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Beowulf's Last Words

Joseph Harris
Speculum, Vol. 67, No. 1. (Jan., 1992), pp. 1-32.
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Sat Feb 2 16:26:43 2008
Beowulf 's Last Words
By J os eph Har r i s
Famous last words" is used nowadays to denote some resolute or confident
statement that the speaker will "live to regret," words that will be contradicted
by subsequent events. A mainly trivializing catchphrase that undercuts any
definitive correlation between speech and reality, it may have caught on as
especially appropriate to the indeterminacies of modern mentality and the
ironic mode in the literary scala. Its apparent origin in this sense during the
Second World War as a "rejoinder to such fatuous statements as 'Flak's not
really dangerous,"" while still ironical, does bring the phrase closer to the
perennial fascination with last things generally and especially with words
spoken on the threshold of death.
Before the typically modern deflating senses set in, the privileging of that
moment in the "universe of discourse" must have seemed self-evident; if not
universal, it is at least an enormously widespread cultural phenomenon,
though our experience of it may be especially stamped by the Romantic cult
of genius: on the point of death the great individual reveals some insight
into his uniqueness.* No single explanation could, however, encompass what
is surely a complex sociolinguistic reality even within a single speech com-
munity. If related usages reflect a semantic common denominator, then an
agonistic, competitive impulse emerges: "having" or "getting in" the last word
is a way of winning; a thing which is the "last word" (or dernier cri or letzter
Schrei) is the best or most evolved of its kind -even if most direct references
to the "last word" in this sense will now also be m~c ki ng. ~ But what of the
weight given last words in traditional law and custom? That seems to imply
supernatural sanction for a "moment of truth," when he who stands at the
limin looks into the otherworld or into the future.
In any case, last words as a final expression before death are easily recog-
nized, in Western cultures at least, as a distinct "genre of di sc~ur se. "~ That
The present paper was presented in various short forms at Kalamazoo, Zurich, and Harvard
in 1989; among the several readers of the long forms I would like to thank Thomas I). Hill,
Constance Hieatt, the acute but anonymous readers for Speculum, and particularly Susan E.
Deskis, who forced me to defend my argument at one crucial point.
Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English . . . , ed. Paul Beale (London,
1984), with reference to Partridge, Wilfred Granville, and Frank Roberts, A Dictionary of Forces'
Slang: 1939-45 (London, 1948); and Partridge, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (London, 1977). Cf.
Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary, 2nd ed., ed. 1.aurence Urdang, Walter W. Hunsinger,
and Nancy La Roche (Detroit, 1985), p. 581. For thesense of "catchphrase" see Partridge, Catch
Phrases, pp. xi-xii.
Cf. Herbert Nette, Adieu les belles choses: Eine Sammlung letzter Worte (Diisseldorf, 1971), esp.
Cf. The Kenkyusha Dictionary of Current English Idioms, ed. Sanki Ichikawa et al. (Tokyo, 1964).
Cf. M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl
SPECULUM 67 (1992) 1
Beowulf 's Last Words
last words as a speech genre are defined by their position in a culturally
determined structure of discourse becomes especially clear when legend pro-
cesses take over to refine actual speech into culturally acceptable last words
or when individuals take such transformations into their own hands, espe-
cially by preparing their last words in advance. Yet the fact of death also
assures a natural element to the definition of last words. It is the gap or
contradiction between the culturally constructed and the natural aspects of
last words that provides us with all the wonderful anecdotes about absent
("Tell them I said ~omet hi ng"), ~ bathetic ("The mys -mystery -of the in-
fin -in-fin - . . . in-fin-i-ti~e"),~ or miscued last words (such as Walt
In the case of last words, the genre of discourse would not seem to be
easily traceable to a single speech act (as Tzvetan Todorov has argued in his
theory of generic origin^),^ but the continuum is relatively clear between the
speech genre and what the American ethnographers of communication call
a speech event, "communicative routines which [members of a speech com-
munity] view as distinct wholes, separate from other types of discourse,
characterized by special rules of speech and nonverbal behavior and often
distinguishable by clearly recognizable opening and closing sequence^."^ If
last words also made the further development to literature, oral or written,
we would have an example of what AndrC Jolles called "the path that leads
from language to literature."1°
While the real simplicity of the "einfache Formen" Jolles selected for study
(legend, riddle, etc.) seems very debatable, he did anticipate Todorov's theory
of the origin of oral genres in separate types of discourse, in language as a
social fact, with his basic definition of simple forms as those "which happen
in language itself, as it were, without the agency of any poet, and work their
way up out of language itself" (p. 10). Clearly the speech event "last words"
has worked its way up (and been worked up) into something recognizable as
literary form not once but many times over in a great variety of literatures,
Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, 1986); Tzvetan Todorov, Les genres du discours (Paris,
1978); and American ethnographers of communication surveyed in Muriel Saville-Troike, The
Ethnography of Communication: An Introduction, Language in Society 3 (Baltimore, 1982)
his example was recounted to me with full particulars by my colleague Karl S. Guthke,
whose stimulating conversation on last words led me to see the wider connections of Beowulf's
death song; Guthke has now published his research as Letzte Worte: Variationen uber ein Thema
der Kulturgeschichte des Westens (Munich, 1990).
Bernard Malamud, A New Life (New York, 1961), p. 304.
According to the oral version I heard, Whitman had rehearsed far in advance a stirring
speech which was to be his last word, but due to an ill-timed call of nature it turned out to be
"Hold me up so I can shit"; Guthke thinks this anecdote may owe something to the mischievous
hand of H. L. Mencken (cf. p. 21; p. 184, n. 21; p. 203, n. 38).
"L'origine des genres," in Les genres du discours, or ,"The Origin of Genres," New Literary
H k t o ~8 (1976-77), 159-70. See below on the farewell function.
John J. Gumperz, "Introduction," p. 17, in Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of
Communication, ed. Gumperz and Dell Hymes (Oxford, 1986 [orginal ed. 19721).
'0 Einfache Formen: Legende, Sage, Mythe, Ratsel, Spruch, Kasus, Memorabile, Marchen, Witz, Kon-
zepte der Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft 15 (Tiibingen, 1982 [original ed. 1930]), p. 9.
3 Beowul f ' s Last Words
though in any individual instance we may also recognize more immediate
generic influences. For example, the "testament," literary from long before
Villon and persisting down to present-day folk parodies in a variety of oral
and written contexts," could be viewed as based on a legal formalization of
last words; and the truly epic discourse of the dying Bhi ~ma in the Maha-
bharata is a sociophilosophic disquisition of staggering length.'* A comparable
but mercifully short poem from early Ireland is the "Testament of Morann,"
an archaic speculum principis conceived as the dying words of a famous judge. l 3
In the ballad and broadside subgenre of the criminal's last goodnight we
probably get closer to the unmediated speech event, and an impressive, if
overstated, theory of ballad origins derives that genre as a whole, not only
the last goodnights, from "the custom of reciting and singing narrative obit-
uary verse."l4 A similar theory of Germanic heroic verse has occasioned little
discussion.15 But there are also chapbook "autobiographies" of the con-
demned, with their contemporary scientific (Confessions of Son of Sam) and
literary ( I n Cold Blood) derivatives, and the religious form of confession before
death perhaps mediates here between literature and language.
Like these other forms of valediction, the early Germanic poetic genre or
subgenre of "death song" -the definition of which, especially in its Beo-
wulfian form, is the subject of this article -cannot be considered an "einfach"
or onefold form, and like the examples offered above, it will have absorbed
various generic influences; yet the relationship to the speech genres of real-
life discourse and their semiliterary development in speech events seems
tolerably clear. There is, of course, no necessary connection between the early
l 1 Eber Carle Perrow, "The Last Will and Testament as a Form of Literature," Transactions of
the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 1711 (1914), 682-753; I am grateful to my
colleague Jan Ziolkowski for this valuable reference. Perrow has notes on modern forms, and
most Americans, remembering rituals that accompany leaving school, camp, or clubs, will have
experienced oral forms of "inheritance" ("and to NN I leave my talent for . . ."); the "Class
Will" is a regular part of many high-school annuals.
l 2 BhismaS rea at Discourse" begins in book 12, continuing, with interruptions, through book
13. See Edward P. Rice, The Mahabharata: Analysis and Index (London, 1934).
IS Audacht Morainn, ed. Fergus Kelley (Dublin, 1976).
l4 Tristram Potter Coffin, "Four Black Sheep among the 305," in The Ballad Image: Essays
Presented to Bertrand Ham's Bronson, ed. James Porter (Los Angeles, 1983), p. 30; cf. Coffin, "On
a Peak in Massachusetts: The Literary and Aesthetic Approach," in A Good Tale and a Bonnze
Tune, ed. Mody C. Boatright et al. (Dallas, 1964), pp. 201-9; Robert D. Bethke, "Narrative
Obituary Verse and Native American Balladry," Journal of American Folklore 83 (1970), 61-68;
Mark Tristram Coffin, American ,Vavative Obituary Verse and hratiue American Balladry (n.p. [Nor-
wood Editions], 1976). Cf. Perrow, "Last Will," pp. 719-20. Notice that Coffin's theory pertains
to poems for the dead, not by the dying; cf. n. 40 below.
Elias Wesskn, "Om kuida i namn p i fornnordiska dikter: Ett bidrag till eddadiktningens
historia," Edda 4 (1915), 127-41. Negative reactions: Finnur Jbnsson, Den oldnorske og oldislandske
litteraturs historie, 2nd ed. rev., 2 vols. (Copenhagen, 1920-22), 1:107, n. 2; Andreas Heusler, Die
altgemanische Dichtung, 2nd ed. rev. (Potsdam, 1941; repr. Darmstadt, 1957), p. 154 and n. 2;
and Erik Noreen, "Kuiaa: En hypotes," in Festschrift Eugen Mogk zum 70. Geburtstag, 19. Juli I924
(Halle, 1924), pp. 61-65.
Beowulf's Last Words
Germanic genre to be discussed below and similar literary forms elsewhere.l6
The rise from language into literature will have recurred polygenetically, but
the underlying universal of the limits of life-patterning and the overwhelming
importance of the last passage will have anchored the early Germanic Sterbe-
lieder and other last words in a ritual moment that assumes a similar mor-
phology across time and cultural boundaries.
The Norse death song is found in its purest form in late eddic verse, but
the cultivation of last words in a state closer to the everyday communicative
use of language seems to be clearer in the saga literature. This point of view
inverts, though it does not contradict, the familiar idea that the sagas exhibit
a "heroic legacy" from the older poetry." One thinks perhaps first of the
drastic, comical, or ironic usages, as in the terminal laconism of Atli, Grettir's
brother: "Pau tiakast nu in breiau spj~tin" ("those broad spears are in fashion
now").18 (Improbable as it sounds, virtually the same dying quip occurs in
Werner Herzog's film Apirre, the Wrath of God.) In another famous example
to the same effect, the attackers of Gunnarr af Hliaarendi sent a certain
Porgrimr austmaar ahead to scout the house; Gunnarr stabbed him through
a window, but he made it back to the attackers: "Gizurr peered at him and
said: 'Is Gunnarr at home?' Porgrimr answered: 'You will find that out, but
I know this, that his halberd is at home.' Then he fell down dead."lg Often
such speeches are part of a distinct anecdote, like the extensive account of
the death and last words of Pormoar Kol br ~nar skal d. ~~ As elements of com-
position they frequently fall into Theodore Anderson's rhetorical category
of "posturing," but they have not been thoroughly analyzed as a separate
discourse type.21 At least once in the sagas, in a sophisticated scene of H~ n s a -
l6 Friends have suggested any number of similar phenomena in far-flung literatures; two
biblical examples -Jacob's prophecies and funeral arrangements just before his death (Gen. 49)
and the Song of Simeon, the old man who could not die until he had seen and prophesied
about the ~ h r i s t (Luke 2) -might be thought to have had influence in medieval literature
generally, but I can find none in the Germanic death songs. An interesting Middle Eastern
analogue is discussed by Susan Slyomovics, "The Death-Song of 'Amir Khafaji: Puns in an Oral
and Printed Episode of Sirat Bani Hilril," Journal of Arabic Literature 18 (1987), 62-78.
l 7 Theodore M. Andersson, The Icelandic Family Saga: An Analytic Reading (Cambridge, Mass,
1967), pp. 65-93.
IRGrettis saga ~smundarsonar . . . , ed. Guani Jonsson, 1slenzk Fornrit 8 (Reykjavik, 1936),
p. 146 (chap. 45). Hereafter 1slenzk Fornrit will be abbreviated IF; the place of publication
remains Reykjavik. Unattributed translations are mine.
I Y Brennu-iVjdlS saga, ed. Einar 01. Sveinsson, IF 12 (1954), p. 187 (chap. 77).
20 Fdstbredra saga in Vestfir&nga sQgur, ed. Bjorn K. P6rolfsson and Guani Jonsson, IF 6 (1953),
pp. 261-76 (chap. 24); Snorri Sturluson, dlhfs saga helga in Heimskringla II, IF 27, ed. Bjarni
Aaalbjarnarson (1945), pp. 361-63 (chap. 208), 389-93 (chaps. 233-34).
