The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001

Hwanan sio fæhð aras:

Defining the Feud in Beowulf

By David Day


The Beowulf poet's use of the term fæhð or feud differs from that of modern anthropologists-the poet uses the term to define any ongoing violent intra or inter social conflict, lending it irony and tragedy.

Reprinted with revisions from Philological Quarterly, Winter 1999, 78:77-95.



There have been a number of studies over the last twenty to thirty years seeking to explain the structural and thematic role of the feud in Beowulf.[1] It has frequently been argued that the feuds between the various peoples and monsters in the poem--say for example that between the Danes and Heathobards discussed by Beowulf in his report to Hygelac after his return to the Geats--point out the tragic nature of the poem's heroic world. Peace, it seems, is impossible in the world of this poem, and conflict breaks out repeatedly due to the heroic "economy of honor" that demands certain behavioral choices of its inhabitants. The geong cempa of line 2044 can no more ignore the inciting of the eald æsc-wiga than he can stop breathing the air, and so the effort to weave peace between Danes and Heathobards by a marriage of Freawaru and Ingeld is doomed in advance by a sort of social determinism.[2]

More recently, critics such as John M. Hill have sought to balance this view, relying on anthropological and sociological works that have stressed the role of the feud as a stabilizing force in certain cultures.[3] The feud can, it seems, fulfill such a function because the terror of invoking it maintains the peace--a case in point in Beowulf might be the apparent hesitance of the Swedes to attack the Geats during Beowulf's tenure as king; one would legitimately hesitate to attack a group who in retaliation could call upon the services of a king with the strength of thirty in his handgrip. The impulse to feud is further inhibited by the forging of cross cutting ties binding feuding or potentially feuding groups to one another, for example the political marriages of Hildeburh and Freawaru, or acts of arbitration such as Hrothgar's intervention in Ecgtheow's feud with the Wylfings, to which he ascribes Beowulf's offer of help against Grendel.

Both of these views undeniably contribute to our understanding of the poem's meaning. Surprisingly, though, neither attempts to define exactly what the feud in Beowulf consists of--both seem to assume that the meaning of the term is fairly transparent. But the phenomenon of feuding has always been difficult to define among anthropologists and legal scholars. This difficulty is partly semantic--those very social groups who practice or recently practiced feuds do not always possess a specialized term for their practices that corresponds easily to our own term "feud."[4] Another difficulty comes from the semantic imprecision of the English word "feud" itself--what exactly do we mean to describe when we use it? One component of this problem in definition has been distinguishing this term from other forms of organized violence among and within social groups, for example raiding and warfare. Two very common distinctions between feud and war appear in the definition of "feud" in A Dictionary of the Social Sciences:

The term denotes actually or potentially homicidal relations of violent hostility between two of the component groups in a society, these relations being, none the less, subject to rule and terminable, at least ideally, by peaceful settlement. Where the hostilities are between whole societies and not merely between segments of a single society they are more conveniently described as warfare . . .[5]

Both of the distinguishing characteristics listed here--that feud is an intra-social mechanism, and that it is subject to settlement in various ways--make a degree of both common and scholarly sense. Most English speakers considering the meaning of "feud" tends to think of combat between armed bands of hillbillies living within a relatively small and isolated geographic area, not a clash of arms between sovereign political entities. The second criterion--that feuds are regulated and subject to settlement in some fashion--has been shown in the work of J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, William Ian Miller, and others. These scholars point out that feud often has a quasi-juridical function, acting as an adjunct to other intra-social dispute resolution mechanisms. Wallace-Hadrill, working with the bloodfeud of the early medieval Franks, has noted the function of the feud, or fear of it, as the sanction behind other forms of dispute resolution, such as wergild or arbitration. Miller has noted a similar function for the feud in medieval Iceland, and has further distinguished the feud from other forms of organized violence by detailing its rules of conduct. Among other characteristics, the feud has certain rules stressing when and how vengeance may be taken, who may take it, and against whom it may be prosecuted. It is also usually more limited in scale than outright warfare, involving relatively limited mobilizations of combatants. Finally, it possesses "culturally acceptable means for making temporary or permanent settlements of hostility" (Miller 1990: 181).

