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Beowulf Circa Eighth Century

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Old English epic poem. See also Beowulf Criticism.

Beowulf is the earliest surviving long poem in Old English and has been described as the greatest of its kind. Although the origins of this account of Dark Age warrior cultures and of heroes and monsters battling one another remain for the most part a mystery, many scholars agree that Beowulf was probably composed in the eighth century and that its unknown author, as well as the poem's early audience, possessed at least a basic familiarity with Christianity. The only extant manuscript of Beowulf was damaged by fire in 1731, before it could be transcribed; thus, portions of the poem are missing. This fact, along with the difficulty of rendering the poet's elusive style and many allusions to events and legends long past, has made the process of interpreting Beowulf both a challenge and a source of debate for modern literary critics.

Plot and Major Characters

The plot of Beowulf can be divided into two parts. In part one, the Geatish hero, Beowulf, who is remarkable for his extraordinary strength and courage, sails to Denmark to defeat Grendel, a terrifying monster that has been preying on the warriors—or "thanes"—of the aging Danish king, Hrothgar, at Heorot Hall. After slaying Grendel, Beowulf enjoys the gifts and banquet provided for him by the grateful Danes. Later that night, however, Grendel's avenging mother interrupts the celebration by attacking the Hall, thus obliging Beowulf to fight and kill her. Having freed Heorot of these evil menaces, Beowulf returns home. Part two is set many years later in the land of the Geats, where Beowulf has long since become king. Now, as an aging ruler himself, Beowulf must defeat a dragon that threatens his people. With the help of his faithful young retainer, Wiglaf (the rest of his men have fled in fear), Beowulf destroys the dragon but receives a mortal wound during the battle. After his cremation and burial along with the dragon's treasure hoard, ill fortune is predicted for the Geatish nation. In addition to this main plot, the narrative is also interspersed with several digressions, which allude to other heroes or stories and serve as commentary on the main action of the poem.

Major Themes

Among the numerous themes identified in Beowulf, a principal one is that of friendship, known in the context of the poem as comitatus, or the closeness which exists between

a ruler and his men. According to the precepts of comitatus, a leader rewards his thane—such as Beowulf in the first part of the poem or Wiglaf in the second—for his acts of courage and loyalty by granting him material gifts and high social status. Closely related to comitatus is the tradition of the feud, a custom of avenging oneself and one's people for harm done by an enemy. Critics observe that the theme of feuding applies not only to the warrior cultures represented in the poem, but also to Grendel's mother, who attacks Heorot to avenge her son's death. Finally, commentators have perceived in the somber, elegiac tone at the close of Beowulf the culmination of such themes as aging, the destructive and endless nature of feuding, the shortness and brutality of life, and the death of the pagan heroic code—a system of belief which offered immortality only through fame. Additionally, many critics have argued that the poem represents the waning of pagan traditions as they were superseded by the values of Christianity.

Critical Reception

Largely because its exact origins are unknown, Beowulf has elicited much critical disputation. Many early critics faulted the poem's organization, arguing that Beowulf's, numerous digressions detract from its aesthetic unity. Several scholars have suggested that these divagations imply that the poem was in part edited by individuals other than the original author-monks, for example, who endeavored to give the poem a Christian rather than a pagan emphasis. Alternatively, some scholars have asserted that the poem achieves unity only if it is read as a Christian allegory with the hero, Beowulf, as a Christ-like figure. More recently, critics have argued that its themes of revenge and the brevity of life, unifying mood, and complementary structural elements—such as Beowulf's series of heroic battles—provide for coherence in the poem. The nature of the Beowulf poet has also been a source of considerable critical interest. Some have speculated as to his religious background, inquiring if the poet was Christian or pagan. Others have explored the details of the poem's composition, whether as oral or written literature. Lastly, while some critics describe the somber ending of Beowulf as a condemnation of its hero's pagan beliefs, others see the conclusion as a solemn farewell to a moral code replaced in the subsequent Christian era.

Margaret E. Goldsmith (essay date 1960)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8936

SOURCE: "The Christian Theme of Beowulf," in Medium Aevum, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1960, pp. 81-101.

[In the following excerpt, Goldsmith contends that the story and symbolism of Beowulf are coherent only when the poem is given a Christian interpretation rather than a secular, pagan one; however, Goldsmith warns that the character Beowulf is not meant to be regarded as Christ-like.]


The poem Beowulf as we have it contains indisputably Christian sentiments and vocabulary, and handles familiarly and allusively certain Biblical stories. Yet there lingers a belief that these are extraneous trappings, that the feeling of the poem is essentially pagan, or at the best only half-heartedly Christian. I shall seek to show that it gains considerably in coherence and significance if we allow ourselves to be guided by the poet's own emphases in the choice and presentation of the stories and his moral reflections upon them. A literate Anglo-Saxon poet would in the normal course of things have learnt to read in a monastery, where his daily reading would be much on the Psalms and certain other parts of the Bible, and where his attitude to the meaning of meaning would be formed by the traditional exegetic methods of the homilists. To such a man, Cain, the giants, the dragons, would be historical realities and at the same time symbols of spiritual strife continually existing. On the secular plane, the poem falls apart, not merely into two scarcely related adventures with monsters, but into a number of fragmentary scraps which can only be accounted for as concessions to the fantastic weakness of the putative audience for 'digressions' or to the inability of the poet to restrain himself from going off at a tangent. Considered as a poem of ideas rather than of physical action, it has a pattern, a progression, and a purpose which explains the structure of the narrative.

There are certain false critical assumptions about the poem which do the poet some disservice.

First: that the hero Beowulf is the poet's ideal. Many notable scholars have convinced themselves that Beowulf is presented as the saviour of his people, like a Christian knight, or even like Christ himself, in spite of the fact that even in the final eulogy there is no hint of this. Beowulf is presented as a noble hero, but not as the complete paragon of kingly virtue. One can imagine a comparable Christian poem about King David: there would be much to praise in the hero, but no-one would suggest that his every act was held up for imitation by the poet's patron.

Second: that the poet's beliefs can be identified with those which motivate his characters, in spite of the fact that he himself stands apart as commentator.

Third: that the poem only makes sense if one has learnt, from other sources, the unmentioned details or later consequences of the events described. From this assumption comes a good deal of unnecessary puzzlement. The tidy version of the stories, as sifted from the analogues by the editor, often looks much more remote from the argument of the poem than those features of the stories which the poet has chosen to recall. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the episode of Sigemund and Fitela (ll. 874-986), where the poet tells of a hero and his nephew who were comrades in many a battle with giants and in much human strife, though the uncle stood alone when he killed the great dragon and carried off its treasure in his ship. Loyalty and treachery among kin, giant-slaying, dragon-fights, treasure hoards, are all integral parts of what the poet is writing about, and these are the aspects of Sigemund's life-story which bear upon the tale of Beowulf as he has conceived it. The incestuous begetting of Fitela, the curse upon the Nibelung's treasure, are discarded, if known, as irrelevant here. By the same critical method one can reconstruct the Finn story so that it appears to be a lay in honour of the Danes, disregarding the ironic comparison between the pent-up passions (like the winter waves locked in the bond of ice) of the Danes forced to swear allegiance to Finn, and the concealed hatred which will destroy Hrothgar's family.

If we look at the story as the poet presents it, we shall remember the foreign queen Hildeburh when we learn of the betrothal of Freawaru, and recall the burning of Finnsburg when Beowulf reminds us of the unquenchable hatred between Ingeld's men and the followers of his bride. There are other and different purposes in the telling of this lay: the swift transition from the splendid description of the Scylding king's gifts to Beowulf to the glittering splendour of the gold on Hnæf's funeral pyre has the same effect as the sudden picture of devouring fire superimposed on the first account of the splendours of Heorot. The delayed revenge of Hengest may be recalled when Beowulf must take the throne from his lord's slayer, Onela. These and other links with the 'main plot' may easily be obscured if we concern ourselves with the quasi-historical puzzles of the Finn affair, on the assumption that the allusive method of writing demands much knowledge in the audience. The only demand on the listener, as I see it, is that he shall remember what has gone before in the poem. To our generation this is not easy, but this demand on the memory appears to be inherent in this kind of narrative technique, which constantly foreshadows coming events. Each thunderstorm is presaged by a cloud no bigger than a man's hand. A poet who adopts a method of this sort is likely to be a man who sees his work whole and chooses his effects with deliberation.

I believe that we have here a skilled Christian poet who has chosen to retell the story of a pre-Christian hero in such a way as to impart certain moral lessons. The danger of celebrating a pagan hero he has ingeniously avoided by giving his characters a pre-Christian setting, as if they had lived B.C. Like the Israelites of the Old Testament, they can be presented as servants of the Lord, under the moral obligations of the 'Old Law'. There were giants in the world of Genesis (c. 6, 4), enemies of God. There was divinely sanctioned blood-vengeance (c. 9, 5-6). There was strife between the kin of Cain and the men of God. Thus the whole Beowulf story of feuds between men and supernatural creatures, and amongst men, can without inconsistency be conceived as belonging to that primitive world, with its hero, like another Samson, as the (not immaculate) champion of God.

The poet quite evidently means to show that the strife with the Grendel kin is part of the uncompoundable feud between God's people and the race of Cain. Beowulf's victory in this strife is symbolized by the hilt of the giant-made sword which he used, with God's help, to behead the monsters. When the trophy of victory is examined in Heorot, it is seen to bear an engraving which depicts the antediluvian war between the giant-race and the Creator. This engraving is so unnecessary to the adventure story of Beowulf the Geat, and so essential a part of the religious theme, that it makes a very significant pointer to the poet's conception of his work.

It must not be forgotten that the devil and his crew have their place in the Genesis-world. When Hrothgar is made to speak (in 11. 1740 ff.) of arrows of the devil which wound a man's soul while its guardian sleeps, his phrasing is Christian, but there is nothing anachronistic in the doctrine. The sin of pride, against which Hrothgar is warning the victorious hero, is older than Adam's fall.

