Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hygelac’s Raid and the Necklace of the Brosings, Pt 1

In lines 1192-1214 of the Beowulf poem, Wealtheow gives the poem’s hero a necklace or torc which provokes an ominous prediction of the future: Beowulf will give it to Queen Hygd, who will give it in turn to King Hygelac of the Geats. Hygelac will wear it during the doomed Frisian raid in which he loses his life in battle with the Franks, and “a worse warrior strips the slain” (Beowulf 1212).

But, as with the hilt of the giant’s sword which Beowulf gave to Hrothgar, meditation on this artifact turns the gaze of the reader not only toward a possible future, but also on a legendary past. Wealtheow’s torc is the greatest “treasure of heroes, since Hama carried away… the necklace of the Brosings… fleeing the treacherous hate of Eormenric, chose long-lasting reward” (Beowulf 1199-1200).

This reference is as tantalizing as it is cryptic. Who are Hama, Eormenric, and the Brosings, and why is their story significant in the context of Wealtheow’s gift and Hygelac’s eventual demise? Beneath these allusions lies a tantalizing hint at a body of legendary tales which would have been known to the poet’s audience, but which are now lost.

Scholars have argued about the placement of this episode in the poem--what it means, if it means anything, and whether or not the poet "knew his job" when he included it. In this and the following blog post, I want to argue that the poet did indeed know what he was doing; that this episode is present at just this moment in the Beowulf poem for a specific reason, and that that reason can be ascertained by looking to the other literature of the Old North to shed light on these forgotten names and "lost tales," then returning to the poem for a close read.

This week, we'll begin with trying to figure out who Eormenric and Hama were.

Eormenric and Hama

Eormenric appears in at least two other surviving works of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The first is Deor, a eponymous poem about a court scop who has fallen upon hard times. Forsaken by his lord, his position taken by another, Deor comforts himself by singing of various figures from the legendary Germanic past, retelling their trials and tribulations. He ends each story with Þæs ofereode þisses swa mæg [that was overcome; so may this be]. Deor’s Eormanric is the wolfish king of the Goths, under whose rule “many a warrior sat, bound up by cares, woes in mind, wished constantly that the kingdom were overcome.” 

The second reference comes from Widsith, a poem which bears many similarities to Deor—they are even found in the same manuscript. Like Deor, it claims to be written by a court scop, and like Deor its primary material is taken from the historical and legendary fabric of the Germanic Iron Age. But its tone is more triumphant. The poetic successes of Widsith “the wide-farer” cover an impossible amount of time and territory, praising the generosity of kings who reward poets well—and providing present-day scholars with a valuable word-hoard of onomastic data. 

Widsith’s Eormanric first appears in the poem’s 9-line introduction, in which the poet undertakes a journey accompanying the “unfailing peace-weaver” Ealhild to the land of Eormanric. Of both Ealhild and Eormanric the poet has more to say: Eormanric ruled the Goths and was wraþes wærlogan [an angry breaker of covenant] although he seems to have been generous enough to the poet: 

…and ic wæs mid Eormanrice  ealle þrage
Þær me Gotena cyning  gode dohte,
Se me beag forgeaf,  burgwarena fruma
On þam siex hund wæs  smætes goldes
Gescyred sceatta,  scillingrime,
Þone ic Eadgilse  on æht sealed,
Minum hleo dryhtne,  leofum to leane,
Þæs þe he me lond forgeaf,  mines fædereþel,
Frea Myrginga; and me þa Ealhild 
Oþerne forgeaf,  dryhtcwen duguðe
Dohtor Eadwines:  hyre lof lengde
Greond londa fela,  þonne ic be songe
Secgan sceolde  hwær ic under swegle
Selest wise  goldhrodene cwen
Giefa bryttian. 
(Widsith 88-102b)

[…and I was with Eormanric; during which time the Goth’s king treated me well, he gave me a collar, chieftain of his people, six hundred sceats of gold in coin reckoned, which I to Eadgils in keeing gave, my patron lord, when to home I came, in requital to my friend, because he had given me land, my paternal heritage, prince of the Myrgings; and to me then Ealhild another gave, noble queen of chieftains, Eadwie’s daughters; her praise I extended over many lands whenever I by song had to say where I knew a most excellent and gold-adorned queen dispensing gifts.]

This scene depicts Eormenric as a generous lord: he gives Widsith a ring (probably an arm-ring) of enormous worth—so valuable it seems to be implicitly intended for Widsith’s lord Eadgils.  Then Ealhild gives Widsith a second gift, this one apparently for himself, prompting him to sing her praises through many lands. The interlude telling of the gifting of the ring to Eadgils need not be read as an interruption of the scene, as some scholars have insisted. In typical Anglo-Saxon poetic style, the poet digresses on the fate or provenance of a material object before returning to his narrative.

(See the Auðunar þáttr vestfirska for another example of this sort of gift-giving. By giving a gift via proxy, a powerful king could honor a peer (or a rival) while still saving face (Faulkes 207). Note also the similarities to the situation in Beowulf: a king gives a ring to the retainer of another king of a value far beyond the retainer’s station. The retainer then returns home and gives it as a gift to his lord.)

