Summary and Analysis
Beowulf and his men return to their ship and set sail for Geatland. The poet interrupts his report on Beowulf's return to discuss the Geats' Queen Hygd and the qualities of a virtuous queen as contrasted to a wicked ruler like Queen Modthrytho. After this interlude, the narrator returns to Beowulf's arrival at King Hygelac's splendid hall. Hygd passes among the thanes serving mead, reminiscent of Wealhtheow's admirable hospitality at Heorot. Hygelac asks about Beowulf's journey, and the young champion recounts his visit to the Scyldings, digressing to consider Hrothgar's attempt to make peace with the Heathobards.
Returning to his own story, Beowulf briefly reports on his victory over Grendel, the surprise attack by Grendel's mother, and his triumph at the cave beneath the mere. Beowulf presents various treasures to Hygelac and Hygd, most notably presenting the queen with the magnificent gold necklace that Wealhtheow gave him. Hygelac rewards Beowulf with a rare heirloom, a sword covered with gold. He also honors the young warrior with "lands, seven thousand hides, / a hall, and gift-throne" (2195-96). Beowulf is now a lord of the realm, but it is clear that he still owes his allegiance to Hygelac.
After Hrothgar's sermon, everything that Beowulf does must be thought of, at least in passing, within the context of the wise old king's message. As his visit to the Scyldings runs full cycle and Beowulf returns to his ship with his men, he continues to comport himself with grace and generosity. Exceeding what is expected, the Geat champion presents the Dane ship-guard with a sword so beautifully decorated in gold that the retainer will later display it proudly to his fellows at Heorot.
Modern readers may wonder why the Beowulf poet interrupts his narrative, just as the hero is setting foot on his homeland, to indulge in the elaborate contrast between Geatland's Queen Hygd and the murderous Queen Modthrytho. When the scop performed the story of Finnsburh at Heorot (1063 ff.), the interlude was a logical extension of the dramatic situation, a celebration in honor of Beowulf at which such a story might well be told. Here, the action simply stops. Beowulf has just arrived home. He is about to receive his welcome. It is a moment of some emotion and dramatic intensity. So the poet interrupts to give us a little lesson on the qualities of a proper queen. Hygd is a proper queen — generous, courteous and wise beyond her years. There is considerable scholarship on who she and Modthrytho might have been and why the poet makes so much of them. For our purposes, perhaps it is enough that they are simply what they appear to be — a young but effective queen who serves her king and her people well, on the one hand; and, on the other, a treacherous example of power gone wrong.
In her excessive pride and abusive treatment of subjects, Modthrytho reminds us of evil King Heremod. She even went so far as to have men executed for the offense of looking into her eyes. As beautiful and strong as she was, she was no "peace-weaver" (2017) as is Wealhtheow, for example. The poet then tells of Modthrytho's conversion through her marriage to Offa, and we get the idea that most of the Beowulf audience already knows this story, as it knows the rest of the poet's allusions and probably the story of Beowulf itself. Given that, the interlude may have been less of an intrusion and more of a reminder of a familiar character to the scop's audience. Still, a modern reader might be forgiven if the example still seems intrusive. At any rate, the poet does finally move on to Beowulf's arrival at Hygelac's court.
Propriety is the guideline at the great hall of the Geats. Hygd, like Wealhtheow, is the perfect hostess — courteous, friendly, but courtly — as she walks among the retainers and offers mead. Hygelac formally inquires about Beowulf's trip, a venture that had concerned him because of the extreme danger involved. Beowulf is almost nonchalant in his response. He refers to the fight with Grendel as "dancing in the hall" (2003) and then interrupts his own story to consider Hrothgar's hopes for peace with the Heathobards (literally the "War-Beards"). Hrothgar has promised to give his daughter, Freawaru, to Ingeld of the Heathobards in one of those marriages designed to quell a feud. Beowulf, however, is skeptical of the outcome and imagines a scenario that causes the resumption of the old feud. In an elaborate form of dramatic irony extending beyond the current epic, Beowulf's early audience almost certainly had known this story as well and that peace will not last despite the marriage. The audience thus confirms Beowulf's prescience.
Then Beowulf gives an uninspired account of his victories. The reader may wonder at the purpose of this account; even Beowulf admits that the story is "scarcely a secret to much of mankind" (2001) by the time he arrives at Hygelac's court. Although it fits dramatically, the reader should remember that the Beowulf epic probably was performed over the course of two or more nights. Recounting the first two victories refreshes the audience's memory and prepares it for the third major battle and the conclusion of the poem.
The theme of generosity is tied to a retainer's relationship with his king and dominates the remainder of this section. Generosity is symbolic politically and socially in Beowulf's world, significant in ways that transcend modern custom. A thane (or retainer) owes his lord first choice of treasure gained in battle. For his part, the ruler rewards the warrior with payments of gold or other values, including land, commensurate to the thane's achievements and value to his lord. Upon his return from Heorot, Beowulf reports on the Scyldings' King Hrothgar's generosity and presents Hygelac with the treasures that the young champion has earned, including "the boar's-head standard, / high-crowned helmet, great iron shirt, / [and] ornamented war-sword" (2152-2154). Hrothgar would expect the young warrior to do this.
To enhance value, Beowulf informs Hygelac of the history of the gifts. Nor does he slight Queen Hygd, honoring her with the gold necklace as well as three horses with gold saddles. This generosity demonstrates respect and loyalty. In return, Hygelac presents Beowulf with an extremely valuable gold sword that once belonged to King Hrethel; he makes Beowulf a lord, officially granting him land, his own great hall, and a "gift-throne" (2196). We are told that Hygelac and Beowulf each inherited land, as well, but that Hygelac is the higher in rank and head of the kingdom.
As he completes this section on Beowulf's youth, the poet seems to want to assure us that Beowulf does follow the tenets of Hrothgar's sermon (2177 ff.). Beowulf becomes renowned not only for his courage and strength but also for his good deeds and prudence. Never does he kill "comrades in drink" (2180), an important virtue in the comitatus. The brief reference to Beowulf's clumsy youth probably is left over from folk origins; there are many folk examples of inept, awkward, apparently lazy, or cowardly adolescents who grow into impressive adults.
The poet is finished with Beowulf's youth and turns to the waning years of the great man's life. As he does, the reader will do well to remember the message of Hrothgar's sermon and hope that Beowulf does, too.
sea-wind's cloak the ship's mast.
crest-glider a kenning for ship.
Haereth Hygd's father.
Modthrytho an example of a disreputable ruler, possibly based on a fourth-century queen.
kinsman of Hemming here, a reference to Offa.
garrote a metal collar used for execution by strangulation or breaking the neck.
Offa king of the European (not English) Angles.
Eomer son of Offa.
Garmund Offa's father.
Ongentheow a Swedish king.
striplings adolescents, young warriors.
Ingeld a prince of the Heathobards. He will later lead a raid on Heorot and burn it before being routed.
Froda king of the Heathobards, father of Ingeld.
Withergyld a Heathobard warrior.
Hondscio literally, "hand-shoe" or glove. A Geat warrior, he was Grendel's first target the night that Beowulf killed the ogre.
chant-wood a kenning for the scop's harp, with which he accompanied himself as he sang or chanted a story-song.
Heorogar brother of Hrothgar.
Heoroweard son of Heorogar.
Ecgtheow Beowulf's father.
Hrethel Hygelac's father.