The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001


"The Wealth They Left Us":

Two Women Author Themselves through Others' Lives in Beowulf

By Marijane Osborn

Department of English, University of California at Davis

This essay proposes the idea, based on narrative genres identified both by native tellers of tales and anthropologists, that the Beowulf poet imagines the queens Wealhtheow and Hygd as "consciously" using the stories of women who have lived before them as a means for evaluating and directing their personal lives.

Reprinted with revisions from: Philological Quarterly, Winter 1999, 78: 49-75.

Let each recall his good ancestor.
I would not wish for anything
That a poor song should be made about us by a jongleur.
Raoul de Cambrai, lines 4142-44[1]

People talk about themselves and others in Beowulf. In at least twenty substantial passages they recount significant events from their own or other's lives, placing these life-events on public view for contemplation, judgment, or example.[2] Such stories seem to be, in Victor Turner's (1980:146-47) words, "special reflexive mechanisms for mirroring and monitoring behavior in a culture."[3] They inscribe and teach the ideology of a culture, especially if we are to understand ideology, in Althusser's (1971:133) terms, as "not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live." Malinowski (1922:299) tells how the mythic narratives that the Trobriand Islanders call lili'u exercise "an active influence on their conduct and tribal life," and Plato, according to Havelock, was so conscious of the powerful effect of traditional stories that he wished to bar storytellers ("poets") from his Utopia because poetry represented indoctrination. Plato refers, of course, not to poetry on the written page as we think of it, but performed narrative poetry, the medium for learning culture in an oral society. As Havelock (1963:100) explains, "Oral verse was the instrument of a cultural indoctrination, the ultimate purpose of which was the preservation of group identity". Much like the stories that children tell themselves, and are told, today, "poetry" gave people paradigms through which they discovered their potential selves and the way those selves might fit together with those of others into a culture. But such traditional storytelling, by persuasively affirming the ancient social constructs, according to Plato as Havelock interprets him, also inhibited change, and specifically the sort of educational reform that Plato advocated.

Memorable maxims in an oral culture, whether the culture is one of pre-literate childhood or a non-literate society, tell us how to behave, but stories that "perform" those maxims in narrative both persuade us of their truth and aid us in remembering them. Stories, claims Cupitt (1991:79), are "the most powerful aide-memoire of all." A connection with place that multiplies a narrative's potential for being remembered and thus effective[4] is provided in the Apache ágodzaahí stories, that tell "of that which has happened" (Basso 1996:79). These are somewhat analogous to the Trobriand Islanders' lili'u in that both story-types concern historical persons acting at a real-world site with which the story is then permanently associated. Because ágodzaahí are so effective in constructing or regulating character, I will discuss them at some length as an exemplary genre. My discussion will not, however, do justice to Basso's (1996:57) fascinating account of the way these stories may be simultaneously amusing and critical, and "produce quick and palpable effects" on the behavior of individuals, "causing them to modify their social conduct in quite specific ways." Framed with references to a placename familiar to the hearer, they focus on "the consequence of actions that violate Apache standards for acceptable social behavior" (Basso 1996:51). In uncertain moral situations a Western Apache, even when displaced from familiar cultural surroundings, may find her or himself worked on by a story connected with places on the remembered landscape; in native terms, "stalked." This hunting metaphor is a standard term that Basso's informants used. Through such story-stalking, "the land makes people live right" (Basso 1996:38); the remembered narrative will offer instruction even at a distance about how to behave. Within the traditional home territory, also, one person may, usually tactfully, tell someone else, usually younger, how to behave by means of an ágodzaahí story:

Maybe you've not been acting right . . . . So someone stalks you and tells a story about what happened long ago. It doesn't matter if other people are around--you're going to know he's aiming that story at you. All of a sudden it hits you! It's like an arrow, they say (Basso 1996:58).

Such "stalking," like our internalization of maxims delivered in a narrative context, may continue to operate partly at a subconscious (that is, indoctrinated) level:

You're going to see the place where [the story] happened . . . . That place will keep on stalking you like the one who shot you with the story . . . . If you live wrong, you will hear the names and see the places in your mind. They keep on stalking you, even if you go across oceans . . . . They make you remember how to live right (Basso 1996:59).

Even though these brief Apache stories uniformly offer negative examples of behavior and the unpleasant consequences of such behavior, the stories themselves are regarded as "good," keeping one strong, keeping "badness away" (Basso 1996:61). "In short," concludes Basso (1996:60), "historical tales have the power to change people's ideas about themselves. As Nick Thompson [Basso's principle informant] says, they 'make you think about your life'."

