Lesson 18





1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis

            The gothic dark age


1. Read Damrosch Beowulf selections on pages B587-B611, B634-B652: the Grendel and Dragon episodes.

2. Skim through the page below, and then reflect on the lesson for an hour in your World Literature Journal.

3. If you are enrolled in this course for college credit, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.



5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote





Something awful happened to the world in the mid sixth century, a couple of generations before the quick spread of Islam across the Middle East and North Africa. For reasons that are still disputed, the world entered a dark age from which time very little literature now survives, except the Qur'an. What happened?

In 541 CE fleas infesting black rats spread Bubonic plague from Sa'ina, Egypt (the place that gives us our English word sin) to Alexandria, and out of Africa from that world port to Constantinople, Rome and beyond.  Nobody knows how many died in this so-called plague of Justinian, but it is often estimated that half the population, some 25 million died in Europe, and perhaps as many as 75 million more perished in Asia over the next 140 years when the disease finally reached western parts of China. The outbreak did not come to an end everywhere until about 750 CE.

Scientists speculate that rat populations increased and extended their territories at this time due to climate change which saw a sudden drop in temperatures. (Temps of 75 degrees F or higher tend to keep rat populations in check.) Tree ring analysis has shown that in the late 530's mean temperatures in Scandinavia and the British Isles fell by an estimated 3 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooling appears to have been caused by a dust cloud that enshrouded the planet. The Byzantine historian Procopius noted that in 536-537 CE: "the sun gave forth its light without brightness . . . and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear" (Wars of Justinian 4.14). The origin of the cloud may have been the comet impact, perhaps involving the same near-earth object said to have occurred at the death of King Arthur (generally dated between 537 and 542 CE). Another possible source was a gigantic eruption on Sumatra of the Krakatau volcano, or maybe this volcanism was related to the comet impact. For comet theory, see Dallas Abbott; for volcanic theory see David Keyes, Catastrophe, An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World (1999).

Arabia may have been the one region of Eurasia where temperatures remained warm enough so that plague was avoided, or it may have been an area where the dust cloud was thinnest or had least impact on the ground. It was bad elsewhere. At the same time that Islam spread through the decimated areas of the Near East, Middle East and north Africa, there were mass migrations of northern peoples, apparently due to crop failures. Irish annals note "failures in bread" from 536-539.  Like the Arabs, the Anglo-Saxons were on the move during this turbulent period.

The Gothic Bridge

The chief surviving poem of the Anglo-Saxons, the Gothic epic Beowulf, seems to bridge the 530's catastrophe. The first two thirds of the poem, concerning Beowulf's youth, must have been composed by the time of the death of Hygelac, king of Geatland (Gottland, Gothland) in about 516 CE, but the last part of the poem refers to events that took place about 50 years later in Beowulf's old age.  In the middle is a wide gap of time for which there is no account, perhaps because nothing was known about it.

 The hero Beowulf (bee-wolf, bear) seems to me to be a mythological creation designed to bridge the gap between the old world prior to the dark age catastrophe and the new world later on. Rulers in the aftermath of catastrophic social disruption would have attempted to establish their legitimacy by linking their families to royal houses back in the ancient world, and they would have had poets forge these links. In this context, we can see the Beowulf poet doing much the same job as Virgil had done for Augustus, or as Kalidasa did for Bharata, legitimizing a ruler by revealing his heroic or divine ancestry in a prior world. 

How or why the Beowulf story got to England, where the manuscript was discovered, is one of many dark age mysteries. (Note 4 below discusses the manuscript.) It may have been brought by Anglo Saxon newcomers to the British Isles in the 600's or 700's CE, and used by them to document their ancient heroic credentials in the old world. It fits the available evidence to conjecture that the Beowulf manuscript was prepared for a family that claimed ancestors among Danish and Goth royals back in the old days. Possibly the family was the Wuffings of East Anglia. No one can be sure.  


Beowulf's ship from the goofy feature film "Beowulf and Grendel" (2005).

