This is obviously one of the many texts I have taught but it’s been a while I taught it last time, I am approaching it with a relatively fresh mind. Although at the back of my mind I still have this old cartoon in which a client says to a dominatrix “Make me read Beowulf”.
Yesterday I read the introductory matter and today I read the first part. I would still insist that the modern readers don’t need to know the whole family of king Hrothgar, starting with his grandfather, although the description of grandfather’s funeral is still affecting, and will provide a nice bookending together with Beowulf’s funeral at the end.
Student humour: a colleague of mine asked in the classroom while discussing this passage why the Danes cry when they see the funeral ship setting out, and one student said “because they’re sorry to lose so much gold and precious things”. The new generation, so practical.
So no, the Danes cry, because their view of the afterlife is rather vague: nobody knows who will salvage that load, to use Seamus Heaney’s phrase. The view of life in OE literature is rather bleak: the moment Heorot is built, the most fantastic party place a.k.a. mead hall, we learn that it is going to be burnt down one day.
On a side note, I love that Heaney’s translation begins with “So.” because I am myself rather prone to begin too many sentences with that, although as some linguists argue, this translation is not correct. But as we have already learnt from Bede’s comments on Caedmon, no translation ever is.