The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001


Redundant Ethnogenesis in Beowulf

by Craig R. Davis
Smith College

Abstract: One of the Beowulf poet's purposes is to inspire a sense of common identity in an ethnically complex audience by reimagining relations between various hero-peoples of a traditional past with whom members of that audience might have identified. However, the poem's ethnogenesis failed to achieve broad cultural authority. It proved superfluous to the task of national consciousness-building which was already being accomplished on a biblical model of moral ethnicity adumbrated in the poem itself.



In spite of our uncertainty as to when, where, by whom and for whom the Old English poem Beowulf was first composed in Anglo-Saxon England, it nonetheless evinces many of the impulses which motivate the construction of legendary narratives in other milieus, including the promotion of the political agenda of a ruling elite and the corresponding manipulation of the ethnic affinities of the audience. John D. Niles (1999: 66-88 and 120-45) has illustrated these and a number of other social functions of traditional narrative, with special reference to Beowulf . On the political purpose of the poem, Roberta Frank (1982: 60; 1981: 130) believes that the Beowulf poet intends to establish "an ideological basis for national unity" in his vision of a multitribal polity ruled by theod-cyningas "great" or "national kings". The poem opens with an evocation of this political ideal among the ancient Danes (lines 1-3). According to Frank, the Beowulf poet is seeking to legitimize the kind of government to which his own kings aspired by projecting some archetypal form of it upon the founders of the Danish royal line.

The Beowulf poet is particularly impressed with the ability of Scyld Scefing to unite the disparate, mutually hostile tribes of southern Scandinavia into one powerful nation. He invokes the emergent king's career with succinct admiration:

Many times Scyld son of Sceaf took away the mead-benches
from bands of enemies, from many tribes,
terrified their chieftains, after that time when he was first
found destitute; he had comfort for that,
grew great under the clouds, throve in victories,
until everyone of those living around him
over the whale-road had to obey,
pay tribute; that was a good king! (lines 4-11)

The poet alludes here to the legend, intimated again in his description of Scyld's funeral, that the king had originally appeared alone in a boat as a child (lines 43-46). From this unpromising start, the story apparently went, the young parvenu founded a great people.

The creation of the Danish nation by a single powerful war-leader who emerges out of nowhere bears a precocious resemblance to the ethnogenesis theory promoted by Reinhard Wenskus (1977), Herwig Wolfram (1988), Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz (1998), as well as others, for a number of different continental peoples. Charles R. Bowlus (1995) has provided a useful summary of their views. According to this model of the late antique and early medieval formation of national ethnicities in Europe, an otherwise unknown chieftain successful in war imposes his political authority upon a multiplicity of competing individuals and groups of various origins and thus forges a new sense of ethnic identity among them under the leadership of his new royal clan and its supporting war-band. In Beowulf the poet symbolizes the centralization of political power and the formation of the Danish nation in his image of Scyld's confiscation of mead-benches from independent tribal chieftains whom he has defeated in battle or intimidated into submission. These benches represent the autonomy individual chieftains had once enjoyed sharing out drink to their fellow-tribesmen and other followers in their own mead-halls. As the poet realizes, mead-benches are the very spot on which a tribe's collective identity was most assiduously enculturated through public rituals of drinking, gift-giving and the performance of traditional verse celebrating the supposed ancestors of the chieftain and his people. Through these rituals, even warriors of alien or enemy extraction could be adopted into the militarized kindred formed around the successful war-leader and his family.

The Beowulf poet extrapolates from this traditional locus of tribal identity formation to the vision of a supratribal, national kingdom whose center of power is imagined architecturally as the great mead-hall Heorot built by Scyld's great-grandson Hrothgar (lines 71-72). In this gigantic hall, one might say, the confiscated mead-benches on which many a warrior had once found his former identity are relocated in a synecdochic centralization of political authority and corresponding expansion of ethnic inclusiveness. Hrothgar now liberally dispenses mead to chiefs who have relinquished their own prerogative to do the same and generously redistributes treasure to warriors from whom he has just impounded it as tribute. The poet makes no bones about the coercion involved, but believes that such force is not only necessary, it is good. For the Beowulf poet, the most valuable compensation Hrothgar's new thegns receive for their subordination is a proud new identity. They are now full members of the mægen Deniga (host of Danes, line 155b) with all the rights, honors and privileges appertaining thereto. The king's tough but generous treatment of former enemies is just the right way to rule according to the Beowulf poet, that is, the right way to create a strong national kingdom where there was only incessant tribal warfare before. God sends Scyld an heir precisely because "He had seen the wicked violence they suffered for so long without a king" (lines 14b-16a).

