King Hæthcyn’s brief run toward battle

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

A Viking Age battle involving, no doubt, a king like Beowulf.

Thorir Hund dressed in a reindeer-hide tunic kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Click image for source.

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Last week, Beowulf shared how Hrethel’s remaining kids (Hygelac and Hæthcyn) inherited his wealth.

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This week, we learn of Hæthcyn’s all too short run as king of the Geats.

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The Original Old English

“‘þa wæs synn ond sacu Sweona ond Geata
ofer wid wæter, wroht gemæne,
herenið hearda, syððan Hreðel swealt,
oððe him Ongenðeowes eaferan wæran
frome, fyrdhwate, freode ne woldon
ofer heafo healdan, ac ymb Hreosnabeorh
eatolne inwitscear oft gefremedon.
þæt mægwine mine gewræcan,
fæhðe ond fyrene, swa hyt gefræge wæs,
þeah ðe oðer his ealdre gebohte,
heardan ceape; Hæðcynne wearð,
Geata dryhtne, guð onsæge.
þa ic on morgne gefrægn mæg oðerne
billes ecgum on bonan stælan,
þær Ongenþeow Eofores niosað.
Guðhelm toglad, gomela Scylfing
hreas hildeblac; hond gemunde
fæhðo genoge, feorhsweng ne ofteah.'”
(Beowulf ll.2472-2489)

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My Translation

“‘After that, between Swedes and Geats was war and enmity,
over the wide waters could be heard their cries of sorrow,
the noise of wall-hard warfare, after Hrethel perished.
From across that water came Ongeontheow’s sons,
warlike, they would not free those
they held in lamentation, they would not relent.
Near the hill of Hreosnburgh they often launched voracious
murderous attacks. My own close-kin avenged this,
feud and war-fire, as it was known,
though one of them bought it with his life,
at a hard price; Hæthcyn, Geatish lord,
was taken in the war’s assailing.
Then in the morning I heard that his kin
avenged him by the blade, laid its edge to end the slayer’s life,
where Eofor’s attack fell upon Ongeontheow.
His war-helm was split, the Swedish warlord
fell, mortally wounded, for Eofor’s hand held memory
enough of the feuding, Ongeontheow could not hold off the fatal blow.’”
(Beowulf ll.2472-2489)

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A Quick Interpretation

King today, a war statistic tomorrow. Poor Hæthcyn, forced to live on with the sorrow of killing his brother, being spurned by his father, and then being king for what sounds like just a few months before dying in battle.

Well, the king is dead. Long live the king.

Yes, this is how Hæthcyn meets his end. It must not have been very glorious, since Beowulf doesn’t dwell on it here. Instead, Eofor is given the attention in the story of this strife. Rightfully so, I suppose, since he doesn’t die and actually lands the blow that ends it all.

Though I can’t really blame Beowulf for glossing over Hæthcyn’s role.

Maybe he was a weak king. After all, he fell in battle, and seems to have done nothing diplomatic to keep the peace between Geats and Swedes.

More than that, though, if Hæthcyn really did kill Herebeald by accident, then he would still be in the terrible position of having killed his brother and haunted by that fact.

If it was no accident, but something along the lines of Robert Baratheon’s hunting trip in Game of Thrones, though, then Hæthcyn definitely wouldn’t be remembered. Such an intention would set him among the worst of the villains in the Anglo-Saxon’s mythology. That kind of treachery isn’t just against family, but against what then would have been seen as the natural order of royal succession. So, just like bad king Heremod, Hæthcyn was given all the gifts of worldly status and squandered them for his own greedy ends — if his brother’s death was indeed not an accident.

Aside from all of that, I really like the phrase that describes Eofor’s disposition when he attacks Ongeontheow: that his “hand held memory/enough of feuding” (“hond gemunde/fæhðo genoge” (ll.2488-2489)). It’s simple, yet incredibly evocative of the single warrior channeling the will of his group into a single act.

Speaking of warriors, do you think that Hæthcyn put up a fight? Or do you think that he went down like a dropped sack of potatoes after an arrow or sword made its way through him?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf gets back to his own story as he explains how he was rewarded for his role in the fight with the Swedes.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my translations, please do follow this blog!

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