If all the poet had done were to draw the poison from a heathen heroic lay, we should have to treat him as a reviser rather than a creative artist. But his work is not by any means of a negative kind. He has not only seen the adventures of Geatish Beowulf in a new perspective: he has joined them with other material, so as to compose a poem of a new kind, for which the name heroic elegy is the best so far found. He has woven in two themes: the theme of dom and the theme sic transit gloria mundi. Neither of these themes is in itself Christian: Hávamál is sufficient evidence to the contrary. If the poem were simply about the inevitability of death and decay, and the endurance of fame after death, God would have no necessary place in it, and Beowulf's piety would be incidental. Many scholars have looked at the poem like this. But they have been puzzled by one thing: why, with so many heroic stories at his command, did the poet choose Beowulf's fights with the Grendel kin and the dragon as the high points of his poem? I do not find any satisfactory answer to this, except the answer offered by Professor Tolkien, that the monsters, though indisputably living and breathing creatures, are symbolic of the powers of evil.

But I do not find the whole answer here. There are still awkward questions to be asked. What have Hrothgar's moral discourse and the dragon's cursed treasure to do with one another? Why, if Beowulf is the champion of good against evil in his last fight, does he not openly put his trust in God, as he does before the other fights?

We can offer solutions to these puzzles in two different ways. We can say that the poet, in reworking an older story, was content to leave some of the heathen motivation in the latter part, ignoring the discrepancies thus caused. Or we can argue that the poet knew his craft, and deliberately prepared for the nature and outcome of the last contest, using his common device of foreshadowing the future, in the scene of Hrothgar's warning to young Beowulf (11. 1698-1784). The second way seems to be more in accord with our general assessment of the poet's qualities as narrator.

Most interpreters of the poem take no account of the change in Beowulf's character as it is revealed in the last section of the poem. We do not see the processes of change: we are confronted with old Beowulf, on whom time and success and worldly prosperity have left their mark, and we see middle-aged Beowulf only through his own reminiscent eyes. In the dragon affair we do not find the Beowulf of the Grendel fight. The old man is no less courageous, no less physically strong, but he is overcome, because he is arrogantly confident of his power to assay the contest unaided, and his expressed motives are worldly. Such a moral deterioration Hrothgar had fore-seen. The ageing Beowulf is boastful of his previous successes, whereas the young champion was comparatively reticent (see his reply to Hygelac's invitation to recount what happened to Grendel, 11. 2093-6) and was careful to give the credit to God, and to include his companions in his first account of his exploit (1. 958). Old Beowulf parted from his thanes for the last time, spurning their help.

The tragedy of Beowulf is more than a contrast between Youth and Age: Beowulf does not fall because he is old, but because Sigora Waldend is not with him.

The poem is not only about the hero Beowulf, and in what follows I have looked afresh at the narrative in the light of my two assumptions, that the poet was a man whose thinking was moulded by traditional Christian teaching, and that the presentation of the stories is our best guide to his governing purpose. In the space available to me, I am forced to select only the most noteworthy instances of the poet's Christian teaching, but I am convinced that the treatment of the rest can be shown to support my general contentions.


Consider the opening: up to 1. 193 the hero does not appear at all. Why, we may ask, begin with Scyld? The usual explanation, to show the glory of the Danish dynasty, seems to miss the point. Almost half the lines concerning Scyld are descriptive of the treasure loaded upon his funeral ship. Not Scyld's mysterious childhood, not the great battles of his kingship, but the splendid futility of his funeral is what the poet dwells upon. The magnificent hoard sailed no man knows where, but Scyld went on Frean wære (1. 27). Pagan as Scyld was, no-one is to begin to think that he made a triumphant voyage to Valhalla. There is no anachronism here: the poet believes that God sent Scyld to the lordless Danes; into God's keeping he went. This passage is typical of the poet's handling of his pre-Christian heroes; God ruled them as he rules all men:

Whenever he has to tell of mysterious or supernatural happenings the poet repeats this affirmation, sometimes bluntly, as here, sometimes with great delicacy, as when the sword melting in the monster's poisonous blood is likened to the melting ice which the Father sets free from winter's bond (1. 1608), or when the unearthly light in the underwater cavern is likened to rodores candel, so that the hearer is reminded of the Creator who

gesette sigehrepig    sunnan ond monan,
leoman to leohte     land-buendum.
(ll. 94-5)

The poet moves swiftly from Scyld's treasure-ship to Hrothgar's towering palace of Heorot, greatest monument to his worldly success. And at once he turns it to a blackened ruin before our eyes. It will be destroyed in the blaze kindled by a passion of hatred between the king and his son-in-law. We need no footnote on the Heathobard feud to explain the impact of this. It is enough that vengeful hatred will destroy this great work of men's hands, and that the hatred will spring up where there should be most loyalty. The story of Freawaru's marriage has its place in the narrative, but the poet is not so inept as to tell it here, when the stark facts of the splendour and the ruin make his point.

The hint of treachery and hatred is enough to lead into the Cain-theme which dominates the first part of the poem. Cain could not endure that his brother's worship was acceptable to God while his own was not: the Hymn of Creation sung by a Dane in Heorot rouses the same malicious envy in Grendel, one of Cain's brood. In the terror of Grendel's attacks, some Danes turn to the worship of idols: hell is in their hearts. The poet speaks with horror of their prospect of damnation, infinitely worse than the earthly ills which have driven them to this desperation (11. 175-88).

Beowulf comes as a God-sent deliverer 'to cleanse Heorot'. Both he and Hrothgar acknowledge God's governance, and I find no difficulty in the fact that the hero uses proverbial expressions, such as 'Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel' (1. 455). Only in the last part of the poem does Beowulf speak of Fate without speaking also of God's control of Fate, and this is in keeping with my contention that the old king has lost his trust in God. I see no reason to suppose that the poet's view of wyrd would differ from that of Boethius. The Alfredian version of the De Consolatione Philosophiæ shows the English Christian's way of using the old word wyrd:

Đæt ðætte we hataþ) Godes foreþonc and his foresceawung … siððan
hit fullfremed bið, ðonne hataþ we hit wyrd.

The next event in the narrative is Unferth's challenge and Beowulf's reply. This interchange reveals more than the story of the swimming-match. Unferth's envy makes an attempt to stir up strife, but Beowulf is not roused to offer him violence, in spite of the provocation. This unaggressive quality of the mighty hero is a part of his character stressed by the poet, nowhere more than in his funeral dirge:

Though we see him in the grip of righteous wrath when he pitilessly destroys Grendel and his dam, we are also in sundry ways made aware that he is not a man governed by passion or a fighter for the love of fighting. The brief mention of his despised boyhood (11. 2184-8) I believe to be retained from the old tale to reinforce this impression that Beowulf was not by nature savage and wild. His reluctance to fight without good cause earned him the reputation of cowardice, until he had proved himself in his early monster-fights. The contrast which is made between him and Heremod is in part a contrast between the hero whose mind controls his mighty strength and the strong man who misuses his great gift because he cannot govern his passions (11. 1711-19).

The interchange with Unferth also reveals the nature of this trusted counsellor of King Hrothgar. Beowulf's retort makes the accusation that Unferth has killed his own brother. It can hardly be accidental that the sins of Cain—envy and the murder of kin—are thus disclosed as an evil within Heorot. A little later we infer that the same evil is a canker in the heart of Hrothulf (11. 1018-19) and that this will cause the death of the sons of Hrothgar.

Concerning the Grendel-fight, I would only observe that Beowulf trusted in God (11. 685-7) and God gave him victory (11. 696-7) over his superhuman foe, who would gladly have fled from him to hide himself amidst a concourse of demons (1. 756).

After the victory comes a time of gaiety, when songs and lays are sung by the Danes. It is in the choice of these entertainments, which are not dictated by the action of the Beowulf story, that we ought to discern very clearly what was in the poet's mind. I have already spoken above of the Sigemund lay. The poet draws the threads together very skilfully here: Sigemund's dragon-treasure loaded in the bosom of his ship is not only to be recalled when Beowulf learns of his dragon and its hoard; it also has a function here to recall, in the scene of Beowulf's triumph, that other treasure-laden ship which carried dead Scyld away. The lay of Sigemund brings in a lay of Heremod, whose early fame was like Sigemund's, whose promise as a prince was like Beowulf's, but who later brought sorrow to his people and met a miserable death through treachery. Just as earlier the poet threw a shadow over Heorot, he now ends the fêting of Beowulf with the harsh, terse comment on Heremod: hine fyren onwod (1. 915). Beowulf is his people's hope, as young Heremod was, and even more beloved (1. 915). What will Beowulf's end be?

It is usually said that Heremod's rôle in the poem is 'to serve as a foil to the exemplary Beowulf'. The poem is treated as a jigsaw puzzle, with a few missing pieces, and the commentator rearranges it so as to produce a pattern of his own devising. Here a neat chiasmus is proposed: Heremod's early promise, Heremod's wretched death, contrasted with Beowulf's glorious end, following his despised youth. But this is not the contrast the poet makes. When Beowulf's 'slothful' boyhood is mentioned (1. 2187) there is nothing to bring Heremod to our minds. When King Hrothgar uses the example of Heremod in his moral discourse, it is as a warning to young Beowulf, who has yet to prove himself as king (11. 1722-4).