Like other traditional poets, that of Beowulf is reimagining the past in terms of his own priorities and preoccupations, his approval of broad national monarchy. But how did an English-speaking poet hear of the Danish Scyldings in the first place and why would he be inspired to project his own political ideals upon them? Where did the Beowulf poet get this story and why would he expect his retelling of it to receive a sympathetic hearing? If we use the analogy of other legendary traditions, we would assume that the poet recognized some special affinity between the peoples he celebrates in his poem and those of his own audience. What was that connection? In fact, a good number of questions about the poet's purpose in retelling the ancient history of the Danes and their relations with neighboring peoples in southern Scandinavia might fairly be asked:

1) What is the ethnic thrust of Beowulf? What ethnic affinities were felt to obtain between the members of the poet's audience and the various hero-peoples of the poem? How is the poet manipulating his auditor's perceptions of their own ethnicities in the way he constructs relations between the peoples of the past? In short, what designs does the poet have upon the ethnic consciousness of his audience?

2) Why does the poet choose to valorize the royal family of a foreign, sometimes enemy nation in the opening lines of his poem? Beowulf is permeated with pro-Danish sentiment, in spite of the manifold difficulties which the Scylding dynasty is represented to have suffered. Why not celebrate the heroic founders of some native Anglo-Saxon royal family--their victories over the Britons or other enemies, for instance--as would have poets of most other epic traditions?

3) Why did the poet make his hero a Geat of all ethnicities he might have chosen? What would Beowulf's Geatish identity have meant to the poem's audience? Did any of them consider themselves to be Geats or of Geatish extraction or heritage?

4) What other ethnic derivations did the different members of the audience of Beowulf perceive between themselves and the peoples in the poem? Did the poet make sure there was at least one group with whom everyone present could proudly identify? What relative status does the poet accord to the different ethnic groups in the poem and how does that status reflect or restructure the standing of the various ethnicities with which members of the poem's audience might have identified themselves?

5) At what historical moment would the poet's manipulation of these ancient ethnic relations have made the most sense to an Anglo-Saxon audience, especially the friendship he constructs between a Geatish ætheling and a Danish monarch? At what point in time would such a friendship have had the most interest or appeal to the hearers of an heroic poem in Old English? When would it have been the most politically useful in terms of cultivating desirable affiliations or quelling potential animosities between different groups?

6) What was the primary source of the legendary lore which the poet adapts in Beowulf? When and in what form did it come to his knowledge? To what extent did it derive from native vernacular tradition cultivated in oral poetry from earlier times, learned traditions derived from biblical and historiographical sources written in Latin, or from foreign vernacular sources adapted more recently to the poetic conventions of traditional verse in Old English? And finally, perhaps most importantly,

7) Why did the poet's vision of the ethnic past in Beowulf fail? Why did his reconfiguration of ancient ethnic relations not achieve the persuasiveness and cultural prestige of other poetic ethnogeneses, like the Mahabharata of the ancient Indian monarchies, for instance, or the Aeneid of imperial Rome? Why was Beowulf forgotten?



To begin with the second and sixth questions first, on the valorization of the Scylding dynasty and a plausible context for the poet's interest in Danish legend. In the last decades of the ninth century the West Saxon royal family constructed an extended genealogy for itself tracing its ancestry back to the Scyld Scefing celebrated in the opening lines of Beowulf. This genealogy of Æthelwulf, King Alfred's father, is included in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno 855. It is the very earliest reference we have to the figure of Scyld Scefing or to the Scylding dynasty, if that honor does not belong to the opening lines of Beowulf itself (Frank 1981: 126; Meaney 1989). In 893, Asser (Chapter 1), King Alfred's biographer, traces a variant of the West Saxon royal pedigree to Sceldwa; there is another version in the Chronicle of Æthelweard of the tenth century (page 33). The Danes themselves do not appear at all in the earliest northern ethnographies-the Germania of Tacitus at the end of the first century AD or the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy in the second-which mention some of their neighbors. In the sixth century the Byzantine writer Procopius (vol. 4: 414-5) mentions "tribes of the Danes" once in passing, without any mention of the Scylding dynasty . This brief note is followed in the same century by similarly slight references in Jordanes' Getica (3.23) and Gregory of Tours' Historia Francorum (3.3). Gregory, however, is the first to speak of a 'king' of the Danes, a Chlochilaichus, whom the Beowulf poet understands to be Hygelac, a king not of the Danes, but of the Geats (cf. Goffart 1981 and 1988: 207). In the eighth century, Bede (5.9) still knows of no Scyldings, nor of any Danish kings to speak of. He simply mentions Dani among the other pagan gentes of Germania .

