‘Based on a true story’: The location & historicity of Beowulf


This wasn’t meant to take so long! But it is two weeks late for a reason. It turned out that there was a lot more reading and thinking than expected. At one stage I was even considering ‘soundclouding‘ the entire original text because it has been such a serious period of study that I have constantly had to go back to it. I don’t want to make that sound arduous because it is such a beautiful thing. And we have been forced to examine our pasts in this difficult time. And it is a defining and difficult time at Hrothgar’s hall as well.

Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Once upon a time, some 46 years ago, in between interminable spelling tests, a lady called Miss Smith (one of Wayland’s kin, no doubt) came to teach English at my school. Amidst Charlotte’s Web and Ted Hughes’ The Tin Man, there was a strange tale from Anglo-Saxon England. It did not make a lot of sense at the time – a hero who could not even spell his own strange name!

I answered the questions and drew the pictures. But one day I would have to come back to it. At university, studying another subject, I learned to love the language of this poem but never set time aside to really examine it. Only 7 or 8 at the time, it would have seemed impossible now to be 53. But it has never been more relevant. Not only is it a testimony into England’s past at a time of national self-questioning and a re-examination of our relations with our immediate neighbours. But really, there is now something non-human on the fenny mere which has people locked in their houses with fear. That too would have seemed unimaginable 46 years ago; perhaps even 1 year ago. But then perhaps it also did in King Hrothgar’s mead-hall, celebrating his war victories, very probably against the Haethobards?

It is a chance survival of a tale with wretched monsters – ‘Cain’s kin’ – terrorising a Danish mead-hall and a fire-breathing dragon guarding a treasure of gold in an ancient barrow. It can’t have any historicity …can it?

Surviving the fateful fire at Ashburnham House, the only version of Beowulf to make it through to the Modern Age. The first word was for years considered to mean something like, ‘Listen now!’. Walkden has probably taught us that it means something more akin to ‘How much?’. So… How much have we heard of…? Or, does it, as Tolkien argued, set itself apart as an interjection by breaking the metre?
Michael Wood, Seamus Heaney, Julian Glover, pagan Suffolk landscapes, a modern-day smith with the knowledge of twisting swords, the ‘heft of words’, and a treasure-hoarding dragon – what more do you want?


The relationship between ethnic identities and geographical territories – especially, recognised modern ones – presents some problems to modern readers. Swedish territory was far more limited than today and so I have tried not to use ‘Sweden’ unless it refers broadly to the modern geographic area – at least whenever practicably possible. Instead, I have tried to use, ‘the Swedes’. Conforming to others, I have ended up using ‘Denmark’ even though ‘Daneland’ might have been more accurate. Denmark actually means ‘Danish borderlands’ as in ‘Marches’ (Dane-march although it is possible that this is a Low German name linked to the Danevirke). Think of the islands (Zealand and Fyn / Funen) rather than Jutland! Finally, we don’t know what the Geats called their land but in modern Sweden it is Götaland (not Gotland – hence I have used the accent here), so ‘Geatland’ seems broadly acceptable?

Satellite image
Satellite image of Denmark & southern ‘Sweden’. Hrothgar’s hall would have been almost dead-centre of the map on Zealand, just to the south of the inlet / fjord on the right.

It is worth pointing out that it almost impossible with conflicting sources not to get confused. Even JRR Tolkien makes a howler in his notes. If you spot something, please let me know.




The most important fact to throw at anyone unfamiliar with the poem is that it is in Old English but it is absolutely not set in ‘England’. It is a bit of migration folklore – but there is something naggingly problematic about that fact, to which I will return at the end of the blog post.

When was it written?

The short answer is that we don’t know.

The longer answer is that this depends what you mean.

If the final version was written down in the southern kingdom of Wessex sometime around 1000, there must have been earlier versions going back at least 200 years beyond that. And, in the process of its constant reworkings, it has absorbed almost every dialect of Old English. That in itself, is an astounding achievement – but one which has confounded so many scholars regarding its ‘origin’.

But debate still rages about how much could have been transmitted orally. Some (such as Goffart) have argued that there is far too intricate detail in Beowulf for oral transmission to have been a reliable means of preservation. Goffart suggests that the details regarding Hygelac’s death cannot predate 923 AD in the text. This is based on the history of an early eighth century text, the Liber Historiae Francorum and on Gregory of Tours. Gregory calls Hygelac ‘Danish’ whilst the LHF confuses the Geats and the Goths – which is still often done. We know that Theuderic I, son of Clovis, was on the Austrasian Frankish dynastic throne at the time and he died circa 534 AD, his reign beginning in 511 AD.

Personally, I think that the rejection of the oral transmission hypothesis massively underestimates the oral tradition and its possibilities. It is unlikely that literacy was widespread and yet the intended audience had a store of received knowledge. In isolated parts of the world today there are still storytellers capable of renditions amounting to thousands of lines. They improvise but they also use rhythmic metre and rhyme to lock in detail. Whoever Homer was on what is now the Turkish coast, he belongs to this tradition too. Irish Gaelic poetic traditions regarding the heroes of the Goidelic peoples use ‘runs’ – repetitive lines which already presuppose the subsequent sections. And Beowulf is alliterative verse, which creates a potentially rather strange Germanic variation on this theme.

I think that Beowulf began as an oral tale – perhaps more than one, in fact – and may date back to the seventh century – or even further. Indeed, I believe that some elements in the poem may have been carried forward from an era even prior to the period in which the action takes place. However, linguistic considerations suggest that there was at least a gap of 100 years between the events and the first written version of the text.

The details of some elements in the tale changed so much over subsequent centuries that they must have been passed down somehow. Let us take the cremation ceremonies – either Beowulf’s own or, perhaps better, that of Hnaef in lines 1107 to 1124. As Newton (2004) points out, these are very detailed (bursting wounds and melting heads) and hardly likely to have been based on any premises. In Anglo-Saxon England, cremation ceased around the beginning or early part of the seventh century. The building of the mound for Beowulf and even the siting have relatively close parallels at Sutton Hoo, suggesting some continued contact between East Anglia and the Continental tradition – even something distinctive here.

The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of only four complete Anglo-Saxon helmets to survive. It was carefully reconstructed from shattered pieces. The helmet’s mouth, nose and eyebrows form the image of a flying beast. Copyright – British Museum (Room 41)

Beowulf’s tale reached us via a single script, perhaps put down in its final form between 950 and 1025. Even in this form there were two scribes: one who tended to use a Late West Saxon form of the language (but still tried to incorporate earlier forms an Anglian dialect) and a second who actively preserved the Anglian hio in place of heo – ultimately from a distant PIE root meaning something akin to ‘this one here’. You will see this at a number of critical points in the text.

We can see that this is hardly a recent creation at that point in time. The -INI suffix (as in WUNDINI although the existing MS actually records WUNDMI) would have looked out of date some 200 years’ earlier!

Wrenn (1953) called this form “the only certain evidence for dating Beowulf before circa 750 on purely linguistic grounds”. We should not take that too literally as poetry (especially heroic poetry) tends to be conservative. It can also act as a conservative, constraining force within language. People often quote Shakespeare using forms of English that are no longer current – even completely misunderstood such as ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ which is the (also obsolete) Swedish varfore.

There are also signs of a rework in the age of Aelfred (which, surely, has to raise no end of issues about England’s relationship with the Danes?) and even a Kentish scribe at some point in the ninth century, according to the great Michael Swanton. Cynewulf seems to have been aware of the poem (in some form) at some point in the early ninth century whilst writing ‘Saint Helena Finds the True Cross’. In fact, Tolkien detected signs of Cynewulf’s own intrusions into the Beowulf text – which hardly met with praise from him.


I do not wish to dwell on the narrative, especially for those who know it backwards. If you do, CTRL+F & “Etymology” might be appropriate!

We are introduced to a genealogy beginning with Scyld Schefing.

The Danish king Hrothgar, victorious in battles, turns his attention to other things and builds a hall, Hearot (lit. ‘hart’) and he and his clan pass the time drinking and eating. But outside in the murky landscape lurks a spirit, Grendel, who at some stage a Christian author makes the offspring of Cain (although Cain, the archetype of fratricide perpetrator, is also a subtle jab at some of the characters in the poem who have also killed their brothers). Riled by the sound of joy, Grendel attacks the hall, making off with ’30’ (that might be an ‘umpteen’) warriors. Following the deaths, the hall has to be abandoned.

Meanwhile over the sea in Geatland, the young warrior, Beowulf, hears what has happened and decides to set out for Denmark to rid Hrothgar’s kingdom of its demonic infection. Although Beowulf always makes out that he is there as a representative from Geatland, this is rather dubious bravado – because King Hygelac (to whom Beowulf seems to be nominally answerable – as well as being family) never authorises the adventure. Indeed, he comes over as a natural sceptic about it. He does not even keep up with the international news from over the ‘gannet-bath’ whilst Beowulf is in Denmark.

‘Gannet-bath’ (ganotes bæð, used in a variant form in the ASC as well) Photographer Richard Shucksmith captures stunning scenes of a colony of gannets diving and feeding (2014)
Copyright: Richard Shucksmith / Shetland Photo Tours.
Note that this stretch of water is not for Beowulf a ‘whale-road’ as much the same route was for Scyld (not that that is a sensible translation; recall my last blog post about the letter RAIDO!).
It is too much detail for this blog but here we are also speaking of a distinctive type of whale: hron, seven times the size of a seal. It is quite possible that it should really be translated as ‘dolphin’.

Once at Hearot, one of Beowulf’s men (we only learn his name far later on in the poem) is attacked by Grendel, but Beowulf himself grabs the beast’s arm and wrestles it off. The arm is hung from the roof of the hall. No weapon is used so there is nothing to fail here- except Beowulf himself.

But Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son, whilst Beowulf is resting elsewhere as may well have been the custom for guests. Aeshere, usually defined as lead fighter and royal advisor, is killed by her.

Aeshere’s role as lead fighter and royal advisor needs a bit of thought. RAEDBORA seems self-explanatory until it is put in the context of the word, RUNWITA – a person with knowledge of the runes.

Later, they will find Aeschere’s (literally, something like ash-army) severed head at the entrance to Grendel’s mother’s lair. But the loss of Hearot’s rune reader is a serious one: reflecting a fall into illiteracy and the severing of esoteric knowledge.

I do not wish to put too much store in it but is there a sense here that, without the one with the ‘wit’ of the runes, we have a entered a less ‘rational’ world – one in which we are going to have to deal with other things, controlled by more elemental forces? But the word RUN might originally have had association with whispers. But the route to the forecasting of events is suddenly severed, whilst Hearot has a destiny of being burned to the ground.

Beowulf goes to track down Grendel’s mother at the fenny mere (note that I can still just about get away with using these words) with a sword given to him to by [the formerly critical], (H)Unferth. Swords were heirlooms. Even as late as 1015 Aetheling Aethelstan had Offa of Mercia’s sword – who had died at Rhuddlan in 796.

These were robust and long-lasting creations, incredible pieces of metallurgical working.

The relationship between the visiting Beowulf and Unferth is a difficult one to fathom. Initially, he seems envious of Beowulf, even dubious of his fighting prowess. This may have been part of his responsibilities as thyle. When Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off and hangs it from the roof, ‘no man was more silent’. But it is still hard to tell whether we are just seeing different historical layers of the telling of the story revealed or whether there is some genuine ‘tongue-in-cheek’ stuff going on. Although there is never any recrimination, Beowulf makes Unferth out to be a coward and yet, later, we are told that everyone knew of his courage and fealty.

Beowulf descends deep into the mere, slaying threatening creatures which swim in its depths as he goes, and encounters Grendel’s mother. Unferth’s sword fails him and Grendel’s mother seems to prevail for a time. But then Beowulf spots a huge sword ‘from former days’ when people seem to have been giants or ogres (awkwardly the word here – eotenisc – bears an uncomfortable identity to the word for Jutes although the eotenas are identified as one of two distinct races of giants, non-human but humanoid and identified with the gigantes of Genesis). It is far too big for most men but Beowulf masters it, swinging it in great arcs using both hands.

