By Alaric Hall
Studia Neophilologica, Vol.78:1 (2006)
Introduction: The women of Beowulf have enjoyed extensive study in recent years, but one has escaped the limelight: the only daughter of Hygelac, king of the Geats and Beowulf’s lord. But though this daughter is mentioned only fleetingly, a close examination of the circumstances of her appearance and the words in which it is couched affords new perspectives on the role of women in Beowulf and on the nature of Hygelac’s kingship. Hygelac’s only daughter is given as part of a reward to Hygelac’s retainer Eofor for the slaying of the Swedish king Ongentheow. Beowulf refers to this reward with the unique noun ofermaðmas, traditionally understood to mean ‘‘great treasures’’. I argue, however, that ofermaðmas at least potentially means ‘‘excessive treasures’’. Developing this reading implies a less favourable assessment of Hygelac’s actions here than has previously been inferred. I argue further that the excess in Hygelac’s treasure-giving derives specifically from his gift of his only daughter, and the consequent loss to the Geats of the possibility of a diplomatic marriage through which they might end their feud with the Swedes. A reconsideration of Hygelac’s only daughter, then, offers new perspectives on the semantics of ofermaðum, on Hygelac’s kingship, and on women in Beowulf.