Beowulf Read-Along Starting Week Four

Beowulf Read-Along Starting Week Four


Beowulf Read-Along


Week 4 – May 22 – 31; Lines 2200 – End



suppurate: form pus; fester
foment: instigate or stir up; incite
howe: hollow place
graith: accountrements; dress; gear

hoke: don’t know!


Quick Summary:  Time passes and Hygelac is killed in battle with the Shylfings, Headred his son takes over and Beowulf, though prodded to take the kingdom from Headred, instead supports him and only becomes King at Headred’s death.  He rules as a wise and successful king for 50 years.  Unbeknownst to the Geats, a dragon lurks in a barrow, where it guards a cursed treasure beyond wonders, and is finally stirred by a thief, a slave who steals a precious cup and awakens the creature’s wrath.  In his hunt, the dragon burns Beowulf’s throne-hall and Beowulf knows that he must confront this adversary in spite of foreseeing his own death.  When he faces the dragon, only Wiglaf, a kinsman, remains to assist him, and while Beowulf kills the dragon, he is mortally wounded.  Upon his death, Wiglaf prophecies defeat for the Geats at the hands of the Swedes because of their cowardice and the fact they are without a king.  The treasure is left as it was found, under a curse and Beowulf is given a noble funeral, a tribute to the remarkable and honoured king that he was.


Lines 2200 – 2396
We notice at this point of the poem, Beowulf has ruled fifty winters, the same amount of time that Hrothgar had ruled when Beowulf came to his aid: ” …… He ruled it well for fifty winters, grew old and wise as warden of the land …… “ (Lines 2208-2210)
Like Grendel had threatened Heorot, the dragon threatens the Geats.
We get a flashback to Hygelac’s death and receive more evidence of Beowulf’s “consideration” and honourable behaviour when he refused to usurp Heardred and his inheritance of the throne of the Geats: ” ….. with Hygelac dead, she (Hygd) has no belief in her son’s ability to defend their homeland against foreign invaders. Yet there was no way the weakened nation could get Beowulf to give in and agree to be elevated over Heardred as his lord or to undertake the office of kingship. But he did provide support for the prince, honoured and minded him until he matured as the ruler of Geatland ……. “ then after a fight with the sons of Ohthere : ” …. Heardred lay slaughtered and Onela returned to the land of Sweden, leaving Beowulf to ascend the throne, to sit in majesty and rule over the Geats. He was a good king…..” Beowulf passed up an opportunity for power and instead chooses to give Heardred his rightful inheritance and support him in his rule. An amazing choice that shows his loyalty, graciousness and his desire to do what is right. (Lines 2355 – 2390)
Lines 2397 – 2586
It is as if Beowulf feels his mortality as he recounts his earlier days and the stories surrounding his people. His last boast contains the highest goal of glory again: ” ….. I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning …….” (Lines 2425 – 2515)
I was a little perplexed as to why Beowulf announces himself to the dragon: ” ….. The lord of the Geats unburndened his breast and broke out in a storm of anger. Under grey stone his voice challenged and resounded clearly. Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized a human voice ……” Doesn’t it seem imminently sensible to sneak in and kill the creature, if he can? Again, it is as if Beowulf sets up for himself the ultimate challenge. (Lines 2516 – 2557)
What is it with these swords??! ” …… Beowulf was foiled of a glorious victory. The glittering sword, infallible before that day, failed when he unsheathed it, as it never should have……” First he decides to fight Grendel without a sword; then he decides to use a sword against Grendel’s mother; Unferth’s sword fails him so he has to use one he finds in the barrow; now he decides to use a sword but it fails. Infallible swords that fail in the highest time of crisis …….. I can’t help but think that there is an important point in all this that I’m missing, but I cannot for the life of me find it. (Lines 2583 – 2586)
Lines 2587 – 2801
” …… No help or backing was to be had then from his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives to the safety of the wood ……. in a man of worth the claims of kinship cannot be denied …..” After his men stood by him against Grendel, why do these ones run away? Cowardice? Fate? A sigh of a weaker people with less honour? Yet his kinsman, Wiglaf, stands by him. Perhaps the scene is simply a device to ensure that the reader sees Wiglaf’s loyalty and therefore the fact that he is to be Beowulf’s heir will be believable. Wiglaf then scolds the Thanes and he appears to try to shame them into standing by their lord but ends up going in to face the dragon with only Beowulf as his fellow-warrior. (2592 – 2630)
” ….. When he wielded a sword, no matter how blooded and hard-edged the blade his hand was too strong, the stroke he dealt (I have heard) would ruin it. He could reap no advantage …..” This appears to be an explanation of the failed swords, but if you examine the previous instance it appears that his sword had never failed him but failed him now, which would have had nothing to do with his strength. Yes, it is a conundrum. (Lines 2684 – 2687)
Beowulf fatally wounds the dragon but is wounded/poisoned by the creature and recounts his rule as his life fades away. Initially he wants to see the treasure: ” …….. I want to examine the ancient gold, gaze my fill on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go of the life and lordship I have long maintained …….”and then refers to his people: ” ……. To the everlasting Lord of All, to the King of Glory, I give thanks that I behold this treasure here in front of me, that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die. Now that I have bartered my last breath to own this forune, it is up to you to look after their needs …….” He clearly intend the treasure for his people even though he trusts God to take care of their needs. (Lines 2702 – 2801)
Lines 2802 – End
Wiglaf then rebukes the Thanes for betraying Beowulf in their cowardice and foretells that this one act will be known and cause the Geats to be attacked by their enemies, who will take advantage of their weakness. With the death of their peace-maker, who has maintained that peace through bravery and empathy, signifies the death of that peace and perhaps the death of their people. (Lines 2860 – 3027)
There are 50’s showing up regularly in this poem, 50 years of rule from both kings, the dragon was 50 feet in length and I think I saw another 50 somewhere. I wonder if this is meaningful or not …..???