SAXON HISTORY  The Saxons and related tribes came to Britain in the migration period of Germanic peoples, at the darkest point of the dark ages. The newcomers are described by the British monk Gildas, writing in about 540 CE, as pagan destroyers of Christianized Roman Britain, "a race hateful to both God and men."

The takeover of Roman Britain was completed by about 600 CE, after many years of raiding and local settlement along the eastern shore. The area of occupation, like that of the Romans, did not extend to the Scottish north or the Welsh and Cornish west, but elsewhere the Saxons and Angles established separate kingdoms (as shown left) that by 800 CE had been Christianized through neo-Roman initiatives beginning with the mission of Augustine of Canterbury from Pope Gregory the Great in 597. Under threat of extinction by Viking invaders, most of the kingdoms eventually united under Alfred the Great (849-899) and his daughter Aethelflaed and grandson Aethelstan, but Saxon rule was not to last. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Harold the last Saxon king was defeated by William of Normandy ("William the Conqueror") .

UNITY?  Beowulf is episodic, but is its design flawed? Readers have noted the relevance of apparent digressions to the main thread of the narrative, by way of comparison and contrast or foreshadowing and echo. For example, the scop's song of Finn and Hildeburh (lines 931-1018) disrupts Beowulf's story but serves as a thematic transition from the Grendel episode to the episode of Grendel's mother. The two episodes broadly show that two things are rotten in Beowulf's Denmark: males are unable to contain their rivalries, and females are unable to keep the peace. Hildeburh is the female counterpart to Cain and Unferth in her responsibility for the death of her brother Hnaef.

Some of the relationships between parts of the poem can be missed in reading because of things that the poet could not say directly. For instance, note that the royal house of the Danes and the royal house of the Goths are paralleled. Both feature three brothers and a sister. The oldest brother is a king who is famous for hunting. The Goth Herebeald dies when his brother Hathcyn kills him in a hunting "accident," which conveniently makes Hathcyn king, as a scape goat hangs for it. How the Dane king Heorogar ("spearman of deer"?) dies is not stated explicitly in Beowulf, but the imagery of Cain surrounding Heorot implies that Hrothgar somehow has been involved in his brother's death. Hrothgar's past is associated with the Grendel story and the Hathcyn story, and other stories of kin treachery. The sense of the poem arises only by thinking about the relationships between apparently dissociated parts.

The poem's nested narrative technique derives from Homer, but medieval visual arts provide analogies. The interwoven strands of narrative in Beowulf have been compared to the busy, interlace designs common in Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination, metal work, and stone carving of the pre-Norman period. Illustrations of this style include the gold belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship burial (image below) and the so-called carpet pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Belt Buckle from Sutton Hoo (cir 625 CE)

The Ardagh chalice and the Book of Kells may also be relevant examples of the “Insular” or “Hiberno-Saxon” interlace style of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon arts. Interlacing continued to be used in Renaissance fiction (e.g.. Malory's Morte Darthur and Spenser's Faerie Queene; cf. the Shakespearean multiple plot), and it is still in use today. As James Joyce writes of Ulysses and the Book of Kells, “you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations.”

HOMERIC QUALITIES. In addition to the native/northern post-classical influences, there is a continuous tradition from Greek literature through to Old English. Beowulf shares thematic and structural approaches with the Homeric songs and their progeny, such as:

settings in a distant legendary time: characters are presented as if they are historical, but they are freely imagined and mythic.

omniscient point of view: the narrator knows all of the stories and how they ended, and so portrays the human characters as doomed as fated. Gods can foresee the destinies, and prophets can foretell them, but ordinary mortals are foolish in not knowing the future.

nested stories: the main narrative is interrupted repeatedly by digressions about related characters and events. Many of the characters are story-tellers; bards are prominent.

genealogies: mention of ancestors frequently accompanies the introduction of a character; individuals tend to named as son of or daughter of.

fantasy elements: there are interventions of gods and spirits, monsters; savage violence at times is presented with almost macabre humor.

repetitions of actions and stories: actions are recurrent, and sometimes there is an entire repetition of a story (such as Beowulf's narration to Hygelac of events that happened earlier in the poem).

female laments: women are not prominent but lament their misfortunes, especially the deaths of husbands, children and kin. Women are seen as sufferers, evoking pity.

anger/stress: mental states of anger are portrayed as a central motif. Plot is a chain of revenges that broadens out into a general slaughter.

hospitality: hosts and guests are a central theme; monsters make bad hosts and bad guests, the good characters are good hosts and good guests. Compare Grendel and the Cyclops.

