Nick Haydock (University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez)
The Year’s Work in Medievalism : Volume 27 (2012)
Mysteriously, even ostentatiously sublime, the opening of Beowulf has puzzled, enthused, and enervated generations of readers. The uncanny parallel it draws between the ship burial of a king and the miraculous survival of a cast away—a boy, set adrift alone on the sea, who washed ashore in Denmark, subsequently held all Scandinavia in awe and fathered the Shielding dynasty—inspires complex and conflicting sensations. There are large measures of irony, fatalism, and mystery lurking within this fairy tale framework.: irony, most surely, in the droll litotes comparing the treasures loaded on the bark-bier of Scyld Scefing with the feasceaft origins of the waif the Danes fostered; fatalism in the appreciation that wyrd should achieve so perfect a symmetry of arrivals and departures; mystery, too, in the epistemological fog bank which rolls in at the very end of the passage.
None knows whence Scyld came, nor can they guess whither he has gone. Many have remarked on the theme of a savior coming from overseas, which seems to prefigure Beowulf’s arrival in another dark time. Many more have been struck by the placement of funerals at the beginning and end of the poem. But few critics indeed have bothered to ask how that child happened to be out alone on the sea in the first place or how this myth of a fortunate foundling contributes to the poem’s ambivalent evocation of Germanic paganism in illo tempore. This essay reviews opening scenes in some recent film Beowulfs, which, although they have nothing at all to say about Scyld Scefing, suggest a sacrificial reading of the prologue and perhaps even the whole poem. Although Scyld is conspicuously absent from these adaptations of Beowulf, the specter of the prologue may well have inspired their frank depictions of human sacrifice.