Geats In Beowulf
In the epic example of Anglo-Saxon literature, the poem “Beowulf”, the protagonist of the story, the aforementioned Beowulf is told to be a Geat. The historians aren’t sure about the origins of the Geats, their culture, and even appearance – literally everything is vague. Some historians associate Geats with much better studied Gauts, but it is also only a theory. The point most historians agree with is that it was the seafaring tribe, not very big and influential, that inhabited the south of Sweden. The poem confirms the theory that soon after the events of “Beowulf” the whole tribe was conquered and completely erased from history. Possibly, Geats are the “Danes”, the invaders mentioned by Gregory of Tours, recording the memories about their attack against the Franks in 520. The name of the leader of the attack is Chlochilaicus, that is similar to King Hygelac, one of the main characters of the poem and King of the Geats. Another plausible guess that the Geats are the Gautars, who were later assimilated by the Swedes and also disappeared. Some of other names the Geats are referred to are Guð-Geatas (War Geats), the Sæ-Geatas (Sea Geats), and the Weder-Geatas (Weather Geats).
King Of The Geats And Hrethel
These suggestions aren’t just simple curiosity: retrieving the real origins of the Geats may help to understand the exact time the events described in “Beowulf” took place. F. R. Klaeber uses these theories to suggest 495 as the possible year of birth of Beowulf. Following the plotline and accepting this suggestion, we understand that the epic fight with Grendel and his mother happens around year 515. During the Hygelac’s raid – the one that was mentioned by Gregory of Tours – Beowulf avenges his death and becomes the new King of the Geats in 533. The poem states that he ruled the Geats for fifty years, but it is highly implausible. Considering such unrealistic lifespan and the death in the fight with the dragon, the historians prefer not to set a particular date of Beowulf’s death.
From the book we learn the family tree of Beowulf and some key events that happen with his relatives thus leading to the relationships described in the poem. It all starts from Hrethel, the patriarch of Beowulf’s dynasty and the first known King of the Geats. Grandfather of Beowulf, Hrethel was the wise King who raised three sons, but eventually bequeathed his famous sword Naegling, helmet and chainmail to his grandson. Hrethel rules the Geats for a long time, but the family tragedy – an accidental murder of one his sons, Herebeald by his younger brother Haethcyn – made him lose any will to live and soon to quietly die of broken heart. Considering that death in battle was seen as a must for a warrior and, moreover, a ruler, Hrethel’s fate looks quite miserable from the point of view of Nordic mythology.
Herebeald was the oldest and the most loved son of Hrethel. He was preparing to inherit the throne and become the next King of the Geats, but it never happened because of the tragic accident with Haethcyn. Haethcyn is proved not guilty of planning his brother’s murder, so, after Hrethel’s death he becomes the King. His rule is very brief, though and soon he dies too, passing the throne to the youngest son, Hygelac. Hygelac is the actual King of the Geats at the beginning of the story. Beowulf happens to be his nephew, because, in addition to the three sons, Hrethel also had a daughter, not named in the poem. She married the warrior named Ecgtheow and they became parents of Beowulf. Unfortunately, due to another unfortunate accident with Ecgtheow killing the Wulfing warrior named Heatholaf (which was tabooed), he and his wife have to be exiled. They depart to Daneland where Ecgtheow and his warriors are hired on constant terms by the local, newly crowned King of the Danes named Hrothgar.
The Geats In Beowulf
When Beowulf grows up he returns to Hygelac and serves the Geats during all the time the book tells us. Unlike Beowulf’s mother, the young Queen Hygd is not only named, but precisely described. Hygd, though she is too young for a classical wise queen, embodies all the female virtues of that time and all the traits needed to be a good Queen. Hygd’s personality as the High Queen contrasts with the Evil Queen Modthryth. Beowulf serves not only his King faithfully, but also pleases her with Brosing’s necklace when he returns to Geatland after completing her first major task of defeating Grendel and his monstrous mother.
Despite Hygelac is the good king, who, as his wife, embodies all the virtues of the mentor and wise ruler, his reign is short. Several years after Grendel’s defeat he is killed in a raid (possibly described by Gregory of Tours), and his son – the only son of Hygelac and Hygd – named Heardred succeeds the throne. Beowulf is next in the line, but he continues to serve Heardred faithfully. Heardred is also a good King, worth of the throne and raised well by his father, but he dies young, killed by the Swedish king Onela. It is Interesting that, before succeeding to the throne, Beowulf swears to avenge the death of his predecessor and kills Onela, honoring the memory of Heardred. After that he is crowned the new King of the Geats and finally, his reign continues for more than fifty years if we choose to believe the description in the book.
Soon, Beowulf gets another relative. His war with Swedish people continues and the next Swedish King is named Ongentheow. The brave warrior of the Geats named Eofor kills Ongentheow in the battle and Beowulf rewards him accepting him into the family and marrying Eofor to the second child of Hygelac and Hygd.
Another noble family member of Beowulf is his cousin Wiglaf – son of Ecgtheof’s brother. He is the thane who returns to Beowulf during his last fight with the dragon, just to see that he is the only one who came back after fleeing and that Beowulf is mortally wounded. With his dying breath Beowulf, who is childless, names Wiglaf the only one worthy to be his heir. Though Wiglaf becomes the King of the Geats, the prophecy of Beowulf is quite grim: after his death the Geats will be defeated and Geatland will be overrun by enemies. The book implicated that the prophecy is true and the only thing that would survive were the memory about Beowulf and his feats and his last place of rest.
As we can see, the book focuses mostly on the key characters of the story, not telling us much about the culture or the worldview of the Geats and their difference from the culture and worldview of similar warrior tribes. We don’t see many of the representatives of Geats except the aforementioned Beowulf’s family and some other people, like Hondscio – the Geat soldier who was with Beowulf and was the only one of his squad to be killed by Grendel – and Breca, Beowulf’s childhood friend whose only treat mentioned is the ability to swim faster than our hero. Even the wives and daughters of some of the important characters are only mentioned, but not named – only the most prominent female characters like Hygd deserve to be depicted with more details than just the fact of their existence. Something we can definitely say is that they were enemies of Swedish people (who are studied much better than the mysterious Geats) and this is another key that may help the historian to restore the origins of the Geats, finally presenting to the world the real history of the tribe, not only the vague though heroic description in one of the best and fullest examples of Anglo-Saxon literature.