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Beowulf and his fellow Geats meet with Hygelac and he asks how things went.
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The Original Old English
“Gesæt þa wið sylfne se ða sæcce genæs,
mæg wið mæge, syððan mandryhten
þurh hleoðorcwyde holdne gegrette,
meaglum wordum. Meoduscencum hwearf
geond þæt healreced Hæreðes dohtor,
lufode ða leode, liðwæge bær
hæleðum to handa. Higelac ongan
sinne geseldan in sele þam hean
fægre fricgcean (hyne fyrwet bræc,
hwylce Sægeata siðas wæron):
‘Hu lomp eow on lade, leofa Biowulf,
þa ðu færinga feorr gehogodest
sæcce secean ofer sealt wæter,
hilde to Hiorote? Ac ðu Hroðgare
widcuðne wean wihte gebettest,
mærum ðeodne? Ic ðæs modceare
sorhwylmum seað, siðe ne truwode
leofes mannes; ic ðe lange bæd
þæt ðu þone wælgæst wihte ne grette,
lete Suðdene sylfe geweorðan
guðe wið Grendel. Gode ic þanc secge
þæs ðe ic ðe gesundne geseon moste.'”
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“He sat there with his own, a survivor of battle amidst veterans,
kin with kin, once the lord there
had graciously greeted him with singing tones
and great words. Bearing the mead jug
around the hall was Hygd, Haereth’s daughter,
loved by the people, filling the offered cups
with plenty. Hygelac then began
to ask fair questions of the man
in that high hall. He burst with curiosity,
sought to know how all the sea-going Geat’s journey went:
‘How fared you on your journey, dear Beowulf,
when you suddenly strove to travel far
over the salt sea to seek strife,
battle, at Heorot? And were you a help
to the widely known best of men,
to that famed prince? I have had sorrow
sitting upon my heart, I did not trust in your
journey, dear man. Long had I told you,
do not go to meet this monster at the hall,
let the South Danes work war against Grendel
themselves. Thus I say thanks to god,
that I am able to see you hale and whole here.'”
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A Quick Interpretation
I decided to go for a longer passage this week since the description before Hygelac’s questions is pretty ho-hum. The poet tells us that Beowulf and the Geats are in the hall, Hygd is pouring them mead, and everyone’s happy to see each other. On the one hand it’s sort of notable that Hygd is called “Haerath’s daughter” (“Hæreðes dohtor” (l.1981)). But on the other seeing that as an attempt to keep named women from the poem overlooks the poet’s penchant for referring to people by their parentage. Which is still a popular device today (look no further than the popularity of family tree websites).
So I wanted to get right into Hygelac’s dialogue. Unfortunately, much like the passage before it, it sounds like what you’d expect.
Hygelac is indeed ‘bursting with curiosity’ (“hyne fyrwet bræc” (l.1985)). But amidst these rapid fire questions comes a confession: “I did not trust in your/journey” (“siðe ne truwode” (ll.1993-1994)). This sentence is very telling. For all of Beowulf’s bluster while in Daneland, he did not have the full support of his fellow Geats.
What’s more surprising is how effective that bluster was, since it not only impressed the coastguard that Beowulf and his crew first met, but the man’s boasts also won Hrothgar over to his side. What’s more, though, is that maybe those boasts were a little exaggerated. Beowulf seems to do well enough (maybe) relying entirely on his improv skills to explain away losing to Breca in their swimming match, but, if Hygelac’s doubt is anything to go by, then it sounds as if Beowulf was a better storyteller than fighter before he set out. Though he certainly put his fists where his mouth was.
If you look at this section as a whole, actually, it looks as if Beowulf is being coddled. The queen is serving everyone generous portions of mead, the king is tripping over himself with questions for the lately returned wanderer. It’s a scene that, to me, evokes the return of a dearly loved but somehow frail child who is just back from flying across the country for the first time with a relative.
What’s more, as the next 163 lines will show, Beowulf is quite the storyteller. I don’t think the poet included Beowulf’s retelling of the fight with Grendel to Hrothgar or the brief flashes of the fight with Grendel’s mother he shares just for the sake of reminding his audience of what happened hundreds of lines earlier.
So the big question is this: Is Beowulf really that great a fighter, or is he more of a storyteller? Or is he both? Sure, he beat up Grendel and then Grendel’s mother. But maybe those giants he boasted about beating up were just his childhood bullies. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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Next week, Beowulf begins his version of his story.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.