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Beowulf Prologue: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

In this lesson, we will discuss the life, reign, and death of Scyld Scefing, as well as his son Beow, as recounted in the prologue of Beowulf, an Old English epic poem.

Scyld Scefing and the Past

''Beowulf'' is an epic poem, or long poem that narrates the story and feats of a legendary hero, written in Old English. The poem recounts the daring adventures and fights of Beowulf with monsters and a dragon to provide security for the land. The poem begins by recalling a king of old and a mythical history in which the world was better.

The poem opens by asking the audience to remember the ''tales sung of the Spear-Danes, / the glory of their war-kings in days gone by, / how princely nobles performed heroes' deeds!'' In this setting, we meet Scyld Scefing, a hero of the past who was an important figure in the genealogy of the Spear-Danes. His blood line is later given the name Scyldings in honor of this great man. Despite Scyld being a foundling, or an orphaned child who was found by others and raised, as the name suggests, he rose from his rough youth into an infamous king.

Scyld and Beow's Rule

The prologue of ''Beowulf'' discusses Scyld's rule. The anonymous author writes: ''Oft Scyld Scefing captured the mead halls / from many peoples, from troops of enemies, / terrifying their chieftains.'' Scyld became a hero and a great king, capturing other nations' ''mead-halls,'' a common gathering place of the kingdom, and consolidating power under his rule. Scyld was so successful that ''each neighboring nation . . . / bowed under his rule, paid the price of tribute,'' or paid money to Scyld so that he would protect the kingdoms. Scyld's reign gave the Danes a powerful and rich kingdom, causing the author to write: ''That was a good king!'' as commentary on the success of Scyld.

Scyld has a son named Beow who will then take over after his father's death. Beow is called ''sent by God'' because Scyld knows the people will not be able to take care of themselves without a ruler, based on what he saw when he came into power. Beow, knowing he would take over the kingdom after his father's death, gave gifts to the people of his kingdom so that they would remain loyal to him. The author comments on this, saying: ''By such deeds of honor shall a man prosper among all the peoples.'' The details about Beow give the audience hope that he will be a great ruler over the Danes, as his father is.

Model of Sutton Hoo burial ship similar to ship of Scyld Scefing
Sutton Hoo burial ship

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