RELIGION? Another challenge for modern readers in Beowulf arises from references to both Christianity and Germanic polytheism. How Christian is the poem? Interpretation has ranged from the contention that the Christian “coloring” contaminates the pagan Germanic purity of the epic to the opposite argument that the poem is a full-fledged Christian allegory, with the hero either a figure of Christ or a deeply flawed materialist, unaware of the transience of earthly wealth and glory. The majority view today (not that Dr. G believes it) is that Beowulf is thoroughly Christian, but not allegorical, with the poet looking back several centuries at pre-Christian ancestors who are admired for their nobility while also lamented for their false beliefs.

Silbury Hill, cir. 2660 BCE, near Wilshire England.The interaction of the old pre-Christian world with the new Christian one is especially interesting in "the dragon," which guards buried treasures in an ancient barrow tomb. To the Christian poet, this monster seems to represent the devil or evil incarnate, but could the fire-thrower really have been the spontaneous combustion of trapped methane given off from underground, perhaps in part from the decomposed bodies in the barrow? When the tomb is opened by a grave robber, fire blasts out from his torch, and it quickly spreads to nearly Geat dwellings (probably made of very combustible timber and thatch), and even the throne of Beowulf melts (perhaps the parts of gold or silver). The poet and audience obviously would not have had a modern scientific explanation for such a stunning accident. The poet speaks of it in terms of what he wants to believe: he sees it as hell fire in which the pagan dead in their barrows are being toasted!

An apparent textual inconsistency in the poem suggests that the dragon's body was added in a revision. In what may be the original version "there was no sign of the stricken worm" (line 2450); nobody saw the dragon because it wasn't there. In what may be the revision, however, Beowulf's death is not left so mysterious; next to Beowulf's corpse lies the scorched and crumpled scaly body of a monster fifty feet long (line 2667) which the Geats quickly heave into the sea (line 2752)-- conveniently disposing of the proof! The apparent inconsistency between the two passages suggests that the text is an interweave of older and newer layers of writing. Textual problems of this sort are common in the age of manuscripts; before the printing press definitive texts do not exist.

This theory of Christian revision in Beowulf can be extended to the Grendel and Mother-of-Lindow Man Bog BodyGrendel episodes. These monsters may be Christian characterizations of pagan deities that inhabited lakes and required human sacrifices of the sort that produced bog bodies. In a fully preChristian version of this story, Grendel and his mother probably would have been immortal and unslayable, but the hero could have won from them some boon that protected the kingdom. In a Christian revision of such a story, the pagan gods may have turned into monsters, with the hero becoming God's champion. In any case, here in Beowulf are early seeds for a million later British horror stories about the terror and defeat of nightmare worlds of evil.  The poem is a fascinating link between the oldest known stories in the world and modern popular entertainment.






For recreation of Beowulf, it is hard to beat Benjamin Bagby



































































The Norman Conquest is the terminal point for the Saxon language, which we call Old English. The new language at court was French, and as the influence of the church in Rome grew stronger Latin also assumed greater importance. The melding of French and Latin into English eventually produced the rich Middle English dialects that were the language of Chaucer and English poets of the high middle ages.




























































Lesson Summary: Beowulf's youth and age span the catastrophic events of the 530's CE. In the aftermath of a dark age, the attempt to resume the ancient ways takes literary expression in mythological story-telling of the heroes of old who are imagined ancestors of current leaders.  The Beowulf poet thus works in about the same way as Virgil or Ezra or the first authors of the Indian epics, imagining an ancient world that recently has been destroyed but is being constructed anew by the audience.