21 Family Saga, pp. 62-64. I discovered Johan Svedjedal, "~t t edog: Om dodsrepliker i islan-
ningasagorna," Tidskrift for litteraturuetenskap 8 (1979), no. 3, 134-50, long after completing this
article; Svedjedal's suggestive study, based on selective evidence, argues that the change from
the old, family-oriented social structure to Christian feudalism can be observed in miniature in
the last words of saga characters. Bernhard Gottschling, Die Todesdarstellungen i n den Islendinga-
sgpr, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Germanistik und Skandinavistik 17 (Frankfurt, 1986),
deals with the semiotics and nairatology of episodes that result in death, not particularly with
last words.
5 BeowulfS Last Words
Phi s saga, the destiny-defying heroic quip is outlived, almost becoming an
instance of modern "famous last words"; in the end, however, it is the contrast
rather than the similarity with comparable modern scenes that will impress
us here.22 Such drastic and parodic usages presumably play off of the primary
speech event, but the sagas also instance Christian verbal conduct at the end
and -whether pagan, Christian, or mixed -the prescience of one at death's
door; in Eiriks saga rauda and Gr~nl endi ngasaga postmortem last words lend
even more authority (if no more plausibility) to such prediction^.^^ Sometimes
a memorable last word ("I was worst to him . . .") is not literally a deathbed
utterance but simply the last the reader hears from a character; the effect is
very similar.24 Last speeches may capture something essential in a saga char-
acter ("'I've fallen just three paces short,' Porolfr said")25 or, more rarely,
something essentially Christian ("It seems to me much better, kinsman, to
accept death from you than to deal it to you"; "May God help me and forgive
Probably the death of Njall is the most moving example of the latter.27
In the Old Norse poetic corpus the most impressive valediction may be
that of Hamair, a speech that not only conveys the poet's "sense of an ending"
but actually ends the poem.28 It is no accident that this poem was selected by
the compiler of the Codex Regius of the Elder Edda to close his carefully
crafted book.2g Sigurar's final speech is less prominent in the extant poems,
submerged as it is in other matter, but we will have occasion to look at its
contents. H~gni ' s laugh in the old Atli poem is an extremely foreshortened
terminal quip and presumably the prototype of Ragnarr Loabrok's more
famous mortal merriment.30 Also in Atlakvida Gunnarr is given a stirring last
speech, which, however, precedes his true final performance as harpist in the
22 In Borgfir&nga s~gur, ed. Siguraur Nordal and Guani Jonsson, IF 3 (1938), pp. 44-45 (chap.
17);cf. Joseph Harris, "Saga as Historical Novel," in Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature:
Nefu Approaches to Textual Analysis and Literary Critickm, ed. John Lindow et al. (Odense, 1986),
pp. 197-98.
23 In Eyrbyggja saga. . . ,ed. Einar 01. Sveinsson and Matthias P~jraarson, IF 4 (1935), pp. 215-
17 (chap. 6 of Eiriks saga), 259-60 (chap. 6 of Gmnlendinga saga).
s4 Laxdela saga, ed. Einar 01. Sveinsson, IF 5 (1934), p. 228 (chap. 78) :"Peim var ek verst, er
ek unna mest." Guarun's death is reported four lines later, but the time gap is not stated.
z5 Egzls saga Skalla-Grimsonar, ed. Siguraur Nordal, IF 2 (1933), p. 54 (chap. 22): "Pa mzlti
Porolfr: ' Nu gekk ek Premr fotum ti1 skammt."'
26 Laxdela saga, p. 154 (chap. 49): "PA mzlti Kjartan ti1 Bolla: 'Vist ztlar bu nu, frzndi,
niaingsverk at gera, en miklu Pykki mer betra at Piggja banaora af Per, frzndi, en veita Per
Pat"'; Njcils saga, p. 281 (chap. 11 1): "[H~skuldr Hvitanessgoai] mzlti Petta: 'Gua hjalpi mer, en
firirgefi yar!"'
27 Njcils saga, chap. 129.
2R Ham&smcil29-30. Poems of the Poetic Edda will be cited by stanza number (rarely also with
line numbers) from Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmalern, 1: Text, ed.
Gustav Neckel, 5th rev. ed. by Hans Kuhn (Heidelberg, 1983). Title abbreviations are those of
29 Cf. Heinz Klingenberg, Edda -Sammlung und ~ i c h t u n ~ , Beitrage zur nordischen Philologie
3 (Basel, 1974), esp. pp. 118-33.
30 Atlakviaa 24. The celebrated motif of dying laughter is found in Krcikumcil, Saxo's Bjarkamdl
(of one Snirtir and, as a smile, of Hrolfr kraki), and Innsteinslied (reported of King Halfr).
References are given below.
6 Beowulf 's Last Words
snake pit.31 Atli himself is deprived of expression on the fatal night, perhaps
because of the historical circumstances behind his death in the poems.32 In
any case, our image of him in the hour of death is chiefly due to the words
of his antagonist and to those of the narrator. The world of gods and
divinized heroes offers less opportunity for last words since, although destiny
is firm for them, death is more problematical; Helgi Hundingsbani returns
temporarily from that bourn, and his farewell stanzas belong to another
tradition.33 Helgi Hj~rvarasson, however, bids farewell in two stanzas that
speak of his wounds and Svava's marital future.34
Like Atli, J~r munr ekr is overcome while still engaged with the world, and
the position of these regal deaths in media vitae deprives them of heroic
farewell or insight beyond the grave (Ham&mdl). Death comes to Reginn,
too, unprepared, but the example of Fafnir shows that an antagonist can be
given impressive last words; the serpent begins his long speech only after he
discovers Sigurar's sword stuck to his heart.35 The speech, much interrupted
by S i g ~ r a r , ~ ~ serves for the most part to instruct the young hero and fill in
narrative background, but Fiifnir begins to prophesy for Sigurar at stanza 9.
This threatens to modulate into a curse in stanza 10 (the curse of the dying
being especially baleful), but Sigurar sidetracks Fafnir into a wisdom contest
in 12-15. In 16 and 18 FAfnir shifts to a retrospective on his former power
but is pulled up short by Sigurar (17 and 19). I n 20 Fafnir attempts to resume
the prophecy and advice of 9, but Sigurar caps this with references to destiny
and death as he had in 10. The struggle to have the last word finally swings
in FAfnir's favor (22), however, and his very last words beautifully juxtapose
his own decline to death with Sigurar's rise to life-power, the antithesis
subsumed in the common fate he warns of.
The nonalignment of Gunnarr's denial of the hoard (26-27) with a situation suggestive of
the death song (31) is only one reason for asking whether the Sagenform underlying Atlakvida
might be a combination of two variants of his death; cf. Heinrich Hempel, Nibelungenstudien, 1:
Nibelungenlied, Thidrikssaga und Balladen (Heidelberg, 1926), pp. 88-89; R. C. Boer, Die Edda mit
histokch-kritischem Commentar, 2: Commentar (Haarlem, 1922), pp. 299-300. Ursula Dronke, The
Poetic Edda, 1: Heroic Poems (Oxford, 1969), pp. 17-19, seems to recognize the possibility.
32 A convenient account is Dronke, Poetic Edda, pp. 32-34.
33 Helgakvida Hudngsbana 11 40-51; Peter Dronke, "Learned Lyric and Popular Ballad in the
Early Middle Ages," Studi medzevali, ser. 3, 17 (1976), 1-40.
s4 Helgakvida Hj~rvardssonar 40-41; according to Oddrdn it was the dying orders ("mP1 iP
efsta") of her father, Buali, that determined her unhappy marital future (Oddrunarpdtr 15-16).
85 Fdfnismdl 39 and prose (Reginn); Fdfnismdl 1 ff. (FBfnir).
s6 Peter Buchholz, "Death Traditions as an Oral Nucleus of Scandinavian Heroic Literature,"
Mankind Quarterly 28 (1987), 155, reports that in the tradition of the Kirghiz epic Manas there
is "both the prescription that a hero does not die before he has uttered 'words of wisdom,' and
the prohibition to interrupt such words." This article bears a general relevance to my subject
and is one of several recent examples of an interest in death and last words in Old Norse;
Roberta Frank cites three skaldic stanzas in which the poets tell a woman auditor "how well they
are dying" (Kormakr, 64; P6rm6ar Kolbrdnarskald, 25; P6rgils Oddason, 1): "Why Skalds
Address Women," in Poetry zn the Scandinavian Middle Ages, Seventh International Saga Confer-
ence, Spoleto, 4-10 September 1988 (Spoleto, 1990), p. 76 (cf. p. 70).
7 Beowulf's Last Words
In Beowulf the equivalent speech appears at first glance to begin with line
2724, when the hero, near death, begins to speak "over his wound." He
continues thereafter, with interruptions, for nearly a hundred lines.37 The
difficulties to speech presented by Beowulf's freely bleeding throat wound
(2691b-93) and Fbfnir's heart thrust are minor compared with the condition
of Bhi ~ma of the Mahabharata (book 6), so full of spears and arrows that his
body cannot touch the ground and simply left in this condition as the battle
rages on for several days, but the death scene in Beowulf gains in operatic
effect if, as I wish to argue, the series of speeches after Beowulf's wounding
are generically part and parcel of an even longer set of speeches that begins
before the dragon fight. The "death song proper," from the end of the
dragon fight through the hero's "latest word" and ascension (2820), is espe-
cially revelatory of the underlying genre, but the speeches before the dragon
fight, beginning at 2417, constitute a more interesting test of my methods
and assumptions.
The first use of the term "death song" about Beowulf seems in fact to have
been one called forth by the prefight speeches. It occurs in this quaint passage
from Stopford Brooke's 1892 History of Early English Literature: "So he let an
iron shield be made, for a forest-wood -a wooden shield -would be
burned up by the breath of fire; and with thirteen men . . . went to the ness
opposite the cave and sat thereon, and Wyrd was very nigh him. Like an
Indian chief, he sang his death-song, recounting his life, and deeds of war.
'I all remember, since I was seven years old.' He bids his thegns farewell. . . .
'Not one foot will I fly the Ward of the hill; but at the rock-wall it shall be as
Wyrd wills. . . ."'38 The OED and the Dictionary of American English find the
earliest instance of "death song" in one of Captain Carver's famous travel
books, published in 1778 and recounting his journeys among the Indians of
the North American interior; since the early uses of the word are overwhelm-
ingly American and stem from ethnographic writings about Indian customs,
the idea of a calque on an Indian expression suggests itself.3g On the other
hand, the OED suggests comparison with German Todesgesang and earlier
todtengesang, which, together with Sterb(e)lied, must have influenced English
and certainly Scandinavian usage in this area from at least the late nineteenth
century Finnur Jbnsson, for example, discusses five of the "sub-eddic"
37 Cited (macrons omitted) by line from Fr. Klaeber, ed.,.Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg,
3rd ed. with first and second supplements (Lexington, Mass., 1950).
$8 Stopford A. Brooke, The History of Early English Literature, Being the History of English Poetry
from Its Beginnings to the Accession of King Elfred, 1 (London, 1892), pp. 74-75.
39 Sir William A. Craigie and James R. Hulbert, A Dictionary of American English on Historical
Principles (Chicago, 1936-44), s.v.; note, however, that the meaning in the-early American
instances varies considerably.
40 The OED defines death song as "a song sung immediately before death or to commemorate
the dead," and Danish d$dssang/d#desang also shows two different meanings ("sang, som en
person digter ell. synger, naar han skal ti1 at d0" or "sang, der varsler d@d," Ordbog over det
8 Beowulf's Last Words
poems discussed below as d$d~sange,~l but his usage probably reflects well-
established German, and even academic German, usage in this area.42 In any
case Brooke's usage is traditional in belonging to the sphere of Amerindian
ethnography but precocious in Beowulf criticism, where the next use of the
word, as far as I can discover, was by Lars Lonnroth in 1971.
Beowulf's postfight speeches (2724ff.) are far more readily recognizable
as an analogue of the Norse death songs, and Lonnroth, citing in Hjcilmar's
Death Song an example from the Norse generic corpus discussed below,
comments that "It is perfectly clear that the death of Beowulf and the death
of Hjalmar belong to the same poetic t r a di t i ~n. " ~~ I agree with Lonnroth,
whose study is chiefly concerned with the performance tradition of eddic
poetry, with the role of formulas in the tradition, and, in the section in
question (pp. 13-16), with stylistic comparison of the Norse death songs with
that of Beowulf. Those pages may, however, be the first published recognition
of the "poetic tradition" of this part of Beowulf (cf. his n. 37); in any case,
scholarship has not drawn the consequences of those fairly obvious relation-
ships. The present article will attempt to define more fully the poetic tradition
of the death song, especially in Beowulf, and to redefine Beowulf's death
song in more contemporary terms as the generic aspect of the epic's inter-
textuality at the site of its incorporation.
From the Norse and comparative Germanic perspective the relationship
between Beowulf's final speeches and the death-song tradition in Old Norse
texts is most important as establishing a considerable age for this traditional
genre or subgenre; whatever the date of Beowulf, the comparative evidence
danske sprog, 4 [Copenhagen, 19221, s.v.; but some o f the quotations also suggest laments for the
dead). Historically German and Swedish show some o f the same ambiguities, but German-
language literary history has, apparently since the late nineteenth century, differentiated in this
area between Sterbe- 'having t o do with dying' and Toten- 'having t o do with the dead', and they
ought to be kept apart in any study focused on forms of discourse ( cf . Lonnroth, cited below,
n. 43). William C. Johnson, Jr., "The Wfe' s Lament as Death-Song," in The Old English Elegies:
New Essays in Criticism and Research, ed. Martin Green (Rutherford, N.J., 1983), pp. 69-81, treats
the word as meaning a song by the dead -against all precedent and to the detriment of sense.
