Hrothgar’s talk of gifts hides anxiety about society

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Question
Closing

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

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Synopsis

Hrothgar congratulates Beowulf on restoring peace.


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The Original Old English

“‘Hafast þu gefered þæt þam folcum sceal,
Geata leodum ond Gardenum,
sib gemæne, ond sacu restan,
inwitniþas, þe hie ær drugon,
wesan, þenden ic wealde widan rices,
maþmas gemæne, manig oþerne
godum gegretan ofer ganotes bæð;
sceal hringnaca ofer heafu bringan
lac ond luftacen. Ic þa leode wat
ge wið feond ge wið freond fæste geworhte,
æghwæs untæle ealde wisan.'”
(Beowulf ll.1855-1865)


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My Translation

“‘You have brought it about so that by all people it shall be said,
by the Geatish people and by the spear Danes,
we have a shared peace and ceased strife,
ended the enmity that we once endured,
and that it was while I ruled over a wide kingdom,
over common treasures, greeted with gifts
many others from across the gannet’s bath.
The ring-prowed ships shall ever bring
gifts and love-tokens across the heaving crests. I of thy people
know that you are firm with friend or with foe alike,
steadfast in every respect in the old ways.'”
(Beowulf ll.1855-1865)


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A Quick Question

Hrothgar here declares that Beowulf has brought about peace. And, since he’s a delegate from the Geats, his defeating the Grendels means that Danes and Geats share a strengthened bond now. No doubt the talk of treasure flowing freely between their nations underscores this new-forged peace, too.

But I can’t help but notice how Hrothgar puffs himself up here on lines 1859-1861. Here Hrothgar notes that Beowulf brought about this peace while he ruled generously over many, though we never really see that many. In fact, Hrothgar’s calling this out about himself seems strange because when I think of proper medieval speech-giving, I think that rulers need to be humble. If anyone boasts about a ruler’s accomplishments, it’s an underling like a herald or a standard bearer of some kind. Maybe if Grendel’s mother hadn’t dragged Aeschere off, he would be the one saying these things, though. After all, he was the one who announced Beowulf in the first place, I believe.

Setting aside matters of humility and hierarchy, though, I hear a strong note of doom in Hrothgar’s final lines. There’s just something in his calling the Geats “steadfast in every respect in the old ways” (“æghwæs untæle ealde wisan” (l.1865)). This statement suggests that there are new ways that aren’t so clear cut. But what are these new ways? Switching allegiances at random?

Since this poem is set in the distant past, did those old ways die out while the new ones took over? To the people hearing and reading Beowulf in the 11th century, was the past that this poem presented where ideals of honour and being true to your word lived in the same way the middle ages as a whole are where those things live for many people today?

The fact that Hrothgar notes the Geats’ steadfastness in the old ways as a positive thing definitely suggests that they’re becoming harder to find. So does that mean that even in the era of Beowulf, honour among clearly defined allies and enmity towards equally well-defined foes was a fading quality in people? Or could this line have been altered by the Christian monks who put the poem to paper to try to dispel notions that the pre-Christian past was a better time?

As with many of the themes and ideas in this poem there are no clear answers to these questions. But, that’s the beauty of discussing literature, it’s all a matter of interpretation and opinion. So, what do you think of Hrothgar’s final words to Beowulf? Inscribe your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar gives some sweet gifts and Beowulf and the Geats head for their boats.

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