All of this gives a fairly good idea of what we mean when we use the term "feud." What is remarkable, though, is the way that this understanding is often at variance with what the Beowulf-poet seems to mean when he uses the term fæhð, or "feud." Besides an apparent recognition of the reciprocal nature of violence in a feud, few rules concerning the timing or scale of vengeance seem to be observed--feud is not clearly distinguished in the poem from other forms of organized violence, such as warfare or raiding. Also, although there are mechanisms for ending the feud, such as political marriage or the payment of wergild, the focus in the poem is most often on the tragic failure of such efforts at closure. The poet's conception of feud is thus notably not commensurate with modern models of feuding behavior. I will in this essay examine his usage of the term, trying for a more detailed understanding of what he means by it. Perhaps more importantly, I will try to show why he uses the term to describe the particular relationships he does. Such an examination will give, I hope, a better appreciation of the various feud-centered interpretations of the poem.

The Beowulf-poet often uses the Old English term fæhð, and editors almost always translate it as "feud." Bosworth and Toller define fæhð nearly as narrowly: "feud, vengeance, enmity, hostility, deadly feud, that enmity which the relations of the deceased waged against the kindred of the murderer." An examination of these usages, together with closely associated terms such as wrecend and wrecan ("avenger," "to avenge"), lean ("requital"), and (for)gyldan ("to repay," "to requite"), reveals the following three characteristics of the feud as described in Beowulf:

1. Feuds are defined by reciprocity--they describe an ongoing relationship of retaliatory violence between two groups.

2. Feuds define the relationship of the feuding parties as a sort of ideology; all further interchanges between the two groups--political and military--are defined in reference to the conventional reciprocity of the feud despite their obvious opportunistic features.

3. Feuds function in the poem as a sort of trope, conveying to the interactions of the characters tragedy and irony.

The Feud's Reciprocal Character

This character of the feud is immediately obvious in one of the first references to feuds in the poem, the description of Grendel's continuing attacks on the Danes:

Næs hit lengra fyrst,
ac ymb ane niht eft gefremede
morðbeala mare, ond no mearn fore,
fæhðe ond fyrene; wæs to fæst on þam. (lines 134-37)

Nor was it simply once,
but the next night after he performed
more murder-bale, and did not mourn for it,
that feud and evil deed; he was too fast in that.

It is significant that prior to this repetition of his action, Grendel's attack is not described specifically as a feud; it is the ongoing character of a conflict that properly leads to it being so described. A similar distinction seems to be observed in reference to the feuds between tribes or peoples in the poem. An example of this is seen late in the poem, as Beowulf reminisces about the origins of the feud between the Swedes and Geats. The Swedes attacked following Hrethel's grief-stricken death at Hæthcyn's accidental killing of Herebeald:

þa wæs synn ond sacu Sweona ond Geata
ofer wid wæter wroht gemæne,
herenið hearda, syððan Hreðel swealt,
oððe him Ongenðeowes eaferan wæran
frome fyrdhwate, freode ne woldon
ofer heafo healdan, ac ymb Hreosnabeorh
eatolne inwitscear oft gefremedon.
þæt mægwine mine gewræcan,
fæhðe ond fyrene . . .
(lines 2472-2480)

Then there was hostility and strife among Swedes and Geats
over the wide water, mutual hatred,
hard hostility, after Hrethel died,
and towards them Ongentheow's men
were bold and warlike, wished no friendship
over the sea to have, but about Hreosnabeorh
terrible slaughter occurred.
That my kinsman avenged,
Feud and evil deed . . .

Whether this incident was the origin of the feud between the Geats and Swedes is unclear. Interestingly, the poet does not have Beowulf say, as he frequently does, that Ongentheow by his actions renewed or stirred up the feud--rather he notes that synn ond sacu, "hostility and strife" simply "was," which could mean either that it describes the existing state of affairs between the two peoples or what it became by this action. In light of the poet's description of Grendel's deed, though, it is important to note that Beowulf does not use the term fæhð of the Swedish-Geatish conflict until after Hæthcyn and Hygelac avenge the attack, leading to an ongoing state of hostility between the two peoples: "þæt mægwine mine gewræcan, / fæhðe ond fyrene" (that my kinsman avenged, feud and evil deed).

