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Hrothgar gives Beowulf gifts and tearfully parts with him as the Geat and his companions leave Daneland.
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The Original Old English
“ða git him eorla hleo inne gesealde,
mago Healfdenes, maþmas XII;
het hine mid þæm lacum leode swæse
secean on gesyntum, snude eft cuman.
Gecyste þa cyning æþelum god,
þeoden Scyldinga, ðegn betstan
ond be healse genam; hruron him tearas,
blondenfeaxum. Him wæs bega wen,
ealdum infrodum, oþres swiðor,
þæt hie seoððan no geseon moston,
modige on meþle. Wæs him se man to þon leof
þæt he þone breostwylm forberan ne mehte,
ac him on hreþre hygebendum fæst
æfter deorum men dyrne langað
beorn wið blode. Him Beowulf þanan,
guðrinc goldwlanc, græsmoldan træd
since hremig; sægenga bad
agendfrean, se þe on ancre rad.
þa wæs on gange gifu Hroðgares
oft geæhted; þæt wæs an cyning,
æghwæs orleahtre, oþþæt hine yldo benam
mægenes wynnum, se þe oft manegum scod.”
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“Then the protector of warriors, son of Half-Dane,
gave him twelve treasures,
commanded he then those dear ones to
go forth in safety, and to quickly come back.
The king then kissed that one of good and noble descent,
the lord of the Scyldings embraced that best of men,
with arms about his neck; then the
greyhaired one fell to tears. Two things were known to him,
the old one of great wisdom, one of the two was clearer:
that he would never afterward see him,
meet for a heart to heart. To him that man was so beloved
that he could not restrain his surging emotion,
his heartstrings were wound tight at that thought,
he keenly felt his fondness for the man whom
he now knew as his dearest friend. From him Beowulf then went,
the warrior now proudly wound in gold walked the green earth,
exulting in his treasure. He went to where his ship waited
for its owner and lord, where it had ridden at anchor.
Thereafter the gifts of Hrothgar were often praised
as the Geats went on their way. He was a true king,
blameless in all respects, until age deprived him
of the might of joy, as it has ever oppressed a host of others.”
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A Quick Reflection
Well, this is quite a send off for Hrothgar. Beowulf may be leaving, but as of that last line Hrothgar slips out of the story and off this mortal coil. As Hrothgar himself suspects, he never again meets Beowulf.
But what a set of lines to go out on.
I mean, Saying that Hrothgar was “a true king” (“þæt wæs an cyning” (l.1885)) right up to the end when “age deprived him/of the might of joy” (“hine yldo benam/mægenes wynnum” (l.1886-87)) offers a very poetic iris slow wipe on his character and its involvement in the story.
Actually, come to think of it, it’s kind of strange that this farewell focuses so much on the old king of the Danes. I mean, this is Beowulf after all, right? Yet this is one of the few moments where we actually get this kind of insight into another character’s inner workings.
In all of Beowulf’s interactions with Unferth, for example, we’ve only ever had their dialogue and what the poet states are Beowulf’s intentions. But we don’t get any insight into Unferth’s thought processes. There are no sly snipes or profaning curses in inner monologue directed from Unferth to Beowulf. Even later on in the poem, every character that Beowulf encounters is presented as simply as non-player characters in video games. They’re all just people that Beowulf interacts with, but we hear nothing of people’s impressions of him or his actions until his funeral.
So what makes Hrothgar different? Why does the poet dwell so much on this foreign king when they could be writing reams about Hygelac’s joy at seeing Beowulf come back to Geatland safe and sound?
Well, I think that it comes back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea that Beowulf is not an epic poem but an elegy and John Leyerle’s idea that the poem follows an interlaced structure. Thematically, Hrothgar is the mirror of old Beowulf, and so all of this insight into his character and inner thoughts reflect old Beowulf’s own inner thoughts.
However, unlike a poet who likens a character to some great legendary figure because of a single characteristic, Hrothgar is more than just a reflection of future king Beowulf: just, generous, and ruling long and well. Buried in the last lines of this passage is the end of Beowulf as well. Old age puts an end to his adventuring, as little as he’s willing to admit to it when the time comes. Though silent and persistent old age ultimately adds him to the multitude of those whom it has chopped down in the past.
Why do you think we’re told about Hrothgar shedding tears and his fondness for Beowulf wrenching his heart strings as the Geat leaves? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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Next week, Beowulf and his crew head back to their ships and meet an old friend.