After the Heremod lay has been sung by the Danish scop, there comes a thanksgiving to God for their deliverance, and then preparations for a feast. The poet, thinking of Grendel trying to run away from death as he made tracks for the hellish pool, offers one of those serious comments which are so often taken as melancholic asides, or even as interpolations, touched off by the action but bearing no direct relevance to it:

The sentiment of the sleep of death after the feast of life is commonplace; the poet's skill lies in the use he has made of it. From Grendel vainly running from death over the wastes we have been brought back to the comfort of Heorot, where the Danes are celebrating, with a feast, their escape from death. But after that feast, Æschere is killed, and even when the avenging monster is overcome, death still waits for the Scyldings in the smiling face of Hrothulf: hence the lines

At the feast, Beowulf and the Geats are royally rewarded for their valour, but the poet reminds us that it was God who used Beowulf's courage to end the reign of terror (ll. 1056-7). Hrothgar pays wergild for the Geat whom Grendel slew (ll. 1053-5). The death of the man devoured before Beowulf's eyes has been a stumbling-block to many students of the poem, since it seems a blemish on the hero. This episode was, I suppose, a feature of the older story which the poet did not want to reject, because it makes Grendel's savagery actual and immediate in the fight scene. He is not troubled that Beowulf may be thought a little less of on this account, but I think he may have been concerned lest his audience should question why God stayed his hand. Hence he follows this passage of reflection on Grendel's final attack with a passage more openly didactic than he usually permits himself:

Forban bið andgit   æghwær selest,
ferhðes foreþanc.
(11. 1059-60)

As this appears in the translations, it seems to be an irrelevant platitude, if indeed it makes any sense at all. Andgit and foreþanc have meaning here only if we know how they were used by Anglo-Saxon churchmen. Andgit is the best of man's faculties: it translates the Psalmist's intellectus, the God-given intelligence by which man can know God. Ælfric makes St. Agnes say, 'Se geleafa ne bið on gearum, ac bið on glæwum andgitum'. Foreþanc is the word used of God's Providence (see above), though here it means the human counterpart: 'provision (for the soul)'. Men must understand that God permits evil-doing, and allows both good and ill to come to men, but he is witig (l. 1056): he sees and governs all. Sudden death may be in store for any man; it is not for him to question God's will, but to look to the future of his soul.

The Danes enjoy their respite from fear, untroubled for the first time for many years. The feast is followed by song, and we hear the lay of Finn, a tale of treachery and sudden slaughter, its relevance to the court of Hrothgar brought home by the irony of Queen Wealhtheow's speech, in which she speaks of her son's future and her trust in Hrothulf's loyalty. Once more the end of the story of Heorot is foreshadowed, more subtly this time, by the use of an analogous tale.

We turn from the puzzles of the Finn episode to the puzzle of the four lines devoted to Hama. As I read the lines, Hama is shown as a robber who repented: having possessed himself of the most precious necklace in the world, he gave it up for the lasting good of 'treasure in heaven'—geceas ecne ræd (1. 1201). Not so King Hygelac, to whom his loyal nephew Beowulf gave the wonderful necklace which he had received from Hrothgar. The necklace was about Hygelac's throat when he was slain in Frisia, trying to defend the plunder he had set off in his pride to win.

By means of this passage, the poet turns the listeners' thoughts from envious contemplation of Beowulf's rich rewards to the contemplation of that same gold ripped by the despoilers from dead Hygelac's breast. Hama chose the lasting good; Hygelac courted death for the sake of more wealth, only to leave to his enemies his costly adornment, and to his people a legacy of bitter enmity. We have the evidence of Hrothgar's sermon, the reiteration of the fall of Hygelac, and the manner of Beowulf's own death, to substantiate this interpretation. If the poet's purpose were only to remind us of the transience of human splendour, there would be no need to show, as he does, the human motives which underlie the ruin of Heorot and the overthrow of the Geats.

After the feasting, the men of Heorot sleep. Their pitiful preparedness does not save Æschere when the second monster revives the feud that night. So Beowulf is asked to carry vengeance to a place that sounds like an Anglo-Saxon Christian's idea of the very mouth of hell. He accepts the duty unhesitatingly:

Ure æghwyle sceal  ende gebidan
worolde lifes;  wyrce se be mote
domes ær deaþe;  þæt bið drihtguman
unlifgendum æfter selest.
(ll. 1386-9)

This sentiment would not be out of place in a wholly heathen context, but we cannot fail to be reminded of the very similar words in The Seafarer, where the ideal of earthly glory is merged with the hope of heavenly reward for the hero. Both poets agree that the best life for a man is a life spent fighting in the unending feud against the devil and all the enemies of God,

deorum dædum   deofle togeanes.
(Seafarer, 1. 76)

In this spirit Beowulf fights, with dom as his reward—not only the earthly fame symbolized by the barrow on Hronesness, but soðfæstra dom; the heavenly judgement of his deserts among all the just souls. In this unending fight, the hero's strongest weapon is faith.

Beowulf realizes this truth in the moment of crisis in the underwater chamber, when the sword Hrunting, lent him by Unferth, fails him in his need. He casts it from him, and trusts once more in his God-given strength. When he ceases to care for his own life and puts all his strength into the struggle, God comes to his aid, and he is victorious. He leaves the pool cleansed of its evil and returns to Heorot with his trophies, Grendel's head and the giant sword-hilt.

This palace-scene asks for special attention because, like the lays we have discussed, it is not required by the movement of the plot, and its length suggests its importance to its creator. Note first Beowulf's humility; he gives the credit for his victory to God:

Hrothgar is given the sword-hilt to examine, and we learn the significance of the engraved design, the design of the giant-feud, which I have already discussed. Because of the previous emphasis on Grendel's origin, we perceive that Beowulf's fights have been a small part of this Holy War. But the devil, whose servants he has overcome, will not withdraw from the contest, as old King Hrothgar clearly sees. So far Beowulf has borne his might and his fame wisely, acknowledging the source of his strength. But, while he praises him for this, King Hrothgar warns the young man to take heed of the example of King Heremod, to whom God gave like strength, and then power over men. As king, Heremod failed to govern himself: 'Learn by this', says the wise old king to Beowulf. And then, as if to still any murmurs of dissent, he speaks at length of the special dangers that await the man whom God has given wisdom, royal rank, a land to govern. To that man, prosperity may prove a worse enemy than fierce assailants. When he thinks himself safe from his enemies, he forgets that earthly life and power are short-lived, and a great arrogance and a desire for worldly splendour grow within him. Thus the arrows of the devil pierce his unguarded heart. When he dies, his power is at an end, and his hoarded wealth passes into other hands.

Bebeorh þe ðone bealonið,   Beowulf leofa,
secg betsta,   ond þe þæt selre geceos,
ece rædas;   oferhyda ne gym,
mære cempa!
(ll. 1758-61)

This wisdom Hrothgar has learnt from his own chastening experience with Grendel. He knows that two paths lie before young Beowulf: one leads to ece rædas, the eternal reward (which Hama chose); the other, to pride in possession of this world's solaces, and spiritual decline. Above all, the triumphant hero must guard himself against the sin of pride: ofer-hyda ne gym.

The significance of this sermon is slowly unfolded in what follows. We have been told already that King Hygelac of the Geats will die in his pride as he seeks for more wealth. The Geat people, like the Scyldings, will suffer misery, but their disaster springs from different causes. The Scyldings' ruin will come about through envy and murderous hatred among those who should be most loyal to Hrothgar: the spirit of Grendel still darkens Heorot. Gradually we learn what is in store for the Geats; bit by bit the causes of the smouldering enmity of the Swedes and Frisians and Franks are made known, so that we become aware that only the might of the Geatish king stands between his people and subjugation by their foes. We remember the plight of the lordless Danes before God took pity on them (ll. 14-16), and we remember Hrothgar's words to Beowulf in the last part of his homily (ll. 1769-81), in which he speaks of his own chastening reversal of fortune. The first part of the poem comes to an end with Beowulf enthroned beside his uncle Hygelac, modest, loyal, sagacious (he foresees the failure of the Heathobard marriage pact), covered with honours and praised by all. Hrothgar's words have prepared us for Beowulf's later coronation, and also for the hero's trial to come, where the enemy is the devil, and one of his weapons worldly success. Beowulf's spirit is too noble to fall into the grosser sins of a Heremod, as the poet obviously means to emphasize in his lines on Beowulf's character (ll. 2177-88). But Hrothgar too was a good and noble king until the long years of having his own way made him careless of spiritual well-being. It needed the coming of Grendel to make him aware of his actual weakness.

It is with no surprise, therefore, that we find ourselves lifted across fifty years in a few lines (l. 2200 ff.), to see Beowulf placed in the position of Hrothgar when Grendel made his first attack. After many years of prosperous rule, his peace is broken by an invading monster.

Whether the dragon is symbolic of anything or nothing has been much debated. One argument asks a kind of sympathy for the outraged dragon, who 'is nowhere called God's enemy, or a fiend, or joyless; in fact no words of moral disapprobation are applied to him'. This R.S.P.C.A. attitude, which in the past has also embraced Grendel's dam, would, I am sure, be incomprehensible to the Anglo-Saxon Christian. The malice of the dragon is something very different from the righteous wrath of a man who has been robbed. Before he has made the mound his home, he is called eald uht-sceaða and nacod nið-draca; he holds the countryside in terror (ll. 2274-5). He is not called 'joyless', because he is not, like Grendel, corroded with hopeless desire for the comfortable life of men from which he is cast out. He finds his satisfaction in possessing his hoard and in the terror and suffering that he can cause. The dragon, like Grendel, is essentially malicious, essentially a destroyer.