Most cultures have a tradition of cautionary tales about supposedly real people, either formal legends or more casual accounts that are intended to make you think about your life. Kingston opens her novel The Woman Warrior with a good example of this kind of story. When the protagonist of the novel begins to menstruate, thus being of an age when glandular activity interferes with good sense, her Chinese-born mother tells her the family secret of an aunt who was forced to kill herself and her out-of-wedlock baby and was then ritually "forgotten" by her humiliated family. "Whenever she had to warn us about life," Kingston's narrator says, "my mother told us stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on" (Kingston 1989:5). But the mother gives the story added authenticity and power by concluding that she herself found the bodies of the dead aunt and baby clogging up the well; the realism this lends the story is hair-raising. Immigrant stories like this one keep ethnic identity alive, recreating that community identity to some degree for the new situation even while preserving it, but they also affirm the individual identity of the teller.[5]

Psychoanalysis has vividly demonstrated how the narration of events from one's own life has a profound (though not always so clearly socializing) effect on personal identity. An individual edits the text of the self in the process of relating personal life-events and thereby, partly in response to perception of audience, continually recreates the self. Bruner and Weisser (1991:146) point out that this "task of self-accounting begins with the very onset of language," and they offer the example of a three-year-old engaged in "the self-making task of getting straight, through narrative, the relation between what she thinks, how she feels, and what she does." On the other hand, Freud discovered in his personal life that another person's story may have a profound effect if it is seen to be a useful representation or model for molding the self. One of the founders of Narrative Psychology, Spence (1994:111), tells how the story of Orpheus seeking and again losing Eurydice has continually "surfaced" in his life, and how "when that happens-when a connection is lost or an open channel is closed-I react with more than the normal amount of concern or dismay." During the actual writing of his autobiographical essay, Spence discovers a moment in his childhood that he thinks may explain this exaggerated horror of loss that he identifies with the classical story, but I would suggest that the story dramatizes (or allegorizes) the mystery of loss, described by Freud as the "fort, da" experience, that disturbs us all. Freud himself was "stalked," in the sense of haunted, by the story of Oedipus, as his biographer Ernest Jones tells us,[6] and he appropriated that story to make it the basis of some of his profoundest teaching, in a manner so powerful that, despite many errors of interpretation and even of fact, it has affected the entire western world. Regarding Freud's Oedipal text as a mythic image (accompanied by the ethnographically bizarre idea of a "primal feast"), Toews (1986:289) explains that "the verification of the truth of this story ultimately remains dependent not on the marshaling of empirical data or on logical incontrovertibility, but on the act of mutual recognition whereby one person discovers an adequate symbolization of his or her life story in the story of another." The "adequate symbolization" of their own life story in appropriated narrative is precisely what the three "Beowulfian" characters now to be discussed are seeking.

Several kinds of example in Beowulf are adduced here in order to demonstrate that the process of "stalking with story" may also be reversed. The stalker may be the person, not the story, as when two queens in different situations, Wealhtheow of the Danes and Hygd of the Geats, in order to create or control their life-narrative, each take personally the stories of others in which (or in contrast to which) they discover an adequate symbolization of their desired self. In an oral culture where a high value is placed on achieving a reputation that lives after one (see n. 2 and Beowulf, lines 1386-89), an individual may alter received perceptions of his or her identity by selectively choosing "true" events from among personal memories, as Beowulf himself does. Thus the story chosen for "self-authoring" may be derived either from personal or family history, like that in The Woman Warrior, or from the surrounding "world of story," a traditional narrative about someone else. Whether by editing one's own life, or choosing a model to emulate, or focusing upon a frightening negative example of actions or attitudes to avoid in order to deflect one's personal narrative from following an undesirable plot, someone who takes thought may consciously and actively "stalk the story" that best serves their personal goals. Beowulf publicly, then the queens Weahltheow and Hygd privately, all participate in such active and selective construction of the self by means of story. Examples concerning the hero Beowulf will be offered first to show how the use of story is publicly inculcated in an oral society, impressing upon the mind that society's mores, then examples of the way that Weahltheow and Hygd respond to other women's stories will show how traditional narratives may be more privately adopted. (It will be assumed, without documenting the arguments about this still vexed issue, that the oral society in the poem Beowulf is itself an imitative construct by an almost certainly literate poet.)