He hacks Grendel’s mother’s head off with it and then descends further into the lair. There he finds the corpse of Grendel and decapitates it too. [Head cults had been quite important in pagan Germanic society and continued to be so, perhaps being most prominent following the death of the Christianised Oswald of Northumbria.] The sword melts down to the hilt almost immediately after contact as his blood rots it.

Back at Hearot, now at an unparalleled hero status, Beowulf is presented with many gifts. But amongst all the gift-giving, Hrothgar warns Beowulf against pride. Everything we have heard up until this point suggests that he has no idea that this is the hero’s Achilles’ heel. But, perhaps intuitively, he senses it.

Beowulf and his men return across the gannet bath. Hygelac is killed during a raid on Frisia. Hygd, concerned that Haerdred is too young to run the Geatish kingdom, offers it to Beowulf. Beowulf refuses, throwing his weight behind Haerdred. But Heardred is killed in a battle against the Swedes.

Therefore, Beowulf’s decision to refuse Hygd’s offer postpones things – but not greatly. It is only a matter of time before he becomes king of Geatland and then rules for fifty years. It seems as though this is his destiny. We seem to have reached the conclusion that Beowulf turned out OK and was a peaceable king, concerned for his citizens amidst all the ring-giving and all that!

But, suddenly, in his old age – echoing Hrothgar’s earlier in the poem, there is a third test – different from the previous two. Who knows whether there is a massive disjuncture here and if two stories have been meshed together at this point? [There is certainly a strong case for incorporated folkloric elements. Panzer (1910) identified a common theme across most of Eurasia in the form of the ‘Bear’s Son Tale’ (a.k.a Jean de l’Ours or Bjarndrengur) with a hero, raised by a bear, who has to guard his companions against a monster using either a magical sword or his bear-like strength.]

Tolkien drawing for his version of Beowulf, Sellic Spell

For then, in the land of the Geats, a slave who somehow finds himself on the run from his master (always blame the foreigner, obviously!) stumbles into an old burial chamber (it is even dated in the poem) and steals a cup from the guardian of the place – a dragon. The wound-up beast wrecks Geatland, burning everything in sight with his fire-breath.

Beowulf wants to fight the dragon in the barrow himself. Beowulf and the dragon fight but the old man is outmatched. Most of his men run but Wiglaf – a new character at this point – remains loyal. Between the two of them they slay the dragon but Beowulf’s injuries are evidently going to be fatal.

The poem draws to an end with the funeral rites for Beowulf. It is a ship burial but nobody knows the shore upon which it will beach.

‘Hand-shoe’ and Beowulf’s glove!

Only quite late in the poem do some strange things start to emerge which we feel we might have learned earlier. We learn the name of the member of Beowulf’s comitatus killed by Grendel: Hondscioh. In fact all sorts of details earlier glossed over are recorded at the same point, including Grendel’s glof (some sort of tray he carries around for corpses). Beowulf always seems rather aloof from this death in contrast to Hrothgar’s response to the death of Aeschere.

There is an interesting play on words too. ‘Hand-shoe’ is literally glove as is ‘glof’. So, Honscioh is compact enough from Grendel’s perspective to fit in his glove or bag or tray or whatever this receptacle really is.


This is not as straightforward as some might imagine. The first part does not necessarily mean ‘bear’. We have spoken already about elements of Anglian in the poem. Beo would be Bea in Late West Saxon (‘bee’). Bee-wolf might still be a kenning for bear. Bees and bears are quite close in some Indo-European languages, if only for their connections with honey or mead (as in the ‘mead-hall’). The Indo-European word for bear was something akin to *h₂ŕ̥tḱos and most southern European languages use this root which is also connected to the word Arctic / ‘north’. But the tribes in the Northeast of Europe treated the word as taboo. Germanic tribes supposedly connected it with the colour brown, Baltic groups with its hair and Slavs with its consumption of honey. Although all the above is very disputed (especially the Germanic), this does actually suggest a rather special place for the animal. Furthermore, the taboo cannot be from an early period, otherwise all three groups would have adopted the same avoidance name. It is interesting that both Bear and Wolf have avoidance histories and both are thematic accented zero-grade nouns.

But Beowulf might have as much to do with beer, which is also the Dutch word for bear.

For we also have to consider Beow in Hrothgar’s genealogy (also known as Beowulf in this poem only). This is posited to be the character who – centuries later – came to be known as ‘John Barleycorn’, beow(a) implying Barley. This is from the Proto-Germanic *bewwu (“crops; barley”) and is cognate with Old Frisian be and Old Saxon beo / bewod. So, as well as ‘Bear-wolf’ and ‘Bee-wolf’, he might also be ‘Barley-wolf’? Or, does this go back centuries, in which case he might really be called Beowu?

But why this strange transformation from abused stalk to hero at this point in time? And, suddenly, it is Grendel who takes on the role of out-of-kilter and misunderstood victim.


The Danes were a proto-North Germanic people. They developed from an Iron Age culture which ran from Scania to the Danevirke in the South, perhaps constructed about 500 AD although there is much vagueness about this. In the first few lines of the poem we hear how they struck terror into the Heruli, an East Germanic people whose homeland might originally have been in Geatland but who had migrated to the Pontic Steppe. Up until around the sixth century, Jutland was occupied by a different people: the Jutes – and whether they spoke a proto-Norse language or something Ingvaeonic is up for debate.

Let us be clear about where the Danes are at this point in time. By the way, in the poem we hear of East Danes and West Danes. These are probably devices which mean no more than Spear Danes or Ring Danes. But who can tell? It is seen elsewhere Widsith names a king called Sigar – probably no close relative of Hrothgar. So, it is possible that we are dealing with some kind of Dane confederation.

Note that Swanton has the Wylfings in the north of Saxony. That is no longer a consensus. But it is not impossible for a grouping to be in two places at once. The Jutes may well have been too.

The history of the Danes is firmly in Beowulf – but as with Beowulf himself, the kingship arrives from overseas from the North. The poem starts not in ‘the present’ but long ago with the story of Hrothgar’s ancient ancestor. This evidently has mythological and, indeed, legitimisation, elements within it and should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Scyld Scefing – Hrothgar’s ancestor

Shield Sheafson (Scyld Scefing) was 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 – a theme which is subsequently carried forward by his son, Beow.

Scyld is a magic boy washed up on the Danish shore. The Beowulf account has little overlap with other sources.

Some of these sources (mainly the far later Saxo Grammaticus) suggest a clear Danish line for Scyld: son of Lother, son of Dan, son of Humble. Although king lists are very confused, sometime after this, kings came from Sweden and even Finland, possibly Saxony as well. The Finnish stratum presents some additional problems because of the language factor.

One of Scyld’s descendants is Hrothgar, the king of the Danes – or a Dane confederacy.

Hrothgar and Heorot

þa wæs Hroðgare heresped gyfen,
wiges weorðmynd, þæt him his winemagas
georne hyrdon, oðð þæt seo geogoð geweox,
magodriht micel. Him on mod bearn
þæt healreced hatan wolde,
medoærn micel, men gewyrcean
þonne yldo bearn æfre gefrunon,
ond þær on innan eall gedælan
geongum ond ealdum, swylc him god sealde,
buton folcscare ond feorum gumena.

The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar.
Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,
young followers, a force that grew
to be a mighty army. So his mind turned
to hall-building: he handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever;

Seamus Heaney translation
Lejre, Denmark -possibly the location of the mead-hall, Hearot (lit. ‘Hart’ – symbol of both royalty and purity).
CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78412

Hrothgar himself

Hrothgar as written in the surviving text
British Library Copyright

Hrothgar is the son of Healfdene Scylding. He had brothers, Heorogar and Halga, one of whom (Heorogar – who only appears in the English tradition) had been king before him but seems to have been killed when Hrothgar was still relatively young (see later).

Just in case you were wondering, Hrothgar (‘famed spear’) is the name which would eventually become ‘Roger’. So, this is King Roger of Denmark!

Hrothgar’s two sons are Hrethric and Hrothmund. Hrothgar marries his daughter, Freawaru, off to his former enemy’s son [and in some sources, distant relative], Ingeld. But, throughout the poem, there is a sense of foreboding that this will never result in a long-term peace. Of course, nobody can tell for sure, as the official runwita is dead.

Newton and others have speculated about the name Hrothmund – which, as well as occurring here, is also listed as one of Wuffa of East Anglia’s antecedents – see below. We are unlikely to be dealing with the same person as the Hrothmund in the East Angle genealogy is four generations before Wuffa, the son of Trygil. Does the repetition of the name mean anything? Well maybe – but I am less than wholeheartedly convinced.

Haethobards (Haethubeardon)

The ‘War-beards’ may have been a branch of the Langobards. Whilst forgotten about in the Nordic tradition, they are at war with the Danes in Beowulf. Froda, their king, is killed by the Danes, slaughtered by Healfdene. So, the Haethobards and the Danes have been in a state of more or less continual conflict for some time.

Then Hrothgar sends his daughter, Freawaru, to marry Ingeld (almost certain pronounced Injeld – we can guess from the Latin transcription of the name) in a doomed attempt to end the feud. It will fail because an old warrior – possibly Starkad (although that is from a later Danish source and perhaps should not be taken too literally as he seems to turn up over several centuries) will turn Ingeld against his Danish bride. Nevertheless, the outcome is never given in Beowulf; only Widsith tells us that the Haethobards are defeated at Hearot.

This is an essential part of the Danish side of the story. And Beowulf seems to sense what is going to happen even though he has been surrounded by relatively successful diplomatic marriages, although as WRECCA it seems as though there are to be none for him.

Beowulf’s foreboding is immediately relevant. The marriage feast would have taken place at the house of the bride’s father (as has been tradition through much of history) and – in this case – that means Hearot.

The Haethobard marriage arrangement and its dating

The feud between the Haethobards and Hearot must be right at the heart of early Danish – and, as Tolkien points out, early English history. Indeed, control of Zealand by the Danes could never be taken for granted. Tolkien reckons that the Danes lost control of Lejre (Hleithr) to the Haethobards.

Heoroger, who is only recorded in the English tradition, may well have lost his life at this time after only a brief reign. Replaced by his brother, Hrothgar, the latter had to fight to establish himself after his elder brother’s death.

But then the start of the poem begins to make intuitive sense. Is this what it means: Hrothgar had battle luck (defeating the Haethobards, regaining control of the cult centre of Zealand), re-confirming himself as the leader of a great confederation of tribes. In doing so, his mind turns to establishing a fixed structure there – Hearot. The ‘hart’ – a mature stag – clearly already bore great symbolic significance and was to continue to do so in English monarchic circles.

The accompaniments to the Abbots Bromley horn dance in the English Midlands between Lichfield and Uttoxeter (own photo). Radiocarbon dating stunned historians when it suggested that the antlers were from just before the Norman Conquest (i.e. perhaps from the mid-1000s) and from reindeer (although, in theory, hart should only refer to red deer) – which were believed not to have existed in Britain at the time. They may well have been imported from Scandinavia.

Back to Haethobards! The slayer in the retribution is clearly not Ingeld but he is killed in the ensuing mess. As for the hapless Freawaru – well, we just do not know what became of her!

Let us move on to the difficult stuff! Much depends on how much reliance we wish to put on the number 12 in the poem – whether it is supposed to be taken literally or has some other significance. After Hearot is completed, we have no way of knowing how long it is before Grendel becomes a pest – but it is not long. And when he does, he raids the hall for twelve years.

Ingeld is too young to fight when the revenge attack on the Haethobards takes place – let us assume he is only 10. His father is killed in the great battle against the Danes. Hrothgar’s victory seems to be immense with Haethobard military power being (at least) immensely weakened, if not effectively wiped out.

Over the course of the next fifteen years, things are patched up. In the English account of things, there is a genuine ‘boy meets girl’ thing going on in supposed diplomatic meetings. In the Norse tradition this is reduced to weakness. Of course, we cannot tell if this is anything more than the usual ‘international diplomacy’ engagement. Ingeld would now be about 25.

