An Addendum to Beowulf's Last Words

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In an impressively documented and well-argued article, Joseph Harris has related the final speech of the hero Beowulf to the early Germanic genre of the death-song, a genre that Harris proceeds to describe in convincing detail.(1) Although Harris offers evidence for nine common components of the death-song in Old English and Old Norse, it is only one of those components with which I am concerned here.

As his fourth element of the Germanic death-song, Harris states: 'The hero may utter his own epitaph in the sense of a defense of his reputation or a self-justification.'(2) The relevant passage of Beowulf is the following:

Ic das leode heold

fiftig wintra; naes se folccyning,

ymbesittendra aenig dara,

be mec gudwinum gretan dorste,

egesan deon. Ic on earde bad

maelgesceafta, heold min tela,

ne sohte searonidas, ne me swor fela

ada on unriht. Ic daes ealles maeg

feorhbennum seoc gefean habban;

fordam me witan ne dearf Waldend fira

mordorbealo maga, ponne min sceaced

lif of lice.(3)

In attempting to relate the details of this passage to the wider death-song tradition, Harris distinguishes five different claims made by Beowulf, two of which -- a long rule and an effective defence of his realm -- Harris perceives as perhaps 'traditional in themselves' but probably innovative in the context of the death-song.(4) Beowulf's third claim -- that he did not aggressively seek conflict in other lands -- remains unexplained by heroic tradition; and the final two claims -- that the hero swore no false oaths and refrained from killing his kinsmen -- strike Harris as 'jarringly conservative and not thoroughly motivated within the epic itself'.(5) Some motivation for these statements may be provided by the poet's pervasive concern with delineating ethical behaviour, sometimes by contrasting Beowulf to such figures as Heremod or Hropulf. However, the companions killed by Heremod are not necessarily or specifically kinsmen, and Hropulf's eventual treachery against his cousins is only hinted at by the poet; thus, the themes of deceit and intrafamilial murder lie latent in the poem but are not accorded prominence.(6)

Harris is not the only scholar to ponder the unusual, or at least unexpected, nature of Beowulf's self-justification; a decade earlier, Thomas D. Hill named the passage 'Beowulf's Confession' and argued that the poet intended to define his hero in specific contrast to other well-known heroes, the Volsungs.(7) Hill discusses the Volsung trait of ofrkapp, or over-readiness to fight, and rehearses the long Volsung history of murder within the family.(8) Hill is less successful in accounting for Beowulf's pride in avoiding false oaths, and must admit that this theme is perhaps present, but not prominent, in the Volsung legend.(9) Harris basically accepts Hill's anti-Volsung characterization, but adds the refinement that the references to oaths and kinship represent remnants of a death-song subtext.(10) However, the only other death-song that Harris can adduce in this context is embedded within Sigurdarkvida in skamma, and the lines in question are ambiguous of interpretation.(11)

Thus, both Harris and Hill attempt to account for the details of Beowulf's Confession by reference to Germanic tradition, and are only incompletely successful; perhaps the poet's inspiration derived in part from outside the Germanic sphere. In cases where the Germanic origin of a theme, motif or image appearing in Old English seems in doubt, the Bible is a natural place to turn, and in fact a series of verses from the Book of Proverbs may provide the missing pieces of our present puzzle. In the Vulgate version, Proverbs vi. 16--19 reads:

Sex sunt quae odit Dominus, Et septimum detestatur anima eius: Oculos sublimes, linguam mendacem, Manus effundentes innoxium sanguinem, Cor machinans cogitationes pessimas, Pedes veloces ad currendum in malum, Proferentem mendacia testem fallacem, Et eum qui seminat inter fratres discoridas. …