The Sea in Beowulf and The Seafarer
The characters in the Old English poem Beowulf certainly delighted in the seas. This essay seeks to compare their attitude toward the sea with that expressed in another Old English poem, The Seafarer.
In Beowulf there is one reference after another to the sea. When Scyld died, “his people caried him to the sea, which was his last request,” where he drifted out into the beyond on a “death ship.” In the Geat land Beowulf, a “crafty sailor,” and his men “shoved the well-braced ship out on the journey they’d dreamed of,” to rescue the Danes from Grendel. “From far over the sea’s expanse,” the Geats came, “brave men who come over the sea swells.” In his welcoming speech Hrothgar recalls that the hero’s father “sought us Danes over the rolling waves,” and his warrior Unferth remembers that the hero “struggled with Brecca [youthful companion] in the broad sea in a swimming contest … risked his life in the deep water … hugged the sea, gliding through the boiling waves … toiled seven nights in the sea.” A Dane “was tending to every courtesy” for Beowulf, for “such in those days could a seafarer expect.” King Hrothgar and Queen Welhtheow gave rich gifts “to those on the mead-bench who made the sea-journey.” In the Finnburh Episode, Hengest had to spend the winter months with Finn because “he could not steer his ring-prowed ship on the cold sea.” “Guthlaf and Oslaf spoke of their grief after the sea-journey.” The Danes carried Hildeburh, the queen of Danish ancestry, “over the sea.” “The surging waters” received Beowulf as he swam in pursuit of Grendel’s mother. During the battle Hrothgar and his retinue stared down at the “turbulent water.” Finally Beowulf returned, “protector of sailors, strong swimmer, to land.” Hrothgar, in his farewell speech to the Geats, said, “The ring-necked boat shall carryoverseas gifts of friendship.” Beowulf’s “long-ship waited, ready for its captain, rode at anchor.” Then the Geats “came to the ocean;” “wide, sea-worthy, the ship on the beach was laden with war-gear, ring-prowed and tall.” Eventually “the hero departed in his swift-moving ship, steered for blue water, set Denmark behind,” “cut across currents until they could see the cliffs of Geatland.”
The text abounds in references to the sea, and to the fact that these warriors were, first of all, sailors. Such references are almost countless in this poem, and many of them imply, if not state, a great emotional appreciation which the characters had for the sea. Over half a century later, when the hero is dying from wounds suffered in battle against the fire-dragon, his final wish is for the raising of “ a splendid mound” which “seafarers shall afterward call it Beowulf’s Mound when they pilot their ships far over the ocean’s mists.”
Another Old English poem, The Seafarer, has a deep connection with the sea. Though the latter poem is considerably shorter than Beowulf, nevertheless the...