Hygelac (King of Geats) in Beowulf

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

This lesson focuses on Hygelac, King of the Geats, in the epic poem Beowulf. The lesson will look at the character of Hygelac as well as the historical significance of his inclusion in the poem.

Background on Beowulf

If you have watched any movies or television programs about Vikings, you will have seen references to Beowulf. Beowulf is an epic poem that formed the basis in public knowledge for what many of us think of as Vikings and their culture. A popular example of Beowulf's influence on pop culture is the movie The Thirteenth Warrior and the book it is based upon, Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. Vikings fighting monsters, a king known for his generosity and kindness (like the real life Hygelac), and a victory of the Northmen over the monsters. Crichton acknowledges Beowulf's influence on his book in the forward of Eaters of the Dead.

Beowulf is not the first epic poem but it is one of the most popular and enduring. A beloved hero (Beowulf), proves he lives up to his reputation by slaying a feared monster (and, for bonus points, the monster's even more monstrous mother) and saves the kingdom of King Hrothgar before returning to the Geatish kingdom of King Hygelac. Beowulf's deeds have become renowned in Geatland and Hygelac, Beowulf's kinsman and friend, rewards him with lands, a hall, and a ceremonial throne. After Hygelac's death in battle, Beowulf becomes king and rules for many years, until a thief disturbs a dragon's barrow. (Sound familiar? It should! Tolkein used this idea in The Hobbit!). Beowulf dies after battling the great fire wyrm, and is memorialized as a great and powerful king, like Hygelac before him.

Hygelac, King of the Geats, in Beowulf

Geats, often translated as Goths (no, not the kids all in black down at the mall) lived in Gotaland in what is modern-day Sweden. They were a northern Germanic tribe that is probably best known for the sacking of Rome, but they had a very long presence in historical records. Hygelac, the king of the Geats in Beowulf, is mentioned in valid records as their leader and in conjunction with several battles and raids, including a raid on Frisia, or Frankish territories in what is modern-day France. Hygelac was present on that raid, which took place around 516 C.E. (C.E. stands for common era and is the accepted and correct way of expressing historical dates in current scholarship).

Knowing the date of the raid on Frankish territories, historians are able to correlate the time of Hygelac with historical events recorded by multiple parties. Hygelac died during the raid on Frisia, killed by the Hetware people, and the event is also mentioned in Beowulf. The author of Beowulf likely learned of the events via oral history.

Detail of image depicting battle between Geats and Frankish tribes, 515 C.E.
Detail of Battle between Geats and Danes

Including an actual historic figure in Beowulf would have lent credence to the story of Beowulf and given it greater weight with the audience or reader, even if Beowulf himself was not a real person (something still up for debate).

Hygelac, as depicted in Beowulf, was Beowulf's ring giver. A ring giver is someone entrusted to give treasures, land, and spoils to a leader's lords (or thanes). He is also Beowulf's foster brother, and uncle by blood. Beowulf entrusts his treasures to Hygelac should he himself die.

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