Beowulf Tradition and Customs Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Line). We used Seamus Heaney's Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, published in 2000 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere. (20-25)
Even before we've met Beowulf himself, while we're still hearing about the great kings of the Spear-Danes from the past, the narrator reminds us of an important custom: the giving of gifts. In this world, if princes are generous with their wealth and treasures, they're more likely to have faithful warriors surrounding them.
Wulfgar replied, a Wendel chief
renowned as a warrior, well known for his wisdom
and the temper of his mind: "I will take this message,
in accordance with your wish, to our noble king,
our dear lord, friend of the Danes,
the giver of rings. I will go and ask him
about your coming here, then hurry back
with whatever reply it pleases him to give." (348-355)
There are many passages like this in Beowulf – scenes where people come and go, introduce themselves to each other, and introduce other people to people they already know, carry messages, and so on. What's the point? Well, medieval Scandinavian warriors may have been tough, brutal men who spent most of their time fighting, feasting, and sleeping it off, but they were also very formal and organized. Protocol had to be observed; introductions had to be made in the right way.
Wealhtheow came in,
Hrothgar's queen, observing the courtesies.
Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted
the men in hall, then handed the cup
first to Hrothgar, their homeland's guardian,
urging him to drink deep and enjoy it
because he was dear to them. And he drank it down
like the warlord he was, with festive cheer.
So the Helming woman went on her rounds,
queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,
offering the goblet to all ranks,
treating the household and the assembled troop
until it was Beowulf's turn to take it from her hand. (612-624)
High-class women play a subtle but important role in early medieval culture. As Hrothgar's queen, Wealhtheow spends her time at the feast circulating, offering a goblet full of mead to each warrior in turn, creating connections between the men and signaling to everyone where they rank in the hierarchy. This is a traditional duty that helps her to fulfill her function as a "peace-weaver," a lady who uses her rank and position to reinforce alliances between tribes.