The Heroic Age Issue 5 (2001)
Abstract: This essay sets the “Modthrytho Episode” of Beowulf in the context of historical and legendary “wicked queens” in Anglo-Saxon England, and suggests that a consistent factor in such stories may be the alternative “cousin strategies” available to far-sighted rulers.
The so-called “Modthrytho Episode” in Beowulf remains one of the poem’s most obdurate puzzles. Lines 1931b-62 of the poem, as we have it, seem to move abruptly from praising Hygd, the wife of Hygelac, to telling the story of a queen who first behaved cruelly and irrationally, having men executed for no reason, but then after her marriage to Offa the legendary Anglian hero became a model wife and mother. This queen is commonly known as “Modthrytho” in modern scholarship, but she may in fact have no name at all. The first half-line with which she is introduced, mod þryðo wæg, has been read in at least five different ways to produce the names Modthrytho, Thrytho, or Thryth, but the simplest if at the same time least attractive solution to the crux would be to take modþryðo as not a name at all, being instead a compound noun exactly parallel to Genesis 2238b, hygeþryðe wæg, “showed violence of character.” Kenneth Sisam suggested that Offa’s queen, who may well have had a name like or including the element “Thryth,” was indeed named at the start of the allusion, but that eye-skip led the copier to the compound noun a few lines further on: in which case we will never know the name intended.
A further simple if for different reasons unsatisfactory solution to the problem may also be mentioned, which is that of J.M. Kemble in the poem’s first English edition and translation. Kemble assumed that the abrupt shift of subject took place not at line 1931b but two lines above. Hygd was not the name of a queen, but an abbreviated form of Hygelac, whose praises continued till the end of line 1929. The poem then shifted to criticism of Hæreþes dohtor, who Kemble assumed had been the wife of Offa and continued after his death to preside over ceremonies at the court of his successor Hygelac. The advantage of this reading, for Kemble, was that it allowed him to assert with his usual passion that the Geats must be the same as the Angles, that Hygelac and therefore Beowulf must be really English, and that the poem could then be claimed as suitably nationalistic. Like Sisam’s, Kemble’s reading leaves the queen nameless and assumes that there is a break in the sense at some point.