But the Beowulf poet thinks he knows all about Danes and their early kings, and he seems to assume that his audience knows a lot, too. Why was the Beowulf poet and his audience so interested in these old Danes, and where did they get their information about them? It is unclear how knowledge of the legendary kings of the Danes could have come to a West Saxon genealogist or a Welsh cleric in the late ninth century, or to the Beowulf poet himself at some other unknown point in time, if not from the Danes themselves, presumably from those very Danish vikings who had invaded England in the ninth century and established themselves in the north and east of the country. The sons of Ragnarr Lothbrók-Ívarr the Boneless and his brother Hálfdanr-set up a Danish kingdom at York in 867. They called themselves Scaldingi, according to the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto of the mid-tenth century. They later appear as descendants of Skjöldr (Old English Scyld) in Norse skaldic poetry of the early eleventh century in honor of the Danish King Cnut of England, as well as in the early twelfth-century Historia Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus (Frank 1981: 127 n.15-18; 1994: 110-13). The most likely candidates for having introduced the Scylding legend into England would seem thus to have been the sons of Ragnarr Lothbrók after 865. The Danes had successfully resisted Carolingian imperialism earlier in the ninth century and their new leaders seem to have invented a genealogical legend to justify their pretensions to national authority provoked by that pressure. Carl Edlund Anderson (1999: 90-143) has shown that the Scylding legend as recounted in Beowulf and other sources has very little, if any, historicity and that it first emerges in an English context in the late ninth century (cf. Roy Page 1981).

The settlement of the Danelaw under treaty after 878, with the baptism of the viking leader Guthrum as King Alfred's godson and his consecration as King of East Anglia, is thus the most likely context for the interest of the West Saxon royal family in the legendary traditions of their defeated attackers and new neighbors. This was an opportunity for the invention and promotion of a new Scylding pedigree of their own. David Dumville (1977) has studied the political subtext of the surviving Anglo-Saxon royal pedigrees and there are any number of similar studies of African and other genealogical constructions and rationalizations (e.g., Henige (1974), Blount (1975), Irvine (1978).With the genealogy of his father Æthelwulf going back to Scyld, King Alfred could now demonstrate to his new Danish clients, allies and rivals his direct patrilineal descent from their own royal ancestors and thus legitimize, by ancient precedent, the superiority over them he claimed. Such a genealogy would have the further benefit of uniting in a single race both his own subjects and foreign Danes, since the genealogist makes Scyld's father Sceaf a fourth son of Noah born in the Ark. This new race is distinct from that of Ham, Shem or Japheth from whom the other nations of the world descend. Most new ethnic distinctions are constructed by redrawing the boundaries of "us" and "them", by uniting formerly disparate groups more closely through distinguishing them from others yet more different. Richard Abels (1998: 27-28) has suggested, in fact, that the version of the legend of Scyld which the Beowulf poet offers in the opening lines of the poem bears comparison with the career of King Alfred's grandfather, Ecgberht of Wessex, who "had risen from inauspicious beginnings to be a mighty king". The poet's account of King Alfred's more distant ancestor Scyld could have been formed as an idealization and legitimization of the ambition of the West Saxon kings after Ecgberht's success in establishing himself as overlord of England south of the Humber.


This brings us to the third question: why the Geats? What would the audience of Beowulf have known of this people? What was the character of the legends associated with them? The first historical mention of the Geats is in the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy in the second century AD: he says that Goutoi'(Gutae or Gautae in Latin translations) occupy southern Skandia (2.10). These are presumably the Gautar or Götar of later Norse tradition, a people who occupied south-central Sweden and whose name is preserved in the place-names Väster- and Östergötland. The Götar were eventually dominated by the Swedes, apparently in the eighth century, though descendents of their ancient royal family still provided kings of Sweden through the twelfth century (Birgit and Peter Sawyer 1993: 58-60).

The Götar thus maintained an ethnic identity in southern Scandinavia distinct both from the Danes to the south and the Swedes to the north for the better part of a millenium, but they were sometimes confused or conflated with other peoples, particularly it seems, the Goths. Jordanes (3.16) was the first to locate the aboriginal homeland of the continental Goths in the insula Scandza , a tradition which Walter Goffart (1988: 84-96) has shown is unlikely to have been native to the Goths themselves. Earlier historical writers like Julian the Apostate in the fourth century and Orosius in the fifth had already conflated the ferocious, fabulous Getae or Getes, whom Herodotus and other ancient ethnographers had given a vaguely northern location near or in Scythia, with the Gothi of their own day. Jordanes' specification of the homeland of the Getae or Goths in the insula Skandza is simply a further conflation of his own based upon Ptolemy's placement of Goutoi in southern Skandia. Ptolemy was not apparently known in Anglo-Saxon England, but Alcuin reveals an acquaintance with Jordanes, or at least a notion of the contents of the Getica, early in the ninth century (Alcuin 221, page 365; cf. Ogilvy 1967: 185). Orosius was known to Aldhelm, Bede and Alcuin, though he does not place the Gothic homeland in Scandinavia per se (Ogilvy 1967: 210).