Suggested journal topics
and optional readings

1. Journal questions:

How do the two parts of the poem (young Beowulf, old Beowulf) relate to each other? Is the poem unified or is the structure haphazard?

Is Beowulf a Christian poem or a pre-Christian poem?

How are women portrayed in Beowulf? Consider Wealtheow (548, 1019-1088, Hildeburh (l.931-1018), Grendel's mother (1088-1431), Freaware (1784-1822). Isn't it the poet's moral point that women suffer tragically due to male feuding?

How is Beowulf characterized?

What kind of society is portrayed in Beowulf? Is it like our society or not? What is the attitude toward gold and treasure? Is the poem materialistic or anti-materialistic?

How does a movie or game version you know relate to the text (if at all)?

2. Politics: The Anglo-American world is indebted to its Saxon heritage for more than the English language. One key point of comparison between Beowulf and ancient Greek epics is the democratic nature of social relations among men of the warrior class. As Homer's angry warrior Achilles is no pawn of King Agamemnon, so Beowulf similarly is no slave of Hrothgar or Hygelac. The king does not hold much more than nominal power, for he is dependent on his fighting men. Indeed, Hrothgar's job seems to be, like Agamemnon's, to dish out generous rewards to the deserving warriors who have served the group well, even when they are not kin or fellow tribe members. Similarly, the role of Queen Wealthow seems to be to see that the hall is hospitable to all.

There is also debate and, as the Unferth episode shows, freedom of speech, so that policy and personal merit both are open to question in this environment.

Finally, as the concluding episode of Beowulf and the dragon shows, it is possible for the warrior who plays the game correctly eventually to be chosen as king. Moreover, this monarchy is limited. To be king is not to be able to command followers to run through fire or face down dragons: the men can pick their fights. In all of these respects, the society in Beowulf is far more capitalist and less hierarchical than anything we will see in post-Saxon British literature until the eighteenth century. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and other American revolutionaries looked back to the Saxons for inspiration.

3. Online resources.   Beowulf can be found online. Versions include Beowulf, tr. Francis B. Gummere at Bartleby,and an annotated Beowulf translated by Benjamin Slade at Beowulf on Steorarume. A Microsoft ebook version is available at the University of Virginia's Beowulf EBook. There are lots of paperback versions. A popular one currently is the 1999 Seamus Heaney translation for Faber & Faber.

Beowulf Read Aloud - audio renderings:

Benjamin Slade reads Beowulf in Old English - selected passages, my own readings in the original language [@ Jagular.com-Beowulf]

Peter Baker reads Beowulf in Old English - selected passages in the original language [Uni. Virginia]

Stephen Pollington reads Beowulf in Old English (Scyld Scefing's funeral) - selected passage in the original language [Đa Engliscan Gesi₫as]

Other links

Paul Butler's The Anglo Saxon Lyre at Rutgers reconstructs the instrument and provides links.

Hideous (2005) movie: "Beowulf and Grendel" http://imdb.com/title/tt0402057/

Beowulf on Steorarume site by Benjamin Slade.

The burial of Saxon King cir. 625 CE in southeast Suffolk was excavated in the 1930's providing new clues about the Saxons. See Sutton Hoo Society web site, National Trust Sutton Hoo site, and Sam Newton's Sutton Hoo: Burial Site of the Wuffings.

Very cool indeed--the northern myth and legend web site: http://www.northvegr.org/main.php
Northvegr Foundation (has all kinds of literature of the northern peoples: Icelandic, Viking, German, etc.)

Beowulf the Cartoon (2007)
hoards more than $200 million

The recent Robert Zemeckis film animation (screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) unifies the three episodes of Grendel, Grendel's Mother, and the Dragon in a most unheroic way. Hrothgar mates with Grendel's Mother producing Grendel; then Beowulf mates with Grendel's Mother producing the dragon. Lust for glory destroys both of these kings and their people. For the screenplay and the story of its development see Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, Beowulf: The Scriptbook. Harper Entertainment: New York 2007.

