No one, I assure you, has ever charged me with the iniquitous sin of immoderate fantasizing. (The odd bout of prurient daydreaming during my childhood Latin lessons doesn’t count.) This monastic capacity to withhold oneself from the greater excesses of mental wandering does not mean, however, that I am devoid of imagination. Let me make it abundantly clear, beloved ones, that we Anglo-Saxon monks love a bit of mental playfulness, as any reader of the Anglo-Saxon riddles will attest (though please don’t read the rude ones.)
So this brings me to the matter at hand, one of very great concern to many of you as twenty-first-century consumers of ‘medieval fantasy’. In case you haven’t noticed, Beowulf is back! Well, at least in the land of my origins; inhabitants of USA will have to wait until January 23rd.
Yes, you can sit down on a Sunday evening (I’m between prayers, so it’s allowed) and
avail yourself of Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. That’s Beowulf, the greatest piece of early medieval literature – without exception – revisited, retold, and, as the official ITV press release informs us, re-imagined.
Now, beloved, that’s allowed. It’s fine, as far as I’m concerned, to take core elements from my favourite epic and create a new story for the scops to sing. Admittedly, in this case, the creative use of those core elements amounts to little more than the redeployment of three names: Beowulf (our beloved superhero), Hrothgar (the aging king) and Heorot (the name of Hrothgar’s hall). But I can cope with that; I don’t necessarily need a narrative which actually resembles that of the original poem in order to be entertained.
You may, however, feel deceived by this treatment of our Old English masterpiece, but not me. You may rail against its apparent indifference to the real Beowulf, but, blessed readers, this is the world of medieval fantasy drama; or, as described by ITV in its original press release, this is actually ‘a Western set in the Dark Ages of Britain’s mythic past’. So we were warned – though I have no idea what a Western is.
Yet even as I defend the right to completely hijack the name Beowulf for the sake of creative imagination, I still find myself annoyed. Why? Well, we all have our limits, don’t we? And for me, blessed readers, it’s the fact that the wizard-like devisers of this Beowulf don’t seem to know what a thegn is (you may be more familiar with ‘thane’).
Now, beloved, I really can suffer, with little unbalancing of my emotional or spiritual equanimity, the copious amounts of anachronism shovelled forth in much medieval fantasy that comes our way, but please, please get the representation of one of the primary figures of early medieval societies right! Please!
So what is a thegn? Since Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon poem, I will primarily deal here with Anglo-Saxon definitions, but I will also dwell a little on the Viking thegn, since the world of Beowulf in the original poem is set in Scandinavia.
So, blessed children, here is my list of nine things about thegns that I know you will be dying to know (ten things would be so yesterday, beloved), along with my occasional expressions of disapprobation at how thegns are depicted in Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands:
2. Thegns are male. Do you hear ITV wizards? Male. Alas, if only they had consulted me beforehand (my prices are very reasonable), then I’m quite sure they would not have created ‘Thane’ Rheda, the widow of Hrothgar, who is also labelled ‘Thane’ – which brings me to:
3. A thegn serves his lord, very often a king. By contrast, in Return to the Shieldlands, ‘Thane’ Hrothgar is himself, to all intents and purposes, the king – just look at his big, big, big fancy hall. And his wife and successor, ‘Thane’ Rheda, is essentially his queen. But they insist on calling them thanes. Perhaps here, more than anywhere, the tale-tellers should have stuck to the original poem, which of course has Hrothgar as the king in Heorot and his wife, Wealtheow, as his queen. (By the way, was Wealtheow seen as too difficult to pronounce?) Those of you who know the poem well will remember that when Grendel, the monster, first strikes Heorot, he seizes ‘thirty thegns from their rest’ (OE þritig þegna, line 123a) and slaughters them. Subsequently, Hrothgar grieves for these thegns – his thegns – suffers ‘thegn-sorrow’ (OE þegnsorge, line 131b). Clearly, Hrothgar has thanes; he isn’t one himself.
