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!



Beowulf Read-Along: Starting Week Three

Beowulf Read-Along Week Three
Beowulf Read-Along


Week 3 – May 17 – 24; Lines 1251 – 2199



kesh: causeway or log bridge
bulwark: a solid wall-like structure
brehon: ancient Irish lawyer or judge
thane: warrior, follower, servant
damascene: decorated sword or steel with peculiar markings
sept: a family or group of families under a head
gorget: a piece of armour for defending the throat


Quick Summary:  However ………. joy and celebration come too soon to Heorot, as Grendel’s mother arrives to reek vengeance for the death of her son.  She carries away Hrothgar’s most trusted warrior and friend, Aeschere, and so the Geats and the Danes are off in pursuit.  They come to a lake writhing with serpents and sea creatures, and Beowulf volunteers to attempt to kill the monster.  He swims for nearly a day until he is caught in the grasp of the dam and taken to her cavern, where the blade Unferth gave him fails and he is forced to take a different one from the wall to complete the killing.  To everyone’s shock, Beowulf emerges from the water victorious.  He is once again celebrated, and there are stories told which are intended to instruct character.  The Geats return to their king and Beowulf relates his adventures.



Lines 1251 – 1441
And so Grendel’s mother comes to Heorot to avenge his death and leaves with her son’s arm and one of Hrothgar’s most trusted friends.
Again we see the theme of winning glory as the highest goal in life: ” ….. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark……” So it is not only vengeance that is called for, but the desire to win fame for oneself.  (Line 1384-1389)
It is curious that Beowulf almost chastizes Hrothgar at the end of this section: ” …… Endure your troubles to-day. Bear up and be the man I expect you to be ….” Do I sense a frustration on Beowulf’s part with Hrothgar’s lack of action? Not at all the way I would expect someone to talk to a king, and I think it shows the power Beowulf wields over him. (Line 1395-1396)
What an effective scene where they come upon Aeschere’s head at the foot of the cliff and then see the water surging with different kinds of reptiles, and sea-dragons and monsters “slouching on slopes by the cliff”. I wonder what a sea-dragon looks like …… Perhaps like this:


Lines 1442 – 1491
Now comes one of the parts that fascinate me; Unferth lends Beowulf his sword, Hrunting, which has never failed in battle. ” …. (he – Unferth) could hardly have remembered the ranting speech he had made in his cups. He was not man enough to face the turmoil of a fight under water and the risk of his life. So there he lost fame and repute ….”  So it is reasonably obvious that Unferth has altered his original opinion of Beowulf after seeing his defeat of Grendel, gaining a healthy respect for him and even lending him his precious sword. It also appears as if a warrior’s reputation is like a bank account; every time he performs an heroic feat, he makes a deposit of glory but every time he shows an act of cowardice, glory is withdrawn. In this instance, one act of cowardice seems to clear his whole account! (Line 1455-1491)
Then we see Beowulf not only take the sword, Hrunting, but he then bequeaths his own sword to Unferth if he does not return. This is uncommon courtesy shown to a man who did nothing but taunt and jeer at him when he first came to Heorot. He should have killed Unferth for his insults, yet he shows a tolerance and then a grace that is quite perplexing given the society in which he lives, and yet is quite appealing.
” ….. With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die! …..” Hmmm …… we shall see …… (Line 1491)
Lines 1492 – 1650
” ….. then (he) heaved his war-sword and swung his arm: the decorated blade came down ringing and singing on her head. But he soon found his battle-torch extinguished: the shining blade refused to bite. It spared her and failed the man in his need. It had gone through many hand-to-hand fights, had hewed the armour and helmets of the doomed, but here at last the fabulous powers of that heirloom failed …..”  (Line 1520-1528)
So Unferth’s sword proves of no use to him. I wonder why he decided to use a sword on Grendel’s mother but not on Grendel? Did he feel she would be easier to kill? Had he earned enough glory with killing Grendel and did not need to earn such overwhelming renown? I can’t even guess the answer to this one.
But finally he finds a sword in Grendel’s mother’s den that does the trick and he lops off her head. He then finds Grendel and decapitates him before bringing his head to the surface.
Oh, the lack of faith of the Shieldings for Beowulf’s success. They all assume he is dead and skedaddle, but Beowulf’s thanes wait in hope and finally their hero emerges with Grendel’s head and the hilt of the sword.
So with this last act of Beowulf’s, ” …. his courage was proven, his glory was secure …..” Can he not lose his glory now because of these amazing feats of courage and bravery? A deposit that cannot be decreased?? (Line 1646)
Lines 1651 – 1790
Beowulf returns to Heorot to explain what happened during his sojourn into the depths of the waters after Grendel’s mother, and afterwards Hrothgar launches into a very long speech. It includes:
…. Hrothgar’s values: ” …. A protector of his people, pledged to uphold truth, justice and to respect tradition …..”  (Line 1700-1701)
….. Beowulf’s character: ” ….. In all things you are even-tempered, prudent and resolute ……”  (Line 1705-1706)
…… Hrothgar tells the story of King Heremod and contrasts him with Beowulf. He instructs Beowulf to, ” ….. learn from this and understand true values. I who tell you have wintered into wisdom …..” He follows this story with a cautionary monologue on the dangers of power without generosity and gratitude, and gives his own situation of an example of a journey from power to grief and helplessness. He exhorts Beowulf to live a life that is not focussed on material possessions or “external rewards”. Is he suggesting he concentrate on an internal building of character? Hmmm ….. doesn’t sound like advice from a king of a culture whose status is built upon winning glory and spoils …….. (Line 1709-1768)
Lines 1791 – 1887
” …….. Then that stalwart fighter ordered Hrunting to be brought to Unferth, and bade Unferth take the sword and thanked him for lending it. He said he had found it a friend in battle and a powerful help; he put no blame on the blade’s cutting edge. He was a considerate man…..”
Wow! Again, Beowulf’s actions appear to be outside the cultural norm. He thanked him and then lied about the degree of help the sword had been to him to spare Unferth’s feelings?! He certainly shows a consideration that defies explanation, especially after Unferth had originally mocked and challenged him. (Lines 1807 – 1812)
Hrothgar says more kind words regarding Beowulf and there is a foreshadowing when he says: ” ….. and you are still alive, then I firmly believe the seafaring Geats won’t find a man worthier of acclaim as their king and defender than you, if only you would undertake the lordship of your homeland……”It appears that Beowulf has not only won glory but also Hrothgar’s backing if ever an opportunity arises for him to become king of the Geats. (Lines 1849-1853)
We saw Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, being a peace-weaver in the last section as she pleaded for Beowulf’s consideration for her sons, but we see a similar attribution given to Beowulf: …… What you have done is to draw two peoples, the Geat nation and us neighbouring Danes, into shared peace and a pact of friendship in spite of hatreds we have harboured in the past ……”  Beowulf, too, is a peace-weaver. He has made peace with Unferth, Hrothgar and the Danes, and his own version of peace with Grendel and his dame. (Lines 1855-1857)
This was such a lovely part of the poem:
” …. And so the good and grey-haired Dane, that high-born king, kissed Beowulf and embraced his neck, then broke down in sudden tears. Two forebodings disturbed him in his wisdom, but one was stronger: nevermore would they meet each other face to face. And such was his affection that he could not help being overcome: his fondness for the man was so deep-founded, it warmed his heart and wound the heartstrings tight in his breast ……” and ” …… He was a peerless king until old age sapped his strength and did him mortal harm, as it has done so many …..”Again, Beowulf could have brought war to Hrothgar in his weakness and taken over his kingdom but instead he assisted him and won a friend and ally. However, we didn’t find out what the second thought that disturbed Hrothgar was, did we? (Lines 1870 – 1887)
Lines 1888 – 2199
The Geats appear to have a quick sail home, Beowulf brings his treasure to King Hygelac and Queen Hygd, we hear a story about Queen Modthryth, who is harsh and quick to deal punishment, until she is married to Offa whose influence appears to have worked great improvement in her character. Again, I’m not quite sure as to the purpose of the interposed story.  Perhaps simply a contrast of queens; how one should act (as a peace-weaver) and how one should not act (as a tyrant).
When Beowulf meets Hygelac, the king of the Geats says: ….. Did you help Hrothgar much in the end? Could you ease the prince of his well-known troubles? Your undertaking cast my spirits down, I dreaded the outcome of your expedition and pleaded with you long and hard to leave the killer be, let the South-Danes settle their own blood-feud with Grendel ……” Two points strike me here; first, all the peoples appeared to well know the problems and tragedy that Hrothgar faced with Grendel, yet no one was willing to help except Beowulf. I also noted that Beowulf went against his king’s wishes when he sailed for Heorot, and I think this infers his position was a well-respected and honoured one if he was allowed to do as he wished without the approval of the king. However, later it says the king originally did not think much of him so perhaps it is simply that Hygelac does not value Beowulf and therefore, does not really care what he does …..??? (Lines 1990 – 1998)
Beowulf begins to recount his tale but deviates from his story and begins to prophesy about the marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter and the tragedy that will happen, once again in the good, old blood-feud fashion. (Lines 2020 – 2068)
I was fascinated that Beowulf declined to go into detail about his heroic exploits: ” ….. It would take too long to tell how I repaid the terror of the land for every life he took and so won credit for you, my king and for all your people ……” Shocking that he would miss a chance to build his glory in the eyes of others and put the focus on his king and people. (Lines 2092 – 2095)