The role of (H)Unferth

Beowulf has a natural sceptic present at Hrothgar’s Danish court though.

In Beowulf we only hear about him through the challenge raised by (H)Unferth, son of Ecglaf. From the start, Unferth is opposed to Geatish involvement in the battle against Grendel.

His name is too negative to be a real character name [although many said the same of Hygd for a long period of time], meaning something like ‘Lacking in spirit’. Unferth could also mean something like ‘unfriendly’. But just a warning here: very occasionally UN- could be interpreted not as ‘not’ / un- but as ‘exceptionally’. However, ‘Beowulf’s initial experience of the fellow is not of an ‘exceptionally friendly’ chap.

He is thyle at the Danish court but has been responsible for the death of his brother. We don’t know quite how to interpret, ‘thyle’, in the Anglo-Saxon context. He should be some keeper of values but in Latin it gets glossed as ‘orator’ with some suggestion that makes him the ‘shop’ / scop himself. We do see the word, ‘thylcraeft’ being used to mean something like ‘rhetoric’ or oratory skill.

He seems to speak calmly; it does not sound as though he has had too much to drink. And yet Beowulf’s resentment is immediate and it is he who suddenly makes a vow. Is this actually Unferth’s function?

But how does Unferth know all the details of the Breca story – even if Beowulf disputes those details – bearing in mind, of course, that this is a piece of entertainment and not a factual historical recounting of history?

His sword is Hrunting (literally, something like ‘Thrusting’). We say ‘his’ but it is ultimately derived from an evil spirit – which receives very little focus in the text. We have to look to Grettis Saga to see this better. However, there is never any reprimand for Unferth’s doubting of the Geat.

Brodeur (1969) raises his potential involvement in the Hrothulf coup and slaughter. Wealhtheow is mistaken in commending her sons to Hrothulf; she cannot know that he will slaughter them. Hrothulf is almost certainly the character known in the sagas as Hrofr Kratki, making him the son of Halga, Hrothgar’s brother.

Hrothgar’s sister

It would seem from the text that Hrothgar’s sister was married to a Scylfing (i.e. Swede) prince – but exactly who he is relies on a bit of ‘blank’ text. We will come back to this when we look at the Swedes but, for the time being, let us fit with the consensus and call him Onela – that is the same name as in the Scandinavian, Ale.

And so on to Wealhtheow … the Wylfing!


Hrothgar’s Wylfing wife: Wealhtheo(w)

BL Copyright.
Note the wynn and thorn letters. But also note that the final wynn is omitted.

Wealhtheow is a symbol of a Wylfing (Helming) / Scylding alliance. The Helmings seem to have been a subgroup: the followers of the Helm Wulfingum mentioned in Widsith. In North Germanic dialects they are known as the Ylfing and held East Geatland. Hrothgar’s marriage to Wealhtheow was an act of international diplomacy; Hrothgar ended the feud between the Wylfingas and the Geats, thereby ensuring a more peaceful local environment.

But Wealhtheow’s name is a bit worrying. Some say that it implies something like ‘servant to wealth’. A more obvious translation would simply be ‘foreign slave’. However, there is a case for the former (and other ‘reverse names’) because in naming patterns, it is never obvious who is servant of whom.

So, Ecgtheow, literally means something like ‘blade servant’ but it more likely implies ‘he for whom the blade is servant’; ‘blade master’. One further complication is that we might already be dealing with an element of ‘translation’. For example, Swede names and Anglian names are visibly different even though the dialects were fairly similar at the time.

There are other possibilities, of course. Jurasinski suggests that this is a semantically emptied name drawn from a legendary tradition.

Scandinavian tradition suggests a legend wherein Hrothgar married an ‘English’ woman, specifically, Ogn, the daughter of a Northumbrian king called, Northri. That in itself presents all sorts of difficulties. The first is quite simply that we do not have records of Northumbrian kings that far back. Northri (and it would not have ended like that in Anglian) sounds like it is a confusion between the geographical area and the king’s name – maybe the two are one? Bede always used the Latinisation, ‘Northumbria’, for the kingdoms north of the Humber. But we get something else here: Northhymbraland. We must not take it to mean the more limited area of Northumberland. Another issue is that in the Nordic legends, Hroarr (Hrothgar) does not seem to come back.

What if there is some truth in the Northumbrian connection – specifically for her? The populations of these kingdoms must have been largely British at that time. So, was she really wealh- (i.e. foreign, usually Celtic as in ‘Welsh’)? Historically, in Bernicia (Bryneich to the British – and very probably the original name), we can go back to around 547. But, although we have nothing written-up for Deira (the territory from the Humber to as far as the Tees) prior to Aella – the first recorded Deiran king, whose father was supposedly an Yffa – archaeological evidence suggests that there was a Deiran royal house way back beyond this – probably in Malton rather than York?

Tolkien also speculates that, given Hrothgar speaks of beginning his reign ‘a long time ago’ and Wealhtheow seems to be much younger, she could be his second wife. That might mean that the English woman was the previous wife?

Let us assume that as a baseline: Wealhtheow is second wife and a peacemaker between East and West Geatland [i.e. put more simply, between Geatish controlled areas and those under Wylfingas control].

Under this scenario, she is nothing to do with Hrothgar’s first Northumbrian wife. In theory, she could be a diplomatic marriage in name only, in which case Ogn could still be around. But there is no sign of this. So, we will assume that she is dead by the time of the narrative.

This brings us on to a couple of matters in which Wealhtheow (and also Hygd – see later in the Geatish section) is central. The first is simply the role of women in the poem.

An interlinked theme: the women of Beowulf

I will break my structure here briefly to re-examine the women of the poem – in part, simply because they tend to get overlooked. But also, in part, because the ‘poet’ spends quite a deal of time on the theme, even introducing a queen we cannot identify {although that does not mean she would have been unfamiliar to the intended audience].

If there are parallels between Wealhtheow and other women in the poem who have been ‘peace-weavers’, we can only guess what earlier hostility Wealhtheow is healing – for there are clearly feuds going on all over the place, some of them evidently longstanding as well.

There is something else Wealhtheow (and Hygd) is involved in and it is an odd, pre-Christian element retained in the poem.

Freya’s torc and Wealhtheow’s gift

We have to dip into some ‘myth’ at this point – in as much as anything is really myth in a society where humans can mingle with deities.

Freyja – Arthur Rackham for Wagner’s ‘The Ring’. Somewhat of a fusion of Freyja and Innuth.

I heard he presented Hygd with a gorget,
the priceless torque that the prince’s daughter,
Wealhtheow, had given him; and three horses,
supple creatures, brilliantly saddled.
The bright necklace would be luminous on Hygd’s breast.

Seamus Heaney translation

This strange element in the poem which seems to have escaped later Christian editing is Freyja’s torc – or something which is at least compared to Freyja’s torc. We can only guess at what original elements did not survive religious censorship here.

One day the goddess was out wandering in a forest when she stumbled upon the Brosing race – dwarfs with expert smithing skills. Freyja was enamoured with the beautiful torc they were making. As for the dwarf race, they could only think about Freyja’s beauty.

Being careful not to get this post an 18 rating they came to an arrangement which even Odin (the Norse version of Woden) found morally lax on Freyja’s part.

None of this appears in the poem but, evidently, at least in a part of its history, this tale was treated as common knowledge. And I doubt it had ever been an item of lewd entertainment. When the pre-Christian deities were still central, Freyja had warrior associations and was not to be messed with.

But the story is messy. Does Hygelac lose it to the Franks or the Hetwara? How is it given to Beowulf by Hama, the Gothic legendary hero, who was believed to have once owned Naegling as well. The general consensus is that the Beowulf ‘author’ (one of many layers) was confused. But let us do our best.

This appears to have been an adornment for Hygelac. When the reprisal raid on Frisia took place, it fell into the hands of the Franks (or a sub-group / ally called the Hetwara – possibly the Attoarii – in the tale). It is not immediately obvious how they might have got it back seeing as the body of the king seems to have fallen into Frankish hands.

The Thithrekssaga tells that the warrior Heime (Hama in Old English) takes sides against Ermanaric (Eormanric), king of the Goths, and has to flee his kingdom after robbing him. Later in life, Hama enters a monastery and gives them all his stolen treasure. However, this saga makes no mention of the great necklace.

However, I think it is a mistake to attempt to use the emergence of the Brisingamen in the Nordic tradition around 900 AD as some way to date the Beowulf poem.

In the Norse tradition there is also an item of jewellery being disputed amongst kings – but it seems to be a ring. And Hrothgar willingly cedes it to his brother as he remains in Northumberland.

The Freyja / Frigg problem in non-Nordic Germanic

Freyja (never mentioned in the poem, probably too much for the Christian scribe) is an incredibly complex goddess – one of the Vanir in the Scandinavian tradition. Her name just means, ‘Lady’ – a term which probably replaced the original name, now forgotten perhaps because it was taboo to say, just as ‘wolf’ seems to have been in some Indo-European cultures or the name of God in some Semitic cultures?

But Freyja’s name is not attested outside Scandinavia and nobody can quite make up their minds about whether she is the same deity as Frigg – common throughout Germanic peoples and who gave her name to Friday.

The names are really close in some dialects – Old High German calls Frigg Frija – but the etymology suggests that she might originally have been called Frijjo, which will be connected with ‘free’. Holtzmann sharpening in which the vocalisation of first semi-vowels takes place in West Germanic complicates matters still further on this front.

However, both are associated with weaving. And Moxon has also pointed out that bay horses were considered sacred to Freyja. Frigg is usually cast as Woden’s consort deity.

However, there is quite a complex motif going on. Firstly, because the text is not overtly clear whether it is claiming that this is actually Freyja’s torc or just compared to / imagined to be it. However, there is another theme: that the characters who are allowed to possess the torc must exhibit some identifiable characteristics associated with nobility. We will see more of this with Hygd in the Geatish section.

6 – THE GEATS (occasionally called Hrethlingas – after Hrethel)

Unlike the names: Swede, Dane, Frisian, even Frank, Geat is not too familiar a descriptive name these days. Unfortunately, this is a more flexible term – as actually are all the others really – than those with which we might feel comfortable today.

Etymologically it is very close to the Gutes and, even to the East Germanic Goths. Even today in Sweden, Götaland (and I have had to leave the accent on) and Gotland, are confusingly similar. To add to the confusion, whilst the poem is quite clear that the Geats and the Jutes are separate, etymologically they might well still be related, especially as in some dialects the initial G was likely to be turning to a Y sound (remember, even Ingeld has this subtle sound change) at least in this GE- position.

It takes us a while in the poem to learn (from Hrothgar, no less) that, in the past, there had been years of hatred between the Danes and the Geats.

The Geats do not seem to have lived out the completion of the sixth century as an independent ‘nation’. The death of Hygelac, Beowulf’s uncle, is the last of the historical events which can be determined with any degree of accuracy. Both 516 and 521 have been mooted; let us simply call the date, ‘circa 520 AD’. Later in the post, I will show that Tolkien pushes it slightly later – whether correctly or not.

A few years seem to have passed during the reign of Herebald. But when he is killed, Beowulf is persuaded to take the Geatish throne. The poem notes him aiding Eadgils to take the Swedish throne, perhaps around 530 AD. Beowulf clearly supports Eadgils against Onela in lines 2391 to 2395. Centuries later, the Icelander, Snorri Sturluson, described him as having a Swedish reputation as a ‘great king’.

Unfortunately, we have zero external confirmation of Beowulf’s existence beyond the poem. It is a massive historical gap at this point because we might be trying to mesh historical and legendary characters – which, of course, could possibly be what the poet has done.

Similarly, Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, is unknown outside the tale, despite being ‘known to everyone’ according to Beowulf himself. Hrothgar purportedly recalls him at least as a name – which is awkward, because Beowulf and Ecgtheow clearly do not alliterate, which male names normally did.

Ic hine cuðe cnihtwesende.