In a recent lecture Hermann Palsson pointed to comments about Skarpheainn's last utterance,
stanza 14 o f Njhls saga ( p. 337): "Grani Gunnarsson said: 'Did Skarpheainn recite this verse alive
or dead?' ' I will make no guess about that,' said Flosi." Hermann Palsson remarked that this is
a discussion about the classification o f an utterance as death song (dhnarora) or ghost verse
(draugavfsa); the Icelandic terms or coinages are, however, modern and do not represent technical
terms in the medieval poetics. ( Cf . Skirnismal 12.1-2, and Hermann Palsson, "Towards a Clas-
sification o f Early Icelandic Poetry," in Poetry in the Scandinavian Middle Ages, pp. 59-65.)
4' Littemturs historie, 2: 147-55.
42 Swedish dohdng appears at least as early as 1638 (Ordbok ifver svenska sprdket [Lund, 19251,
s.v.), but todtengesang is attested by 1482, todtenlied by 1536, and sterbelied by 1627 (Jakob and
Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Worterbuch, s.v.); Sterbelied had already been applied to Ragnarr
Loabr6k's poem by 1773 (in Albrecht von Haller's play, Alfred, Konig der Angel-Sachen). Thomas
Percy's failure to use "death song" for what he called "the dying ode o f Regner Lodbrog" in
1763 gives some slight support to the idea o f an American origin (Five Pieces of Runic Poetry
Translated from the Icelandic Language [London, 17631, pp. 21-42).
43 "Hjalmar's Death-Song and the Delivery of Eddic Poetry," Speculum 46 (1971), 1-20; quo-
tation, p. 13.
Beowuy's Last Words
makes probable a much earlier ad-quem date for the literary type than was
possible from the Norse evidence alone. For Beowulf studies the value of the
comparison is more elusive: though not strictly one of either chronology or
interpretation, it is relevant to both, as well as to literary history, for any
crystallization of the generic aspect of the poem's intertextuality reminds us
that Beowulf is, among other things, a compendium of antecedent literary
kinds, a summa litterarum, one poet's "reading" of the literary past.44 The
intertextuality of the poem forces itself on our attention, insisting that the
poem be read, in the first instance, in the context of antecedent literary
history, but the only access to this oral literary history is by way of comparative
reconstruction: a reading of the variants of the traditional constituent genres
suggests the kind of generic subtext that the Beowulf poet adapted or sub-
verted in his included heroic lays, flytings, and so on.45 The procedure is
circular and, with these more complex cultural products, cannot claim the
degree of certainty of essentially the same method applied in linguistics,
metrics, or even runology; but the kind of reconstruction I propose to use
does not differ in kind from that of Andreas Heusler and the prewar German
scholarly tradition -at least as regards the major Common Germanic forms,
the heroic lay and praise poetry. There is a difference in application, however,
since, if our interest lies in Beowulfs relation to a reconstructed tradition, we
must be prepared to complete the circle by examining Beowulfs reception or
appropriation of the tradition.
Beowulf's death song, in the narrower sense, and its immediate context
can be analyzed somewhat more precisely as follows.46 The passage as a whole
begins with a stage setting (271 1b-23): the hero, having been wounded, takes
a seat by the wall and gazes on the dragon house; Wiglaf laves him with
water and removes his helmet. The introduction to Beowulf's speech follows
(2724-28): he speaks despite his mortal wound, knowing death is near. The
speech itself is in three parts (2729-51, 2794-2808, 2813-16), totaling forty-
two lines. In the first part Beowulf says he would have left his war accoutre-
ments to an heir if he had one; he looks back on fifty years of successful rule
and an upright life; and he sends Wiglaf to plunder the dragon's hoard so
that he can gaze on the gold and the more easily give up life and lordship.
The business of Wiglaf's errand into the mound constitutes an interruption
(2752-87), but despite the attractions of dwelling on the treasure, its guard-
ian, and other themes such as its history and danger, the poet can hardly be
accused of losing sight of the dying Beowulf: Wiglaf's mission is at Beowulf's
44 Joseph Harris, "Die altenglische Heldendichtung," in Neues Handbuch der Literatumissenschaft,
ed. Klaus von See, 6: Europaisches Friihmittelalter, ed. von See (Wiesbaden, 1985), esp, pp. 260-
72, and "Beowulf in Literary History," in Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology, ed. R. D.
Fulk (Bloomington, Ind., 1991), pp. 235-41.
45 See also Joseph Harris, "The senna: From Description to Literary Theory," Michigan Germanic
Studzes 5 (1979), 65-74; Carol J. Clover, "The Germanic Context of the C'nferb Episode,"
Speculum 55 (1980), 444-68.
4Urather different analysis is to be found in Teresa Paroli, La morte di Beowulf, Testi e Studi
di Filologia 4 (Rome, 1982), pp. 69-81. This edition, translation, and commentary on Beowulf
271 1b-2820 will be valuable for anyone coming to terms with the end of the poem.
10 Beowulf's Last Words
command (2753-54a), and he must pass the sess where Beowulf sits (2756b);
the "old lord" is directly mentioned (2778b), and Wiglaf hastens out to learn
whether Beowulf is still alive ("ellensiocne" [2787a], echoing Beowulf's own
description of himself as "feorhbennum seoc" [2740a]). The next five lines
(2788-92a) are a reprise of the stage setting combined with the introduction:
Wiglaf found Beowulf on the point of death and again refreshed him with
water; words broke through as the old man looked in pain on the gold. In
the second part of the speech, he thanks God that he can see the gold he has
bought with his life, for he cannot live longer (2794-2801); and he gives
directions for the building of his great funeral mound, which future seafarers
will name "Biowulfes biorh" (2802-8). An authorial interruption (2809-12a)
describes a gesture closely accompanying the speech itself: Beowulf hands
over his neckring and other war gear to Wiglaf and wishes him good use of
it; and the text modulates through a phrase that might be considered a final
introduction, or an indirect part of the last speech or of the last interruption:
"het hyne brucan well" (2812b). The last segment of the speech comprises
lines 2813-16: Wiglaf is the last living member of Beowulf's clan now that
Beowulf must join them in death. The conclusion assures that this really is
Beowulf's last word before cremation and the -famously problematic -
"judgment of the righteous":
Pat was bam gomelan gingaste word
breostgehygdum, a r he bal cure,
hate heaaowylmas; him of hrzare gewat
saw01 secean soafastra dom.
Lijnnroth is mistaken, I think, in regarding the contiguous material beyond
Beowulf's death as belonging to the death-song tradition. Specifically, he
treats part of Wiglaf's speech to the cowardly retainers (2862-74) in this
context, but the dramatic situation and burden of the compared passages are
quite different.47 Wiglaf's speech seems to cluster generically with the chiding
of Hjalti in the Bjarkamal; and the references to mead-hall drinking, Lonn-
roth's point of comparison, function in different semantic contexts: the Norse
in a familiar context of ideas that contrasts the stay-at-home with the man of
action,48 the English in the payment-for-mead nexus.49 On the other hand,
the Old English epic does contain two secondary reflections, not noticed by
Lonnroth, of the hero's last words-first, when Wiglaf retells the death scene
and paraphrases Beowulf in 3093b-3100 and, second, in the authorial de-
scription of the funeral in 3137-40. We may regard these lines as a displace-
ment from the death song.
Lonnroth's focus on formulas and the oral theory of composition militates
against a sense of the generic substrate here and therefore of the larger
47 Lonnroth, "Hjalmar's Death-Song," pp. 13-15.
48 Cf. Cecil Wood, "Nis Pat seldguma: Beowulf 249," PMLA 75 (1960), 481-84; Jan de Vries,
"Die Krakumal," Neophilologus 13 (1928), 51-60, 123-30, here: pp. 57-58.
49 Treated as an insular topos in Herbert Pilch and Hildegard Tristram, Altenglische Literatur
(Heidelberg, 1979), p. 152.
Beowulf 's Last Words
outlines of the oral literary history behind Beowulf, but it is true that an
elaborately precise definition or a strict formal schema cannot be offered for
the death song.jO In their Eddica minora, which since 1903 has given the
scholarly world the major critical texts of Hidlmars Sterbelied, Hildibrands Ster-
belied, and Qntar-Odds Sterbelied and probably affected our conceptions of the
genre as well as our usage, Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch also define
the only structural features essential to this poetic kind: retrospective nar-
rative centered on the speaker's life experience and delivered in the hour of
his death. They do not, however, attempt a systematic survey but note various
affinities and contrasts among members of a casually chosen c o r p u ~. ~' Later,
in Die altgemanische Dichtung, Heusler arranged the material in a develop-
mental series in which the death songs and other retrospective poems spoken
by males bring up the literary-historical rear, being among the latest mani-
festations he considered "Old Germani~."~Z Heusler's system of the generic
progression of early Germanic verse is the most complete ever offered, but
its failure to integrate early Old English material (in this case the death song
in Beowulf) and its reliance on intuition for the relative dating of cultural
features make it less than fully per ~uas i ve. ~~ Given the strongly traditional
aspect of early Germanic poetry, it seems best to refrain from constructing a
Heuslerian genealogical tree of generic forms unless it can also be firmly
established that some genre -elegy, for example -came into existence at
a specific point in time.54 I would, however, except from this generalization
epic, where Heusler and his successors seem to be substantially correct in
viewing long narrative poems as Buchpoesie in the Heuslerian sense.55 The
age of individual extant texts is also clearly to be distinguished from that of
As a generic type, then, the Sterbelied is at the least older than Beowulf. We
50 By comparison the senna, thula, heroic lay, and most other forms discussed in Harris,
"Heldendichtung," allow relatively detailed and rigid reconstruction.
5' Eddica minora: Dichtungen eddischer Art atis den Fornaldarsiigur und anderen Prosawerken, ed.
Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch (Dortmund, 1903; repr. Darmstadt, 1974), p. xli: "HiAl-
mars Sterbelied gehort wie Vik[arsbilkr] und Hrbk[slied] zu den Ruckblicksgedichten, und zwar
schaut der ~ e l d h i e r wie in den folgenden Sterbeliedern . . . in der Stunde des Todes auf seine
Vergangenheit zuruck."
52 Heusler, Altgermanische Dichtung, pp. 180-89.
53 For example, "Modern klingt auch die mehrfache Gegenuberstellung des Einst und
Jetzt . . ." (Eddica minora, p. xli); on this problem more generally, see Joseph Harris, "Hadubrand's
Lament: On the Origin and Age of Elegy in Germanic," in Heldemsage und Heldendichtung im
Germanischen, ed. Heinrich Beck, Erganzungsbxnde zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Alter-
tumskunde 2 (Berlin, 1988), pp. 81-1 14, esp. 82-83.
54 On elegy the jury is still out: cf. Joseph Harris, "Elegy in Old English and Old Norse: A
Problem in Literary History," in The Vikings, ed. Robert T. Farrell (London, 1982), pp. 157-64
(repr. in Old English Elegies, pp. 46-56); Ulrike Sprenger, "Heroische Elegie und geistliche
Literatur," in Akten der Fiinfen Arbeitstagung der Skandinauisten des deutschen Sprachgebiets, 16.-22.
August 1981, in Kungalu, ed. Heiko Uecker (St. Augustin, 1983), pp. 185-96; Harris, "Hadu-
brand's Lament"; and Sprenger, "Zum Ursprung der altnordischen Heroischen Elegie," in
Heldemage und Heldendichtung im Germanischen, pp. 245-88.
55 For example, Theodore M. Andersson in A Preface to the Nibelungenlied (Stanford, 1987),
esp. pp. 17-29.
Beowulf S Last Words
cannot perfectly disentangle this subtype from the allusions to laments for
the passing of youth by Hrothgar or Gelimer, the last king of the Vandals,
from laments for the dead, and from the whole spectrum of elegies and
elegiac poetry. We can, however, adopt a rough definition for the purpose
of isolating a corpus for comparison with Beowulf, a definition that includes
the two essential traits of Heusler's earlier and simpler treatment ("Riick-
blicksgedicht . . . in der Stunde des Todes"). The latter point excludes
Vikarsbhlkr and Hr bk~l i ed, ~~ which are otherwise closely comparable, and as-
sures some elegiac tone to even the most wooden lists of names and deeds.
A corpus for comparison -not an exhaustive listing -could include the
following: Starkaar's death song in sax^;^' Hjhlmars Sterbelied in Qrvar-Odds
saga and in Hervarar saga;5s Hildebrands Sterbelied in Saxo and in ~smundar
saga kappabana;59 Qrvar-Odds Sterbelied in his saga;60 KrcikumaP1and two short
poems also attributed to Ragnarr loabrok in his saga;'j2 and the death song
of Asbj ~r n pruai in the Orms bcittr of Fl ~t eyj arbbk. ~~ Not previously considered
among the death songs but obviously closely related to the group around
Ragnarr loabrok are the four stanzas spoken by Eirikr, son of Ragnarr, in
chapter 10 of the ~a ga . 6~ Lonnroth rightly points out that the final mono-
logues in Innsteinslied from the Hcilfs saga ok Halfsrekka6 and the Bj ~rkamci l ~~
also approach the type of the death song. Two very late, perhaps fourteenth-
century realizations of the type are to be found in the Hallmundarkvida and
56 Edited in Eddica minora and mentioned also by Lonnroth as comparanda for the death song.
57 Sax0 Grammaticus, The History of the Danes, trans. Peter Fisher, ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson
(Cambridge, Eng., 1979), 1:247-52 (book 8); Saxonis Gesta Danorum, ed. J. Olrik and H. Rader,
1 (Copenhagen, 1931), pp. 223-29.