” …… Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers. He had been poorly regarded for a long time, was taken by the Geats for less than he was worth: and their lord too had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall. They firmly believed that he lacked force, that the prince was a weakling; but presently every affront to his deserving was reversed ….” (Line 2177-2189)  Initially, the Geats did not appreciate his virtues of consideration, kindness, empathy and temperance because they did not fit with their society and they did not understand them, but when these virtues were coupled with bravery, courage, and force of action, he finally got the recognition he deserved. Yet Beowulf appears to be a new type of warrior, a new type of person foreshadowing a new type of society. What do the rest of you think?

Week 4 starting post will go up on May 24th!  


Beowulf Read-Along: Starting Week Two

Beowulf Read-Along Starting Week Two
Beowulf Read-Along


Week 2 – May 9 – 16; Lines 710 – 1250





VOCABULARY (for those with the Heaney translation):

hasp: shut or fasten
hoop: clasp or encircle
hirpling: a fast but uneven gait.

lap: a part that lies along the side of a part of another


Quick Summary:  Beowulf awaits the monster and when Grendel arrives, he gives him the surprise of his life; so strong is Beowulf that he is able to rip off Grendel’s arm, and the monster escapes to the fens to bleed to death.  When morning comes, the kingdom celebrates Beowulf’s victory with a story of Sigemund, the dragon slayer and King Heremond (there is much foreshadowing in this section) by a ministrel, speeches giving thanks to the Lord, a doling out of gifts/treasure, and a final story about the Danes and Frisians with regard to blood feuds and revenge. To conclude this section, Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, honours Beowulf with a curious speech ……

Traits of Grendel

Picking up from the last section, I thought I would label some descriptions for Grendel.  My sympathy for him is non-existent, and and here is why:
“…. blood-lust rampant ….”
” …. powerful demon …..”
” ….a fiend out of hell ….”
” ….. grim demon ……”
“…… God-cursed brute …..”
” ….. creating havoc …….”
” ……. greedy and grim ….”
” …… inflamed from the raid ……”
“……. merciless Grendel ……”
” …… malignant by nature, he never showed remorse …”
” ….. hall-watcher’s hate ……”
” ……Grendel ruled in defiance of right …….”
” ……vicious raids and ravages of Grendel ….”
” …… long unrelenting feud …..”
” ….. how he would never parley or make peace nor pay the death-price ……”
” ….. all were endangered: young and old …..”
“……. dark death-shadow ……”
” ….. reavers from hell …….”
“……. inflicting constant cruelties …… atrocious hurt …. ”
(Lines 85-166)
He is evil, a murderer and, not only does he kill the people, he is “inflamed” by killing (and probably by eating his killings). He does not distinguish adults from children but will gladly murder both. He has never shown any remorse for his actions and, in fact, refuses even to speak with the Spear-Danes to make peace, nor will he pay the wergild. I can well imagine the terror the Danes feel towards this vicious creature, as they are powerless to stop his ravages.
I did not understand by my translation that the Danes came into Grendel’s territory. In fact, the Danes appear to have been in the area for generations and Grendel’s appearance seems relatively recent, but the text is not completely clear.
What bothers Grendel, is the joy that he is hearing: the lovely note of the harp, people singing and laughing and speaking about God. He hates everything that is good and is overcome with the will to destroy it.


