tales of horror spread, Beowulf learns of Grendel. Yet Beowulf is
more than a Nordic Hercules: He is identified, not by name, but as
the thane and kinsman of Hygelac, the poems one historical figure,
and the only character, besides Beowulf, whose name recurs throughout.
Beowulf is identified as the "good" thane and kinsman of
Hygelac; yet Hygelacs reputation was anything but good. Chronicles
from the era depict Beowulfs king as a Nordic marauder who ravaged
the Christian Franks:
The next that happened was that the Northmen
sent a fleet under their King Hygelac and invaded the Franks from
the sea. The Northmen came ashore, laid waste one of the regions ruled
by Theuderic [king of the Franks] and captured some of the inhabitants.
They loaded their ships with what they had stolen and the men they
had seized, and then they set sail for home. Hygelac remained onshore,
waiting until the boats should have gained the open sea, when he planned
to go on board. But when Theuderic heard that foreigners had invaded
his land, he sent his son with a powerful army. Hygelac was killed,
the enemy fleet was beaten, and all the booty was brought on shore
who lays waste a Christian realm and drags men into captivity, is
a 6th-century precursor to the waves of Nordic marauders later known
as Vikings. In legend too, Hygelac has an unsavory reputation. The
Anglo-Saxon collection of freaks and wonders, The Book of Monsters,
describes Hygelac as a giant, a symbol used in Church
tradition as a symbol of arrogance:
There are also monsters of amazing size, like
King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was slain by the Franks. Even
when he was twelve years old, no horse could carry him. His bones
are preserved on an island in the Rhine, where it flows into the sea,
and are shown as a wonder to people who come from afar.
Hygelacs reputation as a giant marauder also defines his good
kinsman, Beowulf, the sole survivor of his kinsmans notorious
raid. For those Anglo-Saxons who had been ravaged by marauding warlords
like Hygelac, Beowulfs identity would have had an ominous charge.
Is Beowulf a good man in an evil nation, or is he good
at marauding warfare? Given Hygelacs notorious reputation, the
modern equivalent of Beowulfs epithet might have sounded something
like, He was a good kinsman of Atilla the Hun!