Beowulf: A Dramatic Translation
Excerpt: Beowulf's identity


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Beowulf: A Dramatic Translation

xxxAs 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 poem’s 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 Hygelac’s reputation was anything but good. Chronicles from the era depict Beowulf’s 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 once more.”

xxxHygelac, 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.”

xxx Hygelac’s reputation as a giant marauder also defines his “good kinsman,” Beowulf, the sole survivor of his kinsman’s notorious raid. For those Anglo-Saxons who had been ravaged by marauding warlords like Hygelac, Beowulf’s identity would have had an ominous charge. Is Beowulf a good man in an evil nation, or is he “good” at marauding warfare? Given Hygelac’s notorious reputation, the modern equivalent of Beowulf’s epithet might have sounded something like, “He was a good kinsman of Atilla the Hun!”

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