Lines 710 – 835

And yet another example of Grendel’s evil as he comes to Heorot preparing more murders:” …… And his glee was demonic, picturing the mayhem …….” The fact that he was excited with joy at the though of killing and dismembering helpless people, makes me shiver. (Lines 730-731)
Okay, this is perhaps the goriest description I remember reading in any book: ” ….. struck suddenly and started in; he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench, bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body utterly lifeless, eaten up hand and foot …” Yuck! (Lines 739-744)
As soon as Grendel knows that he has met someone who is a match for him, he immediately is “desperate to flee” and “hide”, which paints him as a coward and a bully, although this word is entirely too weak to describe his demonic character. (Lines 754-763)
From the text, I understood that Beowulf decides to fight Grendel without a sword because of a type of honour; he wants to meet him on equal terms.  Is that what everyone else understands? Now, during the fight, his warriors try to attack Grendel with their swords but, ” …no blade on earth, no blacksmith’s art could ever damage their demon opponent. He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge of every weapon …” “He” appears to mean Grendel, which perhaps indicates that he has access to magic …..??? Of course, by having Beowulf fight the monster with his bare hands, it makes him appear more heroic.  (Lines 790- 807)

Lines 836 – 1061

” ……. Beowulf’s doings were praised over and over again. Nowhere, they said, north or south between the two seas or under the tall sky on the broad earth was there anyone better to raise a shield or to rule a kingdom ….”  Beowulf the hero! Of course, this deed would have given him enormous respect and power. (Lines 855-860)
“….. Yet there was no laying of blame on their lord, the noble Hrothgar; he was a good king …”  Hrothgar really should have tried to kill Grendel himself and, even if he died in the process, at least he would have died with honour. However, by the above lines, we can surmise that even if he had been cowardly, he must have had other good qualities that engendered respect in his warriors and allayed their scorn. The poet makes certain to include this line, so it appears to be important.  Again, this reminds me of King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings ….. and Heorot is very like Meduseld, the Golden Hall in Rohan. (Lines 861-862)
The tale of Sigemund, the dragon-slayer is a comparison between his exploits and those of Beowulf,  but does it also have another function?? (see questions) (Lines 884-914)
Of course, with Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel, the first acknowledgement is to the Lord and His favour, but there is someone else who is mentioned …” …… But now a man (Beowulf), with the Lord’s assistance, has accomplished something none of us could manage before now for all our efforts.  Whoever she was who brought forth this flower of manhood, if she is till alive, that woman can say that in her labour the Lord of Ages bestowed a grace on her …..”  Part of the honour of victory is given to Beowulf’s mother, another example of renown and recognition given to a woman. (Lines 938-945)

Beowulf’s mighty deed has certainly put Unferth in his place: ” ….. There was less tampering and big talk then from Unferth the boaster, less of his blather …….” Perhaps he will now give Beowulf the respect he has certainly earned. (Lines 978-980)
And my favourite line: ” …… Whoever remains for long here in this earthly life will enjoy and endure more than enough ….” It is a wise statement. The author is not fatalistic, like I might have expected, but contrasts “enjoy” and “endure” for a balanced picture of life. (Lines 1060-1061)

Lines 1062 – 1157

This is what I understood from the poem of the battle between the Danes & the Frisians:
Hildeburh his a Danish princess married to Finn, a Frisian king. The Danes, led by Hildeburh’s brother Hnaef, attack the Frisians on their home soil. Hnaef is killed along with Hildeburh’s son, a Frisian warrior. With the Danes losing, Hengest, a Dane, steps up and agrees to a truce with Finn, who says that the Danes can stay among the Frisians, be honoured with gifts, and be treated exactly as his own people (it appears the Danes cannot get home because it is wintertime and the sea is too rough). Enmity is nursed over the winter by the Danes and when spring arrives, they attack, killing Finn, stealing his treasures and they take Hildeburh back home. There is a mention of Guthlaf and Oslaf making an “old accusation” but I have no idea what that is about.

