How Hrethel’s throne made its way to Hygelac

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

Beowulf tells the tale of the sorrowful old man Hrethel and maybe that's fate.

Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of a sorrowful old man, which may as well be Hrethel. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sorrowful_old_man.jpg.


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Recap

Last week, Beowulf gave us a simile for the sorrow that Hrethel felt when Herebeald died.


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Synopsis

Hrethel leaves off life and Hæthcyn and Hygelac inherit everything.


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The Original Old English

“‘Gewiteð þonne on sealman, sorhleoð gæleð
an æfter anum; þuhte him eall to rum,
wongas ond wicstede. Swa Wedra helm
æfter Herebealde heortan sorge
weallende wæg. Wihte ne meahte
on ðam feorhbonan fæghðe gebetan;
no ðy ær he þone heaðorinc hatian ne meahte
laðum dædum, þeah him leof ne wæs.
He ða mid þære sorhge, þe him swa sar belamp,
gumdream ofgeaf, godes leoht geceas,
eaferum læfde, swa deð eadig mon,
lond ond leodbyrig, þa he of life gewat.'”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)


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My Translation

“‘Then Hrethel was in bed, chanting a dirge,
alone even with himself. To him it all seemed too huge,
the fields’ roll, the halls’ stretch. Thus the Geat’s protector,
his heart suffused with sorrow for Herebeald,
set out for that far country. He never knew how he might
wreak his feud on the slayer;
in no way could he hate the warrior
for that dolorous deed, though he was not loved.
Then he, amidst that sorrow, that which sorely him concerned,
gave up on the enjoyment of life, chose God’s light.
He left all he had on earth to his sons, as any prosperous man does,
lands and towns, when he left off this life.’”
(Beowulf ll.2460-2471)


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A Quick Interpretation

Here is an example of society grinding on, beyond the personal concerns of the people in it.

Hæthcyn, the man who killed his own brother and “was not loved” (“him leof ne wæs” (l.2467)), still gets his inheritance. Even though Hrethel never got over that act, even though his sorrow for Herebeald stole away his joie de vive and, arguably, killed him.

But how does Hæthcyn feel about all of this? If it was a hunting accident, I can’t imagine how terrible he feels about it all. But that could be why he has no voice here. He might have shut down in a way different from Hrethel’s death and depression. Hæthcyn may have just completely clammed up, become rather stoic and unassailable. And so this one act destroyed every member of the family except for Hygelac.

After all, if Hygelac was the youngest brother, Hæthcyn would have been the king of the Geats first, but there’s no mention of what he did in the role. This could just be plot convenience, but I really think that Hæthcyn was just a functional shell of his former self and this is why he has almost no page time. And shells of any kind generally don’t make for good characters.

What kind of a king do you think Hæthcyn was?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, war breaks out and we learn the fate of Hæthcyn.

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You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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