Baldur’s death and the beginning of Beowulf’s Ragnarok

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

Baldur lays dead, Hodr is confused, and Beowulf tells a parallel tale.

The scene of Baldur’s death as painted by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baldr_dead_by_Eckersberg.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf took a deep dive inward.


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Synopsis

Beowulf calls his Geats in, and begins to tell them of his time with king Hrethel and his three sons. He also shares the family shattering event that happened.


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The Original Old English

“Biowulf maþelade, bearn Ecgðeowes:
‘Fela ic on giogoðe guðræsa genæs,
orleghwila; ic þæt eall gemon.
Ic wæs syfanwintre, þa mec sinca baldor,
freawine folca, æt minum fæder genam;
heold mec ond hæfde Hreðel cyning,
geaf me sinc ond symbel, sibbe gemunde.
Næs ic him to life laðra owihte,
beorn in burgum, þonne his bearna hwylc,
Herebeald ond Hæðcyn oððe Hygelac min.
Wæs þam yldestan ungedefelice
mæges dædum morþorbed stred,
syððan hyne Hæðcyn of hornbogan,
his freawine, flane geswencte,
miste mercelses ond his mæg ofscet,
broðor oðerne blodigan gare.
þæt wæs feohleas gefeoht, fyrenum gesyngad,
hreðre hygemeðe; sceolde hwæðre swa þeah
æðeling unwrecen ealdres linnan.'”
(Beowulf ll.2425-2443)


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My Translation

“Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:
‘Countless were the skirmishes that I survived in youth,
numerous times of war. I can recall them all.
I was seven winters old when I fostered with our treasure lord,
the lord and friend of our people, at my father’s command.
The good king Hrethel kept me and cherished me,
he gave me treasure goods and solemn office, mindful of our kinship.
Indeed, while living in the stronghold as a boy I was not counted
less worthy than his own sons,
Herebeald and Hæthcyn, and my dear Hygelac.
The eldest son, by a deed of his brother,
impiously spread his deathbed,
Hæthcyn had hoisted his horn-tipped bow toward the boy,
and loosed the arrow that shattered his life.
He had aimed for a misted mark and shot his own kin,
bloodied his fatal dart with the life of his own brother.
That was a strife beyond recompense, transgression against sin itself,
a steeping of the heart in sadness. What else should be done but
to leave the offense the eldest carried out unavenged?’”
(Beowulf ll.2425-2443)


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A Quick Interpretation

You might be wondering what this story has to do with Beowulf’s exploits in battle. And you’re totally justified in wondering that.

I mean, I think that the poet is doing a few things here. First, putting this story of Herebeald and Hæthcyn in Beowulf’s mouth makes one of this poem’s many ancillary stories flow into the main story more organically. Sharing this part of Beowulf’s life also reveals how he came to be so favoured by the late king Hygelac.

Arguably, if Beowulf is half as great as all his boasting (and much of this poem) suggests, it wouldn’t matter who succeeded Hrethel as king. Hæthcyn? Herebeald? He would still be celebrated and no doubt end up with land and a hall all his own.

But if Hygelac didn’t become king what what would change is that Beowulf may not have been so friendly with the new king. And, I think, thin as it is, what’s running under all of this poem’s suggestion that the world of Beowulf was a world where merit mattered is the cold simple fact that charisma could still get you quite far.

Just think back to Beowulf trying to match Hrothgar’s tone and cadence when he’s chatting with him. Or look at the version of the Grendel fights that Beowulf reports to Hygelac. Maybe he could have charmed his way into the hearts of Herebeald or Hæthcyn had one of them been king, but getting cozy with his “dear Hygelac” seems like it was an almost immediate thing.

What’s a little strange about this incident though, is how it resonates with the rest of the poem on a mythological level.

Norse mythology includes a story about Baldur and Hodr. Baldur is an Æsir god and such a beautiful thing that he radiated light and the gods themselves were entranced by him. Hodr, on the other hand, is a fairly mysterious god, though his name means “warrior” in Old Norse and he is generally thought to be blind. These two gods were brothers (fathered by Odin).

According to their story, Baldur dreamed that his death was imminent so his mother Freya went around to all of existence getting oaths from everything that they would never harm her son. After doing this, the gods made a game of throwing whatever they could think of at Baldur.

Of course, what’s Norse mythology without Loki?

The trickster disguised himself and asked Freya if she managed to get an oath from everything. She then revealed that she didn’t bother with mistletoe, since it seemed too small and harmless to bother with. So, Loki being Loki, he found a branch of mistletoe and gave it to Hodr. Then he guided Hodr’s hand so that the mistletoe pierced Baldur, killing him instantly. Confusion and mourning followed.

What’s more, according to the Norse mythological cycle, Baldur’s death is one of the early signs of the coming of Ragnarok. Thus, Baldur’s death marks the beginning of the end of Norse mythology.

All right, back to Beowulf.

As Beowulf’s story continues we see the same grand end triggered for Hrethel. In a society where retribution was the most widely recognized way to gain closure for murder, fratricide caused quite a dilemma.