Waes hie ealdfaeder Ecgþeo haten;

I knew him when he was a young man; his old father was called Ecgtheow.

The pattern of the poem means that Beowulf is often labelled the son of Ecgtheow in the poem – often combined with the verb, maþelian – broadly, ‘declare’, although it is all over the text, as below… (maþelode in the past tense / declared).

Beowulf the work of single author, research suggests | Books | The Guardian
Copyright – British Library / The Guardian. You can see how the right margin is almost consistently fire-damaged. Imagine how much would have been lost after a further few minutes!
Beowulf maþelode, bearn Ecgþeowes:
“Hwæt! we þe þas sælac, sunu Healfdenes,
leod Scyldinga, lustum brohton
tires to tacne, þe þu her to locast.
Ic þæt unsofte ealdre gedigde
wigge under wætere, weorc geneþde
earfoðlice; ætrihte wæs
guð getwæfed, nymðe mec god scylde.

But Egtheow is also in some fashion an outcast. He had killed Haetholaf amongst the Wylfingas. The kindred of the Weder-Geats did not keep him for fear of war. His re-establishment was entirely dependent on the Danes.

In the meantime, let us look at the Kings of Geatland…

Genealogy of the Geatish kings

I have to put indicative dates in here and used free family genealogy software in an attempt to build up the basics. I think it would be fair to say that it was not expecting some things! My dates should be given wide margins since I have often worked on generational cycles and left plenty of ‘unknown dates’ on the system.

Note that in the database (unlike in the remainder of the blog post) I have used the additional letters: eth, wynn and thorn as well as indicative tribal identities as surnames. I reiterate that these are early estimates of the dates and these will even be revised later in the post as I build up chronologies.

The genealogy begins with Swerting but it is disputed whether Hrethel is his son, his son-in-law or nephew, essentially depending on the meaning of nefa Swertinges. It is important because Hrethel is the maternal grandfather of Beowulf himself via Ecgtheow’s un-named wife. The pedigree of the Deiran King, Aella, given in the unsympathetic Historia Brittonum includes the name “Sguerthing” as his great grandfather. The name appears nowhere else in the Deiran Royal House’s genealogy. But I still think that there may be some case for a connection here.

  1. Swerting was born in 430 and died on an unknown date. He married (Unknown).

Children of Swerting:

  • Hreðel was born in 450 and died in 495

2. Hreðel was born in 450 and died in 495. He married ? Geat.

Children of Hreðel and ? Geat:

  • Herebald was born in 475 and died in 495.
  • Haeþcyn was born in 475 and died on an unknown date.
  • Hygelac was born in 480 and died in 520.
  • ? Geat died on an unknown date.

The ‘?’ is Beowulf’s mother – never named in the poem, which seems rather odd, especially as some of the women in the poem (one thinks of Wealhtheow or Hygd or even Thrytho, let alone Grendel’s mother, although she remains nameless too) are quite prominent in it.

Note that, according to the poem, Hrethel fostered Beowulf when he was around seven years old. This fostering process as entirely usual in Royal households. Hrethel is Beowulf’s maternal grandfather.

  1. Herebald Geat was born in 475 and died in 495.
  2. Haeþcyn Geat was born in 475 and died on an unknown date.
  3. Hygelac Geat was born in 480 and died in 520. He married Hygd ?.

? Geat died on an unknown date. She married Ecgþeow Waegmunding. Ecgþeow died in 500.

Children of ? Geat and Ecgþeow Waegmunding:

  • Beowulf Waegmunding was born in 490 and died around 585 in the dragon’s howe.

Hygelac was a man of extraordinary height, possibly indicating that the name was a soubriquet. [I cannot say I am convinced by such an idea. Does his name not have the element of ‘thought’, ‘sense’ in it? Tolkien seems to have broadly the same stance, seeing an alliterative play between Hygelac’s name and that of his wife.] Indeed, one can see that it passed through Tolkien’s mind that this was simply a naming convention based around the physical versus the mental.

But we know that Hygelac’s name is for real. To the outside world he is known as Chlochilaicus. And it is this reference that allowed Grundtvig to approximate the date of Hygelac’s death to 516, because a raid to France under a King Chlochilaicus, king of the Danes, is mentioned by Gregory of Tours. In that source he is recorded as invading the Frankish Kingdoms during the reign of Theodericus I (died 534), the son of Clovis.

Nevertheless, Hygelac’s physical stature was evidently so extraordinary that his body was displayed in the Merovignian court as if in some sort of freak-show. Indeed, there is another English text which mentions him: the Liber Monstrorum, the Book of Monsters, which may have been connected with the Wessex scholar, Aldhelm.

Once Hygelac is dead in his Frisian raid, his widow, Hygd, offers Beowulf the throne. Beowulf declines and the throne is passed to Hygelac’s son, Heardred. [You will note here that I say ‘Hygelac’s son’ rather than Hygd’s. We will see later that Hygd is probably around 12 years’ younger than Hygelac and brought in from a territory in what is now Southeastern Norway.]

A further complication, as noted by Tolkien, is that the poet sometimes seems to have mixed up Hygelac and his father. Furthermore, this may have impacted on their age descriptions. Nevertheless, Tolkien never seems entirely sure.

Hygd, daughter of Haereth, born into the Haethenas

British Library

Hygd, introduced at line 1925, is the daughter of Haereth. Haereth must have been someone of note but is now lost to history. Tolkien speculates that, on account of Hygelac’s age, she is probably his second wife, described by the text as swithe geong. So young – but it is still possible that Heardred is her son.

The Haethenas or Heathens?

On a cursory reading of the poem there is a group at the Danish court described as Heathen. But everyone is heathen, are they not? What can this mean?

Tolkien asks us why there is a grouping in Hygelac’s hall called the Haethenas? For some reason, they appear to have been a problem over the centuries with a letter of their name being erased. Tolkien’s own answer is that, just as the Haethobards have Danish people at the court to represent their queen, so do the ‘Heathens’ at Hygelac’s – they are there for Hygd. Swanton seems to concur with Tolkien’s conclusion about ethnic identity. But the important extension in Tolkien – or in his son’s thinking – is that Hygd is one of them by birth.

Swanton describes them as a ‘people living in Southeastern Norway, apparently associated with the Geats’. We might here come back to the issue of Haereth. Tolkien notes that there was a people called the Hearethe (Horthar in Norse as in Hardangerfjord). I think the connection is far from guaranteed.

Furthermore, if Tolkien is right about the Haethenas, then we can make an at least 50% chance bet that Haereth was Haethen too. But he is never quite clear on it, even speculating that their marriage took place in 510 and that their son was born in 511. [Tolkien kept years of notes on such matters – later published by his son alongside his earlier translation of the poem.]

Hygd may be young but – just like Wealhtheow – she is politically astute. She may also be a peacemaker?

Osborn (2001) might be on to something too. And we have to consider the implications for historicity. Let us go back to the physical versus mental power thing for a minute!

Whereas Thryth means ‘power’ or ‘force’ – i.e. a very physical thing, Hygd is the opposite. It means ‘thought’, ‘contemplation’ from the proto-Germanic *HUGJANG, English HYCGEAN, Norse HYGGJA and even dialect Scots, HUIK. We also know that she is Hæreþes dohtor. Unfortunately, we know nothing further about Haereth either! Is he just ‘hiereþ‘, the one who heareth?

Hygd’s role and status appears to be critical. In place of securing the throne of Geatland for her own son, she seems to have the power to offer the throne directly to Beowulf.

Let us put the question of how she is able to do this to one side for a minute. Why does she do this? Is it simply a matter of her consideration of who has the required experience and the ability to defend Geatland against the Swedes?

In the end, it is she who proclaims Heardred as King of the Geats.

Or is there something else going on?

A critical question: Who allows Beowulf to become King of the Geats?

Shaull has argued that Onela permits Beowulf to become Geatish king. But Beowulf helps Eadgils overthrow him?

There is a logic here though – and we only have to be missing one element not to be able to see the complete picture.

But the person who really allows it is quite clear (and should be quite unexpected): it is Hygd!

Glosecki on kinship systems in Beowulf

The late Steve Glosecki has a very interesting take on all this.

Oferswam ða sioleða bigong sunu Ecgðeowes,
earm anhaga eft to leodum;
þær him Hygd gebead hord ond rice,
beagas ond bregostol.

Here’s the problem. She offers Beowulf not just HORD but also RICE – the Kingdom. From whence does she get this right? And, if she does have such a right, how does it operate? And, since Beowulf is a poem slipping through centuries with dramatic changes, how do readers / listeners take this – even those perhaps in eighth century England?

Lateral succession was not uncommon even in quite late Anglo-Saxon society and the rules of who next became king carried with them strong regional traditions but no fixed rules. But is something far earlier being dragged in here?

Glosecki argues that there is no doubt that – gradually; even very gradually – primogeniture was asserting itself. Is this why ‘the Beowulf poet’ (read: some re-interpreter over the course of its already long history to 1000 AD – has Beowulf reject the offer? But he also reconsiders the idea that Germanic queens (at least at one time) could choose the next king. For Glosecki, it is the accommodation of a ‘murky, idealised, misapprehended past’ in which certain now long-disregarded solutions become worthy of a second critical examination.

For the poet / scribe and the reader, kinship systems are essentially bilateral. But even in Anglo-Saxon England there was a strong focus on ‘mother’s brother’, one that has never been satisfactorily explained. Is it possible that the new, insular system absorbed some ‘significant reflection’ of an older matrilineal element?

Nevertheless, by the poet’s time (whatever that means), mother’s brother looks like an anachronism. But Ecgtheow never seems close to Beowulf (and, remember, the names ought to alliterate) and Bremmer has argued that Beowulf is Wiglaf’s maternal uncle, i.e. the son of Beowulf’s sister.

I have lots of problems with this. As Glosecki admits, Beowulf’s sister is never named. Indeed, surely most important of all, Beowulf’s mother is never named? But, again, the more one looks at these issues, the more there seems to be something here. Beowulf’s name seems closer to those of Breca and his father – is that a coincidence?

The ‘Modthryth’ problem

However, let us return to Freyja’s torc for there is another level here as well.

Whereas Wealhtheow gives Beowulf the torc, he passes it on to Hygd. Both Wealhtheow and Hygd are presented as exemplar queens. It is as though such an object can only be passed between people possessing certain noble qualities.

Suddenly, there is a massive break in the poem’s narrative… and it follows shortly after the disjuncture between the first two tests and Beowulf’s time back in Geatland. It almost feels as though two stories have been zipped together without a careful reading of continuity (and yet elsewhere the poet has clearly been meticulous on the continuity front).

Hygd’s character is contrasted rather bluntly with that of the woman who has become known as ‘Modthryth’. Was she a part of the second tale before it was meshed on? I think that, one way or another, there is little doubt that this is not her name. There is a very significant naming problem here. I think the most likely solution is that her name is Thyth or Thrytho (whatever that does grammatically or perhaps what it originally once did grammatically).

Thryth’s story seemingly surfaces devoid of context. Overing (1990) says it has ‘no immediately apparent connection to the main narrative’. We need to keep in mind that what is apparent to us and what was apparent to an earlier audience may well be very different.

BL – Thrytho!

Her name has been assumed to be some compound of -thyth (Power). Kock in 1920 suggested that FREMU was not adjectival but her real name. Weiskott (2011) suggests she is anonymous. In a sense it does not really matter; we have to know her as something. It does have serious impacts though.

Firstly, it may have implications for Cynethryth, wife of Offa of Mercia, who some think is the real intended object of attack here. Readers of this blog will recall that she had her own coins minted during his reign. Whatever, somehow Modthryth does not fit because she is not the idealised ‘peace-weaver’ (freoðowebbe) woman.

It is also relevant in terms of the remaining words around her name and how they should be interpreted. Huge attention to grammar is necessary – way beyond my own knowledge. I have used all the original letters in the next section in order not to lead to any further misunderstandings.