We can reconstruct the experience of Widsith the character thus: he travels in the retinue of Ealhild, who is on her way to marry Eormenric as part of a “peace-weaving”—an alliance secured by marriage between the Myrgingas and the powerful tribe of the Goths. He tarries long as a scop in Eormanric’s court, and at the end of his time there he is given a great gift by Eormanric, destined for Eadgils, as well as a lesser gift from the now-queen Ealhild, whose great generosity he praises. This is a far departure from the “wolfish” Eormanric of Deor, and it is difficult to reconcile with the reference in Widsith’s introduction to Eormanric’s treachery. To answer these questions, we will need to look further afield, to Latin and Old Norse sources concerning Eormanric.

In his Getica, the sixth-century historian Jordanes describes the great “Hermanaricus, rex Gothorum… nobilissiumus Amalorum, quem merito nonnulli Alexandro Magno conparavere maiores,” and his rule over not only the Germanic peoples of Eastern Europe, but also over the Wends and the Slavs. But facing invading Huns and treachery among his own vassals, Hermanaricus punished a rebellious vassal by ordering his wife, Sunilda, to be torn apart by wild horses. In the end, an old and ailing Hermanaricus took his own life (Chambers 16-17).

Against this historical account we may set the Scandinavian version of the story as preserved in the Hamðismal, Snorri’s Edda, and the Vǫlsunga saga. Although each of these accounts differ slightly, they all tell how the great king Jormunrekk sent his son, along with his counsellor Bikki, to woo Svanhild, the daughter of the hero Sigurd and his wife Gudrun. Bikki, for reasons unknown, first urges Jormunrekk’s son to woo this fairest of women for himself, and afterwards betrays him to his father. Jormunrekk orders his son to be hanged, and Svanhild to be torn apart by horses (Chambers 19).

Chronologically, Widsith stands somewhere between Jordanes and the Scandinavian sources, with most scholars agreeing that the introduction containing the allusion to Eormanric’s treachery is considerably newer than the rest of the poem (Chambers 28, 145). This becomes important if, as Richard Heinzel suggested, the Ealhild of Widsith is the analog to the Sunilda of Jordanes and the Svanhild of Scandinavian legend. Several factors suggest this, as Chambers elaborates at great length (Chambers 22-8), and it certainly seems unlikely that Eormanric would have had two different queens with similar names attributed to him. Ealhild is a likely corruption of Gothic *Sonahildi since names like this were frequently abbreviated to “Hild” for poetic purposes, and then later expanded again. 

All of this suggests a body of stories over time which associated Eormanric with a foreign queen, either the wife of one of his vassals, or the daughter of some great house wooed as part of a marriage alliance. The character of Eormanric gradually developed from the great but luckless king in Jordanes to the fabulously wealthy but wolfish tyrant of Deor and Beowulf. And if the introduction of Widsith is indeed of later composition than the rest of the poem, it might account for this accusation of wraþes wærlogan leveled against him, as the legends regarding Eormanric developed in England and he became associated with the death of Ealhild, whom the poem specifically praises.

(This is a more satisfactory explanation than the alternative, which is that there are several lines that were simply missed by the scribe who copied or compiled our present manuscript, which would reveal the identity of the wraþes wærlogan. “There is no hiatus in the manuscript,” wrote Benjamin Thorpe, but he cannot otherwise explain the apparent incongruity of Widsith’s later praise of Eormanric (Thorpe 218).)

Hama also appears in Widsith as one of two wræccan, a word which suggests both “hero” and “exile.” The other is his companion Wudga (Gothic Widigauja), a hero of Germanic legend closely associated with the stories about Ermanaric and his perpetual foe, the noble and heroic Dietrich von Bern (the historical Gothic king Theodoric the Great). In these stories, Heme is merely the assistant or cohort of Wittich, companion the betrayal of both Emanaric and Dietrich and the “slayer of youthful princes” (Chambers 51). 

But the Saxon and Scandinavian sources take a more sympathetic view of the pair. Þiðreks saga af Bern, an Icelandic retelling of a lost Low German version of the legend, Vithga is a valiant warrior forced, by a combination of personal honor and complex political machinations, to fight against his former lord. Heimr, the friend of Vithga, is here an outlaw champion who insults Ærminricr to his face before escaping to live as an outlaw, harrying Ærminricr’s lands before retiring to a monastery, until being finally convinced by his old lord Þiðrek to go into battle one last time (“Ævilok Heimis ok Þiðreks konungs”).

In Þiðreks saga and its Saxon source material, we find late echoes of the legend alluded to in Beowulf. Eormanric’s legend, already several centuries old by even the earliest estimates of Beowulf’s date of authorship, had grown from that of a peculiarly tragic king to that of a cunning, wrathful, treacherous tyrant—generous no doubt to poets, but liable to turn on his own family members at the slightest provocation. Against this tyrant the legend cast Hama, the outlaw, who seems to have gotten the better of Eormanric in at least one important escapade: the theft of the Necklace of the Brosings.

That's enough for today. In next week's post, we'll take a look at the "Necklace of the Brosings," and consider the placement of this episode within the poem.

Currently reading: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, edited by Rory McTurk
Current audio book: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Currently translating: Aiwaggeljo Þairh Maþþaiu, Chapter VI, from Wright's Gothic Grammar.

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