Lines 1158 – 1250
Here we see what appears to be a somewhat nervous Wealhtheow trying to secure the succession of kingship for her sons:
“……(to Hrothgar) and now the word is that you want to adopt this warrior as a son. So, while you may, bask in your fortune, and then bequeath kingdom and nation to your kith and kin, before your decease. I am certain of Hrothulf (Beowulf). He is noble and will use the young ones well. He will not let you down. Should you die before him, he will treat our children truly and fairly. He will honour, I am sure, our two sons, repay them in kind when he recollects all the good things we gave him once, the favour and respect he found in his childhood …..”
Just the fact that she has to make his speech indicates that she is not sure at all that Beowulf will honour her sons, and while this speech is diplomatic, Beowulf could not fail to miss her point.
I must say, this would be the perfect chance for Beowulf to attack Hrothgar and win treasure, bounty and more renown for himself. Hrothgar is weak and Beowulf is admired (and probably feared) by everyone. It is a perfect opportunity!
The gift of the torque to Beowulf is interwoven with a story of Hygelac’s death while wearing his torque. I got the impression that the message here was that, while treasure was good and perhaps even necessary to this culture, it cannot give life and that their fate could certainly be affected by their decisions. Is this a different tone than we have heard previously in this poem? 
” …. Fate swept him away because of his proud need to provoke a feud with the Frisians …”

Please put any questions, comments, or answers to the questions below in the comment area even further below! I’m going back into the previous week’s posts at the end of the section week to answer my own questions, so if anyone is curious, you can check out Week 1.


  1. The tale of Sigemund the dragon-slayer is a comparison between his deeds and those of Beowulf, but do you think it might serve another purpose?  If so, what purpose?  What about King Heremond?  Why was it important for the reader to learn about him?
  2. How did you interpret Wealhtheow’s speech?  Did you agree with my analysis?  Was there another purpose in her words other than honouring Beowulf and attempting to protect her sons’ inheritance?  Does she have a deeper objective?
  3. Did you see a motive or intent in the story of the actions between the Danes and the Frisians?  Why do you think the poet chose to include it?

Week 3 starting post will go up on May 16th!  

Beowulf Read-Along – Starting Week One

Beowulf Read-Along Starting Week 1
Beowulf Read-Along


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


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Beowulf Read-Along – Background Information

Beowulf Read-along Background Information

In another week we’ll be starting our Beowulf Read-Along and, as promised, this post contains some helpful background information, including my brief summary of Tolkien’s essay (for those of you who may not get the time to read it), culture, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Kennings and finally a link to Beowulf read in Old English.

Please feel free to add any information in the comments section that I may have missed; I’ve read the poem numerous times but I am by no means an expert and still have questions about some of the scenes and behaviour of the characters (as you’ll see when I start posting my notes weekly).  I hope that while this is a read-along, it can also be a “read-together” and we’ll all be able to add to each other’s enjoyment of this wonderful classic!


The Monster and the Critics
There was and is quite a bit of controversy about this poem.  When was it written?  Was Beowulf a real person?  Is it a true rendition of a traditional story, or was it later altered by monks to insert Christian themes?  Tolkien addresses some of these questions in this essay where he essentially criticizes the critics of his time. He basically says that the majority of the critics have stripped Beowulf down until it is merely an historical document and then have examined its faults based on this dissection. He makes the case that it is much more than history …… It is fable, myth, story, poetry, history, etc. …….. it is all of these things, but yet none of these things in the way that was understood by the pagan world up until the time of Beowulf. In fact, it is showing the merging of the Christian faith with the old pagan ideas, the poet looking back in time. Yet the fusion is not yet complete, which to me, makes the poem even more fascinating:
“It is through such a blending that there was available to a poet who set out to writea poem — and in the case of Beowulf we may probably use this very word — on a scale and plan unlike a minstrel’s lay, both new faith and new learning (or education), and also a body of native tradition (itself requiring to be learned) for the changed mind to contemplate together ……………”
” …….. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf — whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die: A theme no Christian need despise. Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night ……”

You can read the essay here.


The year 410 AD historically marks the withdrawal of the protection and rule of the Roman Empire from Britain.  Increasingly under pressure from barbarian attacks, the British people began to hire mercenaries from Germanic tribes of the European continent.  While this plan was at first satisfactory to both parties, the mercenaries soon began to entertain ideas of expropriating parts of Britain for their own settlements. These tribes of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes soon began to conquer parts of Britain, driving the peoples into Wales and other far places.  This is where the name Anglo-Saxon originates.  

This history explains the link between the setting of the poem and its poet/author:  Beowulf is from Geatland (modern Sweden), Hrothgar is a Dane (modern Denmark), yet the poet is British.  He is most likely writing about his heritage. 
The dating of the poem is unclear.  Because Anglo-Saxon England was not Christianized until around 600 AD, and scholars believe that it was composed sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, that gives us a possible 400 year window of time.