When Beowulf arrives upon the scene in Heorot, he finds that stories are definitely stalking him, but differently from the way the Western Apache stories discussed by Basso stalk their hearers. A swirl of stories about what kind of person Beowulf is conflicts with the identity he hopes to demonstrate, so he must counter the impression they give. The first confrontation concerns his motive for coming. Beowulf's own story, as he declares to the guard who demands explanation from him and his friends as they land on the Danish shore (lines 260-285), is that he has come in unobligated generosity of heart (lines 267 and 278) to release Heorot from the monster Grendel's power. But Hrothgar, the Danish king whose hall Grendel is ravaging, refers obliquely to obligation as a motive, before even setting eyes on the young hero (lines 371-76). After Beowulf makes his first narrative move, telling how wise councillors in his own land, knowing stories about his youthful monster-killing, suggested that he should come to help Hrothgar (lines 415-24), the king proceeds to tell the story of how, many years previously, he settled Beowulf's father's feud with gifts (lines 470-72); the son has come to repay the account, he says (lines 457-58).[7] Hrothgar then warmly welcomes Beowulf, not giving him the chance, at that time, to correct the assumption of obligation to which he has directed Beowulf's life-story. The story that Unferth the Thule tells shortly afterwards about a swimming contest that Beowulf purportedly lost is pointedly bent on undermining the young warrior's presentation of himself. This time Beowulf has the opportunity to correct the story, admitting the foolhardiness (we were only boys), but otherwise recounting events differently. The swim was not intended as a contest; Beowulf nevertheless outswam his friend Breca and killed a number of sea-monsters in the process, and is far more competent at this sort of thing than any Dane is--of which they will see the evidence in the morning (lines 530-606)! He tells a great story that serves as an ideal presentation of credentials for the job at hand, the most persuasive sort of credentials in an oral society being the credible story of a job well done that is similar to the job being proposed. Beowulf makes very clear the point of the story in the context of its telling, and in this personal narrative he is "authoring himself" as a generous monster-killer, one who performs an unobligated deed for the good of the people (lines 567-69). Thus, while answering Unferth's accusation, he also subtly counters Hrothgar's attempt to diminish his high intentions and to represent his coming as "duty."

Later in the poem other people's narratives are adopted to enhance Beowulf's personal story. After Beowulf has been victorious over Grendel, whom he came to Heorot with the intention of challenging, a thane of the king who remembers ealfela ealdgesegena ("very many things said of old") tells an "apt" tale to commend and acculturate the deed. His tale of Sigemund and the dragon, another hero's monster-killing, is clearly meant to reflect Beowulf's victory and align it with others of its kind, "raising Beowulf, as it were, to the rank of pre-eminent Germanic heroes" (Klaeber 1950:158).[8] This event offers an example of how a traditional story about someone else may be adopted, as Freud adopts the Oedipus story, as "an adequate symbolization"; in complimenting Beowulf, the thane's Sigemund story also serves to balance Unferth's rude and challenging use of story earlier. He then adds a story about Heremod, a hero become king who misuses his power, explicitly contrasting him with Beowulf (lines 913-915). But after Beowulf has slain the unanticipated second monster, Grendel's mother, the Danish king Hrothgar himself tells a more elaborated story about Heremod that he specifies is for Beowulf to learn from (lines 1722-24). He tells how, when God advanced Heremod over all men after his heroic achievements (feats mentioned earlier in connection with Sigemund's story; lines 901-902), Heremod's "bloodthirsty breasthord" (line 1719) increased to the point that he became monstrous himself. His name suggests a particular trait of character that may become extreme; here means "warlike" and mod means "mentality," and the compound implies a personality engaged with the kind of courage that is usually expressed in violent but socially acceptable heroic acts. Quoting Müllenhoff's translation of the name Heremod as "kriegerischer Mut," Robinson (1993:212-13) says, "It must be conceded that character and name-meaning are remarkably well suited to one another." Heremod's mod became so inflated and deranged that he killed his own companions at the banquet-table, and his name itself gives point to the story, serving as a mnemonic for the story's moral. Hrothgar clearly hopes that this cautionary tale about the real ancestral Heremod with his poignantly etymologizable name will not mirror the young prince's later treatment of his own people. Instead of nurturing a mod that is violent like Heremod's, the king advises Beowulf to "understand generosity" (line 1723), an instruction that reminds the reader of Beowulf's previously self-proclaimed "roominess" of heart (line 278). After offering another kind of story, an allegory in which "that wargish spirit," the devil, takes a gromhydig ("angry-minded") miser by surprise (lines 1724-57), Hrothgar again (line 1758) urges, "Protect yourself from such bealonið ("murderous rage"), dear Beowulf!" Adrien Bonjour (1950:49) observes that "a better illustration [than Heremod] could hardly have been chosen . . . to show the dangers of 'arrogance and greed in a king,' a point on which Hrothgar, addressing Beowulf as a future ruler, wanted to insist." Beowulf apparently takes to heart Hrothgar's narratively expressed advice, because years later, in a deathbed evaluation of his own life-story,[9] he mentions (lines 2738 and 2742) that he never sought searoniðas ("treacherous quarrels") or morðorbealo maga ("murderous slaughter of kinsmen").