It is impossible to be precise about the degree of symbolism involved in the poet's conception of the dragon and Grendel. It is certain that they are not abstractions or fictional creatures: water-trolls and fire-breathing dragons were part of popular belief. Trolls eat people and dragons lie upon gold. The Christian poet accepted these creatures as part of God's world, because he had in Genesis an explanation of their origin, and he has been very careful to recount that origin in the case of Grendel. Why is there no comparable explanation of the dragon? Surely because wyrm and draca are recognizably creatures of hell in Christian lore? The OE poem of Genesis also has a wyrm: this is the disguise of the Tempter in the Garden of Eden. In the Latin Bible the dragon and serpent are interchangeable symbols for the devil. See what Bede thought of dragons, in his commentary upon the Book of the Apocalypse: in c. 20, 2, the Bible has Et apprehendit draconem serpentum antiquum. Bede's note is: Draco ergo, propter nocendi malitiam: Serpens, propter fallendi astutiam. The dragon is an appropriate image of the devil because of his malice. Note also that Bede's comment on c. 12, 9, Et projectus est draco ille magnus in terram …, begins: Antiquus hostis de spiritualibus expulsus, arctius in terrenos includitur. The Beowulf poet uses the English equivalent of antiquus hostis, i.e. eald-gewinna, of Grendel (l. 1776): Bede regards it as an alternative for draco ille magnus. This in itself would suggest that there is no fundamental difference of attitude towards the two monsters. I have no doubt that the poet and his audience would share Bede's opinion of the essential nature of a draca or wyrm, and would be familiar with this monster as a shape of the devil and his henchmen.

Only if we refuse to admit that the Beowulf dragon is a Christian's dragon can we be confused into thinking that he is not God's enemy, as much as, and more than, Grendel is. The poet has added his Christian lore about these creatures to the commonly received pre-Christian beliefs about them. It would be absurd to suppose that he sub-divided the genus draco in his mind into Biblical species and Germanic species. In Germanic folk-lore, dragons lust after gold, they are covetous and frætwum wlanc, though gold is useless to them. In Christian legend, the devil is seen as a serpent or dragon: his sin is arrogance. We have seen how the sins of the Danish court were reflected in Grendel: is it no more than coincidence that Hygelac the Geat died through pride and lust for gold? We have been warned in Hrothgar's sermon that as a successful king Beowulf would face the temptation of thinking himself self-sufficient:

So it was with Satan before his fall. Young Beowulf was humble and not covetous—he did not desire Grendel's gold, nor did he keep back for himself anything of the royal rewards he gained in Heorot. But observe how, in Hrothgar's sermon, the prosperous ruler's growing pride and disregard of conscience gave the devil his opportunity to prompt him to further sin:

þinceð him to lytel,  þæt he lange heold,
gytsað grom-hydig.
(ll. 1748-9)

So spoke Hrothgar of his hypothetical ruler, who becomes fiercely covetous of yet more wealth. Yet, lift that last phrase from its context, and it might equally well form part of the description of Beowulf's dragon, savagely lusting after new treasure. This desire for wealth is one aspect of the evil Beowulf has to fight. The arrogance of Satan is the greater evil which meances him: 'oferhyda ne gym, mære cempa!' The dragon does not conquer him, but it is a mortal struggle, and he does not win alone. As Hrothgar needed his help, he will need Wiglaf's.

It is unfortunate that some details of the dragon story are uncertain because of damage to the manuscript. We can, however, be sure that some Geat—secg syn-bysig—entered the dragon's mound unwittingly, when in need of a refuge from hete-swengeas. Finding himself in a treasure-chamber, he seizes a jewelled goblet, and makes off with it, apparently because with it he can buy his life. (So, Beowulf's father Ecgtheow fled from his home after killing a man, and later bought peace with treasure sent on his behalf by Hrothgar.) The thief's petition is granted, and his lord receives the goblet:

It is not stated whether this frea is Beowulf or another. A hundred and twenty lines later, another terse statement, which certainly refers to Beowulf, tells us—

The melda is his informant; whether he is one and the same as the thief is unclear. The implication of Beowulf in the consequences of the theft is more reasonable if we suppose that he was in fact the receiver of the stolen cup. Whatever the details of the affair, Beowulf eventually keeps the goblet.

The dragon's rage on discovering the theft is terrible; he can scarcely wait for vengeance. The poet makes the curious observation, apropos the danger the thief was in when he crept by the dragon's head:

Swa mæg unfæge   eaðe gedigan
wean ond wræcsið   se ðe Waldendes
hyldo gehealdeþ.
(ll. 2291-3)

The force of this is only seen if we look forward once more to the time when Beowulf nears the dragon. The thief was saved in his moment of peril because God was with him, sinner though he was. Beowulf faced the dragon's fire without Waldendes hyldo:

wende se wisa,  þæt he Wealdende
ofer ealde riht  ecean Dryhtne
bitre gebulge;  breost innan weoll
þeostrum geþoncum, swa  him geþywe ne wæs.
(ll. 2329-32)

Beowulf took the dragon's visitation as God's chastisement. It should be noted that the thief's motives mitigate his sin. He made no attempt to enrich himself from the hoard, though he was destitute and a fugitive. The dragon did not molest him. Beowulf, on the other hand, challenged the dragon with these parting words to his thanes:

Beowulf, like Hygelac before him, was tainted with the sins of the dragon, arrogance and love of treasure. Before the earlier monsterfights, he committed himself to God. This time, he boasts to his men that he alone will win the gold. When he faced Grendel, the poet told us

Huru Geata leod  georne truwode
modgan mægnes  Metodes hyldo.
(ll. 669-70)

Like the thief, he trusted then in Metodes hyldo. When he came to face the dragon—

The variation is significant. Old Beowulf was still brave, but bravery is no substitute for Metodes hyldo in such a fight.

What was this 'heathen gold' which Beowulf gave his life to win? It was the piled-up wealth of a dead people. I do not think any reader of the Bible could hear the 'Lay of the Last Survivor', or the description of the treasure hoard as Wiglaf saw it, tarnished and rusty, without being reminded of the lines from St. Matthew's Gospel, 6, 19: Nolite thesaurizare vobis thesauros in terra, ubi aerugo et tinea demolitur, et ubi fures effodiunt et furantur; thesaurizate autem vobis thesauros in cælo … It does not appear to me likely that our poet would have effected this resemblance coincidentally, in view of the pattern of thought which now emerges. Christ's admonition here is the ultimate source of the earnest advice given by King Hrothgar:

'Bebeorh þe ðone bealonið, Beowulf leofa,
secg betsta, ond þe þæt selre geceos,
ece rædas.'
(ll. 1758-60)

Thesaurizate thesauros in cælo is but another way of saying geceos ece rædas, and the evil Beowulf must shun is that of lusting after earthly wealth. With his usual astonishing sense of what is historically fitting, the poet has not given Hrothgar the actual words of Christ, but his use of this admonition, together with the rust on the treasure and the thief breaking in, leaves me with no doubt that this gospel passage was in his mind throughout the poem. It provides a key to our understanding of the matter of the buried treasure, and it is a key which the poet's postulated audience would not need to seek. Constantly, from the Scyld prelude to the pyre of Beowulf, the poet uses gold as a setting for death and destruction; constantly, in the last part of the poem, he warns us that no good comes from buried treasure. Because of this buried hoard, death will come upon Beowulf's people. The poet sums up this belief just after his prophecy of the downfall of the Geats (ll. 3028-30). First he gives another description of the treasures, omige, Þurhetone, and a mention of the curse on them which God alone could circumvent. Then he says:

Þa wæs gesyne,   þæt se sið ne ðah
þam þe unrihte  inne gehydde
wræte under wealle.
(ll. 3058-60)

To the Christian poet, the burial of gold is not only futile, it is actually unrihte, for it goes directly against Christ's command, Nolite thesaurizare [v.l. condere] vobis thesauros in terra.

Thus the poet has taken the legend of cursed heathen gold and turned it to his purpose. His intention in the lines I have discussed is plain; his handling of the curse itself reads awkwardly, as if he were not sure himself what power of evil incantatory spells might hold. One thing is certain, that God holds this evil power in check if He so wills. The corollary is that He allowed it to compass Beowulf's death, though the hellish torments the curse places on the despoiler did not fall upon him or upon the other Geats who touched the hoard. This is not to say that Beowulf's death was caused by a blind fate, in spite of the fact that Wiglaf and the king himself sometimes speak as though it were. Wiglaf says of Beowulf, for example:

heold on heah-gesceap.
(l. 3084)

But that this is a manner of speaking rather than a philosophical statement is clear from the context. This is the closing line of his speech beginning:

Oft sceall eorl monig  anes willan
wræc adreogan,  swa us geworden is.
(ll. 3077-8)

He implies that Beowulf acted wrongly. The difference between the Christian and heathen outlook on Fate is this: the Christian believes that a man is responsible for his acts, whatever the circumstances. The Geats' distress was caused anes willan, by Beowulf's choice of strife with the dragon for the sake of the gold. Had he not desired to win this gold, the curse would not have touched him. I think this may be what the poet is trying to say in the couplet which ends the account of the horrors of the curse (ll. 3074-5) though it would be hazardous to build any argument on a passage so obscure. All I would remark is that the sentence as it stands does not preclude such an interpretation, and there is no need to assume any special contextual meanings (as is often done) unless we are trying to exculpate Beowulf. Shorn of its complications, the sentence appears to read:

Næs he … gearwor hæfde … est ær gesceawod

The verb sceawian has been used previously of the lord's gazing upon the stolen cup (l. 2285), and the same combination of gearo and sceawian is used of Beowulf's dying eagerness to look upon the buried treasure. He says to Wiglaf:

Bio nu on ofoste,  þæt is ærwelan
goldæht ongite,  gearo sceawige
swegle searogimmas,  þæt ic ðy seft mæge
æfter maððumwelan min alætan
lif ond leodscipe,  þone ic longe heold.

