Saturday, December 3, 2016

Treacherous Hate and Eternal Rewards

Beowulf, lines 1192-1214.

Him wæs ful boren,    ond frēondlaþu
wordum bwæġned,    ond wunden gold
ēstum ġeēawed,    earmrēade twā,
hræġl ond hringas,    healsbēaga mǣst
þāra þe iċ on foldan    ġfræġen hæbbe.
Nǣniġne iċ under sweġle    sēlran hȳrde
hordmāððụm hæleþa    syþðan Hāma ætwæġ
tō þǣre byrhtan byriġ    Brōsinga mene,
siġle ond sinċfæt –    searonīðas flēah
Eormenrīċes,    ġeċēas ēċne rǣd.
Þone hrinġ hæfde    Hiġelāc Ġēata,
nefa Swertinges    nȳhstan sīðe,
siðþan hē for wlenċo    wēan āhsode,
fǣhðe tō Frȳsum.    Hē þā frætwe wæġ,
eorclanstānas    ofer ȳða ful,
rīċe þēoden;    hē under rande ġecranc.
Ġehwearf þā in Francna fæþm    feorh cyninges,
brēostġewǣdu,    ond se bēah somod.
Wyrsan wīġfrecan    wæl rēafeden
æfter gūðsceare;    Ġēata lēode
hrēawīċ hēoldon.    Heal swēġe onfēng.

[To him was the cup born and friendly invitation
With words offered, and twisted gold
With good will presented, arm-ornaments twain,
Garment and rings, of neck rings greatest
Of those that I in earth have heard.
I under heaven heard of no better
Treasure of heroes, since Hama carried away
To that fair stronghold the necklace of the Brosings,
Jewel and fine setting – fleeing the treacherous hate
Of Eormenric, chose eternal rewards.
This collar had Hygelac of the Geats
Grandson of Swerting, at [his] last expedition,
When he under the standard defended treasure,
Guarding the spoil of the slain; fate bore him off,
When he for pride looked for woe,
Assault on Frisia. He those adornments wore,
Precious stones over the cup of waves,
Powerful prince; he under shield fell.
Passed then the life of the king into the Franks’ embrace,
Breast-garment and collar together.
A worse warrior stripped the slain
After war-slaughter; the Geatish people
The place of corpses guarded. The hall received [the gift] with applause.]

Wealtheow’s presentation of the neck ring to Beowulf is accompanied by an ominous foreshadowing the eventual fate of the item: it will be stripped from Hygelac’s corpse when he overreaches himself on the doomed Frisian raid, taken by a lesser warrior than himself. This is the first of four allusions to the nature of Hygelac’s death in the poem, and all together these references make one of the stronger arguments for reading the poem (at least partially) as a criticism of the old heroic system.

Further light may be shed on the nature of this criticism by the cryptic reference in 1197-1201 to the Necklace of the Brosings. The nature of Hama’s feud with Eormenric is not entirely clear, but we can infer from context and from parallel sources that Hama, who figures in Germanic legend as an “exile, adventurer, and outlaw” gained both searonīðas flēah Eormenrīċes as well as ēċne rǣd by stealing the Necklace of the Brosings from Eormenric. (Klaeber 193-4) In both this allusion and in the foreshadowing of Hrothgar’s death we see the inseparability of treasure from the heroic ideal, and the double-aged nature of every heroic deed in the poem: every act of ellen brings about “treacherous hate” as well as “eternal rewards.”

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