Beowulf as spiritual achiever (ll.1840-1854)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

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Hrothgar says that Beowulf will make a good king, if he ever gets the chance to take the throne.

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The Original Old English

“Hroðgar maþelode him on ondsware:
‘þe þa wordcwydas wigtig drihten
on sefan sende; ne hyrde ic snotorlicor
on swa geongum feore guman þingian.
þu eart mægenes strang ond on mode frod,
wis wordcwida. Wen ic talige,
gif þæt gegangeð, þæt ðe gar nymeð,
hild heorugrimme, Hreþles eaferan,
adl oþðe iren ealdor ðinne,
folces hyrde, ond þu þin feorh hafast,
þæt þe Sægeatas selran næbben
to geceosenne cyning ænigne,
hordweard hæleþa, gyf þu healdan wylt
maga rice. Me þin modsefa
licað leng swa wel, leofa Beowulf.'”
(Beowulf ll.1840-1854)

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My Translation

“Hrothgar spoke to him in answer:
‘The Lord in his wisdom sent those words
into your mind; never have I heard wiser words
from one so young in age.
You are of powerful strength and of wise mind,
with wit in your words. I consider it something to be expected,
that if it shall happen that the spear takes him,
if fierce battle seizes the son of Hrethel,
if illness or iron edge claims your lord,
the guardian of people, and you still have your life,
then the Sea Geats will not have
anyone better to choose as king,
warrior of hoard guardians, if you will rule
the kingdom of your kin. The better I know you,
the more I like you, dear Beowulf.'”
(Beowulf ll.1840-1854)

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A Quick Question

If this was set in a democracy, Beowulf definitely has Hrothgar’s vote. But, since the world of Beowulf is more of a feudal monarchy, Hrothgar’s words are at least a ringing endorsement of Beowulf. If (if!) he should ever be king. Since he’s not Hygelac’s son, or an heir in any other direct way, Beowulf can’t exactly bank on being king of the Geats.

The real story here, I think, is in the first few lines of this passage.

I can’t quite get over Hrothgar’s saying that “‘the Lord in his wisdom sent those words/into your mind'” (“þe þa wordcwydas wigtig drihten/on sefan sende” (l.1841-1842)). There’s something here to suggest that Beowulf was indeed written down by a Christian monk (or monks) who wasn’t afraid to add a bit of Christianity into their copying.

I mean, if Hrothgar is complimenting Beowulf on being a medium for divine wisdom, then it seems to me that he’s saying Beowulf has a direct line to the divine law that’s inscribed on the hearts of all good Christians, according to medieval theology. In other words, Beowulf is in a spiritually perfect state, despite his youth.

But I can’t really justify that reading of those few lines.

Nothing else in Hrothgar’s speech seems to have been Christianized, nor point in that direction. The list of potential killers of Hygelac just seems like a list of fatal things. There’s no “live by the sword, die by the sword” about it. But I think that, even if some meddling monks did make a few subtle changes to the poem, the Catholic Church in northern Europe saw Beowulf as a way to bridge Germanic paganism and Christianity.

After all, Beowulf was a figure that could blend the brazen machismo of figures like Odin or Thor with a righteous warrior persona who put on the armour of the holy spirit. I think that side comes out when Beowulf chalks his victory over Grendel up to god, and why the poet says things like ‘fate must decide’ or that god was on Beowulf’s side.

But where’s my proof for this interpretation?

Well, Beowulf’s battle prowess can be seen pretty plainly in his boasts and when he actually takes out Grendel and the monster’s mother. It’s something that the poet can show us as well as tell us.

But that doesn’t make him a complete person in the medieval mind.

To do that, he also need to have achieved spiritually. But that’s harder to show convincingly.

Though Beowulf’s emerging from the Grendels’ lake at around the same time as Christ is said to have given up his spirit when on the cross could get this across, if your audience or readers were familiar enough with that part of the Easter story. There’s also Beowulf’s harrowing the monster’s lair, just as Christ harrowed hell, according to the Catholic Easter story.

Yet character isn’t just revealed through actions. It’s also learned through what other people say about a person. So, as a long time and mostly successful king, Hrothgar’s saying that god put those words into Beowulf’s mind (and the implication that Beowulf was able to release them as they were) is definitely a legitimate way to show that Beowulf has obtained some level of spiritual achievement.

But that’s all just my theory. What’s your take on Hrothgar’s words to Beowulf? Is there any secret Christian meaning in them, or is Hrothgar just saying “hey Beowulf, you’ll be a good king” and nothing more?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Hrothgar gets political in his farewell speech.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Beowulf as spiritual achiever (ll.1840-1854)

  1. Pingback: Beowulf: A growing character or diplomatic chameleon? | A Blogger's Beowulf

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