Scyld Scefing in Beowulf

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The figure of Scyld Scefing in Beowulf appears as the legendary founding king of the Danes. In the context of the epic poem, he appears as the ideal of a heroic ruler. This poem analyzes the lines relating to Scyld using the Seamus Heaney translation.

Beowulf: History and Epic

''So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.'' These are the opening lines of Beowulf, an epic poem in Old English. It was written in Anglo-Saxon England sometime between the 700s and 900s CE.

Beowulf is framed as a history of the Scandinavian peoples, as well as a heroic narrative. Beowulf is, of course, its main protagonist, the great hero of the Geats. In Beowulf's time, the Danes are beset by terrible monsters. Scyld Scefing appears at the outset of the poem, as the great first king of the Danes, founder of their royal dynasty.

Scyld as Ideal King

Opening of Beowulf: the life of Scyld.

Scyld Scefing (whose name is sometimes translated into modern English as Shield Sheafson) is the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, king of the Danes during Beowulf's time. The first lines of the epic are devoted to Scyld's reign and to his elaborate funeral. Beowulf's preoccupation with a legendary heroic age and its passing can be seen as foregrounded in its account of Scyld Scefing.

Scyld appears in Beowulf as a figure vital to the Danes, who united them after a long period without a leader. Scyld Scefing himself was an orphan, who gained power by his own skill as a warrior. He is described as the ''scourge of many tribes, / a wrecker of mead-benches, / rampaging among foes'' (lines 4-5). Scyld not only defeats the Danes' enemies in battle, but also gets many tribes to pay rich tributes to his people. He appears as a good law-giver, and a generous lord.

Scyld and His Dynasty

Scyld also provides his kingdom with an heir to succeed him. The Beowulf poet describes this as a blessing from God, and a reward for the Danes after their long suffering. The stability provided by a line of good kings is presented as beginning under Scyld's reign, with his son following his father's good policies.

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