29 November 2011

XXXI. Beowulf gives presents and rises to rule.

So far, Beowulf has received many presents, which is one half of the gift economy. At this point, we see him being equally generous, giving all of those gifts to his king, Hygelac. Beowulf not only honours Hygelac as his king and friend, but as family. He says, "There are few alive/I have as kin, Hygelac, but you." As a result of their family feeling, "neither forgot the needs of the other."

Hygelac shows his appreciation for Beowulf with more gifts: the best sword in his treasury and sizable land-holdings, described as "seven thousand hides." According to the Wikipedia article on the "hide" as an area of land, its actual extent varied greatly, especially in later times. However, it originally meant the land that was needed to support a single family. Clearly, Beowulf's land holdings became very substantial with this gift.
The gift-giving is followed by an unexpected comment on Beowulf's character. The Geat officers had thought little of him and, especially, had accused him of being a slacker. (The Old English word applied to him is, literally, sleac, slack). He now had earned the respect that he had been denied.

Surprisingly, we are only now, two-thirds of the way through the poem, introduced to Beowulf's motivation to go to Heorot. This explains why he "dreah aefter dome" (line 2179), which Ben Slade (at heorot.dk) translates as "he led his life for glory." This connects with the poem's last line that says that, of all men, he was "lof-geornost." Apparently "geornost" is related to our word "to yearn." "Lof," is praise, glory, or a song of praise. So, more than others, he longed for respect. While he was at Heorot, he was desperate to prove himself at last or die in the attempt.
We now have a sudden flash forward in time. Hygelac dies in battle, and his heir Heardred as well, either in the same battle or another. Beowulf inherits the kingdom: "it came into his hands." The Geat kingdom, unlike Denmark after Hrothgar dies, faces no regicide or usurpation, but an orderly transfer of the crown. This is part of the significance of the touching lines in 2150-2151, where Beowulf tells Hygelac that he is almost the only family that Beowulf has. By implication, Beowulf is Hygelac's rightful heir.
Beowulf ruled wisely for "fifty years." (This is the same as the length of Hrothgar's rule, and the same that Grendel's mother held control of her watery kingdom. We are not meant to take it literally, but as a way of saying "a long time"). The events of his reign are skipped over, and we go straight to introduction of the creature who would end it. A dragon was enraged by the theft of a cup from the hoard he guarded, rose from his stone barrow, and "ruled the dark." The story of the theft and its consequences will be told in the next fitt.

“So the country's king kept the traditions.
“By no means gone were the gifts I had,
“rewards for my strength, but he bestowed more wealth,
“Healfdene's son, to suit my achievement.
“I wish to bring these, warrior king,
“and offer you all, since everything still
“flows from your favour. There are few alive 2150
“I have as kin, Hygelac, but you.”

He bade them bring the boar-crest standard,
the high battle helmet, the hoar-silver byrnie,
and the beautiful sword. He said further:
“Hrothgar wished me this war harness,
“the clever ruler, and commanded
“that first I inform you of its former state.
“He said it came from King Heorogar
“who led the Scyldings so long a time,
“but he held it back from brave Heoroweard, 2160
“though he was loyal, and the lord's own son.
“This is the breast armour. Bear it all well.”

I heard four horses were held with the treasure;
well matched and fast, they followed behind,
fallow as apples. He offered the gifts,
horses and riches, as relatives should,
never weaving webs of malice,
with shadowy traps ensuring the death
of hand companions. For Hygelac
his nephew stayed steady in battle 2170
and neither forgot the needs of the other.

I heard, too, that Hygd was handed the necklace,
the wonderful work Wealhtheow gave,
the lord's daughter, along with three steeds,
bright-saddled and supple. And soon after
the gem was given, it gleamed on her breast.

So he acted boldly, Ecgtheow's son,
daring in battle, to do what is right.
He prized his honour. Companions were safe
from drunken murder. His mind was calm, 2180
but no man could match the might in him,
a goodly gift that God had sent him,
the battle brave. He had borne distain;
the sons of Geats regarded him poorly.
Not much of honour on mead-benches
was allowed him by warriors' lords.
They called him lazy and lax in his ways,
no bold noble. Now that all changed
for the man among men, each misery cancelled.
Now the earls' bulwark ordered brought in— 2190
the hardy war king—Hrethel's heirloom
embellished with gold. No Geat had a better
or so precious a sword as that.
He lay the blade in Beowulf's lap
and settled on him land, seven thousand hides,
as home and seat. They held in the nation
the fields and folds of family estates,
land that was left them, but the larger share
of the wide kingdom went to the higher.

In due order the days passed by 2200
till Higelac lay dead in hard fighting.
The same for Heardred: swords in battle
passed by his shield and shed his blood
when they advanced on the victory people
the hard fighters, Heathoscylfings.1
They struck in haste Hereric's nephew.

Then Beowulf became king of the nation;
it came into his hands. He kept it well
for fifty winters; full of wisdom,
the state's old warden, till one started 2210
to rule the dark. A dragon rose
from his house on high who hoarded treasure
in a stark barrow of stone standing over a path
that no-one knew. His name, who entered,
I never heard. He kneeled to grope
the heathen hoard. His hands enclosed
an elaborate jewel. Later, it cost him.
Though the sleeper suffered a trick
from the thief's cunning, the countryfolk learned,
the people around, the rage that filled him. 2220

1Meaning “Battle Scylfings.”

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