Anglo-Saxon England

Beowulf and some fictions of the Geatish succession

Frederick M. Biggs a1
a1 University of Connecticut

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Having just killed the dragon, and with death ‘ungemete neah’ (2728b; ‘exceedingly near’), Beowulf begins to speak, remarking first on his lack of a son:

Nu ic suna minum syllan wolde

guðgewædu, þær me gifeðe swa

ænig yrfeweard æfter wurde

lice gelenge. (2729–2732a)

The language here seems almost neutral, but at least two of the terms are suggestive. The ‘guðgewædu’ (‘war-garments’) that he wishes to leave to his son recall most notably the elaborate gifts of weapons and horses – including the saddle that the king used in battle (1037b–1043) – that Hrothgar had given him following the fight with Grendel, implicating him, as John M. Hill and Stephanie Hollis have argued, in the Danish succession. Similarly, in using ‘yrfeweard’ (‘guardian of an inheritance’), he calls attention to the king's role in protecting the tribe's wealth, although the poet may expect the audience to hear more in the compound since ‘weard’ appears often in the final part of the poem in descriptions of the dragon. Thus, even though Beowulf does not mention this failing again, his remark draws together a theme not only signficant in the Geatish section of the poem, but also present from the opening descriptions of Scyld's reign: part of a king's responsibility is to see that the succession is secure in a son.