58 Cited from Eddica minora, pp. 49-53 (introduction, pp. xxxvii-xlii) in the twelve-stanza
version based on Qruar-Odds saga. (The eight-stanza version in Heruarar saga adds nothing for
our purpose.)
59 Eddica minora, pp. 53-54 and xlii-xliv; Saxo, book 7 (Fisher and Davidson, 1:222-24; Olrik
and Rader, 1 :203-5).
60 Cited from Eddica minora, pp. 55-58 (introduction, pp. xliv-xlviii); but see the discussion
Text from Finnur Jbnsson, Den norsk-islandskx skjaldedigtning [hereafter abbreviated Skjalde-
digtning] (Copenhagen, 1912), 1A:641-49; 1B:649-56; note on transmission, 1A:641. For crucial
background on Krcikumcil, probably a combination of two poems from a Ragnarr cycle, see de
Vries, "Kr~kumal."
62 Vplsunga saga and Ragnars saga loabrbkar, ed. Magnus Olsen (Copenhagen, 1906-8), pp. 158-
59 (chap. 15); Skjaldedigtning, 2B:257-58.
63 Cited from Two Icelandic Stories: Hreiaarsbcith [and] Ormsbdttr, ed. Anthony Faulkes (London,
64 Olsen, Ragnars saga, pp. 139-41 1; Skjaldedigtning, 2B:254-55; on Eirikr's death song see de
Vries, "Krakumll," esp. pp. 124-25, and this article in general for the complex relations of
these late poems around ~ &n a r r loabr6k. I have not yet seen Rory McTurk, Studies in Rapars
saga loabriar and Its Major scandinavian Analogues, ~ e d ' i ~ m n.s. 15 (oxford, Evum ~ o n o g r a ~ h s ,
65 Cited from Eddica minora, pp. 33-37 (introduction, pp. xxvi-xxix).
66 In Saxo, book 2 (Fisher and Davidson, 1:56-64; Olrik and Rzeder, 1:52-62). 'The Icelandic
stanzas and paraphrases are transmitted in Heimskringla, Snorra Edda, the Laufciss Edda, and
Hro'lfs saga kraka; see Heusler-Ranisch, Eddica minora, pp. xxi-xxvi.
Beowulf 's Last Words
the Bvikvida Grettis incorporated into Grettis saga.6i I have not mined these
younger and more marginal representatives for examples of the generic topoi
discussed below.
In the Poetic Edda itself there are more problematic, but probably earlier,
texts more or less manifesting this poetic subgenre. Of the older poems
touched on above, Atlakvida and Hamlhsmhl are marginal to the group, though
Hamair's last words, at least, do satisfy both of my basic criteria. Helgakvida
Hj~rvardssonarshares some features with the group but lacks any real retro-
spective, and Fhfnismhl has already been discussed. Siguraarkviaa i n skamma
contains, along with much else, the death-song-like last speeches of Brynhildr
and, much more distantly, of Sigurar. The most important forerunner of
Skamma, Brot (af Sigurdarkvi&), is an ambiguous witness in the present con-
text; the scene of the poem's second half is that of Skamma, and the psycho-
logical distress of Gunnarr (13) and Brynhildr (14), together with the listening
retainers (15), sets the scene for a death song parallel to that of Brynhildr in
Skamma. In fact Brot's Brynhildr seems to announce such a speech with her
intention "to tell [her] sorrows and so to die."68 The following stanzas, how-
ever, do not fulfill this promise though they do contain prophecy and some
recapitulation of the past, features typical of the genre I am reconstructing.
Heroic legend failed clearly to record Guarun's death so that her retro-
spective lament in Gu&unarkvida I cannot technically qualify as a death song,
and in fact the central idea of the poem is to chart her increasing grasp on
life as she moves from silent passion to elegiac expression; on the other hand,
Brynhildr's speech near the end of that poem, with its trajectory from ex-
pression to seething silence, does approach in little this generic subtype. In
Gu&unarhvpt (18-20) the situation of the speaker is not completely clear; it
appears, however, that despite legend this Guarun is issuing orders for her
funeral pyre. Finally in Helreid Brynhildar the heroine speaks her self-justi-
fying retrospective from just beyond the threshold of death.
One of the comparanda, Qruar-Odds Death Song, is itself a reconstruction
with a complex hi~tory.~g The saga is preserved in a short, earlier recension
(S) and a long, later one (2); both refer explicitly to preparations for Oddr's
death and a poem he recites about his life, but S quotes only one and a half
stanzas from it at this point, while some of the manuscripts of the z recension
6i Grettis saga ~smundarsonar, ed. Guani Jbnsson, IF 8 (1936), pp. 203-4 (chap. 62); 252-54
(chap. 80); commentary, pp. xxxix-XI; and R. C. Boer, "Zur Grettissaga," Zeitschrift fur deutsche
Philologie 30 (1898), 1-71. Buchholz, "Death Traditions," p. 155, cites Hallmundarkuiaa as "one
of the several Old Icelandic passages describing the performance and transmission of versified
'last words' of a dying hero"; the literary history of these late productions, including the Euikuida
Grettis (Grettis saga, p. xxxvii), is too unclear for them to be given much weight in my discussion.
Brot 14.5-8: "Hvetia mic eaa l et 3 mic -harmr er unninn -, 1 sorg at segia eaa
sva llta!" The interpretation of the lines is not clear. The older editors and translators take the
last half-line in the sense "or leave it so [i.e., unspoken]," but e& can mean "and" and lata, "to
die," as several commentators suggest. This is not the place to argue the case fully, but my
interpretation would be: "Whether you encourage or discourage me . . . to say my sorrow and
so [i.e., then] to die, [this is what I am going to do: namely, say my sorrow and die]."
69 R. C. Boer, ed., Qnrar-Odds saga (Leiden, 1888) and Qruar-Odds saga, Altnordische Saga-
Bibliothek 2 (Halle, 1892); Eddica minora.
14 Beowulf' s Last Words
give around seventy-one stanzas. According to K.C. Boer the sources of the
original saga were oral and included all stanzas in S,'O and Boer reconstructed
the death song ("altere zvidrapa") from stanz,as scattered through the saga,
assigning the original oral poem to the eleventh century.?' His reasoning is
persuasive (and foreshadows contemporary work on the reconstruction of
longer poems out of la,u,sa-iii~ul; scattered incidental stanzas). Heusler and
Ranisch agree in principle but reconstruct differently in several details, omit-
ting four and a half stanzas of Boer's recorlstruction and adding three; they
redate to the twelfth century. Obviously both Heusler-Ranisch and Boer had
in mind a generic death song, an idea derived from the models they knew
in Old Norse. I cite the Heusler-Ranisch version for purposes of this exercise
in comparative generic history, but the circularity of the method ought not
to be disguised. Other poems in my Old Norse reference corpus also have
their specific textual histories, and the fact that some younger members of
the group imitate specific older members could bring up the most basic
problems of genre if my focus here were theoretical. For the practical pur-
poses in hand, however, the woods, not the trees, are important: the Norse
group is taken as evidence of a tradition, an old, oral-literary tradition which
also underlies Beowulf.
The common features of this corpus, then, emerging from coniparison
with the Beowulf passage, include the broad categories of narrative situation,
speaker and audience, and tone and contents of the speeches. To take the
comparison further, however, it will be convenient to attempt to find shared
motifs or topoi capable of sharper focus. Eight or nine of these seem worthy
of special attention.
(1) The relatzonship between death and the speech is realized in three main ways
among the Norse comparanda: first, the speaker may actually be mortally
wounded, or, second, he expects to die imminently. Hjalmarr, Hildibrandr,
Qrvar-Oddr, Fafnir, Helgi Hj~rvarasson, and Sigrlrar (in Skamma) have one
or more deadly wounds before they begin to speak. Starkaar (in Saxo) and
Guarun (in Gu&unarhvpt) would be the main examples of singers of swan-
songs who simply anticipate death; but Brynhildr (in Gu&zinarkvida I),if one
grants this passage any status in the argument, would also qualify as antici-
patory, as would, perhaps, the first of the short poems in Ragnars saga. In a
third type the death song is corrceived as neither preceding nor following the
death wound but accompanying it and tracing the progress of death; the
second of the lausnvisur of Ragnars saga (perhaps together with the first),
' O Boer (1892), p. xi.
" Boer ( 1 892), pp. xii-xiii, 97-100; "Cber die Qrvar-Odds saga," Arkiv for nordisk filologz 8
(18921, 123-39. Finnur Jonsson disagreed with Boer's methods here (Litteruturs historic, 2: 149-
5l ) , irlcidentallv misquoting Boer on the date of the "altere afidrapa"; he argues that (except
for some late interpolations) there was on11 one poem of the last half of the thirtrenth century,
a little oldel t!~an fhe saga of c. 1300, and the seventy-one-stanza version in his edition
of skaldirr poetry.
15 Beowulf's Last Words
Krdkumdl, and the death song of Asbj ~r n pruai belong here. Asbj ~r n speaks
an associated lazlsavisa in anticipation of death, but the death song itself is
spun out as he is being marched around a post to which his intestines are
attached; when they end, so does his song and life. Presumably Krdkumdl
established this style: when the speaker mentions how "many poisonous
snakes tear me" (26), the words accompany the actions.72 Brynhildr's dying
speech in Skamma, however, anticipates (assuming it to be the earlier) the
imitation of the speaker's decline in Krakumhl in a somewhat more realistic
way; the heroine stabs herself in stanza 47, but only near the end of her long
prophetic farewell do the wound's effects begin to show ("Slowly I speak
now," 62). The poem's closure fully aligns the speech with the consequences
of the wound and the closure of life: she would have said more if death had
given more space for speech, "and so I die" (71). I will return to Beowulfs
realization of this motif in connection with its relationship to Skamma.
(2) The speaker mentions his condition, especially his wounds, at the mo-
ment of speaking. This motif, common to several of the death songs, is clearly
related to the dramatic trait in which snakes are biting the speaker in the
here and now of the poem or her voice fails (as it utters "my voice fails").
Hjalmarr says he has sixteen wounds, his war gear is destroyed, and the
world has gone black before his eyes, etc. Beowulf says only that he is
"feorhbennum seoc" (2740a), but the narrator tells us his condition several
times (27 11b-15a, 2724b-25a, 2785-87a); the repeated description of Beo-
wulf as he speaks as "gomol on gehao" (3095a, 2793a) by Wiglaf and the
narrator further reflects this motif. The fragmentary last words of Hildi-
brandr allude to broken equipment (2) and to his wound magically magnified
by the cursed sword (6);in Saxo's version the emphasis on fate is increased,
but Hildigerus's (Hildibrandr's) wounding is mentioned in the accompanying
prose. Qrvar-Oddr's last words have advanced so far toward pure autobiog-
raphy that the interest of the framing moment is caught only by the prose
na r r a t ~r . ' ~ Hamair and S~r l i (Ham&smdl) and Gunnarr (Atlakviaa) are un-
wounded, but Helgi HjQrvarasSon reports a heart thrust: "mCr hefir h i ~ r r
komia hiarta ib nzsta" (HHv. 40; cf. Fdfnzj-mcil 1.6). Saxo's Starkaar and
the Guarun of Gu&tlnarhv~t, the unwounded death singers, only mention
the conditions that make them wish or expect it (old age and the trauma of
surviving family losses).
(3) Inheritance is a theme, realized in a variety of ways, in several of these
passages. The speaker may hand over or send something he leaves behind
as keepsake or heritage. Thus Hjalmarr sends his helmet and byrnie to court
and a ring to Ingibj~rg. Hildibrandr's request that his brother exchange
clothing with the dying man may belong rather in the next motif to be
discussed, but his painted shield falls by implication to the brother and victor.
72 For this idea in one version of Qmar-Odds saga, cf. Boer (1888), p. 195: "en sv9 leia at Oddi,
sem upp leia a kvzait."
75 Boer (1888), pp. 194-95; stanza 1 of the long version of the death song (Boer [1888],
p. 198) and the final stanzas of all forms (Boer [1888], pp. 195, 208; Eddica minora, p. 58) allude
to present conditions, if not explicitly to the wound.
Beowulf' s Last Words
Starkaar gives his sword and money to his killer, and Fafnir must give up his
treasure to Sigurar. The main point of Gunnarr's last speech is to negate the
idea of inheritance: "Rin scal raaa . . ." (Atlakvida 27).
Beowulf's very first thoughts in the speeches we are now examining are
for the son he lacks, to whom he would like to have given his war gear:
Nu ic suna minum syllan wolde
gubgewzdu, bzr me gifebe swa
ani g yrfeweard zfter wurde
lice gelenge.