Zemeckis regards the Beowulf poem as a boring lie produced by Christian monks who sought to suppress the real Beowulf story. The lead actor is quoted as stating that he "had the beauty of not reading the book." The film contains Viking, Norman, Arthurian, and other anachronisms, including echoes of Lord of the Rings. "We men are the monsters now," Beowulf remarks.

4. Manuscript: Beowulf is unique in English literature. It is by far the longest piece that survives from Old English. Were there many other poems like Beowulf in its day? If so, is Beowulf  best of breed, average, or in any way representative? Nobody knows. It is miraculous that this poem survives at all. It is preserved in a single British Library manuscript known as Cotton Vitellius A (named for manuscript collector Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, who lived from 1571-1631), and that manuscript is hard to decipher because of burn marks from a fire at the library on October 23, 1731.

The manuscript contains a compilation of tales that emphasize the exotic and the monstrous. It has been argued that Beowulf itself is a compilation of earlier literature woven together. The poem contains genealogical verse, a creation hymn, several elegies, a lament, a heroic lay, a praise poem, historical poems, a flyting (boast contest), gnomic verse, a sermon, and more. Maybe this compilation method of construction may explain why, to many modern readers, the poem does not feel unified, but to a medieval bard it may have seemed a virtuoso piece demanding a great range of performance skills.

5. Outlining Beowulf. When journaling a longer work, when summary is not feasible because of length, outlining may be useful as a method for abbreviated summary. This exercise allows the journalist to explore how the parts are inter-related and to gain a mental map of the text.

After Dr. G's outlined the parts of Beowulf, he then used the outline to hang a series of quick notes and questions for later review. This completes his record of what he read and reflected about.

Outline of Beowulf by line number

1-77. Royal house of the Scyldings (shield-men, Danes). genealogy Scyld Scefing (self-made man? child of waters), Beow, Healfdene, Heorogar/Hrothgar/Halga (succession by Hrothgar after death of Heorogar). Heorot is culmination of group effort "awaiting the flames"  (Halga's son Hrothulf will usurp the throne from Hrothgar's sons. Is Heorot Hrothgar's monument to dead Heorogar?) Omniscient narrator sees all stories and knows their endings: the style of Homer.

78-167. Intro of Grendel. "the feast was followed by fits of weeping." Some relapsed to paganism (151-162) but Genesis is sung by scop. The controlling episode is Cain: killing of brothers (How does Cain relate to Heorogar/Hrothgar? Unferth, killer of his brothers. Hrothgar/Halga?).

(Note: according to the old Norse Hrolf Kraki's saga, Healfdene was murdered by his brother Froda, and the two sons Hrothgar and Halga then avenged their father's death by killing Froda. This source does not mention Heorogar. Could Heorogar = Froda? The idea that Hrothgar and Halga have taken over "Heorot" by killing "Heorogar" would give logic to the plot. Other sources mention some of these figures, but the accounts are not consistent. In Beowulf, Froda ("wise or learned") is the father of Ingeld and king of the Heathobards ("warlike bards"). In Widsith:

Hrothulf and Hrothgar held the longest
peace together, uncle and nephew,
since they repulsed the Viking-kin
hewn at Heorot Heađobard's army
and Ingeld

Beowulf is possibly Danish propaganda, a counter-story to the Heathobard legend of Ingeld?)

168- 435  Intro of Beowulf, Geat thane of Hygelac, son of Ecgtheow (mother is unnamed daughter of Hrethel). Intro  unfolds in three scenes. First guard 198: "let me know who are your fathers." Second herald 295 where are you going? 347 the lord honors your father and bids you welcome. Third, Hrothgar/Beowulf interview 355- . Ecgtheow killed the Wylfing Heatholaf, starting feud which Hrothgar settled by paying wergeld to the Wylfings (405). (Note commercial aspect: Hrothgar has purchased Beowulf's loyalty by buying his father freedom from feud. Beowulf comes to pay the debt. Hrothgar will give further gifts to obligate Beowulf.)