Perhaps the clearest case in point that feuds are defined by their ongoing, retaliatory character is the conflict between the Dragon and the Geats. Significantly, neither the poet nor his characters describe the first attack of the dragon on the Geats specifically as a fæhð; it is wroht . . . geniwad (2287, "strife renewed"), wig (2316, "war"), and nearofages ni
ð (2317, "cruel violence"); the dragon wishes to lige forgyldan the theft (2305, "repay with fire"). It is not until Beowulf makes the decision to retaliate that the poet calls it a feud per se:

Gewat þa twelfa sum torne gebolgen
dryhten Geata dracan sceawian;
hæfde þa gefrunen, hwanan sio fæhð aras,
bealonið biorna; him to bearme cwom
maðþumfæt mære þurh ðæs meldan hond.
(lines 2401-2405)

Departed then among twelve enraged with anger
the lord of the Geats to behold the dragon;
he had by then learned whence the feud arose,
the dire affliction of men; into his possession came
the great ornamented cup through an informer's hand.

It is interesting that the feud here is seen to have a distinct point of origin: sio fæhð aras.[6] As we have seen in the first reference to the feud of the Swedes and the Geats, this is not always clearly the case. Similarly, the feud of the Grendel kin and the Danes is tied up in some complicated way with the murder of Abel, the latter forming a precedent for if not a part of the former. But from the way the poet uses it, it is clear that it is the ongoing, retaliatory character of a violent conflict that leads him to first associate with it the term fæhð.[7]

The Feud's Ideological Character

Perhaps the most striking feature of the feud as it is described in Beowulf is its ideological character--it functions as a means of explaining the state of affairs between two parties or groups, defining their relationship and how they interact with one another.[8] Again, it is perhaps best to start with the Grendel kin, noting the poet's propensity to describe their conflict with the Danes specifically as a fæhð. Lines 134 and following, already discussed above, contain the first reference to this conflict as a feud, but the poet goes on to again so describe Grendel's attacks at line 153 and line 595. Grendel's mother is similarly described specifically as a wrecend, an avenger, at line 1256, and Hrothgar twice so refers to her and characterizes her conflict with the Danes as a fæhð (lines 1333, 1380), while Beowulf describes her as motivated by a desire for revenge (lines 2117-18). What is so remarkable about these references is the dignity they confer on the ravages of the monsters--they are not seen simply as random acts of demonic violence but as calculated acts observing certain rules of engagement; especially in the case of Grendel's mother, they do follow the reciprocal, retaliatory nature of the feud.[9] It is possible to see this as more than simple artistic irony. In the case of both the poet and his characters, describing the monsters as feuding with the human actors places their depredations within a well known model of interaction, serving both to make the monsters' depredations understandable and also to define the range of appropriate responses available to the human actors.

An examination of the feud between the Swedes and the Geats reveals how complex this ideological function could be. A fuller consideration of the first passage explaining the origin or renewed character of this feud is in order:

þa wæs synn ond sacu Sweona ond Geata
ofer wid wæter wroht gemæne,
herenið hearda, syððan Hreðel swealt,
oððe him Ongenðeowes eaferan wæran
frome fyrdhwate, freode ne woldon
ofer heafo healdan, ac ymb Hreosnabeorh
eatolne inwitscear oft gefremedon.
þæt mægwine mine gewræcan,
fæhðe ond fyrene, swa hyt gefræge wæs,
þeah ðe oðer his ealdre gebohte,
heardan ceape; Hæðcynne wearð,
Geata dryhtne guð onsæge.
þa ic on morgne gefrægn mæg oðerne
billes ecgum on bonan stælan,
þær Ongenðeow Eofores niosað;
guðhelm toglad, gomela Scylfing
hreas heoroblac, hond gemunde
fæhð o genoge, feorhsweng ne ofteah.
(lines 2472-89)

Then there was hostility and strife among Swedes and Geats
over the wide water, mutual hatred,
hard hostility, after Hrethel died,
and towards him Ongentheow's men
were bold and warlike, wished no friendship
over the sea to have, but about Hreosnabeorh
terrible slaughter occurred.
That my friend and kinsman avenged,
the feud and the evil deed, as it is well known,
though for this his elder brother paid
a hard bargain; to Hæthcyn was,
to the lord of Geats, the battle fatal.
Then I have heard in the morning one kinsman
with the sword's edge avenged the other on the slayer,
there of Ongentheow Eofor's attacks
split the battlehelm, the ancient Scylfing
fell battle-pale; the hand remembered
feuds enough, did not withhold the death blow.


