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Synopsis of Beowulf

If there is a weakness to Seamus Heaney's bilingual edition of Beowulf, it is that the translation has virtually no explanatory material. These few notes may help.

I: Beginning (lines 1-300)

They stretched their beloved lord in his boat
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean's sway.

One is struck by the evocative description and immediately reminded of the Sutton Hoo burial. Intriguingly, the ship is pushed out to sea to drift on the current and not set alight, as are the burial ships in the sagas. The "ring-whorled prow" must have been similar to the Oseberg ship in Stockholm.

Shield Sheafson (Scyld Scefing) is king of the Danes, the Scyldings or Shieldings. "Scyld" usually is regarded as a patronymic but, since he is a foundling and his father's name presumably unknown, the name may mean "with a sheaf," referring to a legend of a mysterious child who lay by a sheaf of grain.

Hrothgar bestowed "rings and torques at the table" and later (470ff) pays a "treasure-trove" in compensation to end a blood feud. This largess is contrasted with that of the fiend Grendel, who never will pay "fair reparation" or wergild ("man-price"). So the feud with the monster begins. "The killer instinct unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant" alludes to 2016ff, where Hrothgar's daughter is betrothed to Ingeld in the hope she "will heal old wounds and grievous feuds," a peace that Beowulf does not believe will last.

…the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;

Here, in Heorot ("hart"), one is reminded of Caedmon, who, according to Bede, first sang of creation. The Shieldings later are said to have "vowed offerings to idols," which may be attributed to their desperation. The mention of demons, ogres, elves, and phantoms is a reminder of the fearful mystery of nature. That it still was felt can be seen in the name of Emma, the wife of both Æthelred and Cnut, whose name originally was Ælfgifu or "elf's gift." "Hall-watcher" (hall-thane) is a word that has been recorded only once in Old English and may have been coined by the poet. Such a word is termed a hapax legomenon.

II. Germanic Influences (lines 300-600)

Boar-shapes flashed
above their cheek-guards, the brightly forged
work of goldsmiths, watching over
those stern-faced men.

In Germania, Tacitus describes the Germanic tribes wearing images of the boar, which was sacred to Freyr and thought to protect the warrior. The Benty Grange helmet, in fact, has a boar on its crest and the Sutton Hoo helmet gilded boars' heads above the cheek-guards. (Tacitus also relates that the chiefs were particularly pleased with gifts from other tribes.)

if the battle takes me, send back
this breast-webbing that Weland fashioned

Weland was the famous smith in Scandinavian legend who is mentioned in several other Anglo-Saxon poems and in the Lay of Volund ("Weland" is the Old English spelling of "Volund"), where he is hamstrung and imprisoned on an island, forced to labor for a king, whose sons he kills, fashioning drinking cups from their skulls. The scene is depicted on a panel of the Franks Casket.

There was a feud one time, begun by your father.
Beowulf's father Ecgtheow had killed the Wulfing Heatholaf but could not pay his wergild, and was forced to flee to Denmark, where it was paid by Hrothgar, the king.
The ocean swayed,
winter went wild in the waves, but you vied
for seven nights…

Once again, Tacitus speaks of the Germans reckoning time by night rather than day. The exchange of insults between Beowulf and Unferth, with the boast of one being countered by the other, is termed a flyting.

III: Wealhtheow and Grendel (lines 600-900)

The Anglo-Saxons were attracted to gnomes, aphoristic statements conveying a general truth that have been collected in Maxims I and Maxims II. This one (I.81) relates to the proper role of king and queen.

"A king has to procure a queen with a payment, with goblets and with rings. Both must be pre-eminently liberal with gifts. In the man, martial warlike arts must burgeon; and the woman must excel as one cherished among her people, and be buoyant of mood, keep confidences, be open-heartedly generous with horses and with treasures; in deliberation over the mead, in the presence of the troop of companions, she must always and everywhere greet first the chief of those princes and instantly offer the chalice to her lords' hand, and she must know what is prudent for them both as rulers of the hall."

In Beowulf, Wealhtheow, the queen, is introduced as she pours mead for the assembly. First she serves Hrothgar and then, adorned with gold and rings, the rest of the company, until she comes to Beowulf. (When Beowulf returns to the court, having killed Grendel, he is served directly after the king.) Later, Queen Hygd, the wife of Hygelac, does the same, distributing gifts to the men and filling their proffered cups with mead (1925ff).

Tacitus' Germania also has something to say about the role of women in Beowulf. Girls of noble families, who were given as hostages, were regarded as a more effective restraint on the defeated (8). And it is the husband, and not the wife, who brings a dowry to the marriage: oxen, a horse and bridle, a shield with sword and spear.