Modþryðo ƿæȝ
fremu folces cƿen, firen ondrysne

… is how we have become used to seeing it.
But, by separating ‘mod’ and ‘thryth, we potentially shift whole interpretations, especially as so many of the words are far from fully comprehended. You get the feel that even the final scribes had no idea what was going on here – indeed, that is probably at least part of the problem.

Mod Þryðo ƿæȝ
fremu folces cƿen, firen ondrysne

Let us start with Michael Swanton’s masterful translation – although this definitely is not the best bit.

Thyth, imperious queen of the nation, showed haughtiness, a terrible sin.

Tolkien simply suggests that a scribe might have omitted NE whilst ‘at sea’ with all the unfamiliar names. I thought that this was unlikely but then found I had done it in my own notes! Even so, he still has to admit that the emergence of the whole section is ‘somewhat abrupt’.

But what of the so-called Osborn interpretation?

Osborn (2001) believes we now have Hygd contemplating Thrytho’s situation. She interprets the line as something more akin to: ‘She weighed up that well-known queen and her hideous crime’ (my paraphrase). So, the subject of the sentence has been switched from one queen to the other. From the text one might guess that Thrytho married twice and that the second marriage involved a sea journey, over the yellowing flood. This second marriage seems to leave her hamstrung – either literally or metaphorically. The interpretation of the word has always caused problems.

Whilst thinking about all this, I had the craziest of ideas. Is it staring us in the face? Could Heardred’s mother actually be Thrytho. Does it then finally make sense?

It has often been commented on that prior to marriage in Angeln, Thrytho was either under the command of her father OR… a previous husband. So another possibility: what if that previous husband was the slaughtered elder brother of Hygelac? Once I had these possibilities in my head, it became obvious to me that Thrytho was known to the audience somehow! It is still not clear exactly who she was.

‘There was no brave man
among the dear companions, save for her overlord,
who by day dared venture to gaze at her with his eyes;
but he might reckon deadly fetters,
twisted by hand, assured for him;
that after seizure, the sword would be prescribed,
the patterned blade should settle it,
make known a violent death. Such a thing is no queenly custom
for a lady to practise, peerless though she may be –

that a ‘peace-weaver’ should take the life of a beloved man
on account of a fancied insult.

However, Hemming’s kinsman put a stop to that.
Those drinking ale told another tale –
that she brought about fewer acts of malice,
injuries to the people, as soon as she was given,
adorned with gold, to the young champion,
the dear prince, when at her father’s bidding
she sought out Offa’s hall in a journey
across the yellowish flood. There she subsequently occupied
the throne well, famous for virtue,
while living made good use of the life destined for her.

[Michael Swanton translation]

Is it conceivable that, whilst the Danes were engaged in a long-term struggle with the Haethobards to hold Zealand, Geatland was somehow under attack from Angeln? It does not seem the most obvious conflict but Geatland might have used such an attack to patch up relations with its neighbours in southern Norway to bolster its regional status.

Similarly, the Danes needed Wylfing co-operation in their ongoing dispute with the Haethobards. That could easily have stoked tensions with the Geats.

Was there genuinely a diplomatic mission from Geatland at this point – entrusted to a part-outsider, a risky but mutually-acceptable third party, a chancer from the mysterious Waegmundings, acting as a formalised mercenary within the established international rules of the region and time?

Hygelac was still young when he inherited the throne unexpectedly from his elder brother. Was Thrytho also some teenager, a Royal victim of political circumstances, traded as a peace-offering between nations by a manipulative and overbearing father, a sort of Polonius character? Was she formerly married into the Geatish leadership, subsequently to be maligned? There would be no need to introduce her then.

The characterisation of Hygelac

So, if Hygd really is about judgement and thought, then what should we make of her husband – given that he is the only character we can really anchor to the historical record?

He is a conundrum. He is reticent about Beowulf’s expedition and almost seems to have a lack of interest in it. And yet, when Frisia beckons, he seems unable to hold himself back from recklessness. And, ultimately, that proves to be how he loses his life and puts Geatland in jeopardy.

But does this make Irving correct in calling him ‘a reckless marauder’? Is that not in truth, a better characterisation of young Beowulf? He is not schooled into being a soul at this point. Hall (2006) highlights a potentially important consideration revolving around the phraseology, mid ofermaðmum.

The problem revolves around Hygelac’s daughter, who is not even afforded a name. She is part of Eofor’s reward for bringing down the Swedish king. But perhaps the implication is that Eofor has been unnecessarily over-rewarded. And, in doing this, Hygelac has nullified the diplomatic capital he had in his daughter. However, Eofor had gained material treasures too, which he gifted to King Hygelac: the Swede king’s sword (an important heirloom, without doubt), his helmet and his chain mail.

In passing these objects on, Hygelac became known as the Swedish king’s slayer – but clearly the action was undertaken by Eofor and Wulf.

Tolkien complicates things further by alleging that it is very likely that it was Hrethel’s daughter (i.e. Hrothgar’s own sister) that Hrothgar gave in marriage to Eorfor – all part of the poet’s seeming confusion between Hrethel and Hrothgar.

Heardred and Beowulf’s trust in the young man

Let us take things at face value, and assume that Hygd’s lack of enthusiasm for her own son becoming king is simply down to his inexperience. Beowulf, in refusing the throne and giving Heardred his backing, either shows himself to be politically more astute than Hygd – or less. Which is it? Is Beowulf right to support Heardred and, later, Eadgils of the Swedes (who is effectively an aristocratic refugee harboured at Heardred’s court)? By the way, Eadgil’s slaying of Onela is an event independently evidenced from Scandinavian sources. Klaeber dates it to 535 AD.

And, if Beowulf does the right thing on both occasions, what does this tell us about Hygd?

But you might have noticed another problem by now (and there is probably no more confusing problem in the whole poem)…


In the first half of the poem, we naturally assume that because Beowulf travels across the sea to Denmark from Geatland, that he is a Geat. That is how I have dealt with it above, if only because that is how it is traditionally dealt with: he is Beowulf the Geat who help the Danes.

Then, in the second part of the poem, we have a rather confusing shock, a revelation which leaves us with more questions than answers: he is a… ‘Waegmunding‘.

When we start to think about it, Beowulf acts very independently of King Hygelac. All his boasting to the coast guard – and, indeed, to the Danish King, Hrothgar – is little better than privilege-inspired nonsense.

He claims to be there on Hygelac’s mission but Hygelac is quite clear: he doubts the worthiness of the expedition (although the Geatish witan may well have had other views).

Without wishing to digress too much, Hygelac also seems cut-off from this ‘world knowledge’ of which Beowulf speaks. So, whose problem is that: is it the fault of Hygelac for not keeping up with international affairs or… is some of this in Beowulf’s mind? It almost seems to me that Hygelac really doesn’t want to know. And, at the same time, Beowulf suddenly risks being viewed as an egotist – at least, whilst he is young; before he is schooled into something better in line with Hrothgar’s / Heaney’s / Keats’ warnings!

And there is more confusion to come. Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, who almost appears out of nowhere, is also a ‘Waegmunding’. Is Ecgtheow? And, just for luck, there is another jammed in (although it is not actually certain): Aelfhere – who some have argued is actually Beowulf by his real name. However, it is equally possible, that reference to Aelfhere ultimately came from somewhere else and just got left as a lone mention in the poem- in a way, a bit like Thrytho.

So, what is the exact relationship between Beowulf and Wiglaf? The poet fails to provide any real answer. Was it assumed that we (as an audience) would know this?

The problem is compounded by the fact that we know absolutely nothing about the Waegmundings. We don’t know if they were a Geatish clan or a Swedish one. That choice might seem to cover most of the options, but there are potentially some others as well. One possibility is that the Brondings cannot have been far away. That’s fine but we don’t know where they were either!

Reading Tolkien’s notes though has got me thinking. One of the places proposed for the Brondings is southern Norway (although, personally, I rather liked the idea that they were in the Baltic and controlling the amber trade).

Breca – later identified as a formidable leader of the Brondingas by Widsith was a childhood friend of Beowulf and Unferth tells us about his famous swimming competition with Beowulf. But we know very little else about them except that Breca was the son of Beanstan.

The Haethenas now appear to be in the general area too. Does Beowulf’s swimming challenge with Breca hint at a southern Norwegian origin for the Waegmundings?

See the source image
Hardangerfjord, Norway – Copyright: Visit Norway.
Could it be that Beowulf was neither Geatish nor Swedish, but really from what is now known as Norway?

Whilst we can piece together some genealogies simply from the text of the poem, no relative of Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, is ever mentioned. And none of Beowulf’s mother’s relatives have any connection to the Waegmundings.

E.M. Shaull (2016) has suggested that Ecgtheow, identified as a Scylfing, might have been the younger brother of Ongentheow. I don’t go for it at all. If that had been the case, why had nobody paid wergild from amongst the Swedes? Or do the Wylfingas simply not want the wergild?

However, if the wergild demanded for Haetholaf was extortionate, then he must have been someone considered of great importance: a warrior or aetheling, perhaps? Was he Wealhtheow’s brother?

There is something that does not add up for me though. The alternative to payment was banishment which is how he ended up at Hrothgar’s court. Ecgtheow had to pay an oath of allegiance in response. This is the context in which Beowulf’s actions are seen to be couched by the Danes. But how come Beowulf grows up in Geatland, even given the fostering framework? These two states seem to have been at each other’s throats. No wonder Tolkien seems to completely miss the context.


For the purposes of a subsequent section we also have to understand better what we mean by the ‘Swedes’ – as noted earlier, the name was associated with a far more constrained geographical area in the sixth century.

In the first century, Tacitus informed us that the ‘Suoines’ had a king. Unfortunately, from that point right the way through to the year 1000 we know next to absolutely nothing about them. Furthermore, most of the exceptions to this general rule are unreliable, semi-mythical references to them in the Norse Sagas.

What we can say is that their territory seems to have been limited to Svealand, the home of the ‘Svear’. There were natural barriers in terms of forests and lakes between them and the Geats. This separation was not absolute but was a bit like the Weald (Andredesweald) in Southeastern England.

Svea rike’ originally only referred to Svealand, despite Sverige now being the standard Swedish name for the whole country. In fact, historically, Sweden developed with two other broad regions: Norrland and Osterland (or Finland as the Finns like to call it!).

Further back in time, King Jorund had regained the Swede throne from Haki, the sea-king. His son would also be king – by this time probably broadly the second half of the 400s: Aun (often known in English as ‘Edwin the Old’). By the standards of the day (and the region), he was essentially pacific. However, he was attacked and defeated by the Danes under Healfdene.

Edwin fled into Geatish territory and stayed there for quarter of a century. At that point Healfdene died in his bed in Uppsala. Edwin was then aged about 60 at that point. Returning to Uppsala, there is clearly a bit of legend getting mixed in since he starts a process of sacrificing his sons to Odin to extend his life.

And dates are going past in suspiciously regular patterns of 25 years. We will take them at face value for the time-being, whilst being aware that it is possible that this should be interpreted simply as ‘many years’.

When he was 85, he was again attacked by the Danes – this time by Healfdene’s cousin, Ale the Strong (Ola, son of Fridleif of Denmark, cousin of Hrothgar). Ale would supposedly eventually be killed by Starkad ‘the Old’.

If we take Nordic sources seriously, Edwin took another period in exile in Geatland. On return to the Swedish kingdom, he sacrificed more sons until there was only one left – Ongentheow – and only the will of the people saved him from the same fate.

Ongentheow (Egil in Nordic sources) succeeded him. Shaull’s theory that Ecgtheow is his younger brother is rather flawed by all the sacrifices to Odin! he is also mentioned in Widsith among potential contemporary kings – but they are not helpful.

Ongentheow’s supposed grave mound in Sweden. Jacob Truedson Demitz for Ristesson but in the public domain.

Let us attempt to put some indicative dates on these events. Of course, we are not going to go with a start point of Edwin the Old departing this world when he was 160 or anything. But let us imagine that he was 90 when Ongentheow succeeded him. That would have been really old – old enough now to trigger legends.