This passage is especially interesting for the way it shows the feud being manipulated for political advantage by the Swedes. The feud here is not a simple business of tit for tat--vengeance can be delayed over time until a politically expedient moment for its prosecution arrives. This is probably the reason for Ongentheow's choice of this moment to strike at the Geats--their king is recently dead of sorrow for a killing within his own family that has presumably done nothing to improve the group solidarity of the Geats, and so they are ripe for a raid.[10] This sort of political opportunism conditioning the timing of the feud is brought out elsewhere in the poem--especially in the messenger's prediction that the Merovingians, Frisians and Swedes will choose the moment of Beowulf's death to settle their old scores with the Geats:

Nu ys leodum wen
orleghwile, syððan underne
Froncum ond Frysum fyll cyninges
wide weorðeð. Wæs sio wroht scepen
heard wið Hugas, syððan Higelac cwom
faran flotherge on Fresna land,
þær hyne Hetware hilde genægdon,
elne geeodon mid ofermægene,
þæt se byrnwiga bugan sceolde,
feoll on feðan; nalles frætwe geaf
ealdor dugoðe. Us wæs a syððan
Merewioingas milts ungyfeðe.
(lines 2910-21)

Now will come to our people
a time of war, once the king's death is widely known
among Franks and Frisians. That strife arose
hard with the Hugas, after Hygelac came
with a sea-army into the Frisian land;
there the Hetwaras in battle assailed him,
brought a quick decision with overwhelming strength
that the mailed warrior should fall
among the company; gave then no treasure
the lord to his troop. To us always afterwards
the Merovingians' friendship has been denied.

Here, the death of Beowulf is explicitly seen as the moment chosen by the Franks to revenge themselves on the Geats for Hygelac's fatal raid.[11]

Tied to this notion of the feud as a rationalization of politically and militarily expedient action is its function as a sort of mnemonic aid--something to be remembered as one engages in it, a sort of rationalizing principle for violence: Beowulf notes of Eofor's retaliatory killing of Ongentheow that "hond gemunde / fæhðo genoge, feorhsweng ne ofteah" (lines 2488-89; the hand remembered feuds enough, did not withhold the death blow). The feud is thus not only a justification for large scale violence, but an enabling principle for individual violent acts.
It is also interesting that the opposite of the feud in this case is seen to be freod, friendship. Ongentheow and his people evidently have a choice of how to relate to the Geats, but they "freode ne woldon / ofer heafo healdan" (lines 2476-77; wished no friendship over the wide sea). It is as if there are two conceptual ways that feuding groups can relate to one another in the world of this poem: friendship, characterized by the sort of friendly reciprocity seen earlier in the reception of Beowulf at the court of Hrothgar, and the feud, characterized by reciprocal violence. Choice between modes is seen as deliberate; the Swedes actively wish for no peace; similarly, the Merovingians in line 2921 are also seen as deliberately withholding their friendship from the Geats. Interestingly, such willed recalcitrance is also seen in the monsters: Grendel "sibbe ne wolde / wiþ manna hwone mægenes Deniga" (154-5; wished for no peace with any man among the Danish people); and as Beowulf is about to engage the Dragon, the poet remarks "næs ðær mara fyrst / freode to friclan" (2555-56; nor was there more time to ask for peace).

It is possible for feuding parties to switch between these two modes of relationship, but the change is not easy. Earlier in the Danish section of the poem, there are two attempts by the Danes to alter their relationship to other peoples through intermarriage, the first described in the Finnsburh section (lines 1063-1160) and the other in Beowulf's skeptical report to Hygelac of Hrothgar's plan to buy peace with the Heathobards by marrying his daughter to Ingeld (lines 2024-2069). But both seem doomed to failure. There is also an indication that Beowulf's heroism has changed the mode of reciprocity hitherto found between the Danes and Geats. Hrothgar notes of Beowulf at their parting that "Hafast þu gefered, þæt þam folcum sceal, / Geata leodum ond Gar-Denum / sib gemæne, ond sacu restan, / inwitniþas, þe hie ær drugon" (lines 1855-1858) (you have brought it about that the peoples shall have, Geatish folk and Spear Danes, common friendship, rest from strife, hostile acts, that they before engaged in). However, it takes an exceptional action such as Beowulf's to assure such a change of modes for any length of time.

