Is Beowulf’s outward loyalty true loyalty?

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

A vassal pledging loyalty to a lord via homage.

A miniature from a French manuscript depicting the homage ritual. How loyalty was pledged to a superior. Click for source.

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Beowulf gives Hygelac three gifts and a message from Hrothgar.

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The Original Old English

Ða ic ðe, beorncyning, bringan wylle,
estum geywan. Gen is eall æt ðe
lissa gelong; ic lyt hafo
heafodmaga nefne, Hygelac, ðec.”
Het ða in beran eaforheafodsegn,
heaðosteapne helm, hare byrnan,
guðsweord geatolic, gyd æfter wræc:
“Me ðis hildesceorp Hroðgar sealde,
snotra fengel, sume worde het
þæt ic his ærest ðe est gesægde;
cwæð þæt hyt hæfde Hiorogar cyning,
leod Scyldunga lange hwile;
no ðy ær suna sinum syllan wolde,
hwatum Heorowearde, þeah he him hold wære,
breostgewædu. Bruc ealles well!”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)

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My Translation

“‘These to you, oh noble king, I will bring
and point out the delicate points of each. After all,
all my grace still relies on you. I have few
kin — indeed there are none but you!’
He commanded then that the boar helm, head-topper for battle,
a war-steeped hat, the ancient mail shirt, and the precious war sword
be brought forth, saying thus after all this garb was brought out:
‘Hrothgar gave me this battle-keened gear,
oh wise lord. And along with them he commanded me
to first tell thee of these treasure’s journey.
He said that they had been Heorogar’s, the king,
lord of the Scyldings, for a long while.
Yet Heorogar did not bequeath them to his son,
the one called Heremod, though he was loyal,
a true wanderer through his father’s heart. Enjoy each of them well!'”
(Beowulf ll.2148-2162)

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A Quick Interpretation

When we think of the medieval world we tend to think in absolutes. Heroes are not just people who do some grand deed once and have that mark their reputation forever. Medieval heroes are people who always do the right thing (King Arthur). Villains are the exact opposite (Bad King John). Modern scholarship has made a lot of hay from complicating these figures, but in the popular imagination the medieval world is one where people’s morality is almost naively black and white.

But in this passage we have a clear example of a character adapting to his context.

Beowulf is maybe one of the most clear-cut characters in the popular imagination. Or at least as he’s experienced in high school and introductory university courses. And yet, this part of his speech to Hygelac includes him reassuring this king of his loyalty.

But mention of that loyalty is almost entirely absent while Beowulf is in Daneland. The only mention we get of Hygelac at all during that part of the poem is in Beowulf’s funeral instructions. If he should die trying to rid Daneland of the Grendels, his armour must be sent back to Hygelac.

So his pledge of loyalty (“all my grace still relies on you” (“Gen is eall æt ðe/lissa gelong” (ll.2149-50))) to his king could just be here out of convenience.

That said, though, I don’t think that Beowulf is disloyal to Hygelac. I think it’s just that this aspect of his character is just now being highlighted because of his context. After all, it would make for a very different character if Beowulf couldn’t shut up about how great Hygelac is from the time he introduces himself to the Danish coastguard.

Now, standing before him and ready to offer gifts, It makes sense that Beowulf reaffirms his loyalty to Hygelac. But, as with a real person, his loyalty is not always at the surface of Beowulf’s personality.

Which isn’t to say that Beowulf is just putting it on for Hygelac. I think that the few mentions of Hygelac that are made while Beowulf is in Daneland show that this loyalty is an aspect of Beowulf’s character. But at that time Beowulf had some more immediate things to be worried about (one named Grendel, the another known as Grendel’s mother). But, now that he’s back in Geatland this loyalty has a place to be expressed and so is on full display.

But what do you think about Beowulf’s obvious statements of loyalty in this passage (and earlier)? Is Beowulf as loyal to Hygelac as a modern person is loyal to their boss? Or is he as loyal as all the true warriors in old stories are to their liege lords?