Since est, used concretely, normally means 'a mark of favour', 'a gift', it seems to me reasonable to interpret this agendes est (l. 3075) as 'the gift of the possessor', i.e. the stolen cup which first roused Beowulf's desire to win the dragon's hoard. The doubtful adjective goldhwcete, 'rich in gold', appropriately describes this maÞÞumfæt mære which came into Beowulf's possession; ær would then refer to the first occasion on which he saw the cup. We are left with the logical puzzle of næs … gearwor, 'not at all more readily'; I should like to interpret this as marking the contrast between Beowulf's reluctant acceptance of the stolen cup and his later eagerness to examine the buried board. The context of the curse apart then, I would regard the following as a likely rendering: 'Very much less readily before had he looked upon the gold-encrusted gift of the possessor'. But if it be argued that the postulated connexion between agendes est and the stolen cup is too tenuous, we are driven to taking est in some vaguer sense, as some previous 'mark of favour' given to Beowulf. I should still consider the two lines a virtual statement that Beowulf had sought this cursed hoard more eagerly than he had sought other treasure in the past. Putting these two lines into their context, we have a sequence: that no man knows where he will meet death; Beowulf did not know the cause of his death; did not know there was a curse on the treasure when he sought the dragon fight, desiring that treasure more than other treasures he had looked upon. This is coherent, whereas the usual view, that the last two lines stress Beowulf's lack of covetousness, provides us with a malign curse, falling, with God's approval, on Beowulf's innocent head.

The curse, as I see it, is retained to symbolize the evil power of hoarded gold. This interpretation gives point to the otherwise gratuitous

It also brings the curse into line with Hrothgar's homily. It must not be suggested that Beowulf died in mortal sin. I take it that the dragon fight, in which he was slain in slaying the monster, represents the struggle with temptation, so often described in saints' lives in terms of a physical contest. After the fight, his soul leaves his body:

secean soðfæstra dom.
(l. 2820)

The word soðfæst translates the Vulgate Latin justus, the righteous man, and the phrase used here appears to be the equivalent of the Patristic Latin justorum judicium. Beowulf has lived most of his life according to the eald riht, and though he falls short of Christian ideals, he goes after death as a good man to judgement, not, like an Unferth, to damnation. The gold the hero gave his life for lies useless in the ground, but his noble life has won him the hope of eternal reward.

There is a great deal more in the latter half of the poem, but it is all subordinated to the theme of the treasure which is Beowulf's bane and the cause of the overthrow of the Geats. Two passages stand out from the 'historical' matter. One is the description of the death of Hrethel's heir and the old man's heart-break. The other is Wiglaf's condemnation of the cowardly retainers.

The first of these passages has been admirably discussed by Professor Whitelock, who shows the point of departure of the simile in which Hrethel's grief is compared with that of an old man whose son is hanged. The extension of the simile seems to ask for other explanation. It rouses an emotion which will be transferred to old Beowulf, who grieves as he faces death that he has no son to whom he could pass on his rich possessions. There may be some bitterness in Beowulf's last words on Hrethel:

eaferum læfde, swa deð eadig mon,
lond ond leodbyrig, þa he of life gewat.

Beowulf himself has no eafera to cherish what he has won. The poet has seized upon the historical event of King Hrethel's decline after the death of his eldest son to elaborate upon the human desolation of the man who has no use for his riches. Hrethel ceased to take delight in the comforts of this world:

gumdream ofgeaf, Godes leoht geceas.
(ll. 2469)

There is a hint in the choice of these words describing his death, that Hrethel may have found a higher consolation when human joy was denied him. The ultimate effect of the whole passage is to increase our sense of the futility of amassing earthly wealth, even for the sake of passing it on to a son.

The other passage I mentioned, the condemnation of the retainers who fled, at first sight seems to bear little relation to the themes I have been discussing. Yet even this conventional and obviously unavoidable part of the story has been made to bear upon the poet's chief preoccupations. The men whose loyalty Beowulf has bought with rings and weapons turn and flee when they see him being worsted. Only Wiglaf will risk his life for his lord, for there is for him the greater bond of kinship:

This is the obverse of the story of Heorot, where men plot the murder of their kin. Wiglaf does not think of his own possible advancement if Beowulf dies. His love and loyalty sustain Beowulf, and together they overcome the dragon.

The poem ends with the king's funeral rites and the committal of the hard-won treasure to the earth:

eldum swa unnyt, swa hit æror wæs.

As his memorial is raised, his followers sing a lament in which Beowulf's deeds are praised. They celebrate his mildness and gentleness and his desire for fame. This is a very odd epitaph for a Germanic warrior, yet it is in keeping with the poet's view of the hero (in ll. 2177-83). It befits the old man who could boast in his last hour:

ne sohte searoniðas,
(ll. 2738)

and who rejoiced that God could not reproach him with the slaying of kinsmen (ll. 2741-2). That he has not murdered any of his family seems a curiously' negative virtue for the old king to take pride in: the only reason for the insistence appears to be the poet's obsession with Cain, the fratricide.

It is important to realize that to Bede, and hence, most certainly, to the Beowulf poet, Cain was more than the first murderer and the progenitor of giants. Bede explains:

Sicut ab initio seculi incipientis in occisione Abel passiones sanctorum; in livore autem et persecutione Cain perfidiæ sunt insinuatæ reproborum, quæ ad finem usque sæculi erunt ambæ in mundo permansuræ; sic et in civitate quam ædificavit Cain typice intimabatur, quod spes tota pravorum in hujus sæculi regno esset ac felicitate figenda, ut pote qui futorum bonorum aut fidem aut desiderium nullum haberent.

Cain typifies the wicked, who cause the innocent to suffer. The wicked, the race of Cain, build their cities in this world because all their hope lies here: they have no faith in ece rædas.

Thus the two halves of the poem come together in one. 'Treasure upon earth' is the desire of the followers of Cain, and envy, treachery, and killing attend its satisfaction. Hrothgar, forgetting his mortality in the pride of his palace, is no less a part of the Cain-motive than Unferth killing his brother or Hrothulf scheming to gain the throne. Hrothgar, chastened by Grendel's visitation, warns Beowulf against coveting the glory and wealth of this world. Beowulf's temptation takes symbolic shape in the dragon's cursed treasure, for which the king, in his pride, would have given his life in vain, had it not been for Wiglaf, who rated the love of kin higher than his own life.

The poem was obviously not composed as an allegory, in the way that Piers Plowman was composed. The stories existed, and the poet, I believe, saw symbolic significance in them, which he has pointed and elaborated by his manipulation of the tales. He has treated the story of heathen Beowulf as an exegete might have treated, say, the story of Samson, by drawing a moral lesson from the hero's deeds. Above all, in his treatment of the 'digressions' he has concentrated his listeners' thoughts on certain aspects of the cleansing of Heorot and the burial of the treasure, so as to emphasize, not just a morbid sense of decay and doom, but his faith in the greater good of lasting wealth, the wealth of the spirit. In this respect Beowulf seems to me no different in intention from the other Old English elegies we have. The chief inspiration of such poems is ultimately the Psalms.

Besides the Psalms, the poet obviously had in mind some of the teachings of Gregory and Augustine. A Gregorian source has been argued for Hrothgar's homily, and others have seen the influence of Augustine in the portrayal of the virtues of the ruler. The theme of the whole poem as I have outlined it is Augustinian in spirit; the ultimate source may be found in St. Paul's First Epistle to Timothy. Some phrases from this epistle have become proverbial, though their context is less well known. Together, in c. 6, we find three thoughts which seem to me the essence of the doctrine the poet wished to bring home:

Radix enim omnium malorum est cupiditas, quam quidem appetentes erraverunt a fide et inseruerunt se doloribus multis.

(v. 10)

Certa bonum certamen fidei, apprehende vitam æternam.

(v. 12)

Divitibus huius mundi non sublime sapere neque sperare in incerto divitiarum, sed in Deo vero … bene agere, divites fieri in bonis operibus … thesaurizare sibi fundamentum bonum in futurum, ut apprehendant veram vitam.

(v. 17)

Paul sees the good man as a fighter in the war against evil, who by freeing himself from cupiditas lays up for himself heavenly treasure. I suggest that the Beowulf poet saw, in the legendary life of a heathen hero, an opportunity to write of this fight against the devil and the seed of Cain. In the strife which forms the background of the story, he saw the sins of Cain still causing suffering to the innocent; in the gold of Heorot and the buried treasure, he saw the hope and achievement of those who, like Cain, have no faith in a future good; in the monsters, he saw the embodiment of the evils which the devil has let loose upon the world. So, in the heroic tragedy of Beowulf, he showed his audience that many of the old Germanic virtues might be used in the service of God, in that unending feud which began before Adam was created.

Jack Durant (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3130

SOURCE: "The Function of Joy in Beowulf," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. VII, 1962, pp. 61-69.

[In the excerpt that follows, Durant defines three types or "levels" of joy in Beowulf and demonstrates how these levels work to unify the poem 's structure, present its major plots, and support some of its themes.]

Critics rarely fail to remark the heavy aura of gloom surrounding Beowulf. To Klaeber, for example, the Beowulf-poet evidences an "especial fondness" for "feelings of grief and sadness." [All citations to Beowulf are taken from Fr. Klaeber's third edition (Boston, 1950) of the poem.] Tolkien goes even so far as to style the poem an heroic-elegy. "In a sense," he writes, "all its first 3136 lines are the prelude to a dirge." Even the joy in Beowulf is largely looked upon as a foil for sorrow. Thus Adrien Bonjour observes that joyful settings often provide frameworks for anticipations of woe. Herbert Wright points up the dramatic contrasts of joy and sorrow. And Arthur Brodeur finds the joy in Beowulf to be a significant relief mechanism—a mechanism used to keep the reader fresh for the poem's periodic horrors. By no means, however, is the well-guarded gloom of Beowulf outraged by the suggestion that joy in this poem exists for its own sake. Out of a synthesis of the poem's many references to joy and rejoicing arises the suggestion that three fairly distinct levels of joy are apparent in Beowulf; and it is further demonstrable that the interactions of these levels serve variously (1) to define certain of the conflicts, (2) to strengthen the structural unity, (3) to delineate the major plots, (4) to support several of the themes, and (5) to clarify the heroic nature of the central figure.