"Hence she is reminded in these very rituals at the outset of her marriage that she is entering into toil and danger as a partner, to suffer and to dare with her man alike in peace and in war. This the meaning of the yoked oxen, of the bridled horse, of the gift of arms" (18)….The sons of sisters receive the same honour from their uncles as from their fathers. Some even regard this a more sacred and a closer tie of blood...(20)."

Wealhtheow offers gifts to Beowulf but urges that her husband bequeath the kingdom to his nephew, who should hold it for her sons (1161ff). And later, the widowed Hygd offers the kingdom to Beowulf over her own son. It may be that these lines reflect a matrilineal Germanic society whereby lineage is traced through the female line. The closest matrilineal relative would be a male related to one's own mother through another female relation, that is, the son of a sister. Beowulf is the son of Hygelac's sister, and the offer by Hygd may reflect this matrilineal relationship between mother-brother and sister-son.

The other character in this section of Beowulf is Grendel, described by the poet as "among the banished monsters, Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts" (105ff). These accursed exiles included ogres, elves, phantoms, and giants (106ff). Such is the description of Cain, himself, in the Old English Genesis: "Miserable, deprived of grace, you shall depart out of your native land because you became Abel's killer: for that you shall roam far-flung paths, a fugitive, abhorrent to you kinsmen" (1010). In Genesis (6.4) "the sons of God" and "the daughters of men" bring forth a race of giants, who, in the pseudepigraphical Book of I Enoch are said to have "consumed all the acquisitions of men. And when men could no longer sustain them, the giants turned against them and devoured mankind" (7.3-5), which was the occasion for the Flood. Here is the probable association between giants and cannibalism and the man-devouring Grendel. Although Genesis does not indicate that giants were the descendants of Cain, such a connection was made in exegetical writings, where "the daughters of men" were understood to be the defiled offspring of Cain.

IV: Sigemund and Finn (lines 900-1200)

…a carrier of tales,
a traditional singer deeply schooled
in the lore of the past, linked a new theme
in a strict metre. The man started
to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf's
triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,
entwining his words.

In this section, the king's minstrel sings of Sigemund and Finn, two digressive episodes that serve to foreshadow later events in Beowulf.

The story of Sigemund and the dragon has an analogue in the Volsunga Saga. There, Sigurd, the son of Sigmund, slays the dragon Fafnir (18ff), although in Beowulf these roles are reversed and it is Sigemund, rather than Fitela (Sigurd), who kills the dragon. This comparison to the greatest of Germanic heroes, a story that already was well known, exalts Beowulf but also suggests his own doom.

The story of Finn also draws upon shared narrative material. Both it and the fragmentary Fight at Finnsburh recount an attack on warriors led by Hnæf and Hengest, who defend themselves in the hall at Finn's stronghold. In the battle, Hnæf is slain. The Finn episode in Beowulf picks up later. Hnæf now is identified as leader of the Danes, whose sister Hildeburh has married the Frisian king Finn. Conflict breaks out and both Hnæf and Hildeburh's son are slain. Hengest (who traditionally is associated with the conquest of Kent) assumes leadership of the Danes. Under the expedience of a truce, they remain at court until the following spring, when, instead of returning home, they avenge their leader, slaying Finn, plundering his treasure, and taking Hildeburh back to her people.

Both this lay and, later, the story of Ingeld and Hrothgar's daughter, which Beowulf relates to Hygelac at his homecoming, speak of the need for revenge and the failure even of marriage to ensure peace when there is such a blood feud. Heorot, the magnificent hall of Hrothgar, eventually will be destroyed by fire and the Geats subjugated by the Swedes when Beowulf, himself, is killed in his own battle with a dragon.

V: Legendary and Historic Elements (lines 1200-1500)

Beowulf alludes to several legendary and historical characters who would have been well-known to its audience. The "Brosings' neck-chain," for example, refers to the necklace of the Brisings (the term in Beowulf is a scribal error). Crafted by fire-dwarfs, the Brisingamen was coveted by the goddess Freya, who was obliged to sleep with each of four dwarfs to obtain it. (In the Icelandic Eddas, it is stolen by Loki.) Eormenric was a wealthy king of the Ostrogoths and is mentioned in both Widsith and Deor, as well as Jordanes and Ammianus.

Hygelac the Geat, grandson of Swerting,
wore this neck-ring on his last raid;
at bay under his banner, he defended the booty,
treasure he had won. Fate swept him away
because of his proud need to provoke
a feud with the Frisians.