436-626  Banquet: Unferth and Beowulf. Contest with Breca. Unferth is brother's killer, doomed to hell (522). (Unferth = faithless?) Parallels Cain and Grendel. Wealtheow serves the cup (548); symbol of hope and unity, Christian communion and fellowship. Beowulf prays. Fight will prove who rules the races of men: the enemy or God (625).

627-769  Fight with Grendel. Magic spell protect demon from swords (715). Shoulder (726). Death of Grendel in dark water on moor (755).

770-868. Scop makes song of Beowulf's wisdom and strength. DIGRESSION: Beowulf is like Sigemon the Waelsing who defeats dragon and gets gold, outshining unhappy Heremod, predecessor of Scyld who killed his own people and was forced into exile where he was killed.


This outline of the Grendel section of Beowulf has brought to conscious attention the central theme of brotherhood. The negative examples are Cain, Grendel, Unferth, Heremod. The positive example is Hrothgar, who has positive relationship toward his dead brother Heorogar, building Heorot for his memory (implicitly), giving Heorogar's most prized armor to adopted "son" Beowulf. However, the curse of fraternal rivalry is not lifted from the Danish house. Uncle Hrothulf will supplant his cousins (sons of Hrothgar), and Heorot will burn.

869-930. Hall is damaged; Hrothgar and Hrothulf dine (irony 890). (Hrothulf is is son of an incestuous union between Halga and his daughter Yrsa--according to Scandanavian sources. The relation of Hrothgar and Hrothulf may be compared to that between Arthur and Mordred.) Hrothgar gives gifts to Beowulf of Heorogar's armor and weapons (895).

(If these are really Froda's weapons?)

Grendel's Mother (931-1934)

931- 1018. Scop's song of Finn, king of Frisians, whose men kill Danish Prince Hnaef, in revenge for which Dane earl Hengest kills Finn. Queen Hildeburh was in the middle with Hnaef being her brother and Finn her husband. She is in the place of brother-killer Cain.

1019-1088 Queen Wealtheow gives Beowulf jewel collar which he will give Hygelac, which Hygelac will die wearing in fight with Frisians. Unferth is admired: thought blameless and trustworthy though he killed a kinsman (1027).

1088- 1151 Grendel's mother kills Aeschere. (Grendel's father is Cain (1115)? Or Grendel's father is unknown (1196)?)

1152-1235  Response to attack. Beowulf/Hrothgar exchange. Beo: better to avenge your friend than to mourn (1223). (Beo and mother are both in revenge mode) 1235-1310: On Moors. Beowulf arms. Unferth/Hrunting. Beo leaves gifts to Hygelac if he dies (1310).

1310-1431. Fight in pool. weapons worthless (1332) uses grip (1353), giant's sword (1378), head of grendel (1400), blade melts (1413)

1431- 1589 Return to Heorot. Flood story is controlling on handle of giant's sword. Giants died by water as they were defiant of kindred (1487). Hrothgar's sermon to Beowulf on Heremod (1496-1577) and the spirit of greed and suspicion which bring ruin. Courtesy to wayfarers (1588)

1590-1822  Beo gives back Hrunting (1597) Return to Hygelac's hall and Queen Hygd (who is unlike Queen Modthryth, the maiden who got men killed before she married king Offa [the Mercian king in England?]). Beowulf tells Beowulf (1764-1887). Hrothgar's daughter Freaware is going to marry Hethobard king Ingeld, but the alliance is unlikely to hold, Beo predicts (1784-1822).

(Here the conflict finally comes out: Ingeld is son of Froda. Froda recently has been killed by Hrothgar and Hrothulf, in feud between Danes and Heathobards.)

1888-1934. Beo gives Heorogar's armor and arms to Hygelac and the golden collar to Hygd. (Both of these will be lost when Hygelac is killed invading Frisian territory.) In return Beo gets Hrethel's sword and a spacious estate.

(Now we find out that Hrothgar should have given the arms to his son Heoroweard (1900) but he made Beowulf his son instead.)

(Sructural note: what Beowulf gets concludes each of the three episodes of the poem.)

