“He went to help Hrothgar, the King of the Dames.”

What a difference a letter makes—not even a letter, but just a little hump.

I’m not willing to dismiss this as a “mere” typo, though. First, my policy is “mistake in a rough draft = typo; mistake turned in  = mistake.”

More to the point here, students seem to have the sketchiest of ideas of other countries, old or current. I have read repeatedly, for example, that Dylan Thomas was a great poet of Whales. It would not surprise me one bit if the student here thinks that living over there with the Swedes and Norwegians are the Dames. The possibility of intention rather than error increases in matters of place-names and people-names in Beowulf. The monster Grendel has shown up in papers for me as Grendal, Grendle, Grendole, Grandal, and Grend. Hrothgar loses his H as often as not. Beowulf himself is sometimes referred to, chummily, as Beo (his grandpa’s name, but grandpa is rarely meant). Students who have no idea who the Geats are assume everyone in the poem is a Dane (or, as here, a Dame). Various translations of the poem transcribe/translate various names variously, to be sure; but only this student has brought Dames into the picture.

Now, in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene (1590, which means at least 600 years after Beowulf), the Squire of Dames makes a brief appearance in Book III. Run ragged seeking ladies to serve, and then seeking ladies who refuse to be served, he is a comic-pathetic presence in a section of the poem that considers light and dark aspects of sexuality.

I find in a cruise through the Internet’s choppy seas that “The Squire of Dames” has been used as a title for a number of subsequent stories and plays, and is even an “obsolete literary euphemism for pimp.”

But Hrothgar is not a pimp, or an occasion for a discussion of sexuality.

Perhaps the King of Dames has, over the centuries, lost not only rank but also integrity. Has he slid further since 1590, to be simply one of the singing sailors in South Pacific?

The word “dame” had a similar decline (except in Burke’s Peerage), from noblewoman to elderly woman…and, of course, to the thing there’s nothing like a.

If we try to picture the King of Dames in all his splendor, back there in the Beowulf days, I guess we have to drape him in buxom blonde-or-redheaded (noble?) beauties, a little cheap but with hearts of gold, their gowns rather TOO open at the neckline, perhaps too much jewelry, perhaps too heavy a hand with the berry-juice lip-stain. “This is the King,” says the guardsman to Beowulf; “and these are his dames.”


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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