An interesting question to raise at this point is why the poet and his characters regard the tribal conflicts as feuds at all, and not as something more general such as hild (battle, war) or sacu (strife, contention). As we have seen, a common modern distinction among anthropologists and laymen alike is to restrict the feud to conflicts between groups within a society, as opposed to those between societies, which are more properly speaking wars. As modern readers, our first reaction might be to impose this classification on the conflicts between peoples in Beowulf, but it is abundantly clear that the poet and his characters observe no such distinctions. So what is it that distinguishes feuds from wars for the poet, or is any such distinction possible here? I would say there is. As we have seen, one of the defining characteristics of the Swedish-Geatish "feud" is its ongoing, reciprocal character; this is enough for the poet to characterize it as a fæhð.[12] Although Beowulf initially describes the conflict between Ongentheow and the Geats as "synn ond sacu," it is clear by the time that Hæthcyn launches his raid it is a fæhð (lines 2480, 2489), a feud; by then it has taken on a retaliatory character that (for the poet in any case) moves it out of the realm of simple military violence and into the realm of feuding. Similarly, the messenger notes in his address to the Geats that the attack by Hæthcyn showed "hu ða folc mid him fæhðe towehton" (2948; how those folk among themselves awoke the feud). The feud is thus something that can sleep for a time, then be awakened; but what it never loses is its continuing, retaliatory character. Furthermore, as we have seen already, there are certain political advantages to be derived from such a "feuding overlay" to conflicts between peoples--they provide a convenient ideological pretext for reviving violent relations at politically expedient moments.[13] Finally, characterizing these conflicts as feuds has a certain "epistemological" value--the category of "feud" allows unfortunate events such as an outbreak of violence to be rationalized and understood by fitting it into a well-known and understood set of relationships. War might be chaotic and unexplainable; the feud rarely is.

This ideological function of the feud is even seen in the first feud mentioned as such in the poem, the conflict of the Grendel kin and God:

wæs se grimna gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten; fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer weardode hwile,
siþðan him Scyppend forscrifen hæfde
in Caines cynne-- þone cwealm gewræc
ece Drihten, þæs þe he Abel slog;
ne gefeah he þære fæhðe, ac he hine feor forwræc,
Metod for þy mane mancynne fram.
(lines 102-10)

The grim spirit was named Grendel,
the well known march stepper, who held the moors,
fens and fastnesses; the home of the monstrous kin
the unhappy being guarded for a time,
after the Shaper had condemned him
among the kindred of Cain--that crime avenged
Eternal God, when he [Cain] slew Abel;
He had no reason to rejoice in that feud, but he [God] banished him far away,
God for that crime, from mankind.

Here, the feud functions in much the same way as other cultural practices and symbols in both Beowulf and Old English poetry more generally--as a way of understanding unfamiliar phenomena or concepts, in this case the Genesis narrative, by fitting them into well known cultural patterns. God's relationship with the kindred of Cain is specifically characterized as a feud--not divine punishment or judgment as it is in Genesis, but a feud.[14]

The Feud as Trope

The word the Beowulf poet most often uses to alliterate with fæhð is fyren, "crime" or "evil deed," shading into "sin." Generally, he does not see the feud as a force for good, the sort of stabilizing social control described by Wallace-Hadrill for the Franks:

. . . þæt gesyne wearþ,
widcuþ werum, þætte wrecend þa gyt
lifde æfter laþum, lange þrage,
æfter guðceare; Grendles modor,
ides aglæcwif yrmþe gemunde,
se þe wæteregesan wunian scolde,
cealde streamas, Siþðan Cain wearð
to ecgbanan angan breþer,
fæderenmæge; he þa fag gewat,
morþre gemearcod mandream fleon,
westen warode. þanon woc fela
geosceaftgasta; wæs þæra Grendel sum,
heorowearh hetelic, se æt Heorote fand
wæccendne wer wiges bidan;
þær him aglæca ætgræpe wearð;
hwæþre he gemunde mægenes strenge,
gimfæste gife, ðe him God sealde
ond him to Anwaldan are gelyfde,
frofre ond fultum; ðy he þone feond ofercwom,
gehnægde helle gast. þa he hean gewat,
dreame bedæled deaþwic seon,
mancynnes feond. Ond his modor þa gyt
gifre ond galgmod gegan wolde
sorhfulne sið, sunu deoð wrecan.
(lines 1255-78)