The most well-known historical character in the poem is Hygelac, who is Beowulf's uncle and king of the Geats. Mentioned in the Liber Monstrorum ("Book of Monsters"), he is described as being of monstrous size, so large that, from the age of twelve, no horse could carry him and a wonder to travelers who could view his preserved bones on an island in the Rhine (I.2). He was killed leading a raid against the Franks, an event recorded by Gregory of Tours in the Historia Francorum (III.3) that can be dated to about AD 521. So ill-conceived was the venture (borne of pride) that it is mentioned no fewer than four times in Beowulf.

VI: Grendel's Mother (lines 1500-1800)

It is the legendary smith Weland who crafted the ancient mail corslet worn by Beowulf (453) in his desperate struggle with Grendel's mother. One sees this reverence for ancestral weapons in Hrunting and the "ancient heirloom from the days of the giants" that Beowulf takes from the wall of her underwater den. The word for this weapon (hæftmece) is used only once in Old English. Although its blade has an engraved scene showing the destruction of the giants in the Flood, Grendel's descent suggests that there was a popular belief that not all such creatures were destroyed.

Grendel's mother, "grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge," who has come to Heorot to avenge her son, has an analog in the "Saga of Grettir the Strong" (Grettissaga), where the Icelandic hero fights a troll woman (LXV), cutting off her arm to free himself from the monster's grip. Following the creature, Grettir later descends into an abyss and encounters a giant, the mother of the hag, who strikes at him with a weapon called a heptisax, a word that also is unique in Icelandic literature. (Other parallels include damage to the building in which Grettir fights the troll woman; a sword hanging on the wall; and, even though there is treasure, that none of it is retrieved. Rather, Beowulf returns with the hilt of the sword, and Grettir with a wonderfully carved rune-staff.) Beowulf also carries with him the severed head of Grendel. So immense was the giant that four men are required to bear it away.

Hrothgar's long homily to Beowulf, in which he expounds on the dangers of pride and greed, may be a later revision or interpolation.

VII: Offa and Modthryth (lines 1800-2100)

Great Queen Modthryth
perpetrated terrible wrongs…

Honored and laden with treasure, Beowulf returns to the court of Hygelac, where Hygd, the young queen "stinted nothing when she distributed bounty to the Geats," moving about with the mead jug and filling the cups of those at court. To contrast such courteous behavior, the poet tells the story of Queen Modthryth, the wife of Offa,

who was the best king, it has been said,
between the two seas or anywhere else
on the face of the earth. Offa was honoured
far and wide for his generous ways,
his fighting spirit and his far-seeing
defence of his homeland

More importantly, the king is extolled, and it may be that the digression was introduced to glorify the Offa who ruled Mercia in the latter half of the eighth-century. If so, Beowulf may have been written in that place and time.

Modthryth has a parallel in the figure of Hermuthruda (Hermutrude), the legendary queen of Scotland. Saxo Grammaticus relates in the Gesta Danorum (Bk IV) that she killed her suitors but fell in love with Amleth, king of the Jutes. It is the story of a son who feigns madness to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle, who then marries the boy's mothera prototype for Shakespeare's Hamlet.

VII: The Dragon (lines 2100-2400)

In a long passage that serves to separate the dragon episode from the rest of the poem, Beowulf, welcomed back by Hygelac, recounts the defeat of Grendel and his mother, and exchanges gifts with the king. With the death of Hygelac, Beowulf succeeds to the throne and rules the Geats for fifty years,

…until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard

In Maxims, it is said that "Treasure must wait in its hoards" (I.67) and "The dragon belongs in his barrow, canny and jealous of its jewels…The king belongs in his hall, sharing out rings" (II.21). So the dragon in Beowulf, like the one killed by Sigemund (and Frotho's encounter in Saxo Grammaticus, II.38ff), seems compelled by its nature to be the guardian of treasure. One can imagine how the barrow of a long-dead chieftain could be thought to be inhabited by such a creature. Unlike Grendel, however, the dragon is not inherently diabolical but has lain quiescent over its hoard for three-hundred years. It is not until a cup is stolen that it is stirred to revenge against the Geats, coming out at night to devastate the land with fire.

The dragon episode constitutes the final third of the poem. As Beowulf contends with successively more powerful adversaries, so do his comrades begin to fail him, and his dependence upon weapons increase, from forswearing their use against Grendel, to his coat of mail and the sword that beheads Grendel's mother, to the almost apologetic use of an iron shield to defend against the dragon.

VIII: Geats and Swedes (lines 2400-2700)

A lot was to happen in later days
in the fury of battle.

The simmering hostility between the Geats and the Swedes is not related in chronological order, and a summary can make the present discussion more clear, especially since later events are recounted earlier in the poem.