At the outset it should be said that the levels of joy in Beowulf are but slightly discernible in verbal connotations. "Wyn(n)," the most frequent of the joy words, is used variously to express earthly joy ("worolde wynne," 1080; "eorþan wynne," 1730, 2727), convival joy ("hearpan wynne," 2107), and joy of might ("mægenes wynnum," 1716, 1887). Similarly diverse are the uses of "dream" and "gefea." Since the selection of joy words seems largely to have been governed by the demands of alliteration or by the principles of variety (rather than by specialized connotations), the levels of joy are most easily discernible through contexts. And while expressions of joy are frequently formulaic, no one of them seems to be superfluous, to be psychologically unjustifiable, or to be significantly ill-suited to its context.


The most prominent level of joy in Beowulf might suitably be labeled "social joy." Basically, this is the joy of participation in the comitatus, and it exalts virtually every aspect of the comitatus relationship. The joy of the principes, for instance, finds expression in Wealhtheow's exhortation to Hrothgar, '"bruc þenden þu mote / manigra medo'" (1177b-78a), and it is further reflected in Hrothgar's reference to the joys of rule, "'on eþle eorþan wynne'" (1730). Evidences of the joy of the comites are apparent in passages describing the revelry in Heorot and (more poignantly) in the joy experienced by the Geats upon seeing their prince return to them out of the mere (1626-28). Also contributing to social joy is the joy of the heroic dom. This, of course, is the joy of personal achievement, the pleasure to be derived from the prospect of fame and from the admirations of tokens of glory. Sigemund experiences this joy as he takes personal pleasure in the hoard he has won (893-895); and with similar satisfaction Beowulf, whose awareness of his own fame is indisputable, delights in the treasures which go with him from Denmark (1880-82a).

It is worth noting, I think, that social joy in Beowulf has little dependence upon devotion to God. Just as godly men (such as Beowulf and Hrothgar) suffer woe, so ungodly men (such as Unferth) participate in social joy. God, of course, is exalted in the singing of the scop (89-98); His power is the acknowledged source of greatness (1724-34), but He remains upon the periphery of social joy. And while His laws are certainly outraged by the behavior of a Heremod, Heremod's evils are predominantly social evils. His violation of the comitatus sends him alone from the joys of men (1714-15).

It is to be agreed, of course, that in being "dreamum bedæled" (721), Grendel, like Cain, is bereft of joys both social and spiritual. On more than one occasion, however, we are given to know that Grendel is capable of his own sort of grim exultation. And his joy, "diabolic joy," suggests the second of the broad levels of joy in Beowulf. When Grendel sees the Geats sleeping in Heorot, for example, his heart exults: "þa his mod ahlog" (730). He experiences the very sensation Beowulf had imagined his having—the upshot of a happy diabolism: "he lust wigeð." Beowulf had said, "swefeð ond snedeþ" (599b-600a). The firedrake, too, experiences this grim joy. For while he is not a man-eater, a man-hater he certainly is; and he takes pleasure in this hatred, rejoicing in the imminence of his encounter with Beowulf: "hwæðre wiges gefeh, / bea(du) [we] weorces" (2298b-99a). It is against this attitude of happy belligerence that the third level of joy, "spiritual joy," stands diametrically opposed.

Interestingly enough, the discernment of spiritual joy is not involved in vague references to the joys of heaven. So uniformly secular is the poet's vocabulary of joy that his one use of the phrase "heofones wynne" (1801) is simply a kenning for "sun." All his references to joy, then, partake of a common secular vocabulary; all are identifiable with practical human experience. Thus, surely, the joy in his poem was to his audience (as it is to us) peculiarly meaningful and quite readily realizable. As I mean to illustrate, spiritual joy in Beowulf is perceived in terms of social joy.

Inasmuch as spiritual joy figures prominently in considerations of the poem's themes and in the character of its hero (matters discussed below), it is enough here to say that Beowulf alone participates in this joy. The attitudes in which it is discerned suggest themselves in his motivations to heroism: chiefly his readiness to serve and his respect for human brotherhood. And these attitudes resolve themselves into joy when, lying mortally wounded, he reflects upon the conduct of his life and when he rejoices in the treasure-hoard he has won.

In Beowulf, then, there are three levels of joy: social joy, diabolic joy, and spiritual joy. At the outset it was suggested that the interaction of these levels serves variously (1) to define certain of the conflicts, (2) to strengthen the unity, (3) to delineate the major plots, (4) to support themes, and (5) to clarify the heroic nature of the central figure. Demonstration of the first two of these functions requires further analysis of diabolic joy.


Adrien Bonjour seems quite conclusively to have answered T. M. Gang's contention that "the dragon is altogether a different sort of creature from the Grendel-tribe." Indeed, Bonjour has corralled quite an impressive list of parallels between the firedrake and the two monsters from the mere. Like them, for example, the dragon is invulnerable to ordinary swords; he bears a latent grudge against mankind; he is a night-raider; he is a solitary fighter; he is a scourge of the people. And it should further be said that he is a participant in diabolic joy. Since, however, this participation allies him with Grendel only (and not with Grendel's dam) it is necessary that distinctions be drawn among the conflicts motivating Beowulf's three great encounters.

In the light of diabolic joy it becomes apparent that the malice which delights Grendel and the firedrake is not shared by Grendel's dam. At no times does the she-wolf rejoice in her opportunities for vengeance, nor does she demonstrate an unreasonable jealousy of social joy. She is uniformly sorrowful even as she acts upon a principle enunciated by Beowulf himself: "Selre bið ægwhæm, / þæt he his freond wrece, bonne he fela murne'" (1384-85). Thus Beowulf's excursion to the mere is predicated on the same retributive policy that brings Grendel's dam to Heorot. Because of Beowulf's grand moral stature, there is justice in his victory; but since the combatants fight under equal causes, there is also justice in the severity of their strife.

A distinction, then, is to be made between Beowulf's conflict with Grendel's dam and his conflicts with Grendel and the firedrake. It has been argued that the firedrake suffers outrage and that the Beowulf-poet is somewhat sympathetic to him. But these attitudes are not really tenable. The poet obviously resents the dragon's seizure of a treasure-hoard for which he has no earthly use ("ne byð him wihte ðy sel," 2277b). Such hoards, says the poet, are joy-giving ("Hordwynne," 2270). They contribute to the functions of the comitatus, to social order, to social joy. In principle, then, the dragon's raison d'etre is as objectionable as Grendel's. And when he renews his strife with mankind, he brings with him the same delight in the purposes of destruction that Grendel had brought. Beowulf'seems himself to be aware of this parallel; for when he arms himself for combat against the dragon, he recalls his fight not with Grendel's dam but with Grendel, insisting that were he certain to make his vow good, he would now renounce his weapons, "swa ic gio wið Grendle dyde" (2521b).

In helping to define conflicts, diabolic joy also strengthens the unity of Beowulf. It does this by pointing up an A B A structure in the sequence of the three great encounters—a structure which, to the modern mind at least, effects a unity far stronger than does the A A B structure implied in Gang's argument or the A A A structure implied in Bonjour's.


The two major plots in Beowulf involve (1) the heroic actions of the central figure, and (2) the destinies of the peoples to whom his energies are dedicated. By examining the joy relative to these two large plot strains, it becomes apparent that delineation of plots is significantly supported by the interplay of social joy and spiritual joy.

It is frequently remarked that the first half of the poem is predominantly cheerful. Its tone befits, as Professor Malone suggests, a period of youth. In the midst of this cheer, however, there is always the menacing anticipation of sorrow—a sorrow which (according to many critics) permeates the second half. "In Part II," writes Brodeur, "there is no present weal to afford contrast with impending woe; instead, the unrelieved darkness of the theme contrasts bleakly with the recollected splendor and glory of Part I." Indeed, there is discernible in the poem a gradual shading-out of joy. The burst of exultation which accompanies Beowulf's first "beot" (his announced determination to destroy Grendel) is sustained in the glorious celebration of his victory. But the second return from the mere is as sober and stately as is the first one jubilant; and the feast celebrating the destruction of Grendel's dam is significantly less joyous (at least in duration) than is the celebration accompanying Grendel's own demise. After Beowulf's return to Geatland, joy almost "has to be divined" (to use H. G. Wright's phrase). And while happy times are recalled in the hero's account of his experience, these joys, alas, are purely reflective. I think, however, that Brodeur is only partially right in saying that in Part II "the unrelieved darkness of the theme contrasts bleakly with the recollected splendor and glory of Part I." For it should be noted that the contrast he points applies only to social joy and that it involves the secondary plot: that treating the destinies of the peoples to whom Beowulf's energies are dedicated. Spiritual joy at last arises in rapid counterpoint. This joy is applicable solely to the primary plot; and it continues to flourish, even while social joy fades.

The fading of social joy in Beowulf is, of course, rich in thematic values. Most significantly, it provides a grim parable for social man, pointing up the necessity of human interdependence. The blood-greedy Heremod (1719), the drunken spearsman at the court of the Heathobards (2042), the man driven by need to molest the dragon (2223)—all these men violate their responsibility to social order; thus social joy dies. Also exemplified in the fading of social joy is the validity of Wiglaf's observation:

Oft sceall eorl monig anes willan
wraæc adreogan, swa us geworden is.

This observation illustrates, of course, the guiltless man's liability to sorrow. It enlarges upon the total theme of social joy by suggesting that while one is never free from the menaces of human frailty, one can minimize the frequencies of sorrow by scrupulous observation of social decorum and by uncompromising respect for social order. It should further be noted that the death of social joy provides a striking contrast for the spiritual joy which at the close of the poem is very much alive. Through spiritual joy, themes are further articulated; further insight into the character of the central figure is gained.