Although all three of these examples concerning Beowulf have been orally performed (by Unferth, the unnamed scop, and Hrothgar), in this poem the connection between narrative and the desired self is not necessarily expressed aloud--that is, in performance--and this fact in itself is interesting in view of the culture constructed by the poet. In an oral culture, or indeed in almost all literature before the Renaissance, inward deliberation as opposed to simple emotion, (like Grendel's delight in his catch at line 124), is seldom expressed in narrative in ways that we are accustomed to today.[10] In such cultures' stories people are not "heard" privately thinking as we are used to reading their thoughts in novels; this is a narrative device that the written word--and, interestingly, cinema--makes possible. Instead, as in Shakespeare's soliloquies, inward deliberations must be heard spoken aloud. Bruner and Weisser (1991:14-15) suggest that "the so-called inward turn of narrative in Western culture . . . may have depended on the rise of silent reading, which is a rather recent invention." In medieval literature inwardness is usually expressed obliquely, as in the recurrent and anxious dreams that the outlawed Gisli of Icelandic saga recounts to his wife Aud, often relating these dreams in obscure and complex poetry that heightens the effect of a mode of consciousness different from the simple narrative prose style of the rest of the saga (Johnston 1963:passim); or as when Béroul reports conflicting interpretations of symbolic objects in the sword-between-lovers scene in his story of Tristan and Iseult.[11] In both these narratives, inwardness or deliberation is expressed through its outward effects. As Bloomfield (1970:281) says with reference to Beowulf's report to Hygelac of his fight and other events in Heorot and the hero's personal reactions to them, "This was the only way to present the psychology of the chief character in an age not used to psychological probing."

Elsewhere in Beowulf, however, a sort of inward deliberation is twice seen in connection with stories that a character perceives as a mirror of a potential situation or self. In each of these cases, the story understood as exemplary concerns a woman, and the person thinking about that story and applying it personally is also a woman. We do not "hear" her silent thoughts. The first instance concerns the Danish queen, Wealhtheow. After she has apparently listened to the story of the Finnsburg conflict, Wealhtheow expresses in outward action her personal application of the story, taking precautions as a result of hearing it (lines 1162-1231). The second instance concerns the Geatish queen, Hygd. The result of Hygd considering the story of Thryth is described before the story itself is told, as we are informed that Hygd is a generous queen, and the two-part story that provoked that result is then presented as one that Hygd has pondered privately within her mind. She has apparently rejected the first part of the story and adopted the second as a paradigm for her personal narrative, her constructed self (lines 1926-54). These two stories about events that "really happened," historical narratives pondered by the Danish and Geatish queens, are clearly, to adopt Turner's phrase, "special reflexive mechanisms for mirroring and monitoring behavior," mechanisms of a kind particularly potent in an oral culture. Unlike, however, the story of Heremod, which Hrothgar presents publicly as containing an example of a mod or mental style for Beowulf to reject, both of these stories concerning women are contemplated inwardly, taken wholly in private as an allegory of the self--or more exactly, in current narratological terms, as a "script."[12]

We do not even realize that Queen Wealhtheow is listening to the story of violence and its aftermath at Finnsburg until it is over and her actions then demonstrate how seriously she has taken the plot of the story as a potential script for her own life. She takes steps to avoid finding herself in the Finnsburg queen's situation. Near the beginning of the Finnsburg story, the "blameless" Hildeburh (line 1072) looks upon a battlefield where her son and brother lie dead after an old feud has broken out (lines 1072-75). It is usually assumed that they have fought on opposite sides, though the text is not clear on this point, and Tolkien (1982:160) argues in his edition that uncle and nephew, fighting on the same side, were both slain in the attack on their hall. In any case, the feud has provoked that same morðorbealu ("murderous slaughter") of kinsmen that Beowulf avoids, and it kills those in whom Hildeburh has taken "the most joy in the world" (lines 1079-80); among these her Frisian husband is notably not included. Yet this strong woman adjusts her own story to her better liking as she arranges son and brother as companions on their mutual pyre, and later her husband is slain as vows are again broken (lines 1151-53).[13] This is a strange story for the scop to be singing at the banquet honoring Beowulf that night, presumably in praise of his victory over Grendel. The heroic story of Sigemund sung earlier in the day seems far more appropriate.[14] In fact, the fragmentary Fight at Finnsburg,[15] a poem independent of Beowulf and focused entirely on the fighting men, with no mention of a surviving woman's situation or feelings, would be more suitable as a song celebrating the warrior Beowulf's courage in battle. The jarring inappropriateness of the Finnsburg episode's tragic opening scene as celebration of a heroic deed makes one wonder what the scop in Heorot, or for that matter the Beowulf-poet, was thinking of.