That became plain,
widely known, that an avenger still
lived after evil deeds, a long time,
after grievous strife; Grendel's mother,
a formidable woman, thought of misery,
she who the dreadful waters occupied,
the cold streams, after Cain became
a sword-bane to his only brother,
his paternal kinsman; he was outlawed,
marked with the murder fled man's joys,
inhabited the wastes. Thence awoke many
kinds of spirits; one of them was Grendel,
the hateful foe, who at Heorot found
the waking warrior awaiting battles;
there him the formidable one came to lay ahold of;
however he kept in mind the strength and might,
the ample gift that God gave him,
and to him the All-Wielder entrusted aid,
relief and help; then he overcame the enemy,
subdued the hell-spirit. Then he, humiliated,
deprived of joy, saw his death place,
the enemy of men. And his mother yet
greedy and gloomy wished to enter upon
a grievous venture, to avenge the death of her son.

This passage is remarkable for its gloomy insistence on the ongoing, retaliatory nature of the feud; "wrecend þa gyt lifde æfter laþum," the poet notes, "an avenger yet lived after evil deeds." This seems to be a central, thematic truth in Beowulf--an avenger always lives to take vengeance, and the poet's continuance in the passage with the circumstances first of Cain's murder of Abel, shifting into a brief reiteration of Beowulf's triumph over Grendel, then moving on into the acknowledgement that "his modor þa gyt / gifre ond galgmod gegan wolde / sorhfulne sið, sunu deoð wrecan" (his mother yet greedy and gloomy wished to enter upon a grievous venture, to avenge the death of her son), by its very extended syntax seems to acknowledge this central truth of the feud.

Beowulf's triumph does of course "end" the feud with the Grendel kin, but this provides only an occasion for grim satisfaction, as Beowulf uses it in his beots to Hygelac describing the death and humiliation of Grendel and his mother--immediately undercut, one might add, by the poet's launching into the description of the Geatish conflicts with both the Swedes and the Dragon. It is thus possible to see in the feud's prevalence, both as the sort of inescapable ideological mode of explanation we have seen so far, and also as an inherently regrettable phenomenon, an important contribution to the poem's dark, tragic tone.

The feud as a literary device also provides an important source of irony in Beowulf. This comes most often in a conflation of the modes of feud and sibb or freod that I have already described. Such modes are structurally interchangeable as both depend on reciprocity: where they differ is that the feud exchanges injury; friendship in contrast depends on an exchange of goods in commerce and gift giving, and exchange of hospitality. In Beowulf, these modes of exchange flow into one another on a linguistic level--the language of peaceful exchange and reciprocity shows up in descriptions of violent confrontations.[15] Again, the description in lines 2472-89 of the first phase in the feud of the Geats and Swedes is important, this time to illustrate this process. Notable in this relatively short passage is the way that its language takes on an almost mercantile character--Hæthcyn avenges the Swedish raid that follows Hrethel's death, but he "gebohte, heardan ceape" (lines 2481-82; paid [for it], a hard bargain). This language points out an ironic view of the feud as an exchange of "items"--in this case wrongs, frequently deaths--which is picked up elsewhere in the poem. In the sequel to this first phase of the Swedish feud, the poet tells how Heardred, Hygelac's son, met his death for intervening in Swedish internal politics by extending hospitality to the rebellious sons of Ohthere, son of Ongentheow and then ruler of the Swedes:

Hyne wræcmæcgas
ofer sæ sohtan, suna Ohteres;
hæfdon hy forhealden helm Scylfinga,
þone selestan sæcyninga
þara ðe in Swiorice sinc brytnade,
mærne þeoden. Him þæt to mearce wearð;
he þær for feorme feorhwunde hleat,
sweordes swengum, sunu Hygelaces;
ond him eft gewat Ongenðiowes bearn
hames niosan, syððan Heardred læg,
let ðone bregostol Biowulf healdan,
Geatum wealdan: þæt wæs god cyning.
Se ðæs leodhryres lean gemunde
uferan dogrum; Eadgilse wearð
feasceaftum freond; folce gestepte
ofer sæ side sunu Ohteres,
wigum ond wæpnum; he gewræc syððan
cealdum cearsiðum, cyning ealdre bineat.
(lines 2379-2396)

