Is Beowulf spreading rumours about a feud?

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

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf predicts what will happen at the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter and Ingeld of the Heathobards. It’s nothing good, that’s for sure.


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The Original Old English

“þonne cwið æt beore se ðe beah gesyhð,
eald æscwiga, se ðe eall geman,
garcwealm gumena (him bið grim sefa),
onginneð geomormod geongum cempan
þurh hreðra gehygd higes cunnian,
wigbealu weccean, ond þæt word acwyð:
‘Meaht ðu, min wine, mece gecnawan
þone þin fæder to gefeohte bær
under heregriman hindeman siðe,
dyre iren, þær hyne Dene slogon,
weoldon wælstowe, syððan Wiðergyld læg,
æfter hæleþa hryre, hwate Scyldungas?
Nu her þara banena byre nathwylces
frætwum hremig on flet gæð,
morðres gylpeð, ond þone maðþum byreð,
þone þe ðu mid rihte rædan sceoldest.’
Manað swa ond myndgað mæla gehwylce
sarum wordum, oððæt sæl cymeð
þæt se fæmnan þegn fore fæder dædum
æfter billes bite blodfag swefeð,
ealdres scyldig; him se oðer þonan
losað lifigende, con him land geare.
þonne bioð abrocene on ba healfe
aðsweord eorla; syððan Ingelde
weallað wælniðas, ond him wiflufan
æfter cearwælmum colran weorðað.
þy ic Heaðobeardna hyldo ne telge,
dryhtsibbe dæl Denum unfæcne,
freondscipe fæstne.
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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My Translation

“That one will then speak, while beer-drinking, about that precious object,
the elder spear-warrior, he remembers all of that treasure’s history
and those that faced death at spear-point — his mind settles on their grim fates —
then, sad of mind, he will test a young warrior’s
spirit with an assault on his heart-thought,
he will arouse the evil of war, and he will say these words:
‘Might you, my comrade, recognize that sword
which your father bore to the field,
wearing his battle mask on his last expedition,
that precious sword, the campaign where the Danes slew him,
when they seized the Heathobards and made where they lay a place of slaughter,
when all our warriors were felled by the valiant Scyldings?
Now here the sons of those slayers go about
on the hall floor, exalting in the adornments of someone else.
They boast of murder, and bear about treasures
that you by right should possess.’
Just so he urges and reminds each of that time
with bitter words, until the time comes
that one of the lady’s men sleeps in bloodstained furs,
is found sliced by a sword for his father’s deeds,
to avenge those who forfeited their lives. From there that slayer
will escape alive, for he knows the land well.
Then the oath swearing of men will be shattered
on both sides, and afterwards in Ingeld
will well up a deadly hate
and surging sorrow will cool his love for his wife.
Therefore, I consider the Heathobards of no loyalty,
their part of the peace to be made by marriage is not without deceit,
the fastness of their friendship is false.”
(Beowulf ll.2041-2069a)


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A Quick Interpretation

From an outsider’s perspective, I think this passage sums up the cyclical nature of feuds quite nicely.

For new readers and those who might not know what the flavour of early medieval feuds was, here’s a quick rundown: Group A holds a mutual grudge against Group B. Group B is living more or less peacefully near Group A until Group A decides to take revenge for that grudge. This encourages Group B to do the same with Group A. Group A then retaliates, and Group B does the same. The cycle only ends when a third group comes and sorts Group A and B out or one gradually kills the other off.

Unlike your Hatfields and McCoys. An early medieval feud wouldn’t just fizzle, it basically ends when there’s no one left to feud against.

But, put some flesh on that model, and you could very well end up with this passage. After all, the Heathobards clearly still hold some hard feelings for the Danes. All it takes for one of the next generation of them to lash out is a question.

Though the old warrior’s question is pretty loaded. He asks if the young warrior remembers his father, if he remembers the heirloom that may be his by Heathobard rights, and implies that the young man could easily take it to avenge his father and restore the honour of his family (and by extension, the Heathobards). Out of those three major notes, though, I think it’s the last one that’s the most important whisper in this young man’s ear.

Why?

Because also implied in the old warrior’s words is that the young warrior’s father must not be allowed to die in vain. Actually, there’s kind of a sense that such a slaughter as the Heathobards allegedly suffered at the hands of the Danes is unsportsmanike. Which is strange to say, but warfare has always had rules.

The most important thing about this passage as it relates to the rest of Beowulf, though, is that it contradicts something that came earlier.

Back on lines 1071 to 1158, a scop tells us the story of the Danes Hildeburh and Hengest and the winter they spent with the subject of a feud: the Frisian Finn. Here we have another situation where peace forged by marriage falls apart. There’s even a similar result. But the idea of relativism was certainly alive and well for the Beowulf poet because the Danes slaughtering the Frisians and then sailing away is seen as a victory. Told in the presence of Danes, how could it be any other way, right?

But, reading it that way, I can’t help but wonder if Beowulf is catering to some prejudice of Hygelac’s with his prediction for the future Freawearu/Ingeld wedding. Maybe he’s just drawing up these lovely word pictures for his lord to better his own position at home.

Or, since he’s back home in Geatland, is Beowulf simply being true to his feelings? Now that he’s back in Geatland, he’s just letting the truth out.

Or is the only honesty that he knows a sword-point? Maybe this is simply another part of Beowulf’s monstrous qualities. He’s just too well adapted to fitting around every suggestion he faces like his sheath fits around his sword.

Ultimately, the question that really needs to be asked (and with your tongue nowhere near your cheek) is this: Why is this passage included in Beowulf’s story about his time in Daneland?

Is a slightly informed prophecy of a doomed alliance through marriage somehow relevant to the poem as a whole? Or is Beowulf just telling Hygelac what he wants to hear? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf continues his story of his adventures in Heorot. Specifically, he talks Grendel.

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