The tale of Beowulf begins and ends with the funeral of great kings. The funerals represented in this tale are decorated with rites that derive from the cultural traditions of the kings being laid to rest. Scyld Scefing is entombed within a barge decorated with signs of his accomplishments, while Beowulf is enshrined within a barrow filled with relics of his rule.
Yet within these traditional burials one can find traces of the men themselves as each makes requests that lead to the distinctiveness of their burials. This allows the funerals to become particularly distinctive as the author makes use of the elements, such as earth, fire, and water (Smith). Each funeral defines the symbolic ideas of motion versus grounded-ness represented in the lives of these two men, and the method in which each is carried out emphasizes the opposite ways in which they entered their lands and mounted their thrones.
The funerals of both men are representative of their personalities as shown through their deeds and the ways in which they lived their lives. Though both men were valiant warriors and kings, their lives as youths and kings appear to be very different. The movement characteristic of Scyld Scefing’s funeral represents a continuation of the boldness and vigor with which he sailed through life.
His life was continually one of forward motion from low to high estate, and he does not cease this motion in his death. The poem continues, “Forth he fared at the fated moment, sturdy Scyld to the shelter of God” (lines 26-27). His clansmen and subjects seem determined that their king should keep moving though he has been cut off from life, as they immediately “bore him over to ocean’s billow” (line 28).
He is placed on a barge that is taken by the floods to an even higher and more celebrated place, and the words used by the author to describe this continue this motif of motion to an even higher estate. Such words and phrases as “outbound” highlight this motion, and as “No man is able to say in sooth who harbored that freight,” his burial demonstrates that his resting place could mean yet another promotion for this king who had risen from foundling to royalty.
The funeral given Beowulf differs greatly from that granted Scyld Scefing. Beowulf’s rites represent that of a more grounded king who had been home grown and bred specifically to become royalty. His funeral demonstrates no great motion, as his lineage is anchored and steeped in royalty.
The rites take place within the land of his birth, and his tomb is laid upon a foundation of the soil upon which his ancestors walked. The writer establishes this in his recounting of the events: “They fashioned for him the folk of Geats firm on the earth a funeral-pile” (line 2821). The firmness with which this tomb is established upon the earth symbolizes the strength of Beowulf’s roots within his homeland. Around this is erected a wall, and this further strengthen’s Beowulf’s position as a foundational leader of his land.
The monuments given to house this leader are built into the ground of the kingdom and given foundations akin to the roots that one finds in Beowulf’s lineage. His burial is akin to burying treasure (gold and precious stones), “trusting the ground with treasures of earls, gold in the earth” (2850), and this is in essence an act of giving back to the earth the treasure it has afforded.
The funerals of Scefing and Beowulf also differ in the elements that attend each. According to critic George Clark in his essay “Beowulf’s Armor, ” “Each funeral places the final offering of arms and armor and treasure in the context of one of the elements, water, fire, or earth” (429). While water is the dominant element in Scefing’s funeral, fire is used to herald the burial of Beowulf.
The significance of the water for Scefing derives mainly from his history, as he was borne to the Danes on a small vessel as an abandoned infant. The water represents the deep, the void from which the king came and to which he is allowed to return. The story comes full circle for this king, as he is again borne away at the end of his life, given back to the water that offered him to the Danes.
This is done on purpose by his clansmen, and highlighted by the narrator who writes, “No less these loaded the lordly gifts, thanes’ huge treasure, than those had done who in former time forth had sent him sole on the seas, a suckling child” (lines 43-46). He is again sent by himself “on the seas” into the unknown belly of the flood which had offered him up as a child.
The fire for Beowulf is the opposite of this water, and this might also be seen as a reference to difference in his birth and youth. However, the narrative continues, “Wood-smoke rose black over blaze, and blent was the roar of flame with weeping (the wind was still),
till the fire had broken the frame of bones” (2827-30). While the water takes Scefing away from the land, Beowulf’s fire offers up incense that rises and, as the ashes fall, remains forever mingled with the soil in the land of his birth.
The narrator mentions that the wind was still, emphasizing the idea that no part of Beowulf’s burnt body or ashes is allowed to fly beyond the land of his birth and rule. He utterly belongs to this land, and the roaring of the fire becomes a dirge that rises and mingles with the sound of his subjects’ weeping. Yet the reader gets the feeling that Beowulf is not lost to his people. This fire is allowed to burn beyond Beowulf’s bones, consuming his flesh and, as “the smoke was by the sky devoured” (2838), the fire sends up Beowulf’s essence as a protection and covering for his land and people.
Though the lives of Scefing and Beowulf were similar in many ways, they also differed in some very significant areas that have to do with how they came to be king. While Scefing begins life as a foundling and sustains upward motion that raises him to the estate of ruler, Beowulf is born a prince whose roots are grounded in his homeland. The elements used to represent these two men are also representative of their origins. Water is used to symbolize the rootless Scefing, while fire and earth symbolize Beowulf’s grounded ancestry. Both men are treasured by their people, yet allowed to fulfill their destinies by drifting or remaining rooted as has been their custom.
Beowulf. The Harvard Classics, Volume 49. Frances B. Grummere (Trans.) 1910. P.F. Collier & Son, 1993.
Clark, George. “Beowulf’s Armor.” ELH. Vol. 32. No. 4. Dec. 1965. pp. 409-441.
Smith, Jennifer. “Paradise Lost and Beowulf: The Christian/Pagan Hybrids of the Epic Tradition.” Department of English. Long Beach: California State University. http://www.csulb.edu/~jsmith10/miltbeow.htm