Him [Heardred] exiles
over the sea sought, the sons of Ohthere;
they had rebelled against the lord of the Scylfings,
the best of sea-kings
who in Sweden distributed treasure,
an illustrious lord. For him that was to be the end of life;
he for that hospitality received a mortal wound,
by the swings of swords, the son of Hygelac;
and from him after went Ongentheow's son
seeking his home, after Heardred lay dead,
left the throne for Beowulf to hold,
control of the Geats: that was a good king.
He for this prince's death gave payment
in later days, was to Eadgils,
destitute, a friend; to his people came
over the sea's brink the son of Ohtere,
with warriors and weapons; he took vengeance afterwards
in cold, sorrowful expeditions, deprived the king of life.

In this passage, it is clear that Heardred "þær for feorme feorhwunde hleat" (line 2385; for that hospitality received a mortal wound), thus ironically conflating the ideas of vengeance and hospitality: Heardred suffers the consequences of mixing his two modes of exchange, receiving death instead of gratitude for his hospitality. And the Swedes of course receive lean (payment) from Beowulf later in revenge, when he assists Eadgils in finally supplanting Onela. This later ironic use of lean is just one instance of many such appropriations of mercantile or donative terms by the feud: another is the use of the terms agifan (to give back, repay), gyld (pay, repay) and forgyld (pay, requite). These come up several times in the long passage in which the messenger bringing news of Beowulf's death to the Geats recounts in full the attempt of Hæthcyn to avenge himself on Ongentheow. Here, Ongentheow ageaf (line 2929; paid back) the attack of the Geats; when Wulf strikes Ongentheow over the head, the old king "forgeald hraðe / wyrsan wrixle wælhlem þone" (lines 2968-69; quickly repaid with a worse exchange that slaughter blow); finally, Hygelac "geald þone guðræs" (2991; repaid for that battle-rush) Wulf and Eofor with lands, treasure and even a marriage into his family. Even in the consequences of the successful prosecution of the feud, the language of avenging and paying seem to flow into one another. Nor is this conflation limited to the tribal feuds: the poet remarks grimly of the killing of Æscere by Grendel's mother "ne wæs þæt gewrixle til, / þæt hie on ba healfa bicgan scoldon / freonda feorum" (1304-6; that was not a good exchange, that they on either side should pay with the lives of friends).[16] And Beowulf himself twice refers to his killing of Grendel as "lean forgeald," "giving repayment" to the monster (lines 1584; 2094).

John Hill (1989:9) has noted this linguistic conflation, but feels the poet distinguishes between forgyldan and gyldan because "reciprocity, which equals continuity in this world, is missing from forgyldan because the repayment here is extreme: a definitive attempt to settle usually hostile relationships". It is true that the intensified forgyldan is usually used in the poem in violent exchanges, gyldan in situations where some material reward for a service is being conferred. But I do not feel the poet is thus commenting on any structural difference between the two situations; he is rather pointing out the negative nature of the violent "repayment" being conferred. Both gift giving and the feud presuppose an ongoing exchange between the two parties, whatever the ultimate tactical goal a feud might have of exterminating the opposing group. Indeed, as I have tried to show above, it is apparently this ongoing character that defines a violent confrontation as part of a feud, and I would contend creates its terrible and tragic potential.[17]

To the Beowulf-poet, the feud is both a device for heightening the tragic import of the poem, and also a source of grim irony and word play. I would suggest the two uses are intertwined. In a world where the feud is inescapable as a way of understanding human relationships, it will inevitably ironically color the perception of other less violent means of exchange, and they it.


The feud in Beowulf is thus not a transparent phenomenon whose characteristics are easily grasped. It does not appear to have been a term the Beowulf poet uses loosely to describe any sort of violence; he seems to use it to describe only those conflicts having an ongoing, retaliatory character that define the relationship of the parties over time. As a term for this rather precise set of relationships, it subtly conditions the way the poet and his characters refer to the interactions of both men and monsters in the poem, providing a sort of ideological lens explaining the character and mode of those interactions. Finally, the feud through its pervasiveness and unending nature provides the poet with a strong literary device for heightening the tragic feel of his poem, and also creating a range of deeply ironic effects. As always, the more one reads Beowulf and contemplates its extraordinary intricacy, the more one is impressed by the subtle effects the poet's diction has on our perception of the poem.


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Copyright © David Day, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001-2. All rights reserved.