However, beyond a reference to widely known contemporary mythology, I think including this reference says something more broadly about Beowulf. Its inclusion shows how mortals handle matters that afflict even gods. And, unsurprisingly, this incident destroys Hrethel, leaving him a shell of a man until his death.

I would argue that Beowulf has a similar experience. Throughout his life he enjoys mythological strength and abilities. And I think that last week we saw Beowulf’s lifelong existential dread surfacing. In a way, Beowulf could well be aware of how monstrous he is himself.

And, more simply, I think that the poet’s inclusion of the story of Hrethel’s sons and its parallel to Norse mythology was meant to signal the beginning of Beowulf’s end. The end for the character, for the poem, and for the way of life that both represent.

But what do you think? Is Beowulf’s self-image tied up with being a freak of strength? Is the parallel to the story of Baldur and Hodr and what it means just coincidence? Or is there something else going on here entirely?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf weaves an analogy for the depth of grief that Hrethel experienced at Herebeald’s death.

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You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Young Beowulf’s Melancholic Tale [ll.2430-2440] (Old English)

Summary
What is and What’s to Come
All About a Name
Beowulf’s Phrasing
Closing

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Summary

This part of Beowulf is one that makes the Anglo-Saxon propensity for melancholic reflections painfully obvious. We see the old king sitting on the sea cliffs and talking with his thanes about his life, and how even at an early age he witnessed something tragic – fratricide.

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What is and What’s to Come

Lines 2430 to 2440 actually present a curious kind of contrast. In the first five lines Beowulf tells of Hreðel’s (Hrethel) warm reception (“mindful as kin,” “sibbe gemunde” (l.2431)).

But then in the second, we get his report of the murder. According to Beowulf (no mean storyteller, he did, after all, boast to Hrothgar about his deeds, clear up the matter of the swim with Breca, and give Hygelac a slightly diverging story about his fights with the Grendels upon his return to Geatland) Hreðel’s eldest son, Herebeald, was shot and killed by the youngest, Hæðcyn (Haethcyn).

Within his account, two things come up that I want to expand upon here. First is one of the brother’s names, and second is Beowulf’s phrasing.

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All About a Name

Perhaps a bit of Christian propaganda, Herebeald’s name echoes a similarly killed Aesir in Norse mythology.

This Aesir is the son of Odin, Baldur, god of Light and Spring. For the full story of his death check here. The gist of it is that Baldur’s death is foretold, all of the things on the earth take an oath that they will not hurt Baldur, yet through some of Loki’s trickery and a technicality Hodor is given a sprig of mistletoe that did not take the oath. Hodor fires and Baldur is killed.

This could be some low level Christian propaganda because it points towards fratricide within Nordic myth, thus attempting to show its wrong-headedness. However, Beowulf seems to be defending Hæðcyn.

Here is how he describes Hæðcyn’s act: “he aimed for a misted mark and shot his own kin” (“miste mercelses ond his mǣg ofscēt” (l.2439)). Because this is a whole line and not just a word or phrase, I think that strategic language on the poet/scribe’s part for the sake of form can be ruled out.

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Beowulf’s Phrasing

Within the phrase itself, all of the words are quite clear. “Miste,” “ond,” “his,” and “ofscēt” are all more or less left unchanged on their way into Modern English. “Mǣg” is less immediately clear, but translates as “kin, family.” Ah, but “mercelses,” that offers some difficulty.

Knowing that the word is a form of “mearc” meaning “mark, sign, standard, border, etc.” means that it’s just a matter of figuring out its case. That it ends in “es” gives solid ground to say that it is indeed in the genitive case, which I expressed by adding in “aim” to clarify a more literal translation.

Such a literal translation is: “mark of mist and his brother shot.” Since it’s mentioned that Hæðcyn has a bow in line 2437 (“bogan”), the logical step that must come between his having it and the mention of a “mark of mist” is that he must have been aiming his bow. Hence the addition.

Though even without this addition, the emphasis that the line’s alliteration puts on “misty” suggests that Hæðcyn was in some sort of daze.

I think that this ambiguity absolves him of the murder, in a way. it certainly makes it more ambiguous, and might even be pointing towards the moral idea that a person cannot be judged on their actions but only on their intent.

Beowulf (and/or the poet/scribe) might just be unclear on what his motivation was, but there is a germ of something more here, I believe. Why? Because it’s coming in at a part of the larger story of Beowulf in which Beowulf is looking for solace in the sorrows of his past.

Perhaps, some might argue that he is trying to forgive himself for killing Grendel whom he somehow viewed as a brother. Or perhaps he is just trying to work out his feelings for the Geats that he will be leaving behind through an analogy with Hreðel and the loss of his son.

Beowulf has seen the Geats come far, but also has seen their youth lose their spark. Whatever the case is, the ambiguity presented here makes it plain that this whole episode is more opaque than evil dragons and troublesome killers.

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Closing

Next week the story continues, as Beowulf adds more detail to his tale – what becomes of Hæðcyn? Just how melancholic can Anglo-Saxon poetry get? Read on next week to find out!

And if you’ve got any opinions, arguments, or points on or about this week’s section, toss them in the comments.

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