Hildibrandr also lacks an heir ("eptirerfingi": cf. "yrfeweard aefter"), though
for different reasons. Sigurar, too, is in a sense deprived of an heir because
the son he designates with a word ("erfinytia," Skamma 26) so closely related
to the vocabulary of Beowulf and Hildibrands Sterbelzed is too young to survive
in the house of his enemies. Sigurar's active heritage, however, is a curselike,
negative one, the lack of strength his brothers-in-law will inherit as a result
of having cut off (like Hamair and S~r l i ) their family (Skamma 26-27). Per-
haps the inheritance theme is realized still more abstractly in the Krakumal
group, in the speaker's confidence that he is leaving the duty of avenging his
death in capable hands: in Krakumal Ragnarr knows that Aslaug's sons will
take an angry vengeance on Ella (26-27), and the saga, with its lausavisur,
offers a brief version of the same idea (pp. 268-71, 269); Asbj~rn' s poem
ends with thoughts of the revenge his friend Ormr would take if he knew of
AsbjQrn9s martyrdom (1 1-12). Before her suicide Brynhildr dealt out trea-
sures, presumably to her slave women (Skamma 46), though her further
promises of riches to be taken along to the other world are coolly received
(49-51); but Gunnarr's inheritance from Brynhildr is (as with Sigurar in the
same poem) more abstract, the revelation of her true feelings (Skamma 34-
41) and her curselike prophecy of the future (53-64). The special setting of
Helreid and the lack of a traditional death scene for Guarun rule out the
inheritance motif; when Guarun distributes treasure in Atlakvida 39, it iron-
ically accompanies not her death but the murders she is about to commit.
Besides the motif of the missing son and heir, the Old English poem shows
its hero passing on his golden neckring and other gear to Wiglaf (2809-12);
but in addition to these two more traditional manifestations of the motif
there is the much more problematic treatment (2797-2801a) of the dragon's
treasure as Beowulf's legacy (cf. "yrfe eacencrzftig," 3051) to his people.
Arguably a complex, but typically Beowulfian, deformation of a traditional
motif, the useless or cursed heritage constitutes one of the main hermeneutic
problems of the epic (3007&21a, 3047-57, 3066-75, 3163-68).
(4) The hero may utter his own epitaph in the sense of a defense of his
reputation or a self-justification. I believe this should be distinguished as a
motif separate from the more general common denominator of the retro-
spective on the speaker's life. The examples, however, are few, and the
difference between the narrative listing of deeds, the autobiographical ele-
ment itself, and the qualitative self-defense, an evaluative element praising
17 BeowulfS Last Words
the past, is a sliding one. The great, early expression of something like this
motif is in Hamair's concluding stanzas (Ham&mdl 29-30), especially "Well
have we fought; we stand above, on slaughtered, sword-weary Goths like
eagles on a branch; we have earned good glory though we should die now
or tomorrow; no man lives one evening after the decision of the fates."
Hjalmarr's straightforward defense is directed against a putative charge of
cowardice; his manner of making the claim by reference to women's talk is
typical of the later eddic verse (3). Helreid is motivated by the giantess's critical
remarks, and Brynhildr's entire narrative here is a corrective, a "Defense of
Guinivere"; but again, the whole conception of this poem strains the limits
of the comparison. Hildibrandr's opening comment (1) and other possible
references to cruel destiny (2, 4) seem to excuse the tragedies of his life -
killing his son, being killed by his brother -by attributing them to ineluctable
fate; Saxo developed the theme of fate as the dominant note of his version
of this fragmentary poem. Saxo's bombastic style makes it more difficult to
separate Starkah' s "epitaph" from other elements, but perhaps we can rec-
ognize the motif in his claims to the undying glory of his deeds; for example:
"My valiant achievements surpass number, / and if I try to recount and
celebrate in their / entirety the feats of this hand I give up . . ." (p. 251).
Fafnir's claims to have borne the "terror helm" and so on (Fdfnzsmal 16, 18)
are deflated by Sigurar (17, 19); and the auto-epitaph is, arguably, displaced
to the messenger in Helgakvida Hjpruardssonar: "Fell her i morgon at
Frecasteini / bualungr, sa er var baztr und s610" (39). Perhaps we would
be justified in seeing in AsbjQrn9s poem a further diffusion of this motif in
the form of a permeating theme of contrast of the glorious past with his
miserable present; for example, in stanza 5 the speaker contrasts the past,
happy, "well-oiled" ("olkatir"), companionable talk of comrades with his iso-
lation in captivity to a giant; and the refrain ("Annat var, ba er inni") carries
the theme forward.
The comparable passage in Beowulf(2732b-43a), called Beowulf's "confes-
sion" by Thomas D. claims (1) a long rule (2732b-33a), (2) during
which neighboring tribes could not harm the Geats (2733b-36a), and (3) a
nonaggressive foreign policy: he waited at home for what fate would bring
(273%-37a), attended to domestic affairs (2737b), and did not seek contrived
quarrels (2738a: "ne sohte searoniaas"). These items of the "confession" seem
to have little traditional base in the death song -Hjalmar boasts that he
ruled five towns75 -to judge by the analogues, though the first two may well
have been traditional in themselves; probably they are innovations in the
death-song tradition, tailored to the very different context in the Old English
epic. Beowulf's last two claims, however, seem jarringly conservative and not
thoroughly motivated within the epic itself: (4) Beowulf did not swear false
oaths ("ne me swor fela / aaa on unriht" [2738b39a]); and (5) he can take
pleasure in the fact that God will not accuse him of murdering his kinsmen
74 "The Confession of Beowulf and the Structure of Vokunga Saga," in The Vikings, pp. 165-
75 Stanza 7; cf. 35 of the long version of "Qrvar-Odds evidrapa" (Boer [1888],p. 203).
BeowulfS Last Words
("foraam me witan ne aearf Waldend fira / moraorbealo maga" [2741-
42al). Hill, assuming that "the [Beowulfl poet and his original audience knew
the Volsung legend in a form which exhibited the essential thematic patterns
of the eddic poems which were redacted in Vplsunga saga" (p. 172), argues
that Beowulf's "confession" is alluding to the two major themes Hill finds in
the saga: the overreaching hero (ofrkappsma&) and kinship violation, espe-
cially through killing within the family. By disclaiming these vices, Beowulf
defines himself as a special kind of good king, namely an anti-V~lsung. While
some reservations are in order about the use of the thirteenth-century saga
as representative of the kind of intertextual reference underlying this passage
in Beowulf, the basic argument is convincing, and I would like to carry it a
step further with the refinement that in addition to having in mind anteced-
ent heroic personages such as the V~lsungs, the Beowulfpoet's generic subtext
here was the death song.
If the theme of ofrkapp is represented in Beowulfby searoniaas, as Hill seems
to argue, it has been thoroughly worked into the political message peculiar to
the Old English poem. Items (4) and (5) in the "confession," however, have
not been so completely absorbed into the thematic structures of the epic;
while both may be intended to establish Beowulf as an "anti-V~lsung," neither
presents a negative theme against which Beowulf needed to define himself
in the hour of his death. Oath breaking and kin killing, while clearly cardinal
sins of tribal societies and -especially the latter -themes within the epic,
seem rather removed from the sterling Beowulf himself. A competent critic,
proceeding on the assumption of artistic integrity, can, of course, find justi-
fications for both (4) and (5) in the long and morally complex epic, but it is
the coupling here of the two inessential items in the confessional context that
strikes me as plausible, if not unassailable, evidence of an incompletely assim-
ilated element. Unlike Hill, I would regard these items chiefly as a carryover
from the underlying genre or from specific oral representatives of it.
In any case, we find both themes, oaths and kin killing, alluded to in
Sigurar's "confession" in Skamma and posssibly both together in the line
"byrmaa ec sifiom, svornom eiaom" (Skamma 28.5-6), a formulation
comparable to Beowulf's own. This view of the line in Skamma is not, however,
the easier interpretation. It is clear that Sigurar alludes to kin killing in 26
(and to its consequences in 27.1-4): his son Sigmundr is too young (ungr) to
live, will not be able to escape from the house of his relatives/enemies; the
sons of Gjuki have adopted a "new plan" (as opposed to the old one in which
they were allied with their brother-in-law), a plan which is "verhangnisvoll"
(svdrt) (Hugo Gering) and "verderblich" (datt) (Hans Kuhn)."j The poem sets
out this nylig rad explicitly, devoting a whole stanza to it, when Brynhildr
eggs Gunnarr to kill Sigurar and his son:
76 Hugo Gering, Vollstandiges Worterbuch zu den Liedern der Edda (Halle, 1903; repr. Hildesheim,
1971), coll. 1005, 208; Hans Kuhn, Edda . . . , 2: Kurzes Worterbuch, 3rd ed. rev. (Heidelberg,
1968), p. 37. A literal translation of Skamma 26.5-8: "for they have just adopted new plans in
an ominous and harmful manner."
Beowulf 's Last Words
Latom son fara fear i sinni!
scalat ulf ala ungan lengi;
hveim verar h ~ l a a hefnd lettari
siaan ti1 satta, at sonr lifi.
Sigurar cannot have heard this speech; but he knows the common wisdom
it is based on, and the repetition of ungr and the idea of going out (in 12
meaning going to death, in 26 fleeing from death) show that Sigurar knows
the strategy in an almost textual sense. And of course he knows to attribute
the new plan to Brynhildr (27.5-8).
So kin killing is established as a theme of the passage, but did Sigurar still
have it in mind in the stanza and lines in question (28.5-6)? Popular trans-
lations like Patricia Terry's and Lee Hollander's would suggest not: "and yet
toward Gunnar I have no guilt; 1 I did not break the oath I swore, /
not wanting to be called the queen's lover"; "yet Gunnar's trust be-
trayed I never, / but always kept him the oaths I sware, / lest I be
called the Queen's lover."77 Both these translations gloss over "sifiom,"
the interpretation of which depends on the famous line in Vpluspd: "muno
systrungar sifiom spilla" (45.3-4). The general belief that this refers to
incest or to marriage or intercourse within prohibited degrees of kinship has
much to recommend it, but finally I think Sijmons-Gering's argument that it
has to do with breaking the sanctity of kinship by violence is correct: "Auf
sexuelles kommt der dichter erst in z. 3 [i.e., 5-61 zu spre~hen. "' ~ This is
also Siguraur Nordal's interpretation of Vpluspa 45.3-4, and when he cites
the line from Skamma in this context, the implication is that here too ''pyrma
sifjum" alludes negatively to violence within the kin.79 So prefaced by a
general reference to "harm" ("grand ecci vannc," 28.4), the half-line (28.5)
could mean, with context supplied: "I (unlike my brothers-in-law with their
'new plan') respected the sanctity of kinship (by doing no violence within the
kin)." On the other hand, the overriding reference of the stanza can still be
seen as sexual, especially since all kinship is ultimately based on sexual con-
nection; and the parallel passages (e.g., Brot 18-19; Gripisspd 47, 49; Gering-
Sijmons, 2: 157, 255) refer only to the oaths, not to any possibility of violence.
The gist of the oaths, however, would have been kinship, blood brotherhood,
and the fri& or peace it entails, rather than anything explicitly sexual.
(5) A more down-to-earth motif is constituted by the practical directions
the speaker of a death song may give for his own funeral. In Beowulf, of
course, it is a barrow (2802-8, 3096-3100). Gubrun in Guihunarhvpt orders
her funeral pyre (20), with unclear relevance to a promised return of Sigurar
77 Patricia Terry, trans., Poem of the Elder Edda (Philadelphia, 1990 [rev. ed. of Poem of the
Vikings, 1969]), p. 181; Lee M. Hollander, trans., The Poetic Edda, 2nd ed. rev. (Austin, 1962),
p. 257.
78 Hugo Gering and Rarend Sijmons, Konzmentar zu den Liedern der Edda, 2 vols. (Halle, 1927-
31), 1:58-59, 59.
7 g Siguraur Nordal, ed., Volwpa, 2nd ed. (Reykjavik, 1952), p. 121: ''A8 spilla s$um getur a3
visu ekki veria haft her i hinni alkristnu merkingu (sbr. sifjaspell i Gragas), heldur er att via
fjandskap milli nrifrznda og maga (byrmaak sifjum, svornum eiaum, Siguraarkv. sk. 28)."
20 Beowulf's Last Words
(18-19); and Brynhildr's similar orders in Skamma (49-52, 65-70) are even
more detailed. Starkaar's directions concern the accomplishment of his death,
rather than his funeral (book 8: Fisher and Davidson, 1:251-52; Olrik and
Rzder, 1:228). Hjalmarr gives a number of directions, but if his poem offers
an analogue to the funeral motif, it lies in the hero's prediction that his body
will be consumed by beasts of battle (12). In his poem Qrvar-Oddr merely
directs his men to go away as he is about to die, but in the saga prose he
provides elaborate funeral requirements, in which the inhumation implicit
in a stone sarcophagus is combined with cremation, and he orders that some
of his men sit with him to record in runes the poem "which I will make about
my deeds and my life."80 Probably Hildibrandr's peculiar request that
his brother and slayer exchange clothing with him is to be understood in
this funerary context (5); the only commentary on the sense of this stanza
seems to be Guabrandur Vigfusson's conjecture that 5.5-6 ("mik skaltu
veria vaaum hinum") was originally "mitt skaltu verja vaaum liki"
("you shall clothe my corpse in your garment^").^' Saxo's version omits this
stanza, and only the Icelandic prose finishes the scene with the assurance
that " ~s mundr gave him a worthy funeral."s2
(6) Straightforward, again, and to be distinguished from references to
wounds, is the speaker's own af$rmation that he must die in at least four of the
Norse texts, an idea implicit in others (e.g., Qrvar-Oddr's stanzas 15-16;
Helgakvida Hj~jprvar8ssonar 40). Hjalmarr repeats the motif numerous times
(5; 6; 7: "nu vera ek liggia / lifs andvani, / sverai undaar"; 9; 10; 12; also 1);
and it appears in similar wording in the fragments from Hildibrandr in 5
and 6 ("nu vera ek liggia / lifs andvana, / mzki undaar"). Brynhildr saves
her "sva mun ec lata" ("and so I shall die") for her last breath (Skamma 71);
but Fafnir's penultimate verse line, " f i ~r sitt lata hygg ec at Fafnir myni"
(Fafnzsmal 22; "I think that Fafnir will lose his life"), was anticipated by
Sigurar (21). In the Krlikumdl group the motif takes an attenuated form: "I
did not dream that X would be present at (i.e., cause) my death." I n Beowulf
the thought in this motif is mainly assigned to the narrator; finally, though,
at the very end of his last speech Beowulf, like Brynhildr, says explicitly "ic
him aft er sceal" (28 16b).
