivings as to the outcome. He refuses to ask for help, though he does have a special metal shield made to ward off the dragon's hot breath, His blow is weaker than of old, but his young relative, Wiglaf, rushes in and by stabbing the dragon on its underbelly helps Beowulf to destroy it. Yet the dragon's venom kills the hero shortly after. This then is the hardest battle of all.
But consider the three adversaries. The least formidable was Grendel, a monster angered by the joy of others, greedy, brutal, laughing at the slaughter and devastation he brought on Hrothgar. His mother, however, comes for vengeance, her heart heavy at the loss of her son, lonely in her empty lair. Finally the dragon has stumbled on an unguarded hoard, buried long ago in a rocky cavern, Knowing the duty of dragons, it coils itself about the gold to protect it. After many years a thief finds the entrance, steals inside, and carries off a rich cup. On waking, the wyrm senses the violation and flies off on nightly excursions, burning crops and villages with its blazing breath and even demolishing the Geats' stronghold, Beowulf is doing his duty as king when he attacks it; the dragon is doing its duty as a dragon when it retaliates. The only lawbreaker is the thief.
The translation is more or less imitative of Germanic alliterative verse. A more exact imitation is compromised by an effort not to distort modern English into something awkward and unintelligible. English has changed much since the Norman Conquest; the changes filled the language with French and latinate vocabulary, often with accompanying loss of the old Germanic words. Articles developed only later, pronoun subjects cannot now be omitted, the word order has become fixed, and these changes are as much for grammaticality as for intelligibility. On the other hand inflectional endings have been lost or reduced so far that the most frequent rhythm of old English--ending on an unstressed syllable--has given way to the iambic rhythm of the modern language.
To be accurate in interpretation and keep to the alliterative meter I have here and there used uncommon words, but except for a few--wyrd for "fate" or "Providence," wyrm for "dragon"--the terms can be found in any Collegiate Desk Dictionary. Also a few of the possibilities of Old English appear here: "hand and hard sword" shows the alliteration of a preceding adjective, rather than the noun; some negative adjectives like "unknown" may alliterate on the vowel or N; but finite verbs, regularly unstressed in old English, may or may not be stressed, for they are differently placed in the older language. Loss of inflectional syllables is somewhat compensated for by using particles that follow a verb as a drop (unstressed syllable), as in phrases like "tell it," "try to."
The discussion now becomes even more technical. Only students of Old English might find some profit in it.
Eduard Sievers is the German scholar who examined alliterative verse to determine the acceptable patterns. Although his scheme suggests only four syllables in the half-line, or verse, that is for the most part the minimum length. But there is no need here to give more exact rules. In the list below the letters indicate the frequency of each type of verse: A the most frequent, etc. Major stresses are marked /, secondary \, the drop X; the first half-line is called the on-verse, the second the off-verse. A: /X/X; B: X/X/; C: X//X; D1: //\X; D2: //X\; E: /\X/.
To accommodate the modern tendency to use articles, this version has more lines than the original showing anacrusis in types A, D, and even E (where it was avoided), but in these types I have tried to limit anacrusis to a single syllable, though it may not be the kind of particle occurring in Old English anacrusis.
Alliteration counts only on stressed syllables: moRose, reWard, perMit (verb), Permit (noun). As in Old English SP-, ST-, SK- alliterate only with themselves. In names HR- alliterates on R (Hrothgar), HN- on N (Hnaef ), WR- on R (wrong), and Hygelac is pronounced "Heelac," Heremond "Haremund," Sigemund "Seamund." Modern words that may be pronounced differently as the speed of utterance differs (wanderer or wand'rer, reveling or rev'ling, heaven or heav'n, foreigner or for'ner) may be pronounced as fits the meter. Geat alliterates on Y and probably would be pronounced, had it survived, to rime with either "mates" or "meets" (like the poets Yeats or Keats). Scyld Scefing should be pronounced "shilled shaving." Of modern words, "one," if stressed, alliterates on W. In short, sound not letter determines the alliteration.
Some verses here are set out some spaces toward the left margin. These are the hypermetric lines, and in a number of early poems, as in Beowulf (lines 1162-1168, 1705-1707, 2994-2995), they occur in clusters of varying lengths. These lines have in part a regular pattrern of one of Sievers' five types, but to the on-verses a third, non-alliterating lift and drop or drop and lift is added. This additional stress follows the regular type in the on-verse, but is prefixed to it in the off-verse.
[sample verse omitted]
For a concise summary of Sievers' study of metrics, see any edition of Bright's Old English Grammar and Reader. The most recent is that by Frederick Cassidy and his colleague Richard Ringler (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971). Although there are other studies and theories, they are for students of Old English.
[sample verse omitted]
Now we have heard stories of high valor
in times long past | of tribal monarchs,
lords of Denmark, | how those leaders strove.
Often Scyld Scefing | by the shock of war
kept both troops and tribes | from treasured meadbench,
filled foes with dread | after first being
discovered uncared for; | a cure for that followed;
he grew hale under heaven, | high in honor,
until no nation | near the borders,
beyond teeming seas | but was taught to obey,
giving tribute. | He was a good ruler.
To him a boy was born, | a baby in the homestead,
whom God grants us | as gift and comfort
to ease the people. | He apprehended
dire trouble dogged | those destitute people.
But the Lord of life, | Leader of heaven,
offered them honor, | earthly requital.
Beow was famous-- | abroad well renowned--
throughout south Sweden, | the successor to Scyld.
Thus should a fine young man | on his father's throne
give generously, | and do good to all
so that when aging, | old companions
stand by him steady | at the stroke of war,
his people serve him. | By praiseworthy deeds
each must prosper | in every tribe.
Scyld passed away, | shut off as fated,
forth-faring strong, | to his Father's hands.
To the ocean current | then his own comrades
bore him among them, | as he had bidden them
while their loved leader, | lord of Scyldings,
yet might rule his speech; | his reign had been lengthy.
There at the harbor stood | the high-beaked vessel,
ice-marked and eager, | their own king's transport.
Then they laid him down, | their loved chieftain,
ring-renderer, | to rest amidships,
their master by the mastfoot, | Many a treasure
from distant countries, | adornments, were laid there.
I heard of no comelier | keel made ready
with war weapons | and weeds of battle,
bills and breastmail, | on his breast there lay
piled in plenty | portioned treasure
that would fare afar | in the flood's embrace.
Not at all less they allowed | of allotted treasure,
of princely riches, | than those people did
who at time's threshold | turned forth alone
that little baby | on that lone journey,
There a standard stood, | streaming golden,
high overhead, | They let the heaving sea
bear him on the billows. | They had brooding thoughts,
mournful spirits, | Those men could not
tell indeed truly, | though they gave trusted advice,
that warriors over waters | welcomed that burden.