Week 1 – May 1 – 8; Lines 1 – 709
VOCABULARY (for those with the Heaney translation):
In case anyone needs a little help
thole: to bear; endure
torque: a collar or neck chain, usually twisted
reaver: spoiler; plunderer
thane: free servant or attendant to a lord
bolter: covered in (blood)
bawn: enclosure of mud or stone walls around a house or castle
mizzle: mist or fine rain
Quick Summary: So Hrothgar’s lineage begins with Shield Sheafson, his great-grandfather who was a foundling but built a prosperous kingdom through battle. Beow was his son, who was followed by Halfdane, Hrothgar’s father. Hrothgar is at first smiled on by fortune, but then Grendel appears, to ruin his precious Hall, eat his men, and disrupt his later years of kingship. After 12 years of Heorot enduring the monster’s carnage, Beowulf arrives to settle a debt, promising to kill the vile creature or die in the attempt. There is feasting and then Hrothar hands over Heorot to Beowulf to await Grendel ……
The poem begins with the lineage of Hrothgar. What I find interesting to note is that Shield Sheafson did not inherit the kingship, but was actually a foundling who won it by his bravery and the fact he slaughtered countless numbers of people. “……. scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes …… “ These were the “virtues” that were admired, and allowed an unknown warrior to become king. (Lines 1-11)
Lines 20 – 25:
After Shield becomes king, the kingship seems to follow a path of direct lineage. Beow, Shield’s son, is “prudent”, “giving freely while his father lives so that afterwards in age when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him ….”, an indication that not only do you need to be brave and a consummate killer, but that loyalty must be purchased for a king to remain in power: (Lines 20-25)
“Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere.” (Lines 24-25)
Lines 26 – 52:
We read about the funeral of Shield Sheafson. I was surprised to see the words: “No man can tell, no wise man in hall or weathered veteran knows for certain who salvaged that load.” They seemed to know that the body could land somewhere and the treasure and offerings be taken by someone else. Interesting ….. (Lines 26-52)
Lines 56 – 82:
Halfdane is Beow’s son and he had the three sons and a daughter, Hrothgar being the second son. When it says: “The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar……”, we cannot be certain whether his older brother, Heorogar was killed in war, or that Hrothgar won more renown and loyalty than Heorogar, and therefore was accepted as king. Heorot, the great mead-hall, appears to have been built as a tribute to Hrothgar’s greatness …….. (Lines 56-82)
Lines 126 – 147
I thought the author (and Heaney) did a wonderful job of describing Grendel. I almost shiver as I imagine him coming into the mead-hall with all the unsuspecting warriors asleep. Cain was God-cursed for murdering and being unrepentant and, like Cain, so is Grendel. In one swoop, he carries off 30 men! We are not directly told his size, but he must be huge.
What puzzled me in this section (and the upcoming ones) is that Hrothgar does not fight. He is an honoured king who must have reached such renown by the battles he has won and the people he has slaughtered. Why is he so hesitant to fight Grendel?
….”Their mighty prince, the storied leader, sat stricken and helpless, humiliated by the loss of his guard, bewildered and stunned, staring aghast at the demon’s trail, in deep distress….”
WHY? Is he afraid? Even if Grendel is powerful, wouldn’t dying a death to defend your home and people be more honourable than sitting and doing nothing? Is he simply old now and cannot get up the courage to fight? He allows the carnage to go on for 12 years! I am really perplexed by Hrothgar’s lack of action. (Lines 126 – 147)
It sounded like Hrothgar was living in peaceful times, erecting a type of memorial for himself and then all of a sudden this monster appears and starts to wreak havoc. Perhaps he was looking for peace in his old age and, because of his age, is overwhelmed by such a unstoppable demon. I want him to spring up and at least take a few swings at Grendel but he is powerless. Not the response I’d imagine from a respected king of the Spear-Danes.
Lines 194 – 355
Quite an impressive entrance by Beowulf and his warriors. Their courage, bravery and self-assurance is readily apparent to both the coast-guard and the warrior, Wulfgar, they meet at Heorot. I loved the coast-guard’s response to Beowulf’s statement that he has come to kill the monster: “Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done.” (Lines 287-289)
Even after 12 years of the monster ravaging their halls, the Spear-Dane warriors still have respect for their king; Wulfgar calls him, “our noble king”, “our-dear lord”, “friend of the Danes”, and “giver of rings”.
And why has Beowulf come? Why would he risk the lives of himself and his men? To prove his bravery with a feat no one has been able to accomplish, or is there another reason ….???