4. Thegns are principally warriors. Even though, as the centuries passed, the meaning of thegn began to shift somewhat, the military aspect remained constant. In Old English poetry, thegn is used as a synonym of 'warrior' or 'hero'. It’s used in Beowulf interchangeably with words meaning ‘champion’, ‘hero’, ‘warrior’, thus creating poetic variation, something all good scops (singing poets) know how to do. In the ITV adaptation, Rheda states that she could never be a warrior. And so, notwithstanding the concept of the Viking shieldmaiden, Rheda could therefore never be a thegn.
5. During the Viking Age, a þegn may not only have been a warrior, or champion, but also a goði, one who cares for the cult of specific gods, as well as acting as a lawman and a leader in battle and trade (Sundqvist, p. 224). In the new adaptation, one of the fellows in Hrothgar’s hall seems to hold rather mystical powers; perhaps he’s meant to be a goði-thegn.
6. In Anglo-Saxon England, thegns as a class were very powerful. I could explain this by regaling you with stories from my own life here in the late Anglo-Saxon period, but I will defer to a renowned scholar from your world, Simon Keynes, who explains: ‘Collectively, the thegns were the very fabric of social and political order: they were the ones with the local power and influence [...]; it was the king’s ability (or otherwise) to command their support which determined his ability (or otherwise) to pursue a particular course of action.’ (Keynes, p. 443.) I think the power of thegns does come across in our new Beowulf – the first episode draws our attention to an important council of thanes – but nevertheless the confusion created over Hrothgar’s status leaves me grumbling into my ale (which I’m allowed to drink, by the way – in moderation, of course.)
7. In Scandinavia, the word þegn often finds its way into place names, for example, in Tegneby and Tegnaby (both in Sweden). This probably indicates that during the Viking period warriors were placed there. We might describe this as the trace of political power in the early medieval landscape (Brink, p. 62.)
8. In the original Beowulf, thegns not only fulfil their warrior duties but also carry out other significant roles, sometimes ceremonial, in order to forge feelings of community, loyalty and joy. For example, after Beowulf arrives at Heorot, one of Hrothgar’s thegns ‘did his duty’ by making Beowulf and his men feel welcome, taking to them a decorated communal ale-cup and serving them with its sweet drink (lines 494b-496a; see Swanton, p. 56-7). Similarly, after Beowulf defeats Grendel, ‘a thegn of the king’ (OE ‘cyninges þegn’, line 867b) takes up the role of scop, a singing poet, and skilfully improvises a new poem to tell of Beowulf’s exploits. Ah, I can see myself there right now!
9. By the time of Alfred the Great (king of Wessex, 871-899), there was a good deal of organization among the thegns of the royal court. For example, from the witness-lists in royal charters we learn of the discþegn (literally ‘dish-thegn’), who was a steward responsible for domestic affairs of the royal household, not someone who did the washing-up; and the hræglþegn (literally ‘clothing-thegn’), who, though it sounds from his title that he oversaw the royal wardrobe, was probably equivalent to the burþegn or ‘chamber-thegn’, who held the king’s purse, and is also attested to in charters. (See Keynes, p. 444; Palgrave, pp. 347-8.)
So there you have it, beloved. Now please try to refrain from booing or shouting at your television screens, or other wondrous and wizard-spun devices, every time ‘Thane’ Hrothgar or ‘Thane’ Rheda appear. It would be most un-Christian of you. Instead, please feel free to have a grumble below in the comments section – or indeed tell me of your delights and joys at seeing Beowulf come to life in this new mixing of words and images – only don’t get too carried away. Everything in moderation.
Brink, Stefan. 'Naming the land', in The Viking World, ed. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (Routledge, 2008), pp. 57-66.
Keynes, Simon. 'Thegn', The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge et al (Blackwell Publishing, 1999), pp. 443-4.
Palgrave, Francis. The Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth: Anglo-Saxon Period (John Murray, 1832).
Sundqvist, Olaf. 'Cult leaders, rulers and religion', in The Viking World, ed. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (Routledge, 2008), pp. 223-6.
Swanton, Michael, ed. and trans., Beowulf : Revised edition (Manchester University Press, 1997).