The Geats of “Beowulf”: A Study in the Geographical Mythology of the Middle Ages by Jane Acomb Leake, Reviewed by H.R. Ellis Davidson (1968)

Reviewed Work: The Geats of “Beowulf”: A Study in the Geographical Mythology of the Middle Ages by Jane Acomb Leake
Review by: H. R. Ellis Davidson, Folklore, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Summer, 1968), pp. 147-149.

The Geats of BeowulfTHIS is a book of some importance for anyone interested in the supernatural elements in the Anglo-Saxon heroic poem Beowulf, in the background of the mysterious hero with superhuman strength, the evil monster Grendel and the fiery dragon slain by Beowulf at the cost of his  own life. Dr Leake is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati, and this book has developed out of her doctrinal thesis submitted to the University of Wisconsin.

She is the more to be congratulated on her lucid presentation of evidence and the clarity of her style, since doctrinal theses tend to be bogged down with obscure references and indigestible arguments. Passages from Greek and Latin writers, not easily accessible to the non-specialist reader, are quoted in the original, and an English translation is given, while the references at the end of the book can be quickly found, because of the effective method of referring to the pages of the text at the top of every page of notes. Many English scholars dealing with complex literary material could well profit by her example.

The book opens with a clear summary of the long controversy concerning the Geats, the race to which the hero of the poem belongs. English scholars for the most part have identified them with the Gautar (Götar) of Sweden, and since Chambers supported this theory, it has been passed on to many generations of students. Some leading German scholars however have preferred the Jutes of Jutland, and at times the battle has raged fiercely, but indecisively; as Dr Leake points out, ‘not a single point has been made by one side that has not met rebuttal by the other’, and neither theory is really convincing. The choice of the Gautar necessitates the correction or twisting of such weighty authorities as Gregory of Tours, the Liber Francorum, Asser and the Old English Bede, while in either case it has remained a problem why such an outstanding hero as Beowulf has apparently been forgotten in Scandinavian sources.

Dr Leake’s explanation is that the Geatish background of Beowulf was inspired by a long literary and scholarly tradition preserved in Greek and Latin writings, which was widely accepted by medieval scholars, and must have been known to educated Anglo-Saxons from the seventh century onwards. The Getae, a Thracian tribe near the Black Sea, were identified with the Gog-Magog invaders of Biblical tradition, with the Goths, and finally with the Danes, while it was persistently assumed for many centuries that the wild tribes of Scythia and Thrace, with their train of half-human peoples, fabulous monsters and marvels, were situated close to Scandinavia. These ideas were firmly established throughout the Middle Ages, even after travellers had provided more accurate information about north-eastern Europe. Among the lore traditionally associated with the Getae were descriptions of man-eating creatures of the Grendel type, gold-guarding griffins, rivers which glowed with electron when they entered the sea, recalling Beowulf’s haunted lake, while there was possibly a bear-cult associated with the sage Zadoxis, though there is as yet no indication that this last could  have been known to the Anglo-Saxons. If the Beowulf poet linked such material with the native traditions of his own land, this could solve many problems, and since the Getae were revered as the founding race of the Germanic peoples, it would be understandable for him to present the splendid hero Beowulf as the ideal king. While I would not follow Dr Leake in her suggestion that a date after the Viking Age is a possible one for the poem, for reasons based on archaeological evidence, I would unhesitatingly support her in emphasising the importance of the mythical geography of the Anglo-Saxon period.Without some knowledge of this, we shall be unable to grasp the full significance of this great poem, or indeed to appreciate the other side of the coin, the native tradition which, as in the case of the seventh-century Franks Casket, appears to have been skilfully interwoven with the new written learning of the Christian monasteries.

H.R. ELLIS DAVIDSON

The Geats

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