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.
(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.)
(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).)
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.