After the historical death of Hygelac, who was killed raiding in Friesland (1202ff, 2354ff, 2913ff), his widowed queen, uncertain that her own son Heardred can defend the land, offers the throne to Beowulf. But the hero declines, offering to support the young prince instead. And, indeed, Heardred is not able to defend "against the fierce aggression of the Shylfings: ruthless swordsmen, seasoned campaigners" (2204-2205). He becomes embroiled in a Swedish feud and gives refuge to Eanmund and Eadgils, the sons of Ohthere, whose brother Onela, now the Swedish king, had driven them into exile (2380ff). For this hospitality, Heardred is killed when Onela invades Geatland; later, it is revealed that Eanmund also has been killed (2610ff). Beowulf becomes king of the Geats (2207ff, 2388ff) and avenges his lord by befriending Eadgils, who has returned to Sweden and kills Onela.

Beowulf has ruled the Geats for fifty years and, as he confronts the dragon, there is a sense of foreboding at his impending death. He recounts an earlier time when, from the age of seven, he was in the foster care of his grandfather Hrethel (2425ff). (Bede entered the monastery at Wearmouth and Jarrow at the same age to begin his own education.) The dynasty of the Geats had been founded by Hrethel, who has three sons, Herebeald, Hæthcyn, and Hygelac, and one daughter, the mother of Beowulf. Herebeald was accidentally killed by his younger brother Hæthcyn (a death made all the more bitter because Hrethel was father of both slayer and slain, so no wergild could be paid nor vengeance exacted).

He gazes sorrowfully at his son's dwelling,
the banquet hall bereft of all delight,
the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large
the steadings and the fields.

The king died heart-broken and was succeeded by Hæthcyn, who is killed by Ongentheow, the Swedish king, when war breaks out between the Geats and Swedes. As is related later in the poem (2922ff), the survivors of the battle are saved when Hygelac, the youngest son, arrives with a relief force. Ongentheow is forced to retreat to his stronghold and is killed. Hygelac now is king of the Geats and, although it is not explicitly stated, Ohthere, the son of the slain Ongentheow, king of the Swedes.

Just as Hrunting, the sword given to Beowulf by Unferth, fails the hero against Grendel's mother, so Nægling does not pierce the dragon's scales and finally snaps. It is Wiglaf, the loyal retainer, who strikes at the belly of the beast (just as Sigurd had killed the dragon Fafnir), using a sword given to him by his father, who had taken it from Eanumund when he killed him. From their description throughout the poem, one appreciates the power of swords in an heroic culture. Fearsome double-edged weapons, they were ancient heirlooms, wonderfully crafted by smiths or giants, with decorated hilts and patterned blades. It is only because Beowulf is so strong that they break in his hands. "It never was his fortune to be helped in combat by the cutting edge of weapons made of iron."

Finally, there is the nature of the dragon, itself, serpentine and, above all, fiery or burning, which occur in almost every reference to the creature. Indeed, it is not so much that Beowulf fights the dragon, itself, as he combats its fire and heat.

X: The Death of Beowulf (lines 2700-end)

Throughout the poem, there has been a foreshadowing of later events. Heorot, the mead hall built by Hrothgar, "a wonder of the world forever," is to be destroyed by fire (70ff). The "most resplendent torque of gold" presented to Beowulf and given to Hygelac is worn when he is killed raiding the Frisians (1194ff). And, rather than healing "old wounds and grievous feuds" (2028), the betrothal of Hrothgar's daughter to Ingeld, a prince of the Heathobards, is envisioned as an incitement to further resentment when heirlooms lost in battle are recognized at the wedding feast being worn by the victorious Danes. It is this "hard reversal from bliss to grief" (1774-1775) that reminds the reader that no triumph is lasting or any joy permanent.

The defeat of the dragon is muted as well. Although no-one dares confront Beowulf while he is alive, there is foreboding about what will happen to the Geats when it becomes known that their hero no longer can defend them. The Swedes will avenge the death of Ongentheow and attack again, dispossessing the Geats of their land (2999ff).

Mortally wounded in the fight, Beowulf utters his final words to Wiglaf.

You are the last of us, the only one left
of the Wægmundings. Fate swept us away,
sent my whole brave high-born clan
to their final doom. Now I must follow them.

The last survivor of the forgotten race whose treasure was hoarded in the dragon's barrow has the same doleful lament.

Death had come
and taken them all in times gone by and the only one left to tell their tale,
and last of their line, could look forward to nothing
but the same fate for himself
And so does the poet tell the tale of Beowulf,
of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

A glorious remnant of an heroic past, Beowulf survives in a single charred manuscript, saved from a disastrous fire almost three centuries ago and magnificently translated by Seamus Heaney.

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