The Familial and the National (ll.53-63) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The macro in the micro
Grazing the matter of interconnection
Closing

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Abstract

Beow, the son of Scyld rises to power, and his son Halfdane’s children are named.

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Translation

“Then was the burden on Beow, son of Scyld,
that dear king of men, for several long seasons
he was reputed among the people; while his father departed elsewhere,
a lord of earth. Until he Halfdane awoke
to match the father; he held, while he lived,
aged and battle experienced, the joy of the Scyldings.
In unbroken succession he woke four children
in the world: a daughter I believe,
then Heorogar, and Hrothgar, and Halga also;
I have heard that […] the daughter was Onela’s queen,
that war-Scylding’s beloved bedfellow.”
(Beowulf ll.53-63)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The macro in the micro

Every now and then in Beowulf you can see the weave pattern at work from line to line. Interestingly, the first few lines of this extract are just such a point.

From lines 53 to 57 references to Beow and to the recently departed Scyld are found on every line. What makes these lines extraordinary, though, is that the clauses of each line alternate between having Scyld or Beow as a subject. This gives the section the effect of Beow being borne up on Scyld’s reputation, almost as if Beow would never have been as lauded as he is had Scyld not died.

That’s not to say that this points towards some sort of power intrigue on Beow’s part. I think that it’s just a matter of showing how succession would work, the heir being fuelled by his predecessor’s reputation until the heir’s own reputation grew to become self-sustaining.

That the final two lines of this pattern (56 and 57) feature Scyld in the first half and Beow in the second sustains my reading since their very structure resembles that of a parent propelling their child onwards. Not to mention the appearance of Beow’s own son Halfdane in the midst of this spiral, a placement that sets him up as a ruler able to derive great glory from the swirling power of his ancestors. And, to pass this power on to his own children.

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Grazing the matter of interconnection

Keeping an eye on the larger patterns of the poem and how they show up in smaller extracts, at this one’s end we get the first mention of a major player in the poem.

Onela is the king of the Swedes who kills Hrethel, the father of Hygelac. So, for all of the Geats great rivalry with the Swedes, the Danes aren’t entirely excluded from the scene since Hrothgar’s sister is married to the Swedish king. In fact, later in the poem, Beowulf kills Onela, though no mention of Halfdane’s daughter is made.

What all of these connections point to is a keen awareness of the need to construct a world that is imminently familiar to an audience so that monsters aren’t just accepted but believed. The scops or scribes who composed Beowulf must have been keen observers of their times, as all lasting writers are, but all the more so to delineate the sorts of interconnections that are so characteristic of Norse myth and legend.

In a way this tight weave between families and people was a matter of survival. Without the central authority offered by a unified government or monarchy, each social group would need to defend itself.

Marriage ties were often the best way to do so, as they could spare life and the cost of battle (both the human cost and the supply cost – I can’t imagine farming or fishing or hunting in Northern Europe at the time saw anyone laying up great stores of stuff with which to trade. After all, the scent of extra fat on a social group could draw the sword teeth of another, probably desperate, group.).

From a perspective of nascent nationalism, it seems, then, that barriers between people were more porous (at least in the world of the poem, which we can only assume to be a reasonable facsimile (monsters excluded) of the time at which Beowulf was first being composed) than they are now. Yet at the same time, though ties between nations may only have been a marriage away, none of the groups in the book willingly turn away from their own origins.

Perhaps that steadfast memory of family is what fuelled so much of the conflict of the time. A desire for safety and security clashing with a fierce sense of identity brought on by seeing yourself as standing on the shoulders of your forebears. How many times does the poet refer to Beowulf as the son of Ecgtheow, or to Wiglaf as the son of Weohstan?

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Closing

Next week, the poet jumps ahead to the creation of Hrothgar’s gleaming Heorot hall, and to the young ruler’s ambitious ideals.

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