The Naming of Beowulf and Ecgtheow's Feud

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One odd feature of Beowulf, which has attracted some notice but as yet no detailed explanation, is the poet's delay in naming his main character. (1) He identifies him first, at home among the Geats hearing of Grendel's ravages, only as Hygelac's thane (194), and then waits nearly one hundred and fifty lines before Beowulf names himself in response to the challenge by Wulfgar, Hrothgar's officer, outside of Heorot (343). Having delayed so long, he may even seem to overlook a better possibility since it might be more dramatic to have Beowulf reveal his name directly to the Danish king he has come to help. (2) Yet the poet, I will argue, has constructed these events to place greater weight on Hrothgar's, rather than Beowulf's, explanation of his journey, which depends on an account of a feud involving Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow. In doing so, he provides an opportunity for the audience to reassess its perception of the relative strengths of the two groups and to consider the possibility that, behind the fights with monsters, the Danes and Geats confront similar problems, related, I will propose, to succession. If so, his use of Ecgtheow's feud reveals a sophisticated understanding of narrative in which the past and its disclosure can affect a contemporary world.

Even before the exchange with Hrothgar, stories play a role in establishing the contrast between the Danes, who have been made powerless through Grendel's attacks, and the Geats, who under Beowulf can and do act. The triumphal rush of Danish history, begun by Scyld Scefing's arrival and continued through the building of Heorot, comes to a halt once it becomes clear that Grendel's first assault, itself introduced around the scop's story of creation (86-110), (3) is not an isolated event, but the beginning of a prolonged campaign. Their empty hall (138-47a) and futile heathen sacrifices (175-88) show that the Danes cannot respond. More significant, however, for the present argument are the songs or tales through which news of the disaster then spreads:

   Waes seo hwil micel;
   twelf wintra tid torn gepolode
   wine Scyldinga, weana gehwelcne,
   sidra sorga; fordam [secgum] weard
   ylda bearnum undyrne cud
   gyddum geomore, paette Grendel wan
   hwile wid Hropgar ...

   (146b-52a)

(The time was long; for twelve years the lord of the Scyldings suffered trouble, each of miseries, of great sorrows; therefore, it became openly known to people, to the sons of men, sadly through songs that Grendel fought for a time against Hrothgar ... (4))

The reference to these songs ("gyddum") conveys how information travelled in the early Germanic world and shows that Hrothgar has even lost control of the poems that are being recited about him. (5) The third fitt, (6) in which Beowulf appears, begins with a brief description of the Danish king without hope of improvement confronting, as he does, a "nydwracu nipgrim / nihtbealwa maest" (193; "a cruel violent persecution, the greatest of night-evils").

Beowulf, although not named, enters the poem at the opposite end of the Danish problem, learning of Hrothgar's trouble, one may assume, (7) through the same songs:

   paet fram ham gefraegn Higelaces pegn
   god mid Geatum, Grendles daeda,
   se waes moncynnes maegnes strengest
   on paem daege pysses lifes
   aepele ond eacen.

   (194-98a)

(Hygelac's brave thane at home among the Geats learned of that, of Grendel's actions; he was the strongest of men in those days, noble and mighty.)

He, like the problem Grendel presents Hrothgar, is a superlative, and the poet calls attention to his ability to act by describing him ordering a ship even before having him explain why he does so:

   Het him ydlidan
   godne gegyrwan; cwaed, he gudcyning
   ofer swanrade secean wolde,
   maerne peoden, pa him waes manna pearf.

   (198b-201)

(He commanded a good ship prepared for him; he said that he wished to seek the war-king, the famous leader over the sea since he was in need of men. …