To give a very simplistic overview of a very complex topic, the pagan culture of Beowulf’s time was basically a blood-feud society; if someone offended you, you would simply try to massacre him and his family, which, of course, would require him and/or his relatives to attempt the same. It was a form of justice that was often cyclical and quite bleak.

‘Wergild’ was money that a man or family could pay in compensation for a killing instead of having himself or one of his relatives killed.    

One of the most critical elements of this culture was the relationship between the king (or lord) and his warriors.  The appellation of “ring-giver” in the poem gives us a clue as to how this relationship played out.  In return for loyalty, the king would reward his followers with lavish gifts.  In return for his generosity, the warriors, or “thanes”, would fight for him in times of danger from his enemies.  It was imperative that the lord and his thanes establish this foundation; if it failed in any way, the society surrounding it would collapse.

On a more positive side, this society admired the qualities of loyalty, bravery, courage, and perseverence, although these qualities weren’t necessary extolled for the virtue itself but more in the context of allegiances that would preserve the family unit or oneself.  

“Wyrd” or fate was understood as a man’s destiny: what was going to happen to him without any control on his part. For example, from a modern standpoint, a man might think that by choosing not to go into battle, he would not die. The view of a warrior from Beowulf’s culture would be that honour demanded he fight and ‘wyrd’ would determine whether he lived or he died. My sense is that ‘wyrd’ was not a negative concept (his ‘wyrd’ could cause him to have courage in battle and earn great renown). I also think they did not necessarily view death as emotionally as we do now; it just was, and while there may be regret, it was simply part of life. What was most important is that one died with honour and renown.
Treasure Hunt: With the above in mind, keep special note of Beowulf’s actions and behaviour in certain situations during the poem. I’m going to ask some questions as we go along ….. 🙂

Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry followed old Germanic verse. The meter goes by stress-count (stressed syllables) rather than syllable count as we are used to in, for example, iambic pentameter (five pairs of syllables, second syllable stressed). Anglo-Saxon verse balances two main stresses in each half of a line.
Alliteration (the repetition of sounds) is often used in contemporary poetry, but the Anglo-Saxons used it even more. Beowulf uses alliteration in almost every line, with a least one alliterating words in each half line, but often more.
A kenning is a poetic device which uses compound words or phrases that identify persons, places, or things in expressive imagery. Usually colourful figures of speech are used to substitute the common name of the noun, an attribute of it, or something closely related to it.
Examples from Beowulf:
Whale-road & Swan-road = the sea
Bone-lappings = ligaments
Sky-candle = the sun
Heaven’s joy = the dawn
Iron-shower = battle
Beowulf Read in Old English
Here is a link to the opening lines of Beowulf read in Old English by Benjamin Bagby:

Other Sources

In Search of Beowulf (BBC)Historian Michael Wood returns to his first great love, the Anglo-Saxon world, to reveal the origins of our literary heritage. Focusing on Beowulf and drawing on other Anglo-Saxon classics, he traces the birth of English poetry back to the Dark Ages.”  Wood makes a few sweeping statements for dramatic effect, giving information as if we know it, whereas actually we can only guess, but overall this is a very interesting episode, including a glimpse of the original manuscript and a view of a performance of the poem. (approx. 1 hr)
Beowulf – BBC Radio 4“Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the epic poem Beowulf, one of the masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon literature. Composed in the early Middle Ages by an anonymous poet, the work tells the story of a Scandinavian hero whose feats include battles with the fearsome monster Grendel and a fire-breathing dragon. It survives in a single manuscript dating from around 1000 AD, and was almost completely unknown until its rediscovery in the nineteenth century. Since then it has been translated into modern English by writers including William Morris, JRR Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, and inspired poems, novels and films.”  Three professors from Oxford, King’s College London and Worcester College discuss the poem. (43 min.)

*** Excerpts of Beowulf read by Seamus Heaney from the Norton Anthology of Literature site (see #1)  Thanks for the heads up, Dawn!

*** Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf – archived MOOCS course from MIT

*** On Translating Beowulf – Seamus Heaney – I love what he says about people forgetting that with poetry, there is an important relationship between sound and meaning
Of course, some of the above links include spoilers, so you may want to wait until after you’ve read Beowulf to check them out.
I believe that’s it for now.  The opening post for our first section will go up on April 30th.  

(*** = additions to post) 
Hwæt! We Gar-Dena   in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga,   þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas   ellen fremedon!
Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. (Tolkien translation)