(7) Allusions to fate or omens of death are so common in heroic literature
generally that they come as no surprise among last words. In the corpus
considered here the fatalism is sometimes merely intrinsic to the language
("verb ek liggia"; "ne mag ic her leng wesan"), sometimes explicit (e.g.,
AsbjQrn9s first stanza, p. 74); but fatalism, vague as a motif and hardly a topos
at all, can overlap with the other motifs, especially the auto-epitaph (4) and
80 Boer (1888), p. 195 (S): "nu skulu ]per fara ok h~ggva mkr steinpro, en sumir skulu Bkr sitja
hja mkr ok rista eptir kvzeai pvi er ek vil yrkja um athafnir minar ok aevi"; p. 194 (M from the
long recension): "ok skulu XL manna sitja hkr yfir mer, en aarir skulu fara at gnra mer steinBr6
ok draga at via, pviat ek vil llta brenna upp alt saman, begar er ek em dauar. En lpo skal ek aar
- . .
yrkja k v d i um zevi mina."
Reported in Zwei Fornaldarsogur (Hrblfssaga Gautrekssonar und ~s mundar s a~a kappabarn) nach
Cod. Ht rm. 7, 4t0, ed. Ferdinand Detter (Halle, 1891), p. 103.
82A~rnundar~aga (Detter), p. 99: "ok gerai ~ s mu n d r viraulega leizlu hans. . . ."
Beowulf's Last Words 2 1
anticipation of death (6). Omens -fate signaled by concrete things -are
more tangible but scarce in the corpus: examples are Hjalmarr's (8, 12) and
Eirikr's ravens (Skjaldedigtning, 2B:255); Starkaar's death passage in Saxo is
drenched in a feeling of fate, but it may not be wholly native (book 8). Despite
the pervasive signs of fate (and its Christian analogue) in the poem generally,
Beowulf's only direct references to it in the passages under consideration
relate to the motif of inheritance (2730, 2813-16a), but the narrator is
obviously speaking Beowulf's fateful thoughts in "wisse he gearwe, / hzt he
daghwila gedrogen hafde, / eoraan wynn(e)" (2725b-27a). And in the
next lines, 1 would argue, we find something very like erlebte Rede or free
indirect style: "aa was eall sceacen 1dogorgerimes, deaa ungemete neah"
(2727b-28) -narrated internal discourse.
(8) If the death song had an old core, an originary speech act, the speaker's
hail and farewell is likely to be it. Yet this "motif" is the least useful for
comparison since it is realized only indirectly, in effect diffused through the
speech genre as a whole -Helgi Hj~rvarasson greets Svava directly ("Heil
verau," HHv. 40), but his actual leave-taking in the extant text consists in his
directions for her marriage (41). We can, however, see the clear outlines of
a submotif when several death songs include a message of farewell to absent
ones. ~ s b j ~ r n ' s message to his mother is that he will not be coming home
(4); the same message, with greetings, is sent by Qrvar-Oddr to his wife
Silkisif and their sons (16) and must implicitly accompany the tokens of
Hjalmarr to Ingibj~rg. Beowulf's comparable message is not directly re-
corded, but we learn later from Wiglaf's recapitulation of Beowulf's last
words (3090b-3100) that "he commanded me to greet you [the larger band
of retainers]" ("ond eowic gretan het," 3095b).83
These eight motifs may not exhaust the store held in common within the
framework of the Norse death songs and Beowulf's last words; and we may
be justified in recognizing references to a determined future as a further
topos of the genre (9). Fully articulated prophecy by the dying is admittedly
limited to the two poems from the V~l sung cycle, Skamma and its predecessor
Brot, but Fhfnir's teachings, Helgi Hj~rvarasson's request, and various ele-
ments mentioned as realizations of the topos inheritance (e.g., "Rin skal raaa
. . .") do refer to future events or contingencies. Prophecy, which virtually
always comes true in "naive" poetry, could be compared with the irony of
Beowulf's dying belief that he had provided for his people with the acqui-
sition of the dragon's hoard (2794a-2801). In such a reading the true proph-
ecy in this nonnaive epic could be seen as displaced to the messenger's speech
(2910b-14a, 3010b-27; cf. 3028-30a), to Wiglaf (3077-78), and to the female
mourner (3 152b-55a).
The formulation of these characteristic topics -some them vague and,
arguably, redundant -and the evidence for them are not watertight, but
the eight or nine motifs can stand as examples of the traditional contents of
the genre the Beozuulf poet had in mind when he composed his hero's last
83 Guardn's address to the dead Sigurar in Gudrunarhvpt is very hard to place in a literary
context; it does not seem to be the kind of farewell considered here.
2 2 Beowulf's Last Words
words. The genre had a long afterlife in Iceland, and a late-medieval Icelan-
dic parody of the death song instances almost all (six or seven) of these motifs
or topoi as well as the basic framing condition^.^^ While Beowulf is not, of
course, parodying its generic subtext, the secondary ("sentimental") poet
often produces a condensed form of his generic idea even while deforming
it for his own purposes.
Sigurtlarkvitla in skamma must occupy a special place in the present consid-
eration of the death song, for Sophus Bugge (1833-1907) mounted a full-
scale argument to the effect that Skamma had been composed in England by
a Norwegian much influenced by Old English poetry.85 Bugge's grand pro-
gram of deriving much Old Norse material from British and Irish contacts
and his method of assembling evidence have been largely disowned by eddic
scholars; even Dietrich Hofmann, whose book (along with its larger goals)
sets out to redeem what was good in Bugge's ingenious arguments, did not
defend or even cite Bugge's main statement on S k ~ m m a . ~ ~ It is interesting,
however, that so respected a twentieth-century scholar as Klaeber did approve
of Bugge's Skamma article, at least to the extent that "certain points of resem-
blance" between Beowulf and Skamma are "due to imitation in some form"
(p. 220, n. to 2724ff.) -a Klaeberian judgment that modern Beowulf schol-
arship has not come to terms with.
Subsequent eddic scholars have placed Skamma in a different and much
later poetic milieu, though employing some of the same evidence Bugge
used.87 When both Beowulf's and Brynhildr's wounds for example,
more recent scholars would see instances of old, shared poetic language or
instances of borrowing from West Germanic generally (with such well-known
examples as ON Yet Bugge rightly points out an impressive series
of complex parallels between Beowulf's and Brynhildr's deaths and death
s4 See the "SkaufalabBlkur" attributed to Svartur P6raarson (A. 1462-77), in Kuaaasafn eptir
Zslenrka menn frd miaoldum ogsidari oldum, 111 (Reykjavik, 1922), pp. 52-60. The poem is discussed
as a parody of the heroic death song (among other things) by Frederic Amory, "Skaufalabdlkur,
Its Author, and Its Sources," Scandinavian Studies 47 (1975), 293-310, and by Susan E. Deskis,
"The Fox and the Hero: Skaufalabhlkurin Its Native Milieu," Reinardus: Yearbook of the International
Reynard Society 1 (1988), 61-71.
"Die heimat der altnordischen lieder von den Welsungen und den Nibelungen. I," Beihage
rur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 22 (1897), 115-34.
Nordisch-englische Lehnberiehungen der Wikingerreit, Bibliotheca Arnamagnaana 14 (Copen-
hagen, 1955).
R7 Wolfgang Mohr, "Entstehungsgeschichte und Heimat der jungeren Eddalieder sudgerma-
nischen Stoffes," Zeitschrift fiir deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 75 (1938-39), 217-80;
"Wortschatz und Motive der jungeren Eddalieder mit sudgermanischem Stoff," Zeitschrift fur
deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 76 (1939-40), 149-217; Jan de Vries, "Het korte Sigurd-
lied," Mededeelingen der Koninklqke Nederlandsche Akademie van Wetenschappen, afd. Letterkunde,
n.s., pt. 2, no. 11 (1939), 367-441.
88 Beowulf 2711b-13a: "Da sio wund ongon . . . swelan ond swellan"; Skamma 71: "undir
svella"; Bugge, "Die heimat," p. 130.
89 Hofmann, Lehnberiehungen, pp. 44-45.
Beowulf's Last Words 23
songs -including long speeches after deadly wounding, requests for a
splendid pyre adorned with shields and with specification of the place of the
dead on the pyre, retrospective and prophecy, and attempts by both speakers
to justify themselves. So far B~gge. ~O In addition Skamma contains the last
words of Sigurar, which I have argued have some special similarity to two
rather gratuitous features of Beowulf's "confession," and one could add the
grieving females of the two poems to the series of parallel^.^' Of special
interest among Skamma's putative influences from Old English is borg for
Brynhildr's pyre (''15ttu sv5 breiaa borg 5 velli" [65]) in stanzas 65 and
66. Despite one old skaldic instance of borg (properly "fortress") for b61
"funeral pyre," Bugge takes Skamma's usage for a form of borrowing, an
adaptation from OE beorg 'grave mound', conveyed in a line such as Beowulf
3096-97: "bad haet ge geworhton . . . / in baelstede beorh hone hean."9*
Further Beowulfian overtones might be found in the line just quoted from
Skamma 65 if breiaa can be explained with Sijmons as derived from "biraiqan
'ride around' (cf. Beowulf 3169).93 But Sijmons's suggestion, if it is to be
entertained at all, must concern a very ancient layer of the language, not the
preserved form of Skamma, which is rather prosaically concerned with the
exact space allotted all those to be cremated. On the other hand, the anglicism
in borg would have to apply to a relatively late linguistic level and is probably
better explained as imitation of the skaldic passage.g4
In the context of the present discussion, in any case, it seems the connection
between Beowulfand Skamma resides in the genre component of a not timeless
but also not firmly datable poetics. Yet we can take one further hint from
Skamma for the interpretation of Beowulf.
Some features traceable to the traditional generic subtext appear in Beowulf
before the beginning of the hero's "death song proper" -as Stopford Brooke
implicitly recognized. These adumbrations of the death-song pattern set in
"Es wird sogar wahrscheinlich, dass die Siguraarkviaa zum teil die umdichtung eines angel-
sachsischen gedichtes . . . ist. Dies wird durch die ausfiihrlichkeit welche wir in der schilderung
des gemiitszbstandes der personen und in den repliken Brynhilds finden, gestiitzt. ~ r ~ n h i l d
halt wie Beowulf lange reden, nachdem sie tijtlich verwundet ist. Wie Beowulf spricht Brynhild
vor ihrem tode eine bitte aus, welche sich auf das verbrennen der leiche bezieht. Brynhild wie
Beowulf bittet, dass man den scheiterhaufen mit schilden schmiicke. In beiden eedichten wird
angegeben, welchen platz die hauptperson . . . auf dem scheiterhaufen erhalt. Bei dem tode
Brynhilds wie bei Beowulfs wird sow01 ein riickblick als eine aussicht in die zukunft gegeben.
In beiden gedichten sucht die sterbende person sich zu rechtfertigen" ("Die heimat," p. 129).
Guarun as grieving widow (as in Skamma 29) was particularly beloved by the Norse poets
(see Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt, "Gudruns sorg: Stilstudier over ett Eddamotiv," Scripta Zslandica
13 [1962], 25-47), but the (Ge)at(isc) meowle does not stand isolated in Beowulf. Cf. Tilman
Westphalen, Beowulf 3150-55: Textkrztik und Editionsgeschichte (Munich, 1967), pp. 287-331.
Westphalen discusses Hildeburg, the Geatisc meowle, and the weeping mother of "Fates of Men,"
43-47, as the only instances of female mourners at a funeral pyre (pp. 324-30).
92 Bugge, "Die heimat," p. 126.
9s Gering-Sijmons, Kommentar, 2:275 (the brackets show the comment to be by Sijmons).
94 The suggestion also of de Vries, "Sigurdlied," p. 432 (66), n. 81; however, this solution is
not inevitable.
24 Beowulf's Last Words
about 2417, when Beowulf, with his retainers, approaches the dragon's lair.
The hero -surprisingly if this were a naive poem of action -sits down
("Geszt ba on nzsse niaheard cyning," 2417) and addresses his men.
First-time readers often find this sitting gesture puzzling, but that it is a
distinct gesture and therefore meaningful is clear. A preliminary effort to
explain it may look to the scene on the shore of Grendel's mere, where "Feha
eal geszt" (1424b; "the whole troop sat down") and where Beowulf made a
great speech before committing himself to the uncertainties of the supernat-
ural battle (1473ff.). That speech itself, in essence a beot, may indeed be
intended to contrast with the prefight speech in the second part of the epic.