Later Beowulf himself tells Hygelac a story about the Heathobard feud which the Danish princess Freawaru, Wealhtheow's daughter, will be unable to contain (lines 2020-31). For Bonjour (1950:61), "the point of greatest interest," in both the Finnsburg episode and this similar story told by Beowulf, is the "effective illustration of the theme of the precarious peace." Because this theme is continued in the descriptions, in the last part of the poem, of tragic feuds due to break out again after Beowulf's death, Bonjour (1950:63) claims that these stories told within the poem unite "the Grendel and the Dragon parts in a closer web . . . no mean artistic achievement on the part of the Beowulf poet." The interest of this essay, however, is not in the effect of the Finnsburg episode on the structure of the poem as a whole, but in what it means to Wealhtheow. This personal meaning can be deduced from the way the Beowulf poet, instead of celebrating heroic battle, recounts the Finnsburg story being told in Heorot, "brooding over its themes of revenge and inexorable violence" (Fry 1974:29).

After arguing that the Finnsburg episode, being "a tale of complete and crushing revenge upon a treacherous enemy," is in fact appropriate for the occasion of its being told [16], Lawrence (1930:126) asks, pertinently to the present discussion, "May it not be, too, that the story of Queen Hildeburh was here designedly brought into connection with the tragedy in store for Queen Wealhtheow, which must have been well-known to the people for whom the poet of Beowulf wrote?" Bonjour (1950:61) replies, "Asking the question is already solving it; the parallel between Hildeburh and Wealhtheow is unmistakable." Both of these scholars and most others assume, on the basis of a certain way of interpreting evidence outside the poem as well as hints within it, that Wealhtheow's situation is potentially parallel to Hildeburh's, because Hrothgar's nephew Hrothulf (Old Norse Hrolf) will eventually use violence, perhaps murdering Hrothgar and probably murdering Wealhtheow's sons, in order to usurp the throne. Brodeur (1969:151-57) elaborates the idea in some detail, especially implicating Unferth. Sisam (1965:39) casts doubt on this assumption, arguing that the case for Hrothulf's treachery is farfetched and that the Finnsburg episode has nothing to do with what may or may not happen to Wealhtheow later; her speeches that follow the story contribute, as he points out, to the "mood of rejoicing" in Heorot. But the poet has told us earlier that Wealhtheow knows how to behave in a courtly manner (line 613), thus she is sophisticated enough to produce speeches appropriate to the joyous occasion while also nuancing them politically. When the Finnsburg story ends with Hildeburh's brother, son, and husband now all slain, and herself being taken back to her people (lines 1157-59), it does seem suggestive to a reader that three lines later Wealhtheow comes forth in Heorot, "negotiating the future," as Clark (1990:85) phrases it, with pleas for the protection of her sons. Her pleas are addressed first indirectly to Hrothulf (lines 1180-83), then directly to Beowulf (lines 1226-27), following which she proclaims that the men in Heorot, true to one another, will carry out her wishes after accepting a drink from her cup (lines 1228-31).[17] Her statement implies that accepting the drink obliges them to be faithful to her perception that "here each eorl is true to the other" (line 1228), and the effect of her words is almost like a magical apotropopaic spell, weaving protection for her sons and warding off a personal tragedy like Hildeburh's bereavement.[18] Whatever may be the "truth" about Hrothulf's supposed treachery later on, and however his actions may be interpreted within the traditions of Danish history that surround Beowulf, there is no doubt that the Finnsburg story is worrying Wealhtheow right now, as she listens to it in relation to herself.

I suggested long ago that, while the scop in Heorot is singing about the events at Finnsburg, "the poet meditates upon the tragedy resulting from that well-known fight"; the singer's "preoccupations are heroic, as is appropriate; the poet's are humane" (Osborn 1984:99; cp. Bonjour 1950:58). Thus the Finnsburg episode in lines 1068-1159 of Beowulf does not constitute, as earlier critics assumed, "simply a report of the heroic lay chosen by Hrothgar's scop to entertain the company in Heorot" (Sisam 1965:33). In fact, I suggest now, even more strongly than before and with a different twist and a more theoretically informed slant, that the Finnsburg story as we have it in Beowulf, bracketed with references to the woman Hildeburh, is not a report of what the scop is "actually" singing in the hall but an alternative way of regarding those events that is considerably influenced by the poet's imagining of Wealhtheow's hearing of them. Wealhtheow identifies with Hildeburh as that lady looks out upon the battlefield to see the sad result of heroic fighting. Perhaps the Danish queen in Heorot reflects on how she or those dear to her may become implicated in similar violence, through kinship obligations to persons struggling on opposing sides. The Finnsburg account may be further modified by the poet's consciousness of a future event in Heorot that will take the Danes entirely by surprise: the coming of Grendel's Mother to avenge her own son's death. Certainly, as Chance (1990:248-61) has shown, the sequence of women concerned about their sons magnificently builds to a climax: Hildeburh, Wealhtheow, Grendel's Mother. But this observation goes beyond the scope of the present essay. One hopes that in her fictional world Wealhtheow, alerted by story to the bereft woman model and no mean schemer, managed to extricate herself and her sons from a fateful sequence of events.[19]