Before encountering the firedrake, Beowulf, who is not characteristically sorrowful ("swa him geþywe ne wæs," 2332b), experiences a long moment of deep depression. He reproaches himself for having somehow offended God (2329-31a). He sadly anticipates his own death (2419-24). He identifies himself with the sorrowful history of the Geats, recalling the tragedies of Herebeald and Hæthcyn, lamenting the miseries of Hrethel (2426-2509). Thus sadly, but with heroic determination and with full awareness of his social duties (his "eorlscype," 2535), he faces the dragon. At last, however, the sickness of heart which accompanies him to battle stands in dramatic contrast to the joy he experiences as he lies mortally wounded. In a long speech (2724-43a), he there reviews the successes of his rule, affirming that he has guarded his own people well, that he has sought no treacherous quarrels, nor sworn many an oath unjustly. And although he is sick unto death, he now has joy: "lc þæs ealles mæg / feorhbennum seoc gefean habban'" (2739b-40).

It was earlier suggested that this expression of joy resolves itself out of attitudes which throughout the poem are reflected in Beowulf's behavior: his readiness to serve ("heold min tela," 2737b) and his respect for human brotherhood ("me witan ne ðearf Walden fira / morðorbealo maga." 2741-42a). It is appropriate, of course, that brotherhood be quite strongly emphasized in this speech, for the brotherhood motif (an important thematic strain) here has its culmination.

Beowulf's contribution to this motif is reflected in many of the poem's episodes: it is apparent, certainly, in the altercation with Unferth (where disrespect for brotherhood is summarily condemned, 587); it is apparent in the Cain-spirit embodied in Beowulf's great adversaries. And it is especially apparent in the spirit with which Beowulf presents his newly won treasure to Hygelac. He tenders his gifts with pleasure, taking joy in the strong bond of kinship which binds him to his king. '"Gen in eall æt ðe / lissa gelong,'" he says to Hygelac (2149b-50a). And so characteristic of Beowulf is the warm spirit of brotherhood reflected in these words that the poet pauses to comment on its significance to his life (2177-83a), causing it, at last, to be a source of joy to the dying hero.

Beowulf's life of service (the second of the virtues culminating in his final joy) finds keen expression not only in his long reflection upon the conduct of his life (2732-43, summarized above) but also in his eagerness to see the gold he has won in overcoming the firedrake (2747-51). Wiglaf views this gold rejoicing in victory ("sigehreðig," 2756), and for a moment one recalls the joys of the victorious Sigemund. Beowulf, of course, evidences none of the energetic exultations Wiglaf enjoys, but he finds comfort in the hoard; and the comfort thus taken has given rise to perplexities.

Miss Bertha Phillpots, for example, finds this episode contradictory to the Christ-image Klaeber has seen in Beowulf: "Would it not be too strange an irony," she writes [in Essays and Studies, 1913], "if the author had such a prototype in his mind, to make the dying hero exult in the dragon's gold, and insist on seeing it as he lies dying—gold which is buried with him, 'as unprofitable to men as it had been before'?" There is irony, of course, in the fact that Beowulf must lay down his life for a worthless heap of treasures. After his death, the hoard comes … to symbolize "the joys now to pass for ever from the Geats." But Beowulf does not participate in this grand irony. His joy in the gold is a joy which derives from the principles of service, not from a lust for riches:

Ic ðara frætwa Frean ealles ðanc,
Wuldurcyninge wordum secge,
ecum Dryhtne, þe ic her on starie,
þæs þe ic moste minum leodum
ær swyltdæge swylc gestrynan.

The Sigemund episode, an obvious parallel to Beowulf's fight with the firedrake, helps to define the peculiar comfort taken by Beowulf in the treasure-hoard. The poet is careful to tell us that the treasures won by Sigemund were his to enjoy at his own discretion: "he beahhordes brucan moste / selfes dome" (894-895a). Sigemund's joy, then, is social joy. His gold will provide him with physical comfort and prestige. It is pertinent to the practical interdependences of men. Beowulf, however, is at the end of his life. He can look for no physical comfort, but he can find spiritual comfort in the universal principles of brotherhood and service.

Professor Malone has observed [in "Beowulf," English Studies, XXIX (1948)] that Beowulf is really a virtuous pagan. "He is made as Christ-like as the setting permits, but all his virtues can be explained quite naturally as growing out of the heroic ideals of conduct traditional among the English as among the other Germanic peoples." Thus it is that considered as isolated sources of pleasure, the joys Beowulf evidences at the close of his life are social joys: brotherhood, service, delight in winning and giving gold. But the imminence of his death removes these joys from the realm of social function. It abstracts them into universal principles—the principles upon which Beowulf's heroic nature is in large part based and through which he gains his "soðfæstra dom" (2820). Spiritual joy, then, is perceived in terms of social joy. And it enlarges upon the themes of social joy by suggesting that while a customary observation of the principles of service and brotherhood may contribute to an impermanent temporal joy, devotion to the ideals of these principles gives rise to a joy not subject to the irresponsibilities of men or to the menaces of Fate.

Taylor Culbert (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4760

SOURCE: "Narrative Technique in Beowulf," in Neophilologus, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, 1963, pp. 50-61.

[In the excerpt that follows, Culbert examines the points of view used and the excitement generated in each of Beowulf's three battles, and concludes that Beowulf's last two battles—with Grendel's mother and with the dragon, respectively—are relatively anticlimactic.]

In recent years, attention has been called to the artistry exhibited by the Beowulf-poet in his depiction of Beowulf's three fights. Through skillful use of various narrative techniques, he created interest in the accounts of the hero's combats with Grendel, Grendel's dam, and the dragon. Lumiansky, for instance, has described the use of a dramatic audience as a means of enhancing the interest of the combats. And Moorman has stated that the poet used various points of view to maintain interest in the fights. The present paper will explore further certain narrative techniques employed by the Beowulf-poet for the depiction of the three combats. It will show that the combat with Grendel is reported three times, and that each version is differentiated from the other two. Both Beowulf's other combats are likewise reported three times, but in neither case do the accounts reveal narrative artistry of as high an order as that evinced in the presentation of the fight with Grendel.

For the narration of the entire poem, the Beowulf-poet adopted the point of view of an omniscient author, of an epic teller, who observes and records the physical action, describes what Beowulf or any other character said, comments on the action, and allows himself to look into the minds and hearts of Beowulf, Hroðgar, and even of Beowulf's non-human adversaries so that he can report what they hoped, feared, and thought. That the poet is telling the story in his own person is indicated by his use of w in line 1 and by the many references to himself, the narrator, as ic in lines 38, 62, 74, 1011, 1027, 1196, 1197, 2163, 2172, 2694, 2752, and 2773. [All line references and quotations are from Beowulf, ed. Fr. Klaeber (3rd ed., Boston, 1941).] The poet also refers to himself by the words m ne gefræge that appear in lines 776, 837, 1955, 2685, and 2837. Although this may be a stock phrase, it reveals the vantage point from which the tale is told.

The epic teller observes the physical action even when he is theoretically not present. When Beowulf fights Grendel's dam in her cave, there is no witness; yet the poet reports the actions of both combatants: for example, Beowulf'seizes Grendel's dam by the shoulder (lines 1537-38), and she attacks the hero and draws her dagger (lines 1545-46a). The story-teller also relates what is said, directly by quoting speeches verbatim and indirectly by asserting that such-and-such a character said so-and-so. Thus the poet quotes Beowulf's first person report to Hroðgar concerning his fight with Grendel's dam (lines 1651-76). The fact that during this speech Beowulf refers to himself as ic (lines 1655, 1659, 1662, 1668, etc.) does not signify that the point of view has changed. The epic teller—omniscient author—is still reporting what he heard and saw. He prefaces his report with the words "Beowulf maþelode, beam Ecgþ owes" (1651); and he heard Beowulf give a speech in these very words. The teller occasionally presents indirectly what his characters said. The watchers on the shore are pictured as talking about Beowulf and saying that they no longer had hopes of seeing him again, though their actual words are not given (lines 1591-99). Finally, the narrator describes what went on in the minds of characters, both human and non-human. He says, for example, that Beowulf rejoiced in his work (line 1569b), that Grendel's dam hoped to avenge her son (lines 1546b-47a), that Grendel was struck with fear and wished to flee (lines 753b-756a), and that Beowulf remembered some words that had been spoken earlier (lines 758-759a).

Now, from this point of view, the author looks particularly at some one element of the scene before him: at Beowulf, at Grendel, at the watchers, or whatnot. This object that is looked at is the narrative focus. To present Beowulf's thoughts, for instance, the narrator adopts the point of view of an omniscient author and gives us a glimpse into Beowulf's mind; or he causes Beowulf to reveal his private thoughts by having him declare them through a public utterance. In either case, a reader's attention is directed toward Beowulf. The subject that is presented to the reader's gaze, Beowulf in this case, is the focus of the narrative at this particular juncture. In practice, the point of view in Beowulf, that of the epic teller, remains constant, but the narrative focus varies frequently.

Moorman has asserted [in "Suspense and Foreknowledge in Beowulf,'" College English, 15 (April 1954), 379-383] that the poet relied almost entirely upon two "points of view" for the first description of Beowulf's encounter with Grendel; he presented the fight principally from the "points of view" of Grendel and of the watchers in the hall, but made very sparing use of Beowulf's "point of view". In fact, he finds only four brief passages narrated through the hero's eyes. Although his term "point of view" seems to be misleading, Moorman's conclusion that "the Beowulf poet is able to create a good deal of audience interest in the actual battle sequence by maneuvering the possible points of view by which he may describe his scene" at least calls attention to an important element in the presentation of this episode. It is clear that the poet is aware of point of view (or narrative focus), that he has made little use of Beowulf as a possible focal point for relating the Grendel combat, and that he has adopted several points of focus to achieve, among other results, a pleasing variety in the depiction of this fight. There is a real possibility, however, that the apparent neglect of Beowulf was deliberate and that the poet postponed use of this perspective so that he might exploit it more fully in the two later reports of the fight where the hero's views could be presented under more appropriate circumstances.

