Beowulf and his men return to the magnificent hall of King Hygelac and to Queen Hygd, who is beautiful and wise, though very young. The narrator tells the story of the legendary Queen Modthryth, who “perpetrated terrible wrongs” against her subjects, torturing and even killing many innocent people who she imagined were offending her. Modthryth’s behavior improved, we are told, once she was married to the great king of the Angles, Offa.
Beowulf and his men approach the hall, where the Geats, who have heard that their hero has returned, are preparing for his arrival. Hygelac extends a formal greeting while Hygd pours mead for the warriors. Hygelac asks Beowulf how he fared in the land of Hrothgar, recalling that he had known that Beowulf’s task would be a fearsome one and that he had advised Beowulf not to face such a dangerous foe.
Beowulf begins his tale by describing the courteous treatment that he received from Hrothgar and Wealhtheow. He then prophesies an unhappy outcome to the peace-weaving engagement of Freawaru, Hrothgar’s daughter, to Ingeld the Heathobard. He predicts that the sight of the ancestral possessions of each worn by the kin of the other (the result of many years of warring and plundering) will cause memories of the deep and lengthy feud between the Danes and the Heathobards to surface, so that they will not be able to keep themselves from continuing to fight.
Beowulf then tells the story of his encounter with Grendel. He particularly emphasizes the monster’s ferocity and the rewards that he received from Hrothgar. He relates the battle with Grendel’s mother as well. He then presents his king with a large part of the treasure given to him by Hrothgar, including suits of armor and four of the great horses. He gives Hygd a priceless necklace—the torque given him by Wealhtheow—and three horses. Beowulf is praised throughout Geatland for his valorous deeds and courteousness. Hygelac gives him a great deal of treasure and land of his own to rule.
In time, Hygelac is killed in battle with the Shylfings, and the kingdom falls to Beowulf. For fifty years he rules the Geats, becoming a great and wise king.
This transitional section returns Beowulf to his homeland and introduces us briefly to his king and queen, Hygelac and Hygd. Like Wealhtheow in Denmark, Hygd is presented as a positive example of proper behavior in women—she is gracious in bearing and manner, attentive to the men around her, and loyal to her husband and lord. In order to highlight these positive qualities, the poet positions the legendarily wicked Queen Modthryth as Hygd’s foil (a character whose traits contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character). Beowulf is set in a highly male-dominated world—perhaps one even more male-dominated than that of Homer’s Iliad—governed by violence, honor, and doom. In this culture, women are seen as marriageable objects, links between warring tribes to achieve peace (Wealhtheow is referred to as “peace-pledge between nations” ).
Beowulf is clearly skeptical about the power of marriage to heal the anger and hatred generated between blood enemies. His dire predictions about the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter, Freawaru, to an enemy clansman, Heathobard, reveal his belief that the desire for vengeance will always overcome the peace that intermarriage attempts to establish. The events of the Finnsburg episode, in which the marriage-tie was quickly violated and the bride returned to her kinsmen, seem to validate this sentiment. In any case, this detail about the engagement of Hrothgar’s daughter and its political context is one of several new elements that Beowulf’s retelling introduces, keeping the story from becoming too repetitive.
Beowulf’s pessimistic speculations about this union add to the discourse on treasure that has been running throughout the poem. His argument that some ancestral item will catch a family member’s eye and renew the feud seems valid—we have seen that many items of treasure, such as the various swords and the necklace that Wealhtheow gives Beowulf, are in fact heirlooms, loaded with symbolic and memorial significance. Thus, Freawaru, as a peace-pledge, is pitted against treasure, which has the potential to rekindle bad memories and feuds.
In his retelling of his experiences in Denmark, Beowulf emphasizes the treasure that he has won as much as the poet does in his narration of the events. Throughout Beowulf, a tension manifests itself between the pagan regard for treasure as a symbol of personal valor and the Christian conception of treasure as a symbol of sinful greed. As we have seen, treasure is directly related to success in war and an accumulation of treasure signifies an accumulation of honor. Most important, the treasure must continue to be redistributed. In this sense, Hrothgar is a good king because he is such a generous “ring-giver” and Beowulf a good retainer because he gives Hygelac and Hygd more than half of his rewards. The poem’s Christian undertones, however, focus on earthly possessions as unimportant. For example, after Beowulf slays Grendel’s mother, Hrothgar advises Beowulf to “[c]hoose . . . the better part, / eternal rewards,” warning him, essentially, not to rest on the laurels of his conquests (1759–1760).
This section also further develops the image of the mead-hall as an important element in Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Hygelac’s hall in Geatland proves just as magnificent and just as important a place of sanctuary and reward in a world where danger lurks on every horizon as Heorot, the great hall of the Danes. In the mead-hall, boasts can be made, jokes can be exchanged, and the idea of doom can be postponed. It is in the mead-hall that warriors can revel in the glory and the reputations that they risk such peril to win.
The ceremonies in Hygelac’s hall seem to reflect a growing intimacy between Beowulf and the king, his uncle, as well as a growing respect for a warrior who had previously been undervalued, as we now learn for the first time: “[Beowulf] had been poorly regarded / for a long time” (2183–2184). Thus, the retelling in the mead-hall of Beowulf’s heroic deeds—a retelling that may seem anticlimactic to many readers—is an important political moment for Beowulf and an important step in his advancement from warrior to ruler.
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