Beowulf’s history and timeline

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf's timeline reflects his skewed history.

A somewhat anachronistic clock set into a medieval-looking tower and reflected in the water. Image from:

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Last week, Beowulf explained how Haethcyn met his end and Eofor ended the Geatish/Swedish war.

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Beowulf reviews the treasures that Hygelac gave him and how he raised his reputation in countless battles.

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The Original Old English

“‘Ic him þa maðmas, þe he me sealde,
geald æt guðe, swa me gifeðe wæs,
leohtan sweorde; he me lond forgeaf,
eard, eðelwyn. Næs him ænig þearf
þæt he to Gifðum oððe to Gardenum
oððe in Swiorice secean þurfe
wyrsan wigfrecan, weorðe gecypan.
Symle ic him on feðan beforan wolde,
ana on orde, ond swa to aldre sceall
sæcce fremman, þenden þis sweord þolað,
þæt mec ær ond sið oft gelæste.
Syððan ic for dugeðum Dæghrefne wearð
to handbonan, Huga cempan;
nalles he ða frætwe Frescyninge,
breostweorðunge, bringan moste,
ac in compe gecrong cumbles hyrde,
æþeling on elne; ne wæs ecg bona,
ac him hildegrap heortan wylmas,
banhus gebræc. Nu sceall billes ecg,
hond ond heard sweord, ymb hord wigan.'”
(Beowulf ll.2490-2509)

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My Translation

“‘The treasures that Hygelac granted me,
were payment for my role in that war, all of which fortune allowed me,
I won it for him by flashing sword. For that he gave me land,
a place to be from, the joy of home. Thus, for Hygelac there was
no need, no reason to be required to seek someone from the gift house,
or the Spear-Danes, or the Swedes for worse war-makers, my worth was well-known.
Always would I go on foot before him,
first in the line, and so shall I do ‘til age takes me,
so shall I conduct war, as long as this sword survives,
that which has and will endure.
For this is the sword I held when I, for nobility’s sake,
became the hand-slayer of Day Raven the Frank.
No treasure at all did that warrior
bring back to the Frisian king.
No breastplate could he have carried,
for in the field he fell as standard bearer,
princely in courage. He was not slain by the sword,
but instead a hostile grip halted the surge of his heart,
broke his bone-house. Now shall the sword’s edge,
hand and hard blade, be heaved against the sentinel of the hoard.’”
(Beowulf ll.2490-2509)

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A Quick Interpretation

First, reading this passage really confuses me about the timeline of Beowulf’s life story.

Wasn’t Hygelac lord of the Geats when he was over in Daneland, fighting the Grendels? And didn’t Beowulf go over there when he was just a teen?

If those two things are true, then Beowulf must have been something like a squire in that battle with the Swedes. He must also have been a pre-teen then. Or, at the youngest, 13. I mean, he was also supposed to be the runt of his generation, and one whom the elders of the Geats doubted.

But if all of that’s true, then how much more land did Beowulf get from Hygelac after returning from Daneland? And if he already had land and treasures before going to Daneland why would the elders of the Geats be so doubtful about him?

Along similar lines, did Beowulf fight Day Raven before going to Daneland, too? Is that where he gained the reputation for having the strength of 30 men in his hand-grip? Or when Beowulf dropped his sword to manually throttle Day Raven did the gathered crowd cheer and whoop, knowing what was coming?

Honestly, if anyone has a better grasp of Beowulf’s timeline, please do get in touch.

Setting aside concerns about when the events of Beowulf’s life happened, he seems to have had a rich life of fighting just as many non-monstrous as monstrous opponents. So I wonder why the poet decided to go down the monster route.

Perhaps it was a matter of interest.

We have so few poems and stories from the Old English-speaking Anglo-Saxons. So it wouldn’t surprise me if their world of stories was flooded with historical or political romps and Beowulf was meant to be something that broke out of that.

Or, maybe this poem was supposed to be a fusion between what then passed as history and their common mythology?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf tries to pump himself up with a speech to the other Geats with him on the cliff.

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