The general scheme of the poem required a description of the battle with Grendel when it occurred; a second account of the fight was demanded for the benefit of Hroðgar following the battle; and a third version, Beowulf's report of his adventures upon his return to Hygelac, was also necessary. The obvious danger of inartistic repetition inherent in presenting three versions of the same encounter was avoided in two ways: (1) by adroit handling of narrative focus so that Beowulf's two personal reports of the action, the second and third versions, stress aspects of the combat other than those stressed in the first and more nearly complete account, and (2) by the revelation of previously undisclosed details in each version of the fight, with the result that notice must be taken of all three versions in order to arrive at a complete picture of the combat.

In the initial presentation of Beowulf's fight with Grendel, six passages are focused upon the hero: lines 736b-738, Beowulf's observation of Grendel's actions; lines 748b-749, Beowulf's reactions to Grendel's advance; lines 758-760, the hero's recollection of his boasts and his attack upon the foe; line 761b, his movement toward the escaping adversary; lines 788b-794a, Beowulf's refusal to allow Grendel to escape; and lines 818b-819a, the statement that Beowulf won glory for this deed. In view of the extent of this account of the struggle, lines 710 to 824, and in view of the fact that it would seem likely that the bulk of the fight should be focused upon Beowulf—he is, after all, the hero—the few brief uses of this narrative focus are quite surprising. There must be some very good reason, in addition to a desire to vary the narrative focus, for the poet's adoption of this unusual procedure.

The explanation becomes apparent when Beowulf's report to Hroðgar is examined. After Hroðgar has thanked Beowulf for delivering him and his hall from Grendel's depredations (lines 925-956), Beowulf presents his account of the combat. At this time, what the hero tried to accomplish, what he did achieve, and particularly what he thought during the battle can be reported with greater naturalness and appropriateness than at any other time. His speech contains several direct references to himself: in line 958 and ic in lines 960, 963, 967, and 968. As a result of the quotation of Beowulf's exact words and of the personal references within the speech, the hero himself is thrust prominently before the reader. In addition, the narrative focus of Beowulf's report is divided between himself and his foe, with more than half the lines (59%, 957-970a) dwelling upon his own part in the combat. But even in lines 970b-979 (41%), in which the narrative focus rests upon Grendel, Beowulf himself, because he is the speaker, is not removed completely from the picture. Throughout the entire speech, the story-teller maintains his omniscient point of view and focuses upon Beowulf by reporting verbatim Beowulf's words to Hroðgar. In the first part of Beowulf's speech, there is in effect a double focus upon the speaker; and in the second part, the focus of the story-teller remains upon Beowulf whereas the focus of Beowulf's own words rests upon Grendel. Thus in one way or another Beowulf is on display throughout the entire passage.

Upon his return to his own land, after the encounters with Grendel and Grendel's dam, Beowulf is obliged to relate to Hygelac his adventures in Hroðgar's realm. For the duration of Beowulf's entire report, the narrative focus of the omniscient author rests upon Beowulf as he speaks to Hygelac. But within the context of the speech, the narrative focus of the speaker rests at various times upon the speaker himself, upon his adversary, and upon the bystanders. Throughout the speech, Beowulf devotes 37% of the lines to himself (lines 1999-2009a and 2091b-96a), and regards the other men in the hall 12% of the time, just long enough to mention the slaying of Hondscio (lines 2076-80); the remainder of his speech that is concerned with the combat (lines 2069b-75, 2081-91a, and 2096b-100, 51% of the total) is focused upon Grendel, describing his actions and intentions. Like his previous account of the fight, this version gives prominence to Beowulf in that his words are reported directly; and at the same time it achieves an air of vigor and movement through a shifting focus within the speech itself.

Not only has the Beowulf-poet rendered each telling of the battle distinctive by his handling of narrative focus, but he has further differentiated each version of the fight by the presentation of new information, with the result that a complete account of the battle can be obtained only by considering all three passages dealing with it. The second report of the fight, that delivered by Beowulf to Hroðgar, adds to our knowledge of the combat by revealing the hero's thoughts and feelings during the actual contention. We learn, for example, that "Ic hine hrædl ce heardan clammum / on wælbedde wrī þan þōhte" (lines 963-964), that "ic hine ne mihte, þa Metod nolde, / ganges getwæman" (lines 967-968a), and that "nō ic him þæs georne ætfealh, / feorhgenī ðlan" (lines 968b-969a). The third account, that presented to Hygelac, adds several specific details to the picture of the battle. We are told in the first account of the fight that Grendel seized and ate a sleeping warrior (lines 739-745a), but we learn here for the first time the name of the warrior who was eaten by Grendel: Hondscio (line 2076). We hear too in this third report of the glove or pouch that Grendel carried and of his intention to stuff Beowulf and other men into it:

Nō ðy ær ūt ða gēn īdelhende
bona blōdigtōð, bealewa gemyndig,
of ðam goldsele gongan wolde;
ac hē mægnes rōf mīn costode,
grapode gearofolm. Glōf hangode
sīd ond syllīc, searobendum fæst;
sīo wæs orðoncum eall gegyrwed
dēofles cræftum ond dracan fellum.
Hē mec þær on innan unsynnigne,
dīor dædfruma gedōn wolde
manigra sumne.
(lines 2081-91a)

In addition, we are told that it was Grendel's right arm that was torn off and preserved as a trophy of the combat: "hwæþre him s o sw ðre swaðe weardade / hand on Hiorte" (2098-99a).

The depiction of Beowulf's combat with Grendel's dam exhibits traces of the same narrative methods, although they are not developed and handled with equal skill and firmness of hand. Like the Grendel combat, this fight is described three times, once as it occurs, once in the form of a report to Hroðgar, and once as the hero's account of his achievements to Hygelac. The point of view adopted for the narration of all three versions is that of the omniscient author; and from this vantage point the poet focuses upon the three participants in the action: Beowulf, the adversary, and a dramatic audience composed of watchers on the shore.

The preliminaries of this combat include the initial attack by Grendel's dam (lines 1251-309), Hroðgar's appeal to Beowulf to undertake this exploit (lines 1310-82), and Beowulf's agreement to fight, his arming, and his statements to his companions (lines 1383-491). Throughout this introduction, the narrative focus remains rather constantly upon the hero. The account of the combat itself starts with Beowulf's trip to the bottom of the lake and concludes with the slaying of the foe (lines 1492-572a). To these lines must be added the closely related post-combat events (lines 1572b-650), which include the activities of Beowulf in his adversary's lair and the reactions of the watchers on the shore during and immediately after the combat.

Because the fight takes places beneath the water, in the lair of Grendel's dam, where obviously none can be present except the two combatants, the poet had no choice but to adopt the point of view of an omniscient author and to focus the narrative upon one and then the other participant. He starts with a description of Beowulf's approach through the water (lines 1492-96), and then switches to the adversary for her discovery of the invader, her initial seizure of him, and her subsequent conveyance of him into her abode (lines 1497-512a). The next stage of the combat is portrayed by focusing upon Beowulf; he perceives that he is in an under-water cave, his sword does not bite, and he is compelled to rely upon his hand-grip (lines 1512b-44). The focus moves back to Grendel's dam for the continuation of the struggle and for a brief mention of her motive for fighting, vengeance for her son (lines 1545-47a). Finally, the focus of narration returns to the hero for the account of his discovery of another sword and the slaying of his foe (lines 1547b-72a). Up to this point in the fight, Beowulf has held the center of the stage; 78% of the lines have been focused upon him and 22% upon Grendel's dam. The accounts of Beowulf's activities immediately after the combat (lines 1572b-90 and 1605b-25) are interrupted by a glance at the warriors waiting on the shore who note the bloodstained waters and infer that Beowulf has been slain (lines 1591-605a). The final passages pertaining to this combat are concerned with Beowulf's rejoining his faithful companions and their return to Heorot and Hroðgar (lines 1626-50). In this case, the dramatic audience cannot be used as it was in the Grendel combat as a means of commenting upon the fight while it is actually in progress; here, it can be employed only after the fighting is completed and the effects of the combat, the blood in the water, are observed. Even if the post-combat actions of Beowulf in the cave and the reactions of the dramatic audience are added to the fight itself, the narrative focus rests on Beowulf for 64% of the lines (1011/2), on Grendel's dam for 11% of the lines (18), and on the dramatic audience for 25% of the lines (391/2). Although the poet has concentrated upon the three elements of the scene that he worked with previously and has shifted the focus frequently from one element to another, it is apparent that he has not kept Beowulf in the background as he did in the corresponding account of the Grendel combat.

As was done in the case of the Grendel combat, a report is given by Beowulf to Hroðgar shortly after the termination of the fight (lines 1651-98a). The report is necessary because Hroðgar was not a witness to the combat; and, after all, it was at his request that Beowulf undertook to fight Grendel's dam. As soon as he reaches Heorot, Beowulf gives his version of the fight in his own words. Once more, there is a double focus: the introductory words, "Bēowulf maþelode, bearn Ecgþēowes" (line 1651), followed by the hero's actual words indicate that the focus of the narrator rests throughout the speech upon Beowulf. Within the speech, however, ic is the subject of virtually every sentence, an indication that the narrative focus is upon Beowulf himself. Beowulf'says that "Ic þæt unsōfte ealdre gedīgde" (line 1655), that "Ne meahte ic æt hilde mid Hruntinge/with gewyrcan" (lines 1659-60a), and that "Ic þæt hilt þanan / fēondum ætferede" (lines 1668b-69a). This is a logical focus to adopt for the presentation of this particular version of the combat. Of the two combatants, only Beowulf'survived; and there were no witnesses to the combat itself. This view of the action serves to stress the hero; but it is robbed of some of its effectiveness because the same focus was exploited extensively in the first account of the fight. