Familial and Marital Relationships in Beowulf
Two Works Cited To the reader of Old English Beowulf the familial and marital relationships are not so very obvious, especially when one is concentrating all of one’s mental energies on translating the thousand-year-old vocabulary of the poem. The following essay is intended to clarify those relationships
while proceeding sequentially through the poem.
First of all, Scyld Scefing, historic king of the Danes (Scyldings), had a son Beow(ulf) to occupy the throne: “Then in the strongholds [Beow] the Scylding was king of all Denmark, beloved by his people” (53-55). Then [Beow] “had a son in his turn, Healfdene the great, who, while he lived, aged, war-fierce, ruled lordly Scyldings” (56-58). Healfdene’s progeny were numerous: “From Healfdene are numbered four children in all; from the leader of armies they woke to the world, Heorogar, Hrothgar, and Halga the good; it is told that [Yrse was Onela's] queen”(59-62). Heorogar fathered Heoroweard; Halga fathered Hrothulf who lived with Hrothgar (“the mighty minded ones, Hrothgar and Hrothulf” (1016-17). Implied in this and in the following lines is the hint that Hrothulf will slay Hrothgar’s oldest son, Hrethic, and take the throne: “Wealhtheow came forth, glistening in gold, to greet the good pair, uncle and nephew[Hrothulf]; their peace was still firm, each true to the other” (1162-5) (Chickering 280). Hrothgar’s other two children were Hrothmund and Freawaru (“I heard the men give her the name Freawaru when she passed to those heroes the gem-studded cup” (2022-23).
The hero Beowulf
, upon arriving in Denmark with his band of Geats, states his geneology: “My own father was well known abroad, a noble battle-leader, Ecgtheow by name” (262-3). “Hrethel of the Geats gave him a wife, his only daughter [no name stated]“ (374-5). Since Hrethel was also father of Hygelac (“the giver of treasures, Hygelac, Hrethel’s son”) (1922-23), this means that King Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle: “With war-bold Hygelac his nephew kept faith” (2169-70). Beowulf himself had no children:
“Such gifts as are the hero’s hard reward …
These things he stowed beneath his parting sail,
And wept that he could share them with no son.
He died in his own country a kinless king” (Wilbur 67).
After Beowulf has ripped the arm and shoulder off of Grendel, the Danes tell the story of the Danish hero of the past, “famous Sigemund,” and “Fitela, always beside him,” (except when he fought the treasure-dragon singlehandedly). “Together they killed a whole tribe of giants with their two swords” (883-4). Fitela was the nephew of Sigemund: “to speak of such things, uncle to nephew” (880-81).
After taking care of Grendel and Mother, Beowulf returns to Geatland and at the welcoming ceremony he tells of future troubles for Hrothgar from Ingeld, prince of the Heathobeardan. Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru “has been promised, young, gold-laden, to the gracious Ingeld, son of King Froda” (2024-25). King Froda had been killed in battle by the Danes, and revenge for this is the motive: “once deadly hate wells up in Ingeld; in that hot passion his love for the peace-weaver, his wife, will cool. So I count it little, the Heathobards’ loyalty” (2064-67).
The king of the Geats, Hygelac, has Hygd, Haereth’s daughter, for his wife: “and Hygd very young, wise, and courteous, although few winters Haereth’s daughter as yet had passed within that stronghold” (1926-29). They have a son, Heardred: “when Hygelac had fallen and swords cut down Heardred his son” (2201-02). Hygelac and Hygd also have an unnamed daughter who marries Eofor; he is mentioned in the conflict with the Swedes: “the third brother brought full vengeance back to the slayer with keen edges, once Ongentheow sought out Eofor” (2485-87).
The feud between the Swedes (Scylfings) and Swedish king began when Heardred, king of the Geats, accepted the rebellious “Ohthere’s sons,” Eanmund and Eadgils, who “had rebelled against Onela” (2381). Ongentheow was Ohthere’s father, and father of Onela, the one who later avenged the misdeed: “and Ongentheow’s son turned about once Heardred lay dead, returned to his home” (2387-88).
As Beowulf is approaching the fire-dragon’s lair, he reflects on his family’s history, how he had grown up in King Hrethel’s household along with the king’s own sons: “In no way was I, a man of his stronghold, more hateful to him than his own sons, Herebeald, Haethcyn, or Hygelac my lord” (2432-34). Haethcyn accidentally killed “his brother [Herebeald]… with an arrow from his bow” (2437-38), causing the father’s death through grief.
Perhaps this essay will elucidate some vague familial
and marital realtionships for the new student of Beowulf, who is grappling with somany trranslation problems from the Old English that he may find it difficult to discern all the intricate relationships.
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Wilbur, Richard. “Beowulf.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.