Yet, both Goths and Geats were known at the court of King Alfred in the late ninth century. The West Saxon translator of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum rationalizes the Iuti or Iutae (Jutes) of Bede's Latin-a people whom the historian says occupied Kent, the Isle of Wight and parts of southern Hampshire in the fifth century--as Geatas (Geats), the people of south-central Sweden over whom Beowulf is made king in the poem (Bede 1.15, page 50; Old English Bede 1.12, vol.1: 52). These Geats of Beowulf are conflated with the Jutes of Bede as one of the three very great tribes of ancient Germania from whom the insular gens Anglorum was understood to have derived. Bede says the ancestral homeland of the Iuti is north of Angeln, by which he surely meant the Jutland peninsula, but the translator is happy to leave this point unclarifed. Even though he understands the Iuti as Geatas, the ancient country of this people is also north of Angeln, on the eastern shore of the Kattegat just across from Jutland. It is interesting to note, however, that later in the Old English translation of Bede, when the ethnic origins of the gens Anglorum are no longer at issue, the Iuti of southern England are simply rendered in the usual way, as Eote, Jutes proper, rather than Geats (Bede 4.16, page 382-85; Old English Bede 4.18, vol.2:308-09). This inconsistency is telling: it means that the translator knew that Iuti meant Eote, that is, the old Jutes of the Jutland peninsula and the newer Jutes of southern England. Eote was the normal form of the name of the people living in Hampshire, since a regular development of it in late West Saxon, Yte, is recorded in the Worcester Chronicle'in association with New Forest (Nova Foresta, quae lingua Anglorum Ytene nuncupatur [New Forest, which is called in English 'of the Jutes'] Old English Bede vol 2: 44-45). The point is that the English Jutes had never been called Geatas. That is an ethnic invention or rationalization by Bede's translator which can be traced directly to the milieu of King Alfred. Once the translator moved on to passages deeper in the Historia Ecclesiastica and of less relevance to the origins of the gens Anglorum, he simply translated Iuti in the more familiar way.

But why change from Jutes to Geats at all? Asser writing in 893 provides the key to this particular ethnic manipulation when writing about King Alfred's mother's side of the family. Alfred understood his maternal grandfather Oslac not only to trace his descent from the ancient Jutish kings of Wight, but also to have been of Gothic'ancestry: "Qui Oslac Gothus erat natione; ortus enim erat de Gothis et Iutis" (which Oslac was a Goth by race; for his origin was from Goths and Jutes) (Asser ch. 2). Asser ch. 23 later tells of the interest King Alfred's mother Osburh took in traditional poetry, including presumably that containing stories which reflected well upon her own ancestry . It was Osburh who challenged Alfred and his brothers to memorize poemata Saxonica, vernacular poems, which probably recounted the kind of dynastic traditions which she felt to be of special value. Perhaps Osburh chose this method of cultivating among her West Saxon sons an appreciation for her own distinguished ancestors, that is, her own Jutish/Gothic heritage. There are, in fact, only two Anglo-Saxons whom we know 'by name' valued these old legends in traditional poetry: King Alfred and his mother Osburh.

In addition, some indication of the positive sympathy King Alfred may have felt towards his supposed Gothic ancestry through his mother can be seen in the remarkable characterization of Alaric the Visigoth in the West Saxon translation of Orosius (cf. Harris). As in the original, that king's sacking of Rome in 409 is depicted as divine vengeance upon a sinful people through the instrument of their enemies. But the character of Alaric himself is changed from a mere scourge of God, a viciously heretical Arian no better than the Assyrians of the Old Testament, to se cristena cyning ond se mildesta (the mildest Christian king) who, in direct contradiction of the Orosian account took Rome with so little hostility that he ordered that no one should be slain, and also that nothing at all should be damaged or mistreated which was in the churches, and soon on the third day they left the city of their own will, so that no house there was deliberately burned. (Orosius 6.38) We might compare the characterization of Beowulf as manna mildust (mildest of men) in the penultimate line of the poem. It seems clear that one way or another Goths were popular in Alfred's court and that the Jutes of southern England, the Geats of southern Sweden and the Goths of southern Europe had all come to be considered the people from whom King Alfred traced his descent on his mother's side.

We can first see a desire for Geatish ancestry in Anglo-Saxon England in the late eighth century when the name of the eponymous progenitor of that people first appears as the founder of several, mainly Anglian, royal houses: Lindsey first, then Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Kent (Dumville 1976; Sisam 1953: 308-21). Woden, the euhemerized war-god of the migration, who had traditionally headed the genealogies of these dynasties, was supplanted in priority through several generations by Geat. It is unclear as to why these houses sought at this particular time to fabricate a connection to the ethnic progenitor of this particular tribe: it may very well be due to the association of the Scandinavian Geats with the continental Goths after Jordanes (Leake 1967). A likely source of this new genealogical fashion was the burgeoning Frankish interest in things Gothic, especially the legends of the great Gothic kings of late antiquity and their enemies and allies: Theoderic, Ermanaric, Odoacer, and Attila the Hun. Goths had become fashionable on the Continent under the political impetus of Carolingian imperialism around the turn of the ninth century (Innes 2000). Charlemagne had the statue of Theoderic in Ravenna removed to his own court at Aachen, presumably as an indication of the transfer of the Gothic imperium to the Franks. Roberta Frank writes that it was not until the Franks under Charlemagne had forged a new empire, stretching from [Visigothic] Barcelona and [Ostrogothic] Rome in the south up to Saxony and the frontiers of Denmark in the north, that Goths, Burgundians and Lombards were understood to be of the same people as the Franks. Interest in Gothic language, legend and ancestry was something new and almost certainly a response to the multicultural empire of Charles and his successors (Frank 1991: 93-94).

A whole cast of Gothic characters entered Frankish legend and, unlike the fairly negative portrayal of these historical personages in Latin literature before Jordanes, vernacular tradition revelled in their prowess and courage, beginning with the Hildebrandslied (c. 800), associated with the Anglo-Saxon foundation at Fulda. In a new study of Widsith, John Niles (1999b) notes the superior prestige accorded the Goths by the Old English poet. He argues that the construction of a marriage between an Anglian princess Ealhhild and the Gothic king Eormenric (Ermanaric) is intended to "raise the status of the Angles by marrying them into the Goths, whose stature they thereby approximate" (Niles 1999b: 187).

A Gothic or Geatish ancestry seems thus to have acquired a special appeal for the English dynasties bold enough to claim it. A Geatish hero may in consequence have had a pointed, political significance for the Anglian, Jutish or other members of the poem's audience who may have come to fancy themselves to be of Geatish extraction. King Alfred was the most important such person, as we have seen. Under his direction, the West Saxon royal family, too, had acquired the itch for Geatish ancestors as part of their pedigree and borrowed the Anglian genealogies to trace their own lineage back to Geat (Craig Davis 1996: 51-63). But this is precisely where the Alfredian genealogist found room for improvement over his neighbors and went on to trace the patriline of the kings of Wessex beyond Geat to the founder of the Danish royal family, Scyld Scefing, subordinating all prior pedigrees-including the Geatish one-to this new sequence of distinguished ancestors. By the late ninth century, Danes had supplanted Geats in genealogical prestige, at least at the court of King Alfred.

Creative Ethnicity

Sarah Foot (1996) has gathered compelling evidence for the invention, or special new use, of the term Angelcynn in the later ninth century by King Alfred to represent his sense of a common identity among speakers of Englisc, "the language that we can all understand" (Prose Preface to Gregory's Cura Pastoralis; cf. Kathleen Davis 1998). Alfred Smyth (1998) has shown that this concept had deep cultural roots, however, and found precedent of course in Bede's eighth-century idea of a gens Anglorum which was ethnically and linguistically distinct from the British, Scottish, and Pictish peoples of Britain. As an Anglian Northumbrian Bede had coopted the other Germanic ethnicities he recognized in the island-Saxon, Jutish and probably others he does not even mention-to the concept of a single gens Anglorum or nation of Angles designated by God for the blessings of national salvation (cf. Harris 1997: 103). Bede authorizes his ethnogenesis by invoking one of the highest sources of spiritual authority available to him. The gens Anglorum is a nation because the holy Pope Gregory perceived it so to be in that slave-market in Rome. Bede even troubles to retail the Pope's putative comments on the physical markers of an idealized Anglian ethnicity: candidus corpus (white skin), venustus vultus (regular features), lucidus vultus (bright countenance), capillorum forma egregia (extremely beautiful [presumably fair] hair) (Bede 2.1). The nation of Angles for Bede was more than a convenient term of ecclesiastical organization; it was a physical ethnicity, a community of blood and language, despite its current political divisions.

Alfred, following Bede and perhaps some shrewd political instincts of his own, uses this concept of Anglian nationhood for his own purposes. Instead of coopting the Anglian ethnicity of his new subjects in western Mercia into a concept of "Saxonkind" (Foot 1996: 25), King Alfred chose instead to prioritize the Anglian component of the new national polity he hoped to create in 886 when the Mercian king Æthelred formally submitted to him. Æthelred was given charge of the city of London as part of his new western Mercian ealdordom and the king's own daughter Æthelflæd as wife. For himself Alfred invented a new royal style calculated to win over his Anglian subjects and demonstrate their valued inclusion in the new kingdom. He called himself rex Angul-Saxonum (king of the Anglo-Saxons) which title replaces the earlier, more limited ethnic styles of the West Saxon kings (rex Saxonum, etc.). Alfred was already king of the Saxons through ancient pedigree; it was his Anglian subjects that he had to worry about. In short, King Alfred's political ambitions, and those of his son and grandsons, produced a cultural moment in which a number of traditions, from various sources, could be collected, rationalized and coordinated into a more comprehensive historical framework--a new tradition of the past--which could then be used in turn to enhance the agenda of the royal family.

The Beowulf poet, too, reconfigures his different resources of legendary tradition in order to suggest a common noble heritage of which all his English-speaking auditors can feel proud, including a positive reference to the ancient Offa of Angeln (lines 1944-62). This allusion can be understood as a compliment to members of the Mercian royal family, whose great King Offa II had ruled during the latter half of the eighth century and whose dynasty was absorbed into that of Wessex in the ninth. King Alfred was married to a Mercian noblewoman descended from this line. The "half-Danish" hero Hengest of the Finnsburh lay (lines 1063-1159a) is probably to be identified with the Jutish Hengist whom Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle say first founded the kingdom of Kent. Sam Newton (1993: 105-131) has argued that the old royal family of East Anglia, the Wuffingas, were probably understood to be descended from the Wylfingas of Beowulf. The marriage between the Scylding Hrothgar and the Wylfing Wealhtheow in the poem would thus have been felt to imply an ancient affinity between the East Angles and the Danes who conquered them in the ninth century, as well as subordinating both groups, positively, to the direct and active heirs of the ancient Scylding lineage, the West Saxon kings.

The Beowulf poet, then, along with King Alfred, his biographer Asser, the West Saxon genealogist, the translator of Bede, and the translator of Orosius can all be seen as participants in what John Niles (1999: 137 and 140) calls a process of "creative ethnicity". There is something for everyone in this poem: 1) from whatever kingdom or former kingdom--Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex, or Kent; and 2) from whatever ethnic extraction--Saxon, Anglian, Jutish, or Danish. All English-speaking auditors of the poem could look back to a common noble heritage. Yet, they would have still found there some sharp ethnic distinctions as well, differences in status which were still felt to obtain within this collective affinity. The Beowulf poet's construction of a good Geatish hero helping a good Danish king nicely formulates the loyal support expected by kings who could claim a direct patriline back to the Scylding monarchs of ancient Denmark. The hero Beowulf is a good Geat-very helpful, as he should be.

The ethnic world of Beowulf seems to derive from the pro-Scylding perspective of Danish legend. Rather than reflecting the common stock of Germanic tradition, or even another ethnic variation of that tradition--insular Anglian, Saxon or Jutish, or continental Saxon, Frankish, Burgundian, Langobardic, or Gothic-the poem represents fairly consistently a pro-Danish view of the relations which obtained between these brave peoples in ancient times. Geats, Swedes, Wylfings, Wendels, Heathobards, Frisians, Jutes, and Franks are all included in so far as they are relevant to the fortunes of the Danish nation. R. T. Farrell (1972) has shown that there is no particularly Geatish bias to this poem that has not been read into it by later scholars. The Geats are good to the extent that a prince of their royal house helps out a Scylding monarch in his time of need, help delivered in appropriate repayment for past kindnesses. The Swedish king Onela, an enemy of the Geatish hero, is praised in the highest terms, with the emphatic litotes reserved for Scyld Scefing himself (line 2390). Onela was a good king: he was married to a Scylding princess. The other peoples mentioned in the poem are praised or criticized depending on their relations with the Scylding monarchs or their antecedents: Swedes and Wylfings, joined to the Scyldings by marriage alliance, are good; Wendels who serve the Scyldings are good. Heathobards and Frisians, who resist or renege on the best efforts of the Scyldings to bind them in friendship through marriage, are treacherous; Jutes who harbor, but then kill, the pre-Scylding Danish tyrant Heremod are bad, perhaps on both counts; Franks, the traditional enemies of the Danes to the south, are also bad. Even the death of Hygelac at the hands of the Franks is made a Geatish rather than a Danish defeat. The poet, or the tradition he is using, has put off this embarrassment on a neighboring, now obsolescent people, though the poet allows his pro-Danish hero personally to redeem himself by avenging his lord and recovering thirty enemy mailshirts in compensation.