As always, you can share your thoughts in the comments.

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Next week, Beowulf gives more gifts!

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Beowulf gets brief when talking of the Grendels’ hall



The Original Old English

My Translation

A Quick Interpretation


Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at:

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Beowulf ends his story with his account of fighting Grendel’s mother and then explains his reward.

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The Original Old English

“‘þæt wæs Hroðgare hreowa tornost
þara þe leodfruman lange begeate.
þa se ðeoden mec ðine life
healsode hreohmod, þæt ic on holma geþring
eorlscipe efnde, ealdre geneðde,
mærðo fremede; he me mede gehet.
Ic ða ðæs wælmes, þe is wide cuð,
grimne gryrelicne grundhyrde fond;
þær unc hwile wæs hand gemæne,
holm heolfre weoll, ond ic heafde becearf
in ðam guðsele Grendeles modor
eacnum ecgum, unsofte þonan
feorh oðferede. Næs ic fæge þa gyt,
ac me eorla hleo eft gesealde
maðma menigeo, maga Healfdenes.
Swa se ðeodkyning þeawum lyfde.
Nealles ic ðam leanum forloren hæfde,
mægnes mede, ac he me maðmas geaf,
sunu Healfdenes, on minne sylfes dom.'”
(Beowulf ll.2129-2147)

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My Translation

“‘That was Hrothgar’s most grievous of those sorrows
that had long befallen that leader of a people.
Then that prince implored me while troubled in mind
to perform another heroic deed in the tumult
of the darkened waters, to venture my life;
in short, perform a glorious deed. He promised me proper reward.
I found in those surging waters, as it is well-known,
the grim and terrible guardian of the deep.
There we two were locked in hand-to-hand combat.
But soon the water seethed with blood, and I had cut off
the head of Grendel’s mother in her battle hall
with a mighty sword edge. With difficulty
I carried my life from that place, but it was not yet fated
for me to die, and so the protector of warriors gave me
a multitude of treasures, the son of Half-Danes.
Just so, that king of his people acted in accord with custom,
never had I any want for reward while with him,
he gave me great gains, granted me beautiful treasures,
the true Son of Half-Dane, and ever were they of my choosing.'”
(Beowulf ll.2129-2147)

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A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf keeps his story very tidy. There’s no crossover between his encounter with Grendel and his encounter with Grendel’s mother. There isn’t any mention of the Grendels’ underwater hall, or their armory full of ancient weapons either. Beowulf doesn’t even note how he saw Grendel’s body on some sort of alter and then chopped off his head.

Of course, his account of these fights is quite a bit more precise than the poet’s version. Though leaving these things out seems like a weird omission. Why not share how he took Grendel’s head and an ancient sword hilt as a prize? Or, for that matter, why not mention nailing Grendel’s arm to the eaves of Heorot?

I think that Beowulf leaves these things out because of Hygelac. The Geats’ king is, after all, supposed to be a giant. So using monstrous body parts as trophies is probably not something Hygelac wants to hear about.

Also, I have no way to confirm it, but it would be fascinating if this is the same reason why Beowulf doesn’t go into detail about the giant’s sword he found.

Which makes me wonder: What would the Anglo-Saxon people have thought of living giants if there are all of these ancient weapons allegedly made by their ancestors? Why aren’t these real life giants celebrated as smiths or designers and hoisted up as the best of artisans?

My only guess is that the idea of the giants (“eoten” in Old English) is somehow influenced by the Biblical account of the Nephilim. According to Genesis 6:2 and 6:4, these creatures were the offspring of human women and angels from the time before the great flood. Which placement only deepens the potential influence on Beowulf‘s creator since the found sword’s hilt tells of the flood.

But, then again, giants are a fairly common creature in European folklore and story. Even in the various versions of the mythical story of Britain’s origins, the Brut, giants make a few appearances.

Why do you think Beowulf cuts out mentions of Grendel’s arm and head being treated like trophies?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf gives Hygelac his treasures.

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