This essay's final example of the appropriation of a story to construct character in Beowulf involves possibly the most notorious juxtaposition of diverse subjects in the poem. It is considered a crux by all commentators. The poet has appeared to critics to be at his most inattentive when into his account of Hygd, queen of the Geats, he suddenly thrusts Thryth, apparently without thought for coherence. "Her story surfaces in the poem with no immediately apparent connection to the main narrative," observes Overing (1990:106). "A crude excrescence," Sisam (1965:49) calls it, and "cursory," says Klaeber (1950:cvii, 195), judging it "far fetched and out of place." Led by a private suggestion from Robinson (one that was earlier proposed by Malone [1941:356]), I would like to read the verb wæg at line 1931 as "weighed" and then interpret the surrounding text in a way that better integrates the Thryth narrative with Hygd's. This reading also offers the clearest case in Beowulf of someone deliberately self-authoring herself through another person's story.[20] The poet has just praised the Geatish queen Hygd's generosity to her people; now in lines 1931-57 he speaks of another queen, Thryth (her name is discussed below), who began poorly, issuing arbitrary death sentences, but later became admirable in her gift-giving. As Bonjour (1950:55) points out, Thryth's story is the exact reverse of Heremod's, who "had distinguished himself above all men, and consequently awoke the highest expectations-yet ended lamentably because he abused his power and became cruel to his subjects." The "striking opposition" that Bonjour observes between the two characters' stories may be schematized thus to display their chiastic relationship:

Heremod: achievement -- miserliness and murder
Thryth: murder -- generosity and achievement.

I propose that in line 1931 the poet presents Queen Hygd, whose name means "thought,"[21] as herself having thought of Thryth, whose name means "strength."[22] She weighed (wæg) contrasting stories about Thryth's character as in a balance or scale (wæge), and chose the better side of her predecessor to emulate. This weighing and subsequent choice has taken place in the past of the world of the poem and is described now in order to account for Hygd's present excellence as a generous queen.

Queen Hygd is fremu ("good" or "excellent"), the poet tells us, specifically because she is generous, not hnah ("illiberal") or gneað gifa ("sparing of gifts") (lines 1929-30). Her private meditation upon Thryth also bears out the poet's further description of her in lines 1926-27 as being, though young, already "wise."[23] The line-and-a-half crux is as follows (with Klaeber's punctuation):

Modþryðo wæg, (line 1931)
fremu folces cwen, firen' ondrysne

Klaeber and others make the phrase fremu folces cwen ("the good queen of the people") refer to Modþryðo, the very "Modthryth," as he calls her, who performed the firen ("crime"). But since Thryth is not at all a good queen here at the beginning of her story--not yet even a queen, in fact--it makes better sense to retain manuscript mod þryðo as two separate words and take "the people's good queen" of line 1932 (line 1931 in my translation below) as the subject clause referring back to Hygd rather than to Thryth. The latter's mod is then the object of the verb wæg. Moreover, the noun þryðomay work better grammatically as a genitive: the fremu ("excellent") queen Hygd weighed the mod of criminal Thryth. I quote below first the four lines of the original containing the crux (now punctuated my way), then I translate the part of the digression pertaining to Thryth. Here Thryth of line 1931 and the good queen of line 1932 are separate persons, and Thryth's firen, her crime, is placed in apposition to mod, the frame of mind (pride) behind the crime. The alliterative translation attempts to be readable as well as precise. "Hæreth's daughter" in line 1929a is Hygd, antecedent of the pronoun hio in 1929b, and "Hemming's kinsman" mentioned in line 1944 below is Thryth's husband, the Continental Offa about whom more will be said below. The passage begins:

Hæreþes dohtor. Næs hio hnah swa þeah,
ne to gneað gifa Geata leodum,
(line 1930)
maþumgestreona. Mod þryðo wæg
fremu folces cwen, firen' ondrysne

The poet is speaking of

Hæreth's daughter [Hygd]. She was not empty-handed
1930 or sparing to the Geatish people of gifts,
of precious treasures. The people's good queen
weighed Thryth's pride, her appalling crime.
Not any among the men of her court,
except the great lord,[24] dared set his eyes
1935 openly on her-or he ought to expect
a death-noose ordained for him and a doughty
hand to twist it! Then hurriedly after
that fist, a sword was further appointed,
a damascened blade to do the rest,
1940 make certain of death. Such is no queenly
practice for a lady, though peerless she be,
a peace-weaver taking, because of pretended
affront, the life of a loving man!
But Hemming's kinsman cut that short.
1945 Drinkers at ale told a different story,
of how she committed the fewer crimes
against her people once she was given,
a gold-adorned bride of glorious lineage,
to the young warrior. She had sailed away
1950 on the fallow flood on her father's advice
to Offa's hall, and happier when
she took that throne was her reputation
for better using what life had brought her.
She held high love with the heroes' lord,
1955 with him who was, as I have heard,
of all between the two great seas,
of all immense humanity, best. (lines 1929-57)