In summary, it seems as if the Danes whom Alfred defeated had an impressive tradition of heroic legend about the founders of their royal family which they were clearly glad to share and which the king was clearly glad to borrow. He adapted the Scylding legend to promote the political ambitions of the West Saxon monarchy. Beowulf, too, represents the influx of a new Danish tradition-or a fresh Danish take on an older tradition-into the forms of traditional verse in Old English. The poem creates a new sense of positive relationship between the various ancestor-peoples of an English-speaking audience, a relationship calculated to appeal especially to those auditors who considered themselves to be of mixed ancestry, like the Geatish-Danish-Saxon King Alfred himself, or his half-Anglian offspring. In answer to question five, then, on a time and place when the poem's ethnic manipulations would have made most sense to an Anglo-Saxon audience, we can narrow our search to within a generation or two, perhaps even to within a decade: the 890s at the court of King Alfred.


Moral Ethnicity


Despite the bold ethnic inventions promulgated by Bede, Bede's West Saxon translator, Asser, and the West Saxon genealogist, Beowulf remains the single most ambitious attempt we have on record to reimagine the common past of an ethnically diverse English-speaking audience. It is not surprising that the poet should seek in that past both an ideal national character and a precedent for the national monarchy to which his own kings aspired. This kind of anachronism is the stuff of traditional epics and foundation legends everywhere. And as with other poetic ethnogeneses, we see more than an attempt at political legitimization or ethnic assimilation in the poem. There is an even larger effort at cultural assimilation, where various secular legends in the vernacular are more conscientiously and systematically coordinated with learned traditions of sacred history. In fact, the Book of Genesis supplied the Beowulf poet with an idea for his most fundamental ethnogenesis of all.

We already see the beginnings of this process in the royal genealogies of Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Scylding kings are given a sequence of heroic forebears to Noah, in turn giving the West Saxon royal family a biblical ancestry which can be traced back to the creation of the human race on earth. In Beowulf a fen-troll of native folklore is rationalized as a descendent of Cain and invested with a diabolical hatred of the efforts of the Christian God to establish national monarchy among the ancestors of the poem's audience. By introducing a wicked race of giants descended from mankind's first murderer in Genesis, the Beowulf poet constructs an even more positive 'moral' ethnicity for his various hero-peoples in the poem. These monsters are enemies of all good people, all regular human beings. Grendel and his mother are also humans, of course, but unusually large, hostile, violent, and recalcitrant ones. They are rebels against divine and human kingship, and hate with special ferocity the happy sounds of peaceful celebration ringing among former enemies in the king's hall:

Grendel strove
For a time against Hrothgar, carried out hateful crimes,
Wickedness and feud for many a season,
Constant enmity; he wanted no sibb (peace, kinship)
With anyone of the Danish host,
Would not lift his mortal hatred, settle with payment . (lines 151b-156)

I have argued elsewhere that, in addition to their inspiration by powers of spiritual darkness, Grendel and his mother are associated more specifically with the antimonarchical forces of tribal violence and endemic blood-feud (Davis 1996: 89-134). They personify the centrifugal political forces which the Scylding monarchy sought to overcome in the opening of the poem, but which continue to haunt, like evil revenants, its continued efforts at national kingship.

Here, however, I am more interested in the role the monsters play in forming our sense of the Danish nation and its moral quality. The presence of an evil Caines cyn (race of Cain, line 107), which is categorically hostile to the Danish sibb, implicitly constructs that nation as part of an opposing kindred, a race which can trace its ancestry back to the other good brother, Seth, the one whom God gave Adam as a replacement for the slain Abel (Genesis 4.25). The poet of the Old English Genesis, too, constructs a sharp divergence between the mægburg Caines (race of Cain, line 1066a) and that of Seth (line 1132a). This is the ethnic distinction of real importance to the Christian poet of Beowulf. The demonstrated descent of the West Saxon royal family from the holy line of Seth was an even more potent technique of political cooption than its claimed connection to Scyld Scefing. In this way the West Saxon kings not only descend from the founder of the Danish royal line, they are further descended through Sceaf and Noah from the line of antediluvian patriarchs fathered by Seth. Like the ancient Israelites, the descendents of this holy line could fall into sin, ignorance and idolatry (lines 175-88). But however obscured the Danes' knowledge of their true Creator in Beowulf, the deepest ethnic thrust of the poem is a moral one. Beowulf joins the Danes and their subjects and allies-even, one might argue, their human enemies, like the Heathobards--into a kind of ethnicity of salvageable heroes intended by God for the blessings of national kingship, the temporal equivalent of spiritual salvation. The primal ethnic dichotomy in the poem is not finally between Dane and Heathobard or Geat and Swede, but between royalist and renegade, human and monster, Sethite and Cainite. The essential political impulses of Grendel and his mother-their violent rejection of national kingship and of legal composition for injuries-are thus radically dehumanized by the poet, or as we would say nowadays, demonized. The kind of people who reject the king and his laws are monsters.