His reign is going to need to make him contemporaneous with both Healfdene and Ale in Denmark. Now, we know Healfdene died somewhere around 495 and was probably born around 435. So, let us estimate that the attack on Edwin might have been circa 460.

We also have an estimated date for Ongentheow’s death of 515 AD (see below) although dating the start of his reign is more difficult. He would have had to wait for the Odin sacrifices to run their course! But we don’t hear about Edwin’s involvement with the Swedish-Geatish Wars (which are coming up in the next section) – n fact he would presumably have been on reasonable terms with many Geats, having spent so long there. So, the disputes may well start following his death although there is also the change of monarch in Geatland to consider.

It is a Vendel era helmet, by the way.

9. THE SWEDISH-GEATISH WARS circa 500 to 535

I am going to break with convention here and speak of ‘phases’ rather than Wars.

The First Phase of the Swedish-Geatish Wars, perhaps around 500 AD when Haethcyn became king of the Geats.

Hrethel died of grief when one of his sons, Haethcyn, accidently killed Herebald in a hunting incident. [Who is Hrethel’s queen, by the way? Could she even be Thrytho?] Haethcyn inherited the throne. By the way, it should perhaps be noted that the orthography around this name is especially old-fashioned, appearing with both a root vowel E as well as AE and with D in place of TH. This might suggest that it had been copied from a really early manuscript although there must be multiple alternative interpretations.

After Hrethel’s death, the Swedes did not keep their peace deal and attacked Geatland. The Geats under their new king, Haethcyn, captured the Swedish queen. She was recovered whilst items of material were not. We seem to have no trace of the Queen’s name but there may be a logic for why Haethcyn attempted her capture – she might have been Geat! He pays dearly for this adventure, losing his life and is replaced by his brother, Hygelac.

The Swedish king at this time, Ongentheow, looks likely to be Angantyr also known as Egil Vendelcrow. It took two warriors (Eofor and Wulf Wonreding – who is injured in the confrontation) to bring Ongentheow down. Known as a fearsome warrior, provisionally, we have a date of around 515 for Ongentheow’s death – although I have seen earlier suggestions in Tolkien for example, where most events were originally around 10 years earlier.

So, Haethcyn must be dead at / before 515 AD if the Ongentheow chronology is broadly correct. But note that Hrethel seems to have been Geatish king when Beowulf was fostered at aged 7 (heold mec ond hæfde Hreðel cyning). Haethcyn cannot have reigned for very long.

The Second Phase of the Swedish-Geatish War circa 515-530 AD

Once Ongentheow is dead, Ohthere becomes king of Sweden. He does not seem to have been the most successful of kings and the Swedes seem to have controlled a more restricted territory – possibly evidenced by the fact that he was buried in Vendel and not Uppsala.

Ohthere’s Mound located at Vendel Sweden – with the place named after him.
User IN433 on sv.wikipedia

This period seems to have been more successful for the Geats. They may well have encroached onto formerly Swedish-controlled territories under Hygelac.

The Danes also have a stake here because Hrothgar’s sister is married to Onela (if we take -ELAN correctly). Tolkien describes him as the ‘prince of a diminished house’. There is no lacuna in the surviving text but it is evidently corrupted. Onela has been implied as the husband of Yrse, Hrothgar’s sister because the text end -ELAN and no other Scylding monarch has an ELA ending – but it is just a diminutive so anything is possible. That, of course makes Onela and Hrothgar brothers-in-law. The Danes probably attempted a policy of appeasement with regard to Geatland.

Then, of course, Hygelac embarks on his catastrophic adventure in Frisia. Meanwhile, Ohthere very possibly met his end on a raid on the Danish coast a few years after Hygelac’s death.

The Third Phase of the Swedish-Geatish Wars after 530 AD.

By the time of the third phase, Onela is king. This potentially changes the position of Denmark in the relationship.

Geatland is some kind of refuge place for those who have ‘previous history’ against the new regime.

Lake Vanern conflict and the Battle on the Ice

[circa 535 AD – and I am settling quite tightly on this date.]

The Battle on the Ice is a key battle recorded in the Norse sagas. Beowulf does not refer directly to the battle but makes mention of the conflict.

Ohthere’s sons (Eanmund and Eadgils) would have been resident in Geatland and took part on the Geatish alliance side.

Lake Vanern is over 2,000 square miles and one of the biggest lakes in Europe. How cold must it have been to be able to have a battle on the ice near modern day Skara? Parts of the lake do regularly freeze so it is possible that a similar temperature range to today could have hosted this battle – at least at some point in the year. But I am not convinced. I think the name implies that it REALLY froze!

Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

I think that this might help us date the battle quite accurately. Swedish dendrochronology, combined with writings from elsewhere, suggests that the period immediately following 536 saw a marked drop in temperatures and ice cores from Greenland have indicated a marked acidic dust vale in 534 +/- 2 years. Resulting famines and economic strife would no doubt have increased tensions with neighbours.

The Byzantine-Greek scholar, Procopius, in his commentary on the Vandal Wars noted that ‘the sun gave forth light devoid of brightness’. Writing far later, in the 12th century, the Syrian Orthodox patriarch, Michael the Syrian, noted that during the reign of Justinian II, there was a year and a half of feeble sun. Irish annals record dreadful harvests between 536 and 539. Dendrochronologist, Mike Baillie (Queen’s University, Belfast) has identified abnormally little growth in Irish oaks in 536 and a further sharp drop in 542.

David Keys (with a focus on interest well away from Beowulf or even NW Europe) suggested that the most almighty explosion of Krakatoa might have been responsible, initiating nothing less than a century of economic and social upheaval. For many areas he looked at, the impacts were massively exacerbated by the Justinian Plague (yersina pestis), which kicked in around 541 AD.

Matters in Dark Age history tend to go in phases and there was certainly a period in which it was seriously believed that the British suffered heavily under this because of their trading links with the Atlantic coast and Mediterranean whereas Germanic settlers in Britain did not, thanks to their very different trading patterns with Northern Europe. This no longer looks to have been correct, given archaeological discoveries in the area around Cambridge.

However, what this might tell us is that this was the point at which Germanic mercenaries finally had ties cut with the Roman military machine. So, what we are dealing with here is both very real and, at the same time, almost existential.

A changed situation at the end of the wars?

Heardred (supported by Beowulf, remember) is killed at Vanern alongside Eanmund. Heardred was the last of the Hrethlingas. The position of the Swedes and the Geats had once again been reversed with the Swedes emerging as dominant. And Onela is Hrothgar’s brother-in-law. This is the context in which Beowulf becomes king.

But there is a twist. For Onela’s warrior champion is none other than Weohstan, Wiglaf’s father. [Are we sure Weohstan was a Waegmunding and did not simply marry one?] We know nothing further about his ancestry except that Aeschere and Wiglaf are kinsmen in some fashion. Weohstan takes Eanmund’s sword.

Beowulf is also tied in but is clearly on the other side from Weohstan. Eadgils survives and Beowulf later helps him avenge the death of Eanmund (Ohthere’s son), slaying Onela. With the new king on the throne of Sweden, Onela’s champion, Weohstan, seems to have to take refuge amongst the Geats to avoid Eadgils. One gets the impression that there must have been a great deal of rival tensions in the Geat Royal hall.

BL Copyright

Since Weohstan left his sword to his son, it would seem that Eanmund’s sword ends up fighting the dragon with Beowulf. Indeed, it does not fail…

The foreboding for a Fourth Phase of the Swedish-Geatish Wars

At the end of the poem, it would seem that Wiglaf is in little doubt that a further Swedish-Geatish war is on its way. But part of the situation might even be being created by him. For there are implications for Geatland when its new king is the son of the Swedes’ champion.

Far later Scandinavian sources suggest that a Geatish king from the ‘seventh century’ called Auglaust, was invited by the Swedish king’s son-in-law to Uppsala. During the night, he was burned to death alongside important members of his retinue. After that, the Swedish king (called Ingjald, according to the source text) extended Sweden’s rule into West Geatland.

This East / West division of Geatland seems to have been, not only long-standing, but also persistent. Indeed, in many essentials, it continues to exist today. Nevertheless, around 750 AD the whole territory was brought under Swedish control.

In the closing scenes – magnificently written with wyrd (the noun for all things which will come to pass, Fate, Destiny, the Furies – all of these things together even) hovering close, destiny unknowable but indisputable – Wiglaf is Beowulf’s only surviving relative. But what relative? And what makes him specifically a Waegmunding?

Are the Waegmundings the ancestors of the East Anglian Royal house?

With Geatland collapsing and, perhaps, nowhere else to turn, did they head to Suffolk?

It has been mentioned by many that the names here start to sound very reminiscent of the ‘East Anglian’ royal house – who seem to have arrived relatively late onto the English East Coast scene. Indeed, is this the origin of the ‘North Folk’ and ‘South Folk’ thing?

Part of a 12th century manuscript, the ‘Textus Roffensis’, showing the genealogy of the East Angle kings, now kept in Strood at Medway Archives.
[Medway Council]

The East Anglian dynasty is supposed to have been founded by Wehha (quite possibly a short form of Wihstan). Nothing is known about his reign and it cannot even be clarified whether he actually existed.

The East Angle monarchy is usually supposed to take its name from Wuffa, his son. It is almost as if, until this point, the East Angles are dominated by Norfolk hierarchies.

It is Wuffa who is named by Bede as the first king of the East Angles. But Historia Brittonum, written by a Welshman, instead names a person called ‘Guillem Guercha‘.

In Suffolk, just north of Woodbridge, is a village particularly associated with Wuffa: Ufford [Wuffa’s Ford?]. Do you also begin to feel the origin the kingly name, Offa, now? And, of course, there is an older Offa in the poem, king if the Continental Angles.

If we consider him to be the same Offa of Anglia mentioned in Widsith – and he may well not be – he brought the (probably) Saxon, Myrgings, under Anglian control. For the Myrgings, this is the only surviving historical recollection. In the text, there is a Eomer, son of Offa – an Anglian prince, no less. He is described as the grandson of Garmund (elsewhere known as Wermund – could this, by the way, be the root of the Weagmundings?). All these characters appear in the history of the Mercian royals.

Nevertheless, there is a problem connecting the two Offas as they seem to be a generation or even two apart.

What if they were one and the same though? The legendary founder of the Mercian royal house – or, at least, Penda’s and Eowa’s royal house was Icel. Hence the name Iclings.

Icel is supposed to have played a part in the invasion of Britannia. But the dates are telling as these would have been around 515 AD; the greater part of a century after the whole Vortigern / Hengest incident.

Despite the later date, Icel’s own existence is open to debate. If he did exist that ball-park dates would be 450 – 525 AD. A third possibility, of course, is that he existed but had nothing to do with Penda with the Mercian ‘royal’ house just using him as an exercise in legitimisation. Nevertheless, Guthlac of Crowland, related to Penda via Penwalh, also claimed descent from Icel.

Tolkien thought it likely that Hemming was Offa’s maternal grandfather.

An 8 year old girl playing in the water of a Swedish lake discovered a sword that officials believe is from 5th or 6th century A.D. Saga Vanecek found the ancient artefact in the shallow waters of Vidöstern Lake in Tånnö, Småland, Sweden in 2018.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is that, despite their reliable histories, both of the swords used by Beowulf – fail! And, from the start, he seems to know, that swords are not going to play an important part in his challenges.

Possibly due to industrial limitations, swords that were actually used for battle tended to be relatively short. Are these failing swords in some way more ceremonial and almost being used out of context?

The (probably) eighth century Bildso sword. Note how similar the hilt is to the finds from Staffordshire on display at Birmingham Museum.

A.) Naegling

Naegling is Hrethel’s heirloom: Hreðles lafe.

It is passed from Hrethel to Hygelac to Beowulf. Naegling probably corresponds to a sword mentioned in the Vikinga Saga. The description in Beowulf seems to have absorbed some contradictory descriptions: ‘Naegling forbaerst’ – so it is shining and mighty and yet, elsewhere, it is described as old and grey (it fits the alliterative verse rather better in the original text).