Lines 399 – 498
Beowulf is clear with Hrothgar that he only wants his men to contend with the monster:
” ……. my one request is that you won’t refuse me, who have come this far, the privilege of purifying Heorot, with my own men to help me, and nobody else.” (Lines 429-432)
Beowulf does not know the Spear-Danes. He does not know if he can trust them, how much he can trust them, how they fight, what their actions might be during a fight, etc. When he left Geatland, I got the impression that he chose his warriors carefully, as he knew it was going to be a great task and perhaps not one he was willing to share with men who had not been able to deal with the monster and men whom he did not know. (Lines 427 – 441)
Ah ha! Now we find out the motivation for Beowulf’s offer of help. Hrothgar payed wergild for one of Beowulf’s father’s (Ecgtheow) killings and gave him shelter in his banishment. Because of his father’s debt, Beowulf owes Hrothgar a favour as well as his allegiance. Is it telling that Hrothgar brings up this debt instead of Beowulf? Does this fact decrease impression of the unselfish act of bravery Beowulf is presenting? (Lines 456-479)
We also find out that Hrothgar’s older brother, Heorogar had died but we don’t find out why. (Lines 467-469)
Lines 499 – 709
The verbal sparring and boasts between Beowulf and Unferth is a long section of the poem and therefore gives an indication that it is rather important. It is the height of ungraciousness (and not to mention stupidity) to try to make a renowned warrior, and especially one who has arrived to rescue the kingdom, look foolish. Beowulf extinguishes any influence Unferth’s words might have had with a magnificent accusation, basically calling him a coward and accrediting him with murdering his family. It’s a shocking allegation. Killing other people’s kin is expected, but killing your own is truly heinous. I assume Unferth is left alive after 12 years because of his cowardice, yet Beowulf firmly puts him in his place ….. ” …… you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell …..” (Lines 499 – 606) [Strangely, in the audiobook version read by Seamus Heaney —— wonderful, BTW ——– they chose to delete this whole section, a crime I think, because it is so necessary to later understand Beowulf’s character and motivations]
We also see a rare appearance of a woman in this story, Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s queen. There is obviously a respect for women in this society and Beowulf treats her with great courtesy. (Lines 607 – 641)
As he prepares with his warriors to face the monster, notice that Beowulf says: ” ……There’s nothing you wish for that won’t be yours if you win through alive ….” A little monetary incentive towards bravery! (Lines 642 – 661)
As to why Beowulf decides to fight Grendel unarmed, I can only assume that he wants an even match. Honour is all-important in this society. I can see Unferth accusing him of having an advantage with a sword, but by using only his bare hands, he will win even more glory for himself. It is funny that Beowulf uses a pillow when he sleeps: “Then down the brave man lay with a bolster under his head …. “ 😀 There is quite an emphasis in this section of God having control over the situation ………. previously Hrothgar had gone to his counsellors and pagan gods but it is quite clear here that the author wants us to see that Beowulf has God on his side. (Lines 662 – 709)
Please put any questions, comments, or answers to the questions below in the comment area even further below!
- Why do you think that Hrothgar has not fought Grendel?
- Why do you think Beowulf allows Unferth to speak to him in such a manner?
- Any thoughts with regard to the pagan vs. Christian references so far?
- Did a few of these scenes remind you of any of Tolkien’s works?
Week 2 starting post will go up on May 8th!
The following are answers to the above questions. Please keep in mind, that these answers are my opinions (or often guesses) based on the text. Often, they may not be the only answer, just aspects of the poem that have stood out for me.
1. In this culture, the king should have fought. The fact that he hasn’t is unusual. Is it because he is too old, or too weak, or too scared, or is Grendel simply too menacing to expect an outcome other than death? I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to know exactly why, but I do think it’s an important point of the story, in that his behaviour is counter to what is expected.
2. Again, there is no reason given. And again, Beowulf’s response is counter-cultural. He should have challenged Unferth and killed him. However, his actual response is rather mild. Another indication of a difference in the cultural norm.
3. What is so fascinating is that there is an intermixing of both pagan and Christian views. They neither appear entirely Christian or pagan. On one hand, they thank God and invoke His goodness and His control over situations, and on the other they profess fate and seek out pagan counsellors. While both beliefs are still present, they grate against each other, and I can understand, at some point, that one will have to win out over the other.
4. For me, King Theoden of Rohan shone out from Hrothgar, and Meduseld was Heorot.