The dragon (1935-2795)

1935-2044. Dragon guards treasure buried in old days. Barrow is 300 years old (line 2005). Mid 200's CE? A runaway slave steals a flagon, awakening the dragon who flares up and flies in the night (a description of natural gas fire?)

2045-2067. Beowulf's hall burns and throne melts. Makes an iron shield (2057). Is fearless due to prior successes. Arrogance or acceptance of fate?

2068-2112. Beowulf's history. Beo had fought with Hygelac against the Frisians, swam home (enemy also is called Hetware, who inhabited mouth of Rhine, were Franks). Beo refused Hygd's offer of kingship but became protector of Heardred, Hygelac's son.  Heardred had given protection to Sylfing enemies of Sweden Eanmund and Eadgils. (In actuality, these are nephews of the Swedish king Onela. Onela married Yrse, a sister of Hrothgar and Halga (or perhaps a daughter of Halga)) Onela invaded Geatland and killed Heardred, resuling in Beo becoming king. Beo befriended Eadgils, and sent an army against Onela.

(Onela/Eadgils conflict mirrors Hrothgar/Hrothulf, the story of the treacherous nephew. The mysterious figure of Yrse is central to both conflicts. The story pattern is similar to Arthur/Mordred, and Arthur's incentuous union with his sister Morgan producing the nephew who destroys him.)

2113-2138.   More dragon description

2139-2210. More history. Geat genealogy. Beowulf tells his history as boy in house of Geat king Hrethel with three princes Herebeald, Hathcyn and Hygelac. Hathcyn accidentally murders Herebeald and is later killed in battle with Swedes (Swede king Ongentheow and his sons Onela and brother Othere; Ongentheow is also killed in this battle) making young Hygelac the last survivor king.

2211-2393  Fight with Dragon. Wiglaf son of Weostan a Scylf who slew Eanmun son of Othere (2295 2318); Weostan had sought protection at Geat court. Sword carried by Wiglaf is the one that slew Eanmun; it is "smithwork of giants" (compare the sword Beowulf finds in Grendel's mother's den). Liege system (2325) Beowulf's sword Naegling splits. Wiglaf's sword hits. Beowulf guts the dragon with his knife.

2394-2485  Death of Beowulf. Stares at giant doorway to treasure. He never killed kin or baselessly shed blood (2420).  Wiglaf gets the treasures to show Beo (2430-2463). Raise me a gravemound (2469). He gives his collar, helmet and hauberk to Wiglaf

2486-2658.  Prophecy of Wiglaf Franks and Frisians will attack because of Hygelac's aggression. Swedes will attack because of Onela.  Hathcyn had captured Onela's mother and taken her tresure before he was killed by Onela's father. Onela's father was also killed by a Geat, Eofer. The Swedish king's armor was taken by Hygelac. Outlook for the Goths is dismal, now that the bear is dead.

{Are Wall Street bulls and bears Romans and Goths? Why do Goths always get the short end?}

2659-2796 Reflection on dragon and dead Beowulf. The hero's barrow. The tomb is 1000 years old (2678). Now we are talking the 500's BCE. Thief is cursed (2695). Treasure is reburied in Hronesnaesse ("the cape of whales"), Beowulf's barrow.

(The Geats were incorporated into Sweden cir. 1000 AD. Their name is synonymous with the Goths and derives from the Germanic verb meaning "to pour," or "to offer sacrifice" as in libation pourers.  They are a people who contact the dead by pouring libations to them. A modern theory also associates the Geats with the Jutes, but Beowulf treats these two as separate tribes. )


My journal outline of Beowulf this time focuses on genealogy. This reading of the poem nets a theory that the poem was a foundation myth for the Wuffing rulers in East Anglia. From Norse and Icelandic chronicles, we know that the ancestors of the Wuffings in the Beowulf poem are Wiglaf and Wealtheow. It was the Beowulf poet's job to spin history so that these two characters appear to be ancestors who provide a legitimate basis for hereditary Wuffing rule.