Interpretation of this passage as a story that Hyge appropriates places much weight on reading the word wæg in line 1931 as "weighed" or "had weighed," but her name itself, identifying Hygd as thoughtful, deflects the objection raised by Klaeber that a metaphoric use of wegan is too modern. The story itself pivots, like an ancient pair of scales, on the point where Hemming's kinsman comes into Hygd's life and another story is told. Having weighed Thryth's reprehensible violence while at her father's court, young Hygd has placed against it that "other" story told about Thryth by ale-drinkers (line 1945) after she is happy with the man of high reputation whom she loves (line 1954). With the change of place and emotional fulfillment, Thryth has grown up. The story those "ale-drinkers" tell is presumably contrastive, emphasizing the change of direction of Thryth's life just as the digression does. It appears that, like Thryth, Hygd has chosen "the right life" when marrying "the right man."

"Chosen" is the operative term here. I believe that Irving (1989:73) gets the idea of this story quite wrong when he asserts that "the exertions of a strong-minded husband can bring Thryth back to her proper role. Women can be forced to behave themselves." Perhaps he gets this interesting notion of the narrative and how its meaning concerns force and the "proper" role of women from the verb onhohsnod[e] in line 1944, though it need not be interpreted to imply that Offa disciplined Thryth. There is, in fact, uncertainty about how this verb, which I have translated "cut short," should be interpreted.[25] As I read the story, it is by being worthy of Thryth's love (line 1954) that Offa averts from himself the hostility she showed toward her previous admirers, thereby "cutting short" that sequence of events and Thryth's bad reputation (rather than hamstringing Thryth herself by force). It is notable that Thryth is the only woman in Beowulf reported to "love" someone. In any case, it seems that, through her own choice of roles once she is queen, she has forced "drinkers at ale" to tell a different story about her. She takes control of her own life-story, "better using" her resources in a responsible way, which is why Hygd has thought so seriously about her. As Brewer (1980:7) says in his discussion of traditional stories about growing up, "It is not surprising that in imagination we constantly explore, or re-live, or test alternative versions of, this crucial passage of our lives from childhood to adulthood." Placed in a position of responsibility, Hygd, having weighed the alternatives, chooses to "understand generosity" as a ruler should (Hrothgar's advice to Beowulf at line 1723), a concept that is repeated in various ways in the poem.[26]

If Hygd is indeed pondering Thryth's twofold story, she is thinking about a real person; at any rate, Thryth's husband is real enough to be known outside of Beowulf. The Continental Offa whom Thryth marries, and into admiration of whom the digression then modulates (lines 1955-62), is also celebrated in the Old English poem Widsith (lines 35-44). He is a hero known in Scandinavia as well, and the ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon Offa who reigned in Mercia from 757 to 796 and built Offa's Dike. It has been suggested that the poet's purpose in including the story was to offer an oblique compliment to this second Offa (Klaeber 1950: cxix, n. 2, and 98). If my reading of lines 1929-32 as a transitional passage is correct, referring to Hygd's thought about Thryth, the Thryth part of the story fits better into Beowulf than the part exclusively about Offa (lines 1957b-62, not translated here), which might have been added partly to historicize Thryth. "That the tales of [the Continental] Offa's prowess have a historical basis is quite believable and antecedently probable," says Klaeber (1950:198), and he points out that "the Offa tradition lived on for centuries among the Danes, and it appears in literary, nationalized form (Wermundus [Offa's son] figuring as king of Denmark) in the pages of Saxo and Sven Aageson" (Klaeber 1950:197). Offa's father Wermundus is the Garmund of line 1962 in the digression in Beowulf, his son is the Eomer of line 1961, and all three names are genealogically associated in both English and Scandinavian documents. They were historical persons, or were certainly regarded as such by the culture that produced Beowulf.