” ……. Yet Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure when he first saw it was not selfish …..” More proof of Beowulf’s unusual qualities …… Wiglaf then indicates that Beowulf was intent on possessing the treasure and did not listen to their warning to leave the dragon alone. He orders Beowulf’s funeral pyre, removes the treasure, we see Beowulf’s funeral and then the surprising end ……. ” …….. They (the Geats) let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was ……” Wiglaf takes the changes in Beowulf a step further, not only renouncing the value of spoils (treasure) but questioning its value throughout history. The poem ends with a tribute to its hero: ” …… They said that of all the kings upon the earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.” (Lines 3074 – 3182 [End])

Does Beowulf’s legacy pass to Wiglaf, making him a new type of hero, or does the culture of fate and destiny still have a hold on this society?

For me, these last sections of the poem were the most difficult to understand, with many possible contradictions; the history of the treasure; the importance of the treasure to the poem — is it a symbol of fame and glory or a warning symbol of materialism and its effect on society; the significance of the number 50; we have more death caused by kin — what does this mean?; the contrast between Beowulf’s earlier contest with Grendel and this contest with the dragon; God not allowing Grendel near Hrothgar’s throne yet he allows the dragon to destroy Beowulf’s throne-hall, etc.  So many interweaving threads in this story leave wonderful trails to follow and with my fifth read of the poem I’m still pondering the implications of the themes it contains.  

I’d love to hear the comments of those of you still with us!



18 thoughts on “Beowulf Read-Along Starting Week Four

  1. I am late — as always — but I think I will pull _Beowulf_ from my bookshelf and try to catch up with you. Thank you for providing the catalyst for my return to what I have always regarded as a very strange work. Also, in the meantime, I will be putting together a small reading list of novellas for my upcoming reading adventures; I am soliciting suggestions at Beyond Eastrod, so if you have any novellas to recommend, please visit BE because I would be pleased to consider your suggestions in my upcoming reading.

  2. Oh, good! Beowulf's not that long, so it shouldn't take you long to catch up.

    I'll try to think of some worthwhile novellas for you, certainly!

  3. I guess I really need to read along. I've read the story twice but I don't think I understood much of the symbolism. I am enjoying reading your commentary, however. I wonder if there is a good book that interprets it. I'm usually loathe to do that, but for this poem I think I'll need to.