The dragon episode of Beowulf was the most important.  Here the poet invents a basis for the transfer of the Geat kingdom from Beowulf (who was not Wuffing) to Wiglaf (who was). This was not a normal succession by lineage (Wiglaf was not clearly related to Beowulf), so there had to be a "spin" story for how Wuffing monarchy in Geatland had come about. The Beowulf poet's story would have us believe that Beowulf had no children, and only one thane remained loyal to him when he died, and so Beowulf named Wiglaf as his successor.

The Wealtheow connection was more tenuous. From Norse sagas, it is rather clear that Healfdene's brother Frodo succeeded Healfdene. Also Healfdene's sons Hrothgar and Halga then succeeded to power after Frodo, and there strife afterwards involving the Danish Healfdene followers and "Heathobards" (Frodo successors). It is not clear that Hrothgar played a leading role in any of this, and so the Beowulf poet had a problem because Wealtheow was Hrothgar's queen.

To make Wealtheow out as a legitimate queen of Denmark, the poet needed to get rid of the fact that Hrothgar and Halga had deposed their uncle Frodo. To solve this difficulty, the Beowulf poet invents "Heorogar" (which no other source mentions) so makes it out that that Hrothgar succeeds this brother legitimately in a normal course events.

There was, however, one further problem. Halga's son Hrothulf, rather than Hrothgar's sons, would turn out to be king. In order to make Hrothgar's queen Wealtheow into the legitimate ancestral queen of Denmark, it was necessary for the poet to make Halga's son Hrothulf into a usurper. So the poet presents the matter as if the time of Beowulf's visit to Denmark was the only moment in Danish history when the curse of usurpation was lifted. Wealtheow was a deserving queen, as Hrothgar was a good king!

What rally happened? We can speculate.

Frodo succeeded his brother Healfdene to become king of Denmark. This may have happened in the normal course of events (as Heathobards would have written) or perhaps Frodo may have killed Healfdene (as the Beowulf poet may imply with its Cain imagery).

Healfdene's sons Hrothgar and Halga deposed King Frodo (rightfully or wrongfully), and Halga succeeded to the kingship. Dead Frodo's supporters known as Heathobards continued to fight to get the Danish kingdom back. Their champion was Ingeld, who became a famous hero in legend.

Halga died in battle, leaving a child Hrothulf. Uncle Hrothgar served as the child's protector until Hrothulf grew up and became king. Hrothgar's daughter Freawaru was married off to Ingeld in an unsuccessful attempt to make peace with the Heathobards.

Hrothulf married his daughter Yrsa to the Swedish king Onela who then claimed to be king of both the Danes and Swedes. This threatened the Geats who were surrounded. 

In Geatland, ancestors of the Wuffings took over the kingdom after Hygelac and his thanes were massacred in their ill-considered attack on Frisia in 515 AD. If Beowulf existed at all as a thane of Hygelac's, he never swam home to Geatland from this battle, and he never turned over the kingdom to Wiglaf, though this is what the Beowulf poem says.

Wiglaf held off the Swedes and successfully supported Ohthere's sons Eanmund and Eadgils against their uncle Onela and Yrsa. The Geats maintained their independence from Sweden for several hundred more years.  They would have been able to foster colonies in the British Isles, and given their hostile environment, they would have been motivated to do so.

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright © 2009



above: Theodora (c. 500-548) wife of Justinian and power behind the throne in the last days of the Roman Empire
































































































Hrothgar =  fame of the spear, or famous spearman. Hrothulf = fame hunter. Are names allegorical? They are attested in many sagas
















Hygelac, possibly the same as the Danish king killed in Frisian territory
cir. 516 CE, is a means of dating the original Beowulf.

Beowulf = bear hunter (? Tolkien)



Wealtheow = foreign servant? daughter of Helm. She's a Wylfing, as is Wiglaf. Wylfings became rulers in British East Anglia (Kent, the Sutton Hoo region). Cf name Ecgtheow (edge servant, swordsman, one served by the sword)

Some say Scyld is son of Heremod. Royal line of Heremod is accursed with division