I crawl into bed with my new copy of Beowulf. It’s a small paperback; the spine creases as soon as I open the book. The paper is thin, with a rough texture. I flip past the introduction, and skim through the text looking for Wealhtheow.
There was laughter of heroes, harp-music ran,Wealhtheow’s duty was to be welcoming to Beowulf and his companions. She made sure they received the best cuts of the roast boar on the long table. She made sure that her ladies were always nearby with flasks to refill the guests’ cups. Wealhtheow sat next to Beowulf, so that she personally could monitor his cup of mead, replenishing the honeyed drink often. Young Beowulf could easily best old Hrothgar, could sway the allegiance of Hrothgar’s people by killing Grendel. Her sons were too young to fight the Geat; it would be simple for him to challenge their father to a swordfight for the kingship, then exile Wealhtheow and her two boys. Or kill her boys with the broadsword he left outside the hall. So Wealhtheow sat next to Beowulf, ready to slip adder’s venom into his cup. Hrothgar would not approve of his wife having poison at the ready, but Wealhtheow was practical. Her people had been worn down by Grendel, losing good warriors during night time attacks. Though dishonourable, poison was the only way Wealhtheow could be sure her family would survive if Beowulf wanted Herot for himself.
words were warm-hearted. Wealhtheow moved,
mindful of courtesies, the queen of Hrothgar,
glittering to greet the Geats in the hall,
peerless lady; but to the land’s guardian
she offered first the flowing cup,
bade him be blithe at the beer-drinking,
gracious to his people . . .