It does not fail on account on account of its own lack of strength. Rather, it fails, because of Beowulf’s excess of it; he simply pushes the metal beyond its own internal tolerance. But does this make any literal sense? Could overly-brutal use of such an instrument have caused it to fail? And, if so, how should this be interpreted? Although Brooke uses the word ‘absurd’, this is part of a tradition. In Gunnlags Saga the hero is also not responsible for the failing sword.

J.A. White’s Jungian interpretation sees the situation as beyond the control of material forces, an instrument ultimately constrained to obey only the laws of fate. And, by this point, Beowulf is surrounded by the WYRD. The path of fate is becoming increasingly pre-discerned.

We know this word WYRD – we actually say it all the time. But it did not start off as adjectival. It has a complex etymology connected ultimately with turning and rotation but also closely connected to ‘worth’. Weorthan meant ‘to come to pass’. Our word, weird – a Northernism – developed as implying ‘having the capability to shape destiny’. It is a feminine noun; the weavers of destiny. In other Indo-European cultures, we are speaking of three sisters (the ‘weird sisters’, no less!) who have different roles in the material production of the future. And the blades of the swords too have almost a woven texture.

B.) Hrunting

This is the sword given by Unferth to Beowulf. Traditionally, this has been problematic. The fact that it fails at the critical moment has been seem by many almost as a trick played by Unferth on Beowulf. But there is definitely no such interpretation put on this by Beowulf himself. And ALL swords fail in the text; Grendel can’t even be touched by one, hence the arm to arm wrestling. The other way of seeing the event is, of course, as a gesture of newly-awakened trust – or, possibly, even a simple apology on Unferth’s part. Hrunting is described as having ‘fabulous power’. But Beowulf simply has to discard it to survive and this may not have received adequate attention as an action.

The ‘hand and child’ tale?

The arm to arm wrestling shows signs, by the way, of another tradition being absorbed by the poem. The ‘hand and child’ folk tale is traditionally Insular Celtic. We do not really know if it had British variants but it clearly had deep Irish roots – and there were plenty of Irish people in Britain when it was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, their role in this period of British history might have been severely underplayed.


What about the mythological elements?

Well, we can’t date those? Can we?

I think this is how a lot of people in England think of Beowulf – and, even more, those outside England. It’s a weird story about slaying dragons etc.

I have been avoiding this but we can do so no longer…

It is time for the ‘Beowulf in contemporary culture’ section. Grit your teeth – you are going to see some awful things – but there are actually things we can learn here including how these reinterpretations have gone back to some of the folkloric elements. However, we do not seem to be able to deal with the story as told by the 10th / 11th century manuscript. Why not?

OK – I knew it would be bad. But it is really bad. Contrast this nonsense with Michael Wood’s comment that it is ‘our nation’s greatest gift to the World’!

A massive dragon atop a huge ‘Tintagel’ and Wiglaf shouting ‘My Lord!’ as though he lives in the thirteenth century – and, indeed, all the rest. Not even Wiglaf’s contribution to the dragon’s slaughter. I guess you didn’t spend long thinking about what it might mean to be a Waegmunding?

So, what are we really looking at?

None of this is especially helped by the fact that the section of text is seriously damaged (it is one of the most damaged parts of the surviving manuscript with evidence of major tampering by a non-expert) with some lines almost unintelligible and some lines obviously changed. Nevertheless, this is an important section and Tolkien describes it as an elegiac retrospect, worthy of comparison to the ship funeral scene.

is it still OK to ask whether this is a defining moment in a national identity – God knows what identity, by the way! It seems to have some bearing on the English settling in Britannia, but in the end, it may not do?

In a sense, it is almost strange that anyone would ask. The Christian culture which sought to wipe out these traditions was quite happy to use them itself. The slaying of the dragon is a common motif is most Indo-European cultures and (through motifs such as Tiamat / Tehom) also in the Semitic cultures we have in part absorbed.

‘Dragon’ is really the wrong word anyway. The word in the text is WYRM (ƿyrm – it looks much nicer like that!). It is from a good Indo-European root, *wr̥mis, and has cognates in so many languages ranging from snakes, worms, dragons, even locusts and the colour red: ве́рмие in Russian, Latin vermis.

The slaying of the serpent motif nearly always seems to be about establishing order over chaos (even in the opening section of Genesis). But in this case, it is a rather strange variant in which chaos tries to reassert itself over order – an established monarchic warrior-based system. One might well ask what was going on in Geatland around 580 AD?

And yes, Hagios Georgios is Saint George!

However, later interpretations – particularly following a Greek Christian tradition – are about conquering the passions. Remember that whilst the dragon here is from days long gone, the poet wants to give things a Christian gloss. But which elements are from which tradition? Is the dragon killing off Beowulf’s egotism, pride, arrogance, gluttony, even comfortable security and assuredness?

Let us start by dumping the ‘flying T-Rex’! In Beowulf the wyrm tradition collides with its Latin-derived counterpart, dracan. It is possible that the latter derived from a Greek root linked to a light from the creature’s eye – a bit similar to Grendel – but again I am not 100% convinced by the arguments. Several different types of wyrm are already present in Germanic culture – most of which were wingless. However, the lindwyrm – and ensnaring serpent like Fafnir – is winged.

By the thirteenth century, Western Europe’s conceptualisation of the dragon was beginning to standardise. From this point on, the repetition of similar images cemented the symbolisation in the human mind.

Conversation with Smaug (the ability to speak draws on Fafnir). In theory, the dragon should be similar to Smaug in the fictional world of Tolkien’s books. As in Beowulf, Smaug invaded his territory a similar amount of time ago and even the group against him numbers 13. Bilbo even steals a golden cup from his treasure lair. But even Tolkien has been – perhaps subconsciously – influenced by the late Mediaeval consensus on the appearance of dragons.

Somewhere there is a beautiful Christian motif going on as well: a bewilderment (look at the word! – it is the very opposite of civilisation) by greed. The dragon is bewildered by greed but so is Germanic society. The fact that this treasure rots parallels the fact that some external force has already dissolved Beowulf’s sword in Grendel’s mother’s lair. The consensus is that this is some Christian gloss. Maybe. But I think there is belittlement taking place: that a society that is pre-Christian can only have very simplistic thoughts about what is meaningful in life. After all, it is nothing more, than a bird crossing the interior of the mead-hall!

And the third test – at the dragon’s barrow – seems almost exclusively to be a Waegmunding test – is it even a Waegmunding tale? There are only two Waegmundingas left on the entire planet and they happen to find themselves at the dragon’s barrow-lair in a howe / ‘low’ (a word still used in Yorkshire!) in Geatland, Meanwhile all Beowulf’s companions have fled (He is supposed to be king of this country!). If folklorists think there is no ‘retribution’ element to Beowulf, they need to examine this section more carefully as the treasure hoard is denied to the companions. But then, of course, if it slightly denied to everyone, because in the end, it is meaningless.

And then there is this – we are back to contemporary culture, I am afraid! [Note: please do not watch this if you are studying Beowulf for an exam. It is a different story and you will end up so confused!]

This is the opposite extreme; there is no dragon at all. That is because there is no post-return to Geatland section and, therefore, almost no Hygd and no Hygelac (they appear briefly early on); no Wiglaf indeed – so, in reality, no future.

Beowulf & Grendel (2005). Whilst I really do not recommend watching either, one thing you will note about both this and the animated (2007) version, is that the motif of severing of arm limbs is transferred beyond Grendel. Furthermore, both share the reduction of King Hrothgar to some sort of collapsing and despairing alcoholic. I am not going to dwell on it but the motif from the Bear’s Child is very prominent in this version, almost in line with its Icelandic origins.

Although it is sickeningly awful, I did find that it made me think about the re-telling of the tale and how some bits are re-incorporated whilst others are dropped. The waterfall element in Grendel’s mother’s lair borrows elements from similar Scandinavian tales. In the Old English account, this section reads as though the mere is almost bottomless. It is worth keeping in mind where we are… Roskilde Fjord, a branch of Isefjord. So, the ‘mere’ turns out to be rather more than a bit of fenland!

By why do we have to change the storyline? Is it because – somehow – we have too many unanswered questions; that we cannot square the circle? One place that this is very obvious in this version is in how it deals with a flattening of the multi-layered elements of conflict between Christianity and Germanic paganism. But is there another reason? is it because we know that we have to because, instinctively, we know that – even somewhere very deep and obscured – there is something that matters beyond belief contained within.

The above also raises the issue of what seems like the ‘natural break’ in the poem after Beowulf’s second trial, previously mentioned – i.e. before he returns to Geatland. Many commentators have noted this and identified a junction between two folk traditions. Personally, I think that the Geatland tale might even be the older of the two.

What of Grendel?

There are few robust clues on this one. It is suggested by the poem that Grendel has essentially human features but most of the exact details are starkly missing. Tolkien contrasted his ‘near human’ form with the more elemental dragon – putting aside for the time-being the issue of his mother (or, indeed, his entirely unrecounted father).

Perhaps we should start with his name as there have been all sorts of suggestions about this, varying from commentaries on him dying with a grin on his face to having something to do with the colour, green.

Grendel has a logical enough root in Western Germanic: door bolt. Whilst that might sound unlikely to start with, he is associated with bursting open the doors of Hearot. Furthermore, by extension, it can imply: barrier, gate, bar or beam. His arm will for a time hang from the beams of Hearot but I am more intrigued by the concept of him being some sort of ‘gate’. Gate to another world? Some sort of ‘coming of age’ rite for Beowulf?

He is also MEARC STAPA – a wanderer of the borderlands. What does this tell us about the contemporary fear of osmosis from beyond frontiers? Does he even represent some ‘last of the Heruli’ figure? That would certainly make him a human-form character.

Hero and monster – right from the start, the hero is flawed; definitely an under-considered aspect of the poem. The word, AGLAECA, suggests that they are almost reflections of one another. One cannot help but think of Gilgamesh and Enkidu here, even though there is no brotherhood to be found in Beowulf.

The Epic of Gilgamesh left a lasting impression in libraries across the Near East – including that of Ashurbanipal – own photo, British Museum. To what extent is Grendel really Beowulf’s alter-ego, his ‘second self’ in effect?

The possibility of Grendel as a weather image or as a viral infection?

Beowulf is a poem which is strongly influenced by the seasons. But then the whole of society was at the time, especially when one is looking at a society based around seafaring.

The seasons provide us with some of the most beautiful lines in the poem.

…. Ða wæs winter scacen,

fæger foldan bearm. Fundode wrecca,

gist of geardum; he to gyrnwræce

swiðor þohte þonne to sælade,

gif he torngemot þurhteon mihte

þæt he Eotena bearn inne gemunde.

Then winter was gone, the bosom of the earth beautiful. The exile, the guest, longed to be quit of these courts; he thought more of avenging his wrongs than of the sea-voyage – whether he could contrive some occasion for violence, for he brooded inwardly about the children of the Jutes.

[Michael Swanton translation – This section is from the Finn & Hengest substory – see later.]

But does Grendel survive from something much earlier (one would imagine) as some kind of fiend of winter? There are signs that the early sixth century saw famines and plagues. Were people reminded of this unpleasant visitation?

Indeed, since all the emerging evidence is beginning to point to a date of the action almost exactly 1500 years ago, is Grendel to be interpreted as the visitation of COVID-519?

The poet often uses seasons to express continuity. For example, the Frisian intermission – which is going to be discussed toward the end of this blog – is linked to the Christianised present via the turning of the seasons.

Let us return just for a moment to Grendel’s mother’s lair. having mysteriously discovered the giant sword from old days and hacked into Grendel’s mother, Beowulf beheads the carcass of Grendel himself.

Even the sword which has essentially surviving power from former days – dissolves down to the hilt when Grendel’s corpse’s head is severed. But perhaps the beautiful recounting of this is telling.

..... Þa þæt sweord ongan
æfter heaþoswate hildegicelum,
wigbil wanian. þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla; þæt is soð metod.

It is not really dissolving, it is melting like icicles. [You can see that absolutely in the middle of the quotation above.]