In the former, Beowulf is "siaes fus" ("ready for adventure"), in the latter,
"wzlfus" ("ready for death"); and several similarities of theme foreground
the differences of tone and narrative situation. The sitting gesture itself may
belong among these contrasts since before the fight with Grendel's mother it
is the werod that sits like spectators in an amphitheater, while the arming-of-
the-hero passage (1441b-64) presupposes that Beowulf himself is not sitting.
Moreover, a group of waiting warriors parallel to the "feha" of 1424 sits out
Beowulf's dragon fight in 2894b. In short, sitting in 1424 is the collective
gesture of a group.
The meaning of the gesture in the later passage (2417), assigned to an
individual, will be different, even though some element of meaningful con-
trast with 1424ff. is not to be denied. Within the later passage John Pope
rightly finds a contrast in the "gesture of sitting [in 24171 as opposed to the
formidable toughness and authority implicit in niaheard cyning," but his char-
acterization of the gesture as "relaxed and friendly" is u n s ~p p o r t e d . ~~ Can
we be more precise about the meaning of the gesture here? In other old
Germanic poetic contexts (other than the ritual feast) it seems to be associated
with melancholy and specifically with retrospective elegy; in an example from
Skamma Brynhildr demands, "Seztu niar, Gunnarr!" (53).96 And Beowulf's
sitting posture for the speeches before the dragon fight is exactly balanced
by the scene at the beginning of the postfight speeches: "wishycgende 1 geszt
on sesse" (2716b-17a).
The expression "hzlo abead heorageneatum" (2418) has been variously
translated, but a formal "salute" (so Klaeber) with a sense of "hail and fare-
well" seems to reflect the consensus. On this occasion Beowulf had strong
9"'Beowulf's Old Age," in Philological Essays: Studies i n Old and Middle English Language and
Literature i n Honour of Herbert Dean Meritt, ed. James L. Rosier (The Hague, 1970), pp. 55-64,
here p. 59.
96 Other examples include: "luttila sitten 1 prut in bure" (Hildebrandslied 20b21a); "ond ic
reotugu szt" (Wul f and Eadwacer lob); "Saet secg monig sorgum gebunden" (Deor 24); "Sitea
sorgcearig, saelum bidzled" (Deor 28); "Pa nam at setiaz sorgmda kona, / at telia b ~ 1 af
trega st6iom" (Oddrzinargrcitr 13.1-4), etc. For a fuller listing, discussion, and references, see
Harris, "Hadubrand's Lament," pp. 87-88 and 96-97. See also Paul Bauschatz, "The Germanic
Ritual Feast," in The Nordic Languages and Modern Linguistics, 3: Proceedings of the Third International
Conference of Nordic and General Linguistics, ed. John Weinstock (Austin, Texas, 1978), pp. 289-
95, esp. 289-90, and Michael J. Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup: Ritual, Group Cohesion and
Hierarchy in the Germanic Warband," Friihmittelalterliche Studien 22 (1988), 170-203, esp. p. 179.
Beowulf' s Last Words 2 5
premonitions of death ("Him was geomor sefa, / wzfre and walfus," 2419b-
20a), and in fact his fated death was at hand ("wyrd ungemete neah," 2420b).
This last half-line of course echoes one of the lines in the death song proper
("deaa ungemete neah," 2728b). I argued above that this passage in the death
song proper (2725b-28) could be considered erlebte Rede, especially signaled
by the psychological verb of knowing ("wisse he gearwe"); the anticipation in
2419b-20 has a weaker version of psychological siting and grades off toward
plain narration, but here too we may be seeing something like narrated
internal monologue.g7 In any case, the progression of ideas in the introduc-
tion (2417-24) to Beowulf's prefight reminiscences is the same as that of the
introduction to the death song proper: sitting (2417, 2717a) -speech (2418
[reprised 24251,2724) -condition of mind (2419b-20a, 2725b-27a) -death
very near (242 1 a-24, 2727b-28).
What does a person say on an occasion like this? In real life what anyone
says on any occasion is to a large extent restricted by sociolinguistic rules;
and it may well be that in a given traditional literature even stricter conven-
tions will apply. I n any case, it is by no means obvious that a "salute" -halo
abeodan -should turn out to be autobiographical reflections clearly related
to the autobiographical core of Old English and Old Norse heroic elegy
generally. Like the elegiac speakers of Gu&unarkvi8a i n forna, of Oddrunar-
grcitr, and somewhat less clearly of Skamma itself, Beowulf begins with his
childhood and especially a turning point at a specific age,98 but his opening
synopsis is, I think, more like that of the Wqee's Lament. As he continues
through the Herebeald episode, the Old Man's lament, the death of Hreael,
and the Swedish wars, Beowulf's discourse strays further and further from
the personal experience at the heart of elegiac retrospectives; first-person
narrative and Beowulf's life story are resumed in 2490-2508a, but the tone,
unlike the first half of the speech, is not elegiac. In fact he modulates into a
beot at 249813 and concludes in that vein (250%-9). Some of the Norse
97 Howell D. Chickering, Jr., BeowuFA Dwl-LanguageEdition (Garden City, N.J., 1977),p. 366,
treats 2419-25 as something like erlebte Rede: ". . . the perspective created by the scene-setting
is syntactically a variation on his 'sad mind.' It is as though Beowulf knew that his mysterious
fate sits beside him before battle, though in fact the poet does not say he knows. I suspect the
poet wanted to blur the focus for a moment, to allow the impersonal voice of epic to merge
with the old king's voice of memory." Chickering, whose insightful commentary is of great use
to contemporary Beowulf students, does not treat 2725b-28 as erlebte Rede. Bruce Mitchell, Old
English Syntax, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1985), 8 1945 and 8 1984, explicitly rules out erlebte Rede in Old
~ngl i sh; but he does not seem to have considered these Beowulf passages in that context, and
the nature of erlebte Rede would seem to guarantee vague borderline cases beloved of literary
Gu&unarkviaa 11 1-2 (Guarun's childhood was happy "until" she was given in marriage);
Oddrzinargrdtr 14-17, etc. (Oddrun was a happy child for only five years until her father died
and in his will destined her for Gunnarr; it is difficult to tell whether his will for Brynhildr or
the wooing journey of Sigurar and the Gjukungar, which overturned Oddrun's destiny, was the
turning point of her youth); Skamma 34.5-8-38, etc. (Brynhildr begins when she "was not too
young" and passes quickly to her crisis, the arrival of the Gjukungar); Beowul f 2428f f . (Beowulf
was seven old when he was given in fosterage to Hreael, the determining event of his
early life).
Beowul f S Last Words
speakers of elegies and death songs do, however, praise their dead leader
and their own loyalty to him as Beowulf does in these concluding lines.99
Yet from the experience of the first half of the epic, it is a beot that we
expect on the eve of battle, and the poet seems to toy with those expectations
in his introduction to the next part of Beowulf's "salute": "Beowulf maae-
lode, beotwordum spraec I niehstan siae" (2510-1 la). What follows is not
his "last" speech, and it begins as a reprise of the synoptic opening of the
elegiac passage in 2426-27 ("Ic geneade fela I guaa on geogoae," 251 1b-
12a); but like the previous speech this brief one also modulates into beot
(25 12b-15).
Now Beowulf once again "salutes" his retainers ("Gegrette aa gumena
gehwylcne," 2516-18a), again for the "last time" ("hindeman siae," 2517b).
With this sentimental lead-in (and with the experience of having read 2417ff.,
the childhood narrative introduced by "halo abead") we expect a reprise of
the elegiac retrospective but get instead practical words about the coming
fight, in essence a beot (2518bff.). This continues until the beginning of the
dragon fight itself (through 2537) except for Beowulf's directions to his
retainers to stay out of the battle and await the results "on beorge" (2529-
32a or perhaps -35a). These lines could be considered another form of
"farewell" or likened to the funeral directions in death songs.
The beot is, of course, a distinct speech genre, often translated as "heroic
vaunt." It has been well described, but not in techical terms of pragmatics.loO
The speech act at its core is a promise (the derivation is from be- plus the
stem of hatan 'promise'). More generally, however, the beot can be compared
to a bid in bridge: a player assesses his hand and makes a vaunt that he will
"make two no-trump" or whatever; the basic object is to assess one's strength
and then push the bid to the limit that the player believes he can achieve. In
the beot the assessment of one's "hand" can accumulate details, growing into
a narrative, but the root speech genre "does things with words" and is not
difficult to recognize.
In Beowulf's speeches before the dragon fight, elegy and beot are inter-
woven to produce a peculiarly unsettling tone. 'The elements of Beowulf's
autobiography in the speeches before the fight certainly have heroic elegy as
their generic model, and the fairly obvious similarities to the death songs
studied above argue that this subtype of elegy provided the dominant (not
the only) generic template from "halo abead" right through to "soafaestra
dom." That is to say, among the generic templates we can recognize, name,
and demonstrate by the usual intertextual methods, the death song is dom-
inant in this section of Beowulf; but it does not account for all of the lines not
governed by the beot, and it is employed in a flexible and suggestive way.
If the case for this general influence seems persuasive, the Beowulf poet's
g9 Vikarsbalkr, Hrdkslied, Bjarkamdl, and Innsteinslied.
loo Barbara Nolan and Morton W. Bloomfield, "Beatword, gzlpcwidas, and the gilphleden Scop
of Beowulf," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 79 (1980), 499-516; Stefan Einarsson, "Old
English beat and Old Icelandic heitstrengzng," PAfU 49 (1934), 975-93; cf. Bauschatz, "Ritual
Feast," p. 291.
Beowulf 's Last Words 2 7
handling of the death-song model in the prefight scenes can perhaps be
pursued a bit further in his adoption or omission of the generic topoi dis-
cussed above and in his treatment of the traditional motifs he uses. Condition
(motif 2): Beowulf is not yet wounded, and he puts a brave face on his own
mental state in terms appropriate to beot (e.g., "Ic eom on mode from,"
2527b), but the narrator's is true insight: "Him was geomor sefa, I wafre
ond walfus" (2419b-20a). The farewell (8) itself resides most clearly in the
stage directions ("haelo abead"), and gretan is used of the "salute" both before
and after the fight: "Gegrette aa gumena gehwylcne 1 . . . hindeman siae"
(2516-17); "ond eowic gretan het" (3095b). Beowulf's fate (7) in the ap-
proaching fight, however, is confirmed from the outset (2420b-24), but the
dying hero's affirmation, "I must die" (6), is supplanted by the do-andlor-die
determination proper to beot (e.g., 2525b-26, 2536b-37). Other topoi of the
death song are absent as obviously inappropriate in the story (directions for
thefuneral, any explicit form of the auto-epitaph). If Beowulf's speeches before
the dragon fight are so closely related to his death song proper after it, it
follows that the English poet's use of the generic model agrees with none of
the three realizations cited above of the relationship between death and the speech
(1). Splitting the hero's last words into a before and an after may, however,
not be an entirely unprecedented innovation of the poet of the epic. It is, in
any case, striking that precisely the Skamma has structured Brynhildr's death
song along just these lines.
The first, narrative part of Skamma leads swiftly through Sigurar's death
(1-23), pauses on the scene of Gui)run's grief and Sigurar's last words (24-
29), and the rest of the poem belongs to Brynhildr. Her malicious glee at the
sound of Gubrun's wailing (30) brings out Gunnarr's reproach and unmanly
threat against her brother (31-32). Brynhildr's monologues begin at stanza
33 and dominate the poem through its conclusion (71). In 33 she answers
Gunnarr with sarcasm, but stanza 34 launches into her retrospective, her life
story, self-justification, and, in the surviving text, oblique announcement of
her intention to die (34-41). A last bit of business interrupts Brynhildr's
speeches: Gunnarr and others try to demonstrate their affection for her to
prevent her suicide (42-43); Gunnarr takes H~ g n i aside to enlist him in the
effort to prevent it (44); H~ g n i refuses, cursing her (45); Gunnarr returns
to find Brynhildr distributing treasure to the slaves who will die with her
(46). In the midst of treasures and slain slaves Brynhildr stabs herself and
begins to speak again (47-48). The first stanzas of this second set of speeches
concern valuables, the funeral, the afterlife: she invites others to have her
treasures and implicitly to die with her (49); those present decline, saying
Brynhildr already has enough slain slave women to assure her honor (50);
Brynhildr replies that she wants no one to follow her into death reluctantly,
but this is their opportunity to achieve riches in the otherworld (5 1-52). Now
she turns her attention back to Gunnarr; the remainder of the poem is often
described as a recital of subsequent V~l sung history in the form of prophecy,
but there is more to it. Brynhildr begins with her own imminent death (53),
goes on to Guarun's mourning exile, the birth of Svanhildr, and the unde-
sired marriage to Atli (54-56); stanza 57 interrupts by harking back to
2 8 Beowulf's Last Words
Brynhildr's own life, her memory of their cruel deception of her. The proph-
ecy continues with the ill-fated Oddrun affair (58) and Gunnarr's and Atli's
deaths (59-60); but in another interruption Brynhildr criticizes Guariin in a
comparison to herself (61-62.1-4) that leads back into the prophecy of the
marriage with J6nakr and Svanhildr's murder (62.5-8-64). Brynhildr's last
seven stanzas are directions for the funeral, ending in a genuine last gasp
Stepping back from these details, we see in the Brynhildr section of Skamma
two sets of speeches separated by the speaker's fatal wounding. The before
speech chiefly rehearses the past; the after deals partly with past and present
but chiefly prophesies, though various themes connect the scenes and words
before and after. The main sections of the speeches before and after are
introduced in parallel fashion: "Segia mun ec hkr, Gunnarr -sialfr
veiztu gorla" (34); "Seztu niar, Gunnarr! mun ec segia hkr" (53). Even
the parallel sitting gestures in BeowuZf (2417a, 2717a) may have an analogue
here since "Up reis Gunnarr" (42) probably implies that he has heard the
preceding harangue seated. The mind of the Beowulf of the before speeches
was "wafre ond walfus"; Brynhildr's similar condition is Gunnarr's concern
in stanza 31 (esp., "hygg ec, at feig skr"), and the Skamma narrator, like the
BeowuZf narrator ("Him was geomor sefa"), makes a plain statement of his
protagonist's mental condition: "vara gott i hug" (47). In fact we might even
compare the contrast between Brynhildr's laughter (30) and assumed confi-
dence (33ff.) on one hand and her real mental state (31, 47) on the other,
with the similar contradiction in Beowulf. The similarities between Brynhildr's
funeral orders and Beowulf's were briefly noted already by Bugge; the
differences are also significant.
I n the speech itself Beowulf is interested only in his barrow, which will
serve mankind by providing seafarers with a landmark (2802-8); but later
when his funeral is actually reported, a large ("unwaclicne," 3138b) pyre is
built and hung about with "helmets, shields, and bright burnies as he had
asked" ("swa he bena waes," 3140b). In other words, the imagined subtext of
Beowulf's death song shows through here, revealing his directions for the
specifically pagan, cremation phase of his funeral. Brynhildr is totally uncon-
cerned with the good of mankind, focused instead on the honor of herself,
her followers, and her "husband" Sigurbr in the otherworld; she makes no
mention of a barrow (unless there is a confusion underlying "borg") but
stipulates a large ("breiaa," etc., 65) pyre covered with "tapestries and shields,
colorful imported cloth and the company of (sacrificed) slaves" (66). Beowulf
is laid, presumably alone, in the midst of his pyre, while Brynhildr makes
elaborate arrangements for positioning herself, Sigurar, and their varied
followers (65, 67-68). Both poems feature treasure in connection with the
death and funeral of the speaker, but the treatments could not be more
contrasting. Brynhildr bestows on her people valuables which must be de-
stroyed in this world in order to serve them in the next. Beowulf acquires
and passes on treasure to his people for their good in this world under the
assumption that the treasures will be used here; later we learn that he had
ordered some valuable things to be destroyed with him in the fire; these did
29 Beowulf's Last Words
not come from the dragon's hoard since Beowulf's followers bury "all" the
hoard (3164a) with his remains in the barrow, where -final irony -it will
be "as useless to men as it was before" (3168). Beowulf's treasure motif is,
therefore, vastly more complicated, and the one element in the simpler and
simply pagan Skamma treatment that is missing in Beowulf points further
toward the epic's much-discussed profundities: What will serve the people's
good in the next world?
Beowulfhas been called a literary palimpsest, but the image of script scraped
away and written over provides too weak a connection between the
superseded writing of the past and the imposed text of the present. Instead
it is a poem that deals in a wide variety of ways with the burden of its own
poetic past. At the level of genre, at least, the comparative method can help
to form an objective impression of that past, and the attempt to locate a work
within the vast network of its intertextual relations is the attempt to make a
part of its literary history. But since intertextuality in the current understand-
ing is endless, the exercise can only be a process. In trying to use the Beowulf
poet's struggles with the genres of his tradition in this process it is inevitable
that we cross the line into interpretation, the domain of so many recent
writers on Beowulf, where, one might say, "incomplete agreement" is the rule.
Pope's influential reading in "Beowulf's Old Age" concerns contradictory
tendencies, chiefly in the speeches leading up to the dragon fight: "Beowulf
must be presented as old in years and in experience, yet still untouched by
the ordinary infirmities of age." Coinciding with these conflicting demands
on the character are tonal clashes: the death of the aged but cheerful hero
would be "anything but tragic," yet an "elegiac melancholy . . . darkens the
tone of many a passage" here so that "the tone of affirmation is strongly
counterbalanced (though at the same time paradoxically heightened) by ex-
pressions of grief and dismay" (p. 56). This insight is consonant with the
literary-historical strata that I have argued are discernible against the inter-
textual background of the death song -though Pope does not, of course,
correlate the tonal discrepancies he perceives with underlying genres. Besides
the difference of aims between interpretation and literary history, however,
Pope's method contrasts with mine in the matter of intertextuality; for a
"horizon of expectations" Pope relies on our general reading, especially of
Shakespeare, more than on any explicit comparative corpus. (For example,
the first part of the first speech [2426ff.] fulfills expectations, though not in
"a straightforward manner" [p. 591, while "the remainder of Beowulf's
speech, conforming more nearly to expectation, needs no extended com-
ment" [p. 611. Today we would, I think, emphasize the otherness of the
Beowulf poem and ask: expectations with reference to what?) In addition,
Pope would disagree on several of the historical-intertextual explanations
offered above or on the interpretations they must be based on, especially of
2417-24, 2425-27, and 251 1b-12a.
Pope sees the "ostensible purpose" of the first and longest of Beowulf's
Beowulf S Last Words
prefight speeches as "to prepare himself as he had done long ago to meet a
dangerous enemy -to muster his resolution, to make his 'boast' . . . , to say
farewell in case he should not return"; and with this understanding of lines
2417-24, it follows that Pope understands the distribution of beot and elegiac
tones somewhat differently (pp. 58-59). He is right about the farewell, of
course, and both the prefight speeches of part 1 which Pope probably has in
mind (but does not cite) as shapers of our "expectations," 407-55 and 1473-
91, do feature the hero's death and disposal of his corpse and legacy -
though as contingencies. Those motifs from the upbeat prefight speeches of
part 1 link them with the death song proper, but it is especially interesting
that it is precisely those motifs that are omitted from the speeches before the
dragon fight. I n general, however, the speech introduction beginning at 24 17
seems to me distinctly elegiac, and "haelo abead" names Beowulf's purpose
explicitly as something other than "to make his 'boast."' Pope reads the
opening two lines (2426-27) as consonant with a beot but then must explain
how and why Beowulf drifts away from his purpose, moved by an "obscure
impulse to review his life" (p. 62) in elegiac reminiscences which have "no
obvious value as a preparation for fighting the dragon" (p. 60). Pope believes
these passages to be "a preparation for death, a digression from the proposed
theme for the satisfaction of an undefined but deeper need" (p. 60). I agree
that the need is deep but not that it is undefined or obscure, and instead of
a digression into pathetic memories I see the speech devolving through simple
history (2472-89) into a memory of victory preparatory to battle (2490-2509)
such as Pope had expected from the start -though further on in the essay
Pope finds this purpose only "half expressed at the outset of his speech"
( P 62).
Lines 2426-27 - "Fela ic on giogoae guaraesa genaes, / orleg-
hwila; ic haet eall gemon" -present potential difficulties for both our
readings. Pope interprets 2426-27a, the "review of Beowulf's victories in his
youth," as being "a means of strengthening his resolution in meeting the
dragon" (p. 59), and so he must lean heavily on "ic haet eall gemon" (2427b)
to signal the "obscure impulse" and provide a transition to elegy. But the two
other summarizing or recapitulating passages, 2349-5 1 and 2397-99, he cites
in support of a bellicose tone lack the crucial reference to youth ("on gio-
goae") and fate ("orleghwila"), and a better case could be made on the basis
of the uncited "habbe ic maeraa fela / ongunnen on geogohe" (40%-9a), the
first great prebattle beot of part 1. Pope does, however, cite the best evidence
for determining the tone of 2426-27a from the brief second speech before
the dragon fight ("Ic geneade fela / guaa on geogoae"), a speech introduced
as "beotwordum" (25 10-1 2a). However, "fela marba onginnan" is surely
more appropriate to the brash young warrior and sounds a different note
from "fela orleghwila genesan"; the topos about surviving battles in youth is
essentially one of summary and/or introduction to a following narrative -
all three primary instances stand at the beginning of speeches. Narrative itself
is not an essential part of the belligerent speech of beot and presumably takes
on coloration from its context, especially in 2426-27; the idea of survival of
hard times past ("0 passi graviora") can lead to resolution ("tendimus in
Beowulf's Last Words 3 1
Latium") but seems inseparable from a sense of the "lacrimae rerum," and a
closely parallel thought in the poetically related Hildebrandslied is thoroughly
Among the many recent critical approaches to Beowulf, most tending to
recognize the narrative complexity of the poem,'02 Linda Georgianna's bril-
liant reading of, especially, the scenes before the dragon fight stands out in
my mind as an interpretative enhancement of the kind of literary history
attempted here.lo3 Like Pope, Georgianna wants to explain the "odd blend
of elegiac stasis and heroic affirmation" (p. 831) and, with other recent critics,
to get beyond Klaeber's "lack of steady advance" in the narrative. In her
interpretation, the digression, dilation, and deferral of part 2 generally and
Beowulf's main prefight speech in particular undermine the value of heroic
action by recreating in the audience the confusion and ambivalence of King
Hreael, whose tragedy forms the central point of the speech. Rather than
"psychological coherence," Georgianna emphasizes "inconsistencies and
gaps," "subversive elements" amounting to "antinarrativity" (pp. 833-34).
While this reading shows an advance (steady) over Pope, it still relies on
unargued assumptions about what epic should be -not now in order with
Klaeber to blame the antinarrative elements as "trying," but, following "post-
modern taste," in order to show how our poet subverts those expectations
(p. 834). That all the incoherence and dissociation finally appear as rule-
governed and hermeneutically accessible is bound to appeal to any reader
(like the present writer) whose aesthetic sense remains werkimmanent despite
the onslaught of postmodernism. Yet a chapter in the contemporary primer
has been passed over, that on intertextuality, for Georgianna's assumptions
about epic norms and their violation are based either on her reading of part 1
or on some unnamed body of texts -Shakespeare again?
For her intratextual reference Georgianna mainly looks back to part 1 and
mainly for contrasts, but Beowulf's prefight speeches of part 2 appear to be
so closely linked with his death song proper after the fight that the earlier
can hardly stand interpretatively without the later. The prefight speeches
foreshadow the death song proper; tensions in the earlier group of speeches
are resolved in the later; suppressed elements in the earlier are realized in
the later. The metaphors that suggest themselves for this kind of bipartite
but dynamic structure -shadow and realization and the like -are deeply
Ih wallota sumaro enti wintro sehstic ur lante,
dar man mih eo scerita in folc sceotantero,
so man mir at burc enigeru banun ni gifasta;
nu scal mih suasat chind suertu hauwan,
breton mit sinu billiu, eddo ih imo ti banin werdan.
(50-54; text from Klaeber)
lo2 For example, Chickering, Beowulf, pp. 359-60; E. G. Stanley, "The Narrative Art of
Beowulf," in Medieval Narrative: A Symposium, ed. Hans Bekker-Nielsen et al. (Odense, 1979),
pp. 58-81 (repr. in his Collection of Papers with Emphasis on Old English Literature [Toronto, 19871,
pp. 170-91).
'03 "King Hrethel's Sorrow and the Limits of Heroic Action in Beowulf," Speculum 62 (1987),
3 2 Beowulf's Last Words
Christian but also, I think, deeply Beowulfian, for the principle seems to
apply to the whole series of the hero's speeches before battle -in Heorot
before Grendel's attack (407-55), on the shore of the mere before the plunge
(1473-91), and on the ridge before calling out the dragon (2417-2537). All
adumbrate elements of the death song and constitute rehearsals for it.
The series itself is interpretable, perhaps in a sense close to Georgianna's,
but the kind of literary history attempted here remains preinterpretative. It
relies on two recently prominent principles: the cultural determinism of
discourse and its conservative, infinitely repetitious character. The former
assures that genres of discourse, including literary forms, are open to study
at all, while the latter puts recent theory about intertextuality in written
literature at the disposal of students of tradition and traditional literature.
For if modern literature with its striving for "originality" still speaks with
many and borrowed voices, participating in an infinite regress of texts, how
much more do we hear the ventriloquism of tradition in a work like Beowulf.
Beowulf's are justly famous last words. That they are stylized rather than
realistic no one doubts, but it is the fact that the "world" they refer to was
largely preformed into texts that makes a historical view possible.lO"
lo4 Vesteinn 0lason's eloquent interpretation of ballad tradition as intertextuality is largely
applicable to Beowulfalso: "Tradition and Text," in The Concept of Tradition in Ballad Research: A
Symposium, ed. Rita Pedersen and Flernming G. Andersen (Odense, 1985), pp. 87-96; para-
phrase, p. 96. See further Joseph Harris, "Reflections on Genre and Intertextuality in Eddic
Poetry (with Special Reference to Grottaspngr)," in Poetry in the Scandinavian Middle Ages, pp. 231-
Joseph Harris is Professor of English and Folklore at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
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Beowulf's Last Words
Joseph Harris
Speculum, Vol. 67, No. 1. (Jan., 1992), pp. 1-32.
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