  4. Many of the translations have commentaries, but I don't know of a single book that is just a commentary. After finishing Heaney's Beowulf and reading a little of Tolkien's translation and all of Michael Swanton's, I would recommend reading the Heaney version first. Yes, you don't always get the meaning as directly as with Swanton and Tolkien, but you get the poetry; I imagine it's as close to the poem as if you were an original listener. Then read one of the others after (or concurrently). I'd recommend Swanton over Tolkien …… Tolkien has many fascinating notes but his translation sounds too literal and therefore somewhat awkward and stilted much of the time.

    It is good to have some background since the poet does tells stories that the people of his time would be familiar with and therefore, he doesn't go into great detail at times. It was beneficial to have Swanton's notes to give a greater understanding to the poem. Please feel free to come back and post any thoughts you have at a later date if you decide to re-read it, Sharon!

  5. There is a commentary called "Beowulf: An introdution to the study of the poem " by R.W. Chambers. Its available for free on the kindle. You can also get hardcopy or paper back but they are quite expensive. Its old (1921) so I dont know how dated it really is. I got it about 2 weeks ago and have read a little in it. Its quite interesting -there is a lot on the historicity of the poem, and some on symbolism. I was just reading a little bit of it last night, apparently a lot of characters in the poem were thought to be real people (but not Beowulf, Grendel, the dragon ).

  6. Wow, great questions!

    Regarding why Beowulf announces himself to the Dragon -I got the feeling that he either always wanted a fair fight, or he wanted everyone to know he was not taking unfair advantage and therefore was truly a hero. I think it was the same reason he did not use a sword with Grendel but took him on mano-a-mano. However why he used a sword for Grendel’s mother is unclear – it doesnt really fit this pattern.

    I love how you picked up on the 50s. I missed that. I have no idea why that might be. I wondered about the 12 men though that went with Beowulf to the dragon though. I always wonder, when there are 12 people, if it isnt a parallel to the 12 disciples. Its not clear to me in this case if it is.

  7. That sounds interesting. I know one of Tolkien's complaints was that critics insisted on looking at the poem merely from an historical standpoint and judging it from there, but nevertheless, I'd like to have some sort of historical base to place it in. My ancient Scandinavian history is almost non-existent. 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation, Dawn. I'll look it up.

  8. See, I told you that I'd probably have just as many questions as everyone else! 🙂

    I think that's a good assessment of the dragon vs. Beowulf. Also Beowulf seemed for foresee his death and perhaps "fate" told him that it wouldn't have mattered; if it was time for him to die, he'd die no matter what he'd use.

    I'm not sure about the 12 either. In the Prose Edda (a work of Old Norse literature), there are 12 male aesir (or Norse gods) listed. Also in Asgard (one of the nine worlds and home to a tribe of gods) there was a senior-god who had 12 names. But that's just incidental information picked up and I have no idea how it would relate to Beowulf's 12 warriors. It probably would be helpful to read up on some Norse mythology, which I haven't done yet. Another task to add to my reading schedule!

    Ooo, wait, I just found something else ……. in a poem contained withing Njal's Saga, twelve valkyries (female helping spirits of the god Odin) are seen just before the Battle of Clontarf, weaving at a loom the tragic fate of the warriors. That sounds more like Beowulf. I wonder …..

  9. Oh, the Nordic references to 12 sound much more likely. I know NOTHING about Nordic mythology – I need to read up on that some time.

  10. I'm so sorry I haven't been able to participate more and now we have our son coming for the weekend 🙁 Has just been one of those months!
    At least I've done the reading and a lot of extra reading as well and I can see this will be an ongoing project. It really has been a wonderful reading experience.

    I hope on Sunday I will be able to come back and add the odd thoughts – problem is there's so many!

  11. Life can get busy and push you off track, I know! Don't worry, Cat. The posts will still be here and you can return and add your observations later. I'm glad that you've been able to read it in any case. Have fun visiting with your son!

  12. Thanks so much for hosting, Cleo! I can tell you really put a lot of work into this. I wasn't a very good (i.e., didn't post weekly) participant, but I did manage to write a post today. Like you, I found the last section hardest to follow. And overall, I'm sure there's a lot I missed. For that matter, I hadn't even noticed how the story circles around, with Beowulf having ruled for 50 years when the dragon becomes his foe, as you point out above. This will definitely be a to-read-again.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!