Beowulf: King Hygelac of Geatsland

Although Beowulf is an Old English poem, probably composed around the year 900, the events of the story are set in Scandinavia, and our hero Beowulf comes from "The Land of the Geats" in what is now Sweden. You can find out more about the Geats at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Beowulf unit. Story source: The Story of Beowulf by Strafford Riggs with illustrations by Henry Pitz (1933).

King Hygelac of Geatsland

ONCE upon a time, in the far north of what is now called Europe, there was a kingdom known as Geatsland, and its ruler was named Hygelac. It was a harsh country, with high mountains and narrow valleys, and it had a long seacoast with many harbors and inlets, and the men who lived there were famous for their bravery, on both sea and land.

Like their neighbors the Danes and the Frisians, the Geats were warlike, and for the greater part of every year Hygelac and his warriors were engaged in fierce battles with various tribes, who would enter the territory of the Geats to steal cattle, and lay waste the fields of grain, and burn the farms of his retainers.

There were other foes, too, to be dealt with. The great caves along the coast were inhabited by all manner of evil monsters that lived partly in the sea and partly upon the land, huge serpents with scales of brass that patrolled the coast and devoured fishermen when they could be taken by surprise at their nets.

In Geatsland were vast forests where loathsome beasts made their homes in the hollow trunks of dead trees and prowled only by night, feeding upon sleeping pigs and young rabbits and other innocent animals. It was not safe to travel in those woods after dark, and the wandering minstrels who went from place to place in the country-side were careful not to be caught in their ghostly depths.

But for the most part the sea-monsters and the forest terrors kept to their own lairs and seldom invaded the more populous districts. Only when an incautious farmer or fisherman had been foully killed by one of them did the lords of Geatsland wage war upon the strange inhabitants of the coastal caves and the forest fastnesses.

Now, for many years Hygelac ruled over his people with a stern but kind hand. Beside him was his queen, named Hygd, and called the Wise and Fair.

About the king and queen were gathered the finest lords of the land. All were valiant warriors whose courage had been tried in many battles. They were tall like the trees of their forests, and broad like the stout beams of their boats, and each man had the strength of ten. They were yellow of hair; their eyes were deep-set and burned blue like the sea; on their arms and around their necks were great circlets of beaten gold, and upon their heads they wore helmets decorated with the horns of bulls or the black wings of ravens.

In battle, these lords were fierce and terrible, and their war-cries froze the blood of their enemies. But in their own halls, in times of peace, they often dropped their warlike mien and sang and laughed and fondled their dogs and played jokes upon one another like children.

When they gathered in the great drinking-hall of the king, the minstrels would come among them after they had eaten, and with horns of ale passing from hand to hand, these lords of Geatsland would listen to songs of other lands and to news of the world which lay beyond their own frontiers. They heard the stirring story of Sigmund, that great hero, or learned how this king was warring with that, or how a terrible dragon had destroyed a whole army of brave fighters.

Sometimes Hygd the Wise and Fair would call upon one or another of the assembled company and beg him to recount some particular deed of valor which he had performed in the past, and often Hygelac conferred with his warriors on some point of warfare or on the building of new boats which would better withstand the fierce gales of the winter seas.

And the younger men listened, their blue eyes wide with eagerness, to the tales of bravery and battle, and struck one another upon the knee, vowing themselves to great deeds when they became older, or boasting of their youthful exploits and feats of strength.

(700 words)

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