From magic boys accompanied by sheaves and ancient harts through to the head cult. If you think this culture is dead and gone just look at some ‘modern’ pub names….


Finn & Hengest (and JRR Tolkein)

We now come on to a substory within the poem, recounted by the Scop in Hrothgar’s hall. The events match the so-called ‘Fragment’.

Tolkien in the 1940s

This study was published posthumously in 1982. But it was an old study based on lectures before WW2, the source of the ‘Jutes on both sides’ theory.

But context requires that we go back rather further.

In the late seventeenth century, clergyman George Hickes, was deprived of his benefice for refusing to swear allegiance to William of Orange. Instead he concentrated on building his knowledge of the literature and grammar of Northern European languages. [For the very observant, you will recall he was mentioned briefly in the post on the Futhorc.]

In Lambeth, he claimed to have found a single leaf never seen since, ‘The Fight at Finnesburg’ which is clearly closely linked to a section in Beowulf.

Tolkien’s most important contributions to the study of this text are as follows:
(1) Whilst there will have been elaborations, this is essentially a text based on historic events;
(2) The ‘Jutes on both sides’ theory – in many ways, making this a dispute amongst Jutes.

Bliss borrows a name directly from Beowulf: the ‘Freswael’ – something akin to the ‘massacre in Frisia’.
We have to be careful with the name Frisia as it seems likely that the earlier ‘ethnic’ Frisians were joined by new immigrants including Saxons. Frisian territory was also beginning to expand towards the future capital of Dorestad. The fragment dates to the heroic age, centuries before Frisia’s commercial success.

There are 4 separate sources of information for the Freswael incident as follows:
(1) Beowulf lines 1066 to 1159 – Hrothgar’s bard recounts the tale as entertainment for the hall;
(2) Hickes’ lost fragment itself;
(3) Widsith’s line 27;
(4) Some genealogies.
Whilst the first three are clearly referring to the same individuals, there is no such guarantee on (4).

There is no likelihood that the Danes had expanded into the Cimbric peninsula prior to the fifth century. Tolkien suggests that the implication is that early disputes in this area must have been between Angles and Jutes. I am not completely convinced as there are so many forgotten groupings even in the few written texts which have survived. How many have been lost forever?

Tolkien’s reconstruction of the Freswael

Tolkien’s reconstruction is an immense achievement, carefully balanced between scholarly attention to detail and poetic imagination. I have never really given his fiction much attention – in fact, I find it rather tedious – but this study is something else!

Finn and Hengest cover.jpg

Hnaef, son of Hoc, is part of an advancing Danish maritime power. His tribe is the Halfdanes – so named either because they were mixed blood or (more likely) their following was mixed race. Their actual area of settlement was modern Jutland and, as such, they could be objects of hatred for dispossessed Jutes.

Hengest was also Jutish by birth (or so Tolkien starts out by saying before modifying his theory and shifting him to an Anglian origin) but he was in Hnaef’s service. Meanwhile, Finn played a dangerous game, encouraging estranged Jutes to settle in Frisia. He had also married Hnaef’s sister, Hildeburh, and it is possible that their son (perhaps called Frithuwulf, if West Saxon genealogies are to be credited) had been fostered by Hnaef.

The Danes are guests, invited to feast over Yule and possibly to bring Frithuwulf back to his family. Garulf may have been the rightful heir of the older Jutish kings (the alliteratively named Gefwulf is Jutish king in Widsith). It seems likely that Hnaef and Hengest were threatened in some way.

Hnaef either seizes the hall or is allowed to occupy it. At night they are attacked and the defence lasts five days without loss of life amongst the defenders. Frisians would have been drawn into the conflict as well, mainly through marriage alliances.

One assault penetrates the hall’s doors. The attackers are driven off but, in the process, Hnaef is killed. Finn’s son also falls but it is unclear on which side he might have been fighting – perhaps amongst the defenders if Tolkein is to be believed. Hengest is left to hold together the Danes and his allied Jutes.

Now a truce is proposed by those inside. Finn’s losses have been heavy with most of his personal guard annihilated and he would have wished to recover his occupied royal hall. Furthermore, the loyalty of his queen would at least have been in question. Finn is also essentially guiltless on a personal level.

They come to an arrangement whereby Hnaef’s party overwinters at Finnesburg, thereby accepting nominal overlordship from Finn. This is achieved as they were originally intended to have been his guests.

When spring arrives, the Danes sail off whilst Hengest remains in Frisia. Finn was used to Jutes though and probably considered the alliance broken. He was not wrong: a new Danish force appeared and a terrible sacking ensued.

Hengest takes his warband (Jutes, other followers and now Frisians) and makes for Kent. Or at least he does if you believe that the two Hengests are the same person – as Tolkien argues they are. I was less than 100% positive but have gradually moved towards the position.

Let us keep questioning for a moment. Why might we not go along with Tolkien’s theory? Firstly, they could just be two completely separate characters who happened to share the same name. But there is also a folkloric element in play.

Is Kentish Hengest not a real character but an Indo-European mythological brother?

Beneath all the argument here is an Indo-European problem: namely, the horse brothers and their beautiful half-sister.

I will move away from the whole Germanic tradition for a while. In the Greek tradition, these are the children of Zeus (cognate with Tiw(az)).

But these two horse-brothers are well represented across many Indo-European cultures. We will take two examples here:

(1) Lithuania: The Ašvieniai are divine twins in the Lithuanian mythology. Old Lithuanian ašva means ‘horse’. In Lithuania many traditional roof styles employ such a motif.

(2) In the mythologies of Greece and Rome, the Dioskouri. Helen’s brothers are the Dioskouri. [These brothers are the ones known in Roman times as Castor and Pollux (the Gemini or Polydeukes if you prefer Greek), almost always shown accompanied by horses and the equivalents of the reputed founders of Jutish Kent, Hengest and Horsa.]

I won’t be too tedious, but you will also see equivalents in Vedic literature. And there are many others – many with no obvious etymological connection.

There are also minor problems with the traditional ASC sequence of Hengest’s arrival in Kent being marginally out of synch. For the purposes of the next section ignore that. There is nothing major – a few years here and there. But does it mean that there are really two Hengests and that Tolkien was wrong?


All the while that I have been thinking about this, I have also been trying to match indicative dates – even those which, on the face of it, might seem hopeless. Let us take Hrothgar’s lost first wife Ogn. If she did exist (and she may not have done), we struggle to guess how old (or, probably, young) she was when she died. But let us ditch all the negativity and have a wild shot at reconstructing things. After all, most people will consider this to be an irrecoverable period and I do not believe that at all.

I am going to use Tolkien’s indicative dates here (although plenty dispute them) and modify them where he was less than certain or simply where I remain unconvinced. Hrothgar’s dates are obviously going to be critical.

My initial idea is that Ogn might have married Hrothgar prior to him becoming king. By 495, she might have been around 25. That implies that she was born about 470, perhaps somewhere in Northeast England.

I am also attempting to integrate all this with other sources, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Frankish records, those very dodgy Norse records of Swedish kings and even climate patterns.

Putting this together has been like a jigsaw puzzle. It seemed straightforward at first but then I realised that most of the pieces were missing and the ones left only fitted together rather awkwardly!

Everything in the following table should be taken to be +/- 5 years as a basic assumption.

YearDenmark / Jutland / AngelnGeatland / SwedenFrisia / SE England
360Possible birth date decade of both Offa of Angeln and Witta of the Suebi (?)
390Birth of Angeltheow, son of Offa
407Constantine’s invasion of Gaul from Britannia
410Assumed date of Roman abandonment of Britain
420Birth of Hnaef
Birth of Eomer, believed grandson of Offa of Angeln
425Birth of Hengest
435Birth of Healfdene
450Birth of Icel, son of Eomer
452The Freswael in Frisia
453Hengest migrates to Kent
457Battle of Aylesford
458Battle of Crayford
460Birth of Hrothgar
465Battle of Ebbsfleet
469Discordia of Wallop (?)
c. 470Possible birth of ‘Ogn’ in Deira
473Last mention of Hengest in Britannia
480Birth of Hygelac of the Geats
488Kentish kingdom formally established under Oesc
495 / 500Death of Healfdene – known for longevity. Hrothgar already in his 30s, now Danish king

Hrothgar’s possible first marriage to Ogn, Deiran princess
Birth of Beowulf (perhaps in Norway) – fostered by Hrethel

Haethcyn becomes king of Geats

First phase of Swedish-Geatish Wars
510Froda killed by the Danes. Ingeld probably around 10.Hygd marries Hygelac in Geatland, Geats and Haethnas treaty (?)
512Death of Oesc in Kent
515Ongentheow slain. Haethcyn must be dead by this point, making Hygelac now king of Geatland.
515 – 520Broad time of Hrothgar’s marriage to Wealhtheow – may suggest that there had been a conflict with the Wylfingas.
Early 520sTime of action in Beowulf – his visit to Heorot. Hrothgar is supposed to have been reigning 62 years or is he 62? Ecgtheow dead by this point.

Ohthere killed in raid on Denmark, replaced as King of Swedes by Onela, Hrothgar’s brother-in-law.
525Death of Hygelac – when he dies Heardred might be around 10 / 15 (older if from first marriage)
535Lake Vanern Battle on the Ice. Heardred killed and Beowulf becomes kingKent probably comes under substantial Frankish influence
560sAella, first recorded king of Deira
570sFirst recorded kings of East Anglia in Nennius. Death of Wehha supposed to be 571.
580sWiglaf probably becomes king of the Geats before it disappears as an entity

Tolkien: Hengest “seems to me certain”

We have to keep in mind that Tolkien’s study is now very old and there are things in there which would no longer be part of any consensus. Having said that, it is also hugely studied. (And that is like Wealhtheow – i.e. ambiguous as to what it means!) And sometimes he turns his own arguments on their heads – as in the case of Hengest’s ethnic identity…

Tolkien points out that nowhere does Bede actually say that Hengest and Horsa were Jutes – although it takes him a while to arrive at this conclusion. A careful reading suggests that the Kentish settlers were Jutish but that their leader was an Angle. Whilst Bede is somewhat ambiguous, Nennius is not: Hengest speaks to his elders who ‘had come from Angeln‘.

According to Widsith, Hengest’s grandfather was Witta, the ruler of a people called the Swaefe. This grouping was evidently believed to have a common boundary with the Anglians. Furthermore, the text is quite clear that at the time Witta was king of the ‘Swaefe’, Offa was king in Angeln.

If Hengest really was a true character and was the invader of Kent, then what of Vortigern or Aurelius Ambrosius Aurelianus? Or the battle of Crayford (Noviomagus)? At some point, we will have to come back to this!

Context: England in the 520s

This has been a long post and I am considering a bit of a break before the next one. But, what was Southeastern Britain like in the 520s when this tale is evidently set?

Kent was under Octa, supposedly grandson of Hengest, at least according to Bede. Some other traditions make him Hengest’s son.

Elsewhere I think there was a second phase of settlement along English coasts – very possibly including the South Folk in East Anglia with a new dynasty of kings.

Increased instability in the former homelands might well have facilitated it. It might have given the second wave a greater need to link to the Age of Heroes?

It might also have brought this poem with them?

The Geatish folk, his hearth companions

They said of their Lord’s fall

That he was of all the World’s kings

The most generous and mildest in manner

The most defensive of his people and the most eager for honour.

But why Denmark?

Why is the text seemingly so interested in the genealogy of ancient Danish kings? Why does it valorise the Scyldings / Skoldr? Why do West Saxon genealogies suddenly have a character called Geat in them?

Shoulder Clasps
By Rob Roy User:Robroyaus on en:wikipedia.org – https://www.flickr.com/people/robroy/ or http://www.roblog.com, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1609752

When Sutton Hoo was discovered immediately before the outbreak of WW2, much of the commentary was on how ‘Scandinavian’ the artefacts looked – very similar to many found in Sweden. Were they in all essentials, correct?

Create your website with WordPress.com
Cychwyn arni
%d bloggers like this: