The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 31


“So held this king to the customs old,
2145that I wanted for nought in the wage I gained,
the meed of my might; he made me gifts,
Healfdene’s heir, for my own disposal.
Now to thee, my prince, I proffer them all,
gladly give them. Thy grace alone
2150can find me favor. Few[2] indeed
have I of kinsmen, save, Hygelac, thee!”
Then he bade them bear him the boar-head standard,[3]
the battle-helm high, and breastplate gray,
the splendid sword; then spake in form:—
2155“Me this war-gear the wise old prince,
Hrothgar, gave, and his best he added,
that its story be straightway said to thee.[4]
A while it was held by Heorogar king,
for long time lord of the land of Scyldings;
2160yet not to his son the sovran left it,
to daring Heoroweard,—dear as he was to him,
his harness of battle.—Well hold thou it all!”
And I heard that soon passed o’er the path[5] of this treasure,
all apple-fallow, four good steeds,
2165each like the others; arms and horses
he gave to the king. So should kinsmen be,
not weave one another the net of wiles,
or with deep-hid treachery death contrive
for neighbor and comrade. His nephew was ever
2170by hardy Hygelac held full dear,
and each kept watch o’er the other’s weal.
I heard, too, the necklace to Hygd he presented,
wonder-wrought treasure, which Wealhtheow gave him,
sovran’s daughter: three steeds he added,
2175slender and saddle-gay. Since such gift
the gem gleamed bright on the breast of the queen.
Thus showed his strain the son of Ecgtheow
as a man remarked for mighty deeds
and acts of honor. At ale he slew not
2180comrade or kin; nor cruel his mood,
though of sons of earth his strength was greatest,
a glorious gift that God had sent
the splendid leader. Long was he spurned,
and worthless by Geatish warriors held;
2185him at mead the master-of-clans
failed full oft to favor at all.
Slack and shiftless[6] the strong men deemed him,
profitless prince; but payment came,
to the warrior honored, for all his woes.—
2190Then the bulwark-of-earls[7] bade bring within,
hardy chieftain, Hrethel’s heirloom
garnished with gold: no Geat e’er knew
in shape of a sword a statelier prize.
The brand he laid in Beowulf’s lap;
2195and of hides assigned him seven thousand,[8]
with house and high-seat.[9] They held in common
land alike by their line of birth,
inheritance, home: but higher the king
because of his rule o’er the realm itself.

2200Now further it fell with the flight of years,
with harryings horrid, that Hygelac perished,[10]
and Heardred, too, by hewing of swords
under the shield-wall slaughtered lay,
when him at the van of his victor-folk
2205sought hardy heroes, Heatho-Scilfings,
in arms o’erwhelming Hereric’s nephew.
Then Beowulf came as king this broad
realm to wield; and he ruled it well
fifty winters,[11] a wise old prince,
2210warding his land, until One began
in the dark of night, a Dragon, to rage.
In the grave on the hill a hoard it guarded,
in the stone-barrow steep. A strait path reached it,
unknown to mortals. Some man, however,
2216came by chance that cave within
to the heathen hoard.[12] In hand he took
a golden goblet, nor gave he it back,
stole with it away, while the watcher slept,
by thievish wiles: for the warden’s wrath
2220prince and people must pay betimes!

  1. Sections XXIX and XXX are not indicated.
  2. “None.” He forgets, or lets his compliment forget, Weohstan: see vv. 2813, 2602, below. But over fifty years pass between this date and the date of his speech to Wiglaf. Weohstan, moreover, was in service at the Swedish court (Gering suggests that he was a younger son and sought his fortune in foreign parts); and was actually fighting on the side of Geatland’s foes. See note to v. 2602, below.
  3. See v. 1021. Klaeber, Modern Philology, III, 462, compares the old “Raven” banners of the Northmen mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; and Professor Hart refers to Asser’s Life of Alfred, trans. Giles, Bohn ed., p. 62.
  4. Or: That first to thee should his thanks be said.
  5. Followed it. The original figure is “guarded its tracks.”
  6. Even in the name and story of the Roman Brutus one finds traces of this common motive in certain tales of the sluggish and stupid boy who blossoms out as a warrior, a hero of renown. It is very common in Norse legend.
  7. Hygelac.
  8. This is generally assumed to mean hides, though the text simply says “seven thousand.” In v. 2994 Wulf and Eofor each get “a hundred thousand in land and winding rings.” A hide in England meant about 120 acres, though “the size of the acre varied.” Wulf and Eofor together would thus get a tract as large as England itself; see Mr. W. H. Stevenson’s note in his edition of Asser’s Alfred, p. 154. He points out that the numeral refers to both land and treasure. In this passage the seven thousand may also include the value of “house and high-seat,” with vague idea of treasure in the bargain. Both numerals, then, the seven thousand and the hundred thousand, are indefinite expressions of quantity, somewhat as when one now says of a man that he is “worth a million.”
  9. The seat in hall like a throne occupied by the owner and the head of the clan.
  10. On the historical raid into Frankish territory between 512 and 520 A.D. The subsequent course of events, as gathered from hints of this epic, is partly told in Scandinavian legend. Heardred succeeds to the throne; for Beowulf most honorably refuses Hygd’s proposal and serves the young king as guardian and chief vassal. But the reign is short. If with Gering we put 518 as the date of Hygelac’s fall, it would not be long before Heardred took up the cause of Eanmund and Eadgils, sons of Ohtere, both of them rebels against their uncle Onela, the Swedish king. Onela makes a raid into the territory of Heardred and kills him. Then Beowulf succeeds. His further relations with this feud will be noted below.—Heardred is called Hereric’s nephew. As the sister’s son was a conspicuous relationship, and men had names from it analogous to the patronymic method, one may suppose that Hygd had a brother Hereric.
  11. The chronology of the epic, as scholars have worked it out, would make Beowulf well over ninety years of age when he fights the dragon. But the fifty years of his reign need not be taken as historical fact.
  12. The text is here hopelessly illegible, and only the general drift of the meaning can be rescued. For one thing, we have the old myth of a dragon who guards hidden treasure. But with this runs the story of some noble, last of his race, who hides all his wealth within this barrow and there chants his farewell to life’s glories. After his death the dragon takes possession of the hoard and watches over it. A condemned or banished man, desperate, hides in the barrow, discovers the treasure, and while the dragon sleeps, makes off with a golden beaker or the like, and carries it for propitiation to his master. The dragon discovers the loss and exacts fearful penalty from the people round about.—The huge barrows were prominent objects and frequent; in the oldest English charters we have directions for bounding estates “from the heathen barrow.” They are still familiar in many an English landscape, like Mr. Hardy’s “Egdon Heath.” Barrows have been opened which had a secret entrance somewhat as described here. Moreover, the robbing of graves which contained treasure or property proportional to the standing of the buried man, must have been a strong temptation. That superstition surrounded this crime with every sort of danger is evident enough. See below, vv. 3051–3073. Lifting buried gold is still an uncanny business, and folk-lore recounts its perils. Such gold brings the worst of luck; and it is noteworthy that the epic takes this view, v. 3163, and has all the dragon’s treasure heaped in Beowulf’s own tomb.