Like the story of Thryth pondered by Hygd, all the stories mentioned in this study that are contemplated by people in the poem share the fact that they are ostensibly about real people who have lived earlier, perhaps personal ancestors, rather than being more abstract myths, parables or fables. This authenticating factor appears to magnify their affective power for the person contemplating them. King Alfred says in a different but equally respectful context concerning those who have gone before: Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð ("Here one can still look upon their track") (Bright 1966:27). The track left by a real person in our memories or oral histories, or, for Alfred, in written texts, is imprinted "here," upon the present. Then, elaborating this hunting metaphor of his own, the great king speaks of "bending our mod to that spore," essentially saying that we should stalk those who preceded us in order to retrieve "both the wealth and the wisdom" that they left us (Bright 1966:27). In thinking about how people within the world of Beowulf can perceive stories from the past allegorically in terms of their present selves, one begins to wonder, especially in this context of Alfredian piety concerning persons of the past, whether the poet is using the story of the hero Beowulf similarly. Is the poet offering this story to someone, trying to mold that person's character through the narrative of a superlatively generous-minded hero who becomes king in a shared ancestral world? This "mirror for princes" concept of Beowulf is not a new idea, though my particular mise en abyme angle on it is, and it has recently been revived in a specifically Alfredian context.[27]

Because performed narrative is an important mechanism for acculturation, and usually recognized as such, it follows that an intelligent person functioning in an oral culture may take conscious pains to find ways that traditional stories can offer a symbolization adequate for creating the privately desired identity. Yet if it is true, as Cupitt (1991:59) says, that "stories recount events in the common public world while at the same time producing private selfhood," the self constructed with the help of a culturally endorsed story will be ideologically aligned with the "common public world." In a closeknit high-context society, not to be aligned, not to have a firm place, may prove disastrous to the personality.[28] Two different person-constructing functions of story have been elaborated here as they are demonstrated by women in Beowulf. Like Wealhtheow one may contemplate other people's stories to learn how to avoid being a victim in one's society (compare Radway 1984:72-73), or like Hygd one may weigh alternatives while growing up, trying on stories like hats, to discover what one does or does not prefer to be like in terms of the kind of story one might wish "ale-drinkers" (that is, people at banquets) to tell of oneself in years to come. In a culture where it is believed that the main chance for immortality lies in story, in the fame after death that Beowulf expresses as dom and advocates as the thing most worth achieving (lines 1386-89, mentioned earlier), well-born women as well as men are likely to take considerable care with the life-story they bequeath as "wisdom and wealth" to others.

On undertaking this project I expected rather easily to find and draw upon ethnographic studies of the use of story-telling to construct character in a traditional oral society. Although I found a certain amount of work by scholars of literature and psychology on what has been called "the Quixotic Principle" after Don Quixote's basing of his "chivalric" career upon romances he has read,[29] I have found no literature directly on this rich subject in ethnography pertaining to oral storytelling.[30] I came upon numerous references in passing to the importance of narrative and to varieties of genre, but no coherent study of the kind I sought. This gap in the record occurs, I think, because near the beginning of this century, in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Frazer (1911-15) linked the concept of traditional (native) "story" to research into "cosmology" and thus, as his title suggests, associated it with myth and magic. Because such stories most dramatically represent an understanding of the world alien to our own experience, sacred narratives have been the kind of story most interesting to ethnologists and to their audience, and thus most useful for constructing a culture for eyes alien to that culture. Until recently other kinds of story have fallen by the wayside, perhaps seeming like incidental "chat" to the observing recorder and therefore going unheard. Only when a native storyteller's selection of what is important is respected, as by Basso in his account of Apache storytelling and by Hanna, the half-native compiler of Nlha-7kápmx (Interior Salish) tales, are those stories of the less romantic or apparently less important kind likely to get recorded, the stories that drive a culture by molding its individual people's character on the basis of accounts of "that which has happened" (Basso 1966: 48). Hanna himself, however, tellingly divides his collection into two parts, first "Sptákwelh (Creation Stories)" and second "Spílaxem (Non-Creation Stories)" (Hanna and Henry 1995:299-300), clearly giving precedence to the myths favored by non-native ethnographers. Even the Trobriand Islanders, according to Malinowski, seem to rank myth more highly than other tales, if his report in this respect can be trusted in view of the fact that he may have inadvertently influenced their response by indicating his own preference [31]. The islanders "distinguished definitely between myth and historic account" in their classification of stories called libogwo ("old talk") (Malinowski 1922:299). They call the former lili'u, whereas "for the other tales, that is, the historical ones, they have no special word, but they would describe the events as happening among 'humans like ourselves'" (Malinowski 1922:300). That these historical tales can go unmarked by distinctive terminology within the larger category of libogwo suggests that it may not be entirely the fault of ethnographers that stories of this kind are on the whole neglected in the literature. Except when songs of former heroic exploits are used to incite warriors to battle,[32] historical accounts that the hearers can take personally may simply be a less obvious side of the culture than myth. Even though in Beowulf the two fictional queens' allegorical understanding of certain traditional stories as applying to themselves can hardly be taken as an ethnographically sound example, Wealhtheow and Hygd demonstrate how this other kind of narrative can operate in practice, and how important such "historical" stories might be considered at a more personal, experiential level within the native culture, "among humans like ourselves."[33]



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Copyright © Marijane Osborn, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

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