Moving beyond more traditional techniques of national consciousness-building, then, in which the poet reconfigures the ethnic sympathies of his audience by manipulating relations between the hero-peoples of the past, the Beowulf poet creates a superior moral solidarity among those auditors who share the political values of Hrothgar and Beowulf. Just as for the apostle Paul, "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free" (Cor. 3.11), so in Beowulf there is neither Geat nor Dane when it comes to opposing evil monsters who embody values destructive of national kingship. As Saxon, Danish, Anglian or Jutish auditors of the poem, we are united by the sympathetic relations which obtained among our noble ancestors in old times. But as Christian Anglo-Saxons we are even more deeply united by our desire to belong to the moral family of God's people who loyally support the king He has placed over us. The Beowulf poet may indeed hope to encourage solidarity of blood in the minds of his audience; but what he really cares about is a polity of pro-royal virtue that he hopes to inspire in their hearts.

Redundant Ethnogenesis

This conclusion may bring with it the answer to the seventh question posed above. Why did the poem's tribal ethnogenesis fail to persuade? Why did its reconstruction of the past of its audience simply not achieve broad cultural authority? If Beowulf is part of the project of national consciousness-building undertaken by the West Saxon royal family in late ninth- and tenth-century England, why did the poem itself fall so quickly into cultural obscurity and desuetude? When the surviving MS of Beowulf was copied around the end of the tenth century, the poem had clearly not been received as a work of the cultural standing of comparable early epics, poems which formulate a broader sense of national mission, dynastic legitimacy, collective identity, or folk character (e.g., the Aeneid, the Mahabharata, the Shah Nama, Gilgamesh, the Homeric poems, or the Kalevala). Nor was Beowulf taken as a semi-official foundation legend like those recorded by Latin authors of several of the national groups formed during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages on the Continent (Franks, Goths, Lombards, Burgundians, etc.). Instead, Beowulf appears as a piece of antiquarian monastic learning, collected with other items of exotic interest like the life of the dog-headed St. Christopher, the Wonders of the East and the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle.

Two related factors may help to explain the failure of Beowulf to establish itself as an effective contribution to the English nation's sense of itself in the tenth century. First of all, that task had already been largely accomplished through instruments of much greater prestige, influence and even antiquity than the poet's latter-day reconstruction of vernacular legendary traditions. Patrick Wormald (1994) has argued that a biblical model of national election, first articulated by Gregory and Bede, was what truly distinguished English attempts at state formation from those of their continental counterparts. In fact, we have already seen that the Beowulf poet himself superimposes some of the moral ethnogenesis of the Bible upon his vision of the relations that obtained among his nation's ancestors. Secondly, legendary traditions succeed or fail depending not only upon the political success of their patrons, but also upon their own cultural sensitivity, their capacity to incorporate the value system, world-view and pattern of events embodied in narratives of superior cultural prestige like the Bible (Craig Davis 1996). Ethnic or dynastic legends first formed under a late pagan narrative regime proved particularly difficult to adapt to Christian expectations of eventuality, at least in the deep structure of their plots. The repeated pattern of desperate heroic demise in Beowulf is unrelieved by the promise of future national glory as in the Aeneid or even by the clear hope of a personal redemption as in the Battle of Maldon. Beowulf concludes with intimations not of ethnogenesis, but of genocide. Like the race whose treasure rusts in the dragon's lair, the hero's people is no more.

So, even though the Old English poet of Beowulf projects an ideal of multiethnic national monarchy upon the legendary peoples of his poem-an ideal which makes it more likely than not that he composed it during the time when such a government was first being achieved in Anglo-Saxon England-his attempt was hampered by the grim fatalism which haunted traditional narratives about these peoples. The deep structure of these legends, the dark theory of history implied in their plots, militated against the providential paradigms which inform the stoic triumphalism of the Roman ethnogenesis in Virgil or the redemptive suffering of God's chosen people in the Bible. In spite of the Beowulf poet's ethnic inclusiveness, then, its creator could not wrest the narratives of his repertoire to a deeply satisfying consistency with a Gregorian and Bedan, that is to say, a biblical and providential theory of national history. The poetic ethnogenesis attempted in Beowulf failed to command serious and sustained respect not because it was explicitly rejected, nor even because it was rendered obsolete by subsequent political developments, like the Norman Conquest (pace, most recently, John Hill 2000: 142). The Beowulf poet's attempt to inspire a sense of common ethnic identity in his audience simply proved superfluous, unnecessary to the task of national consciousness-building which was already being accomplished by much more effective means.




 Return to Table of Contents


  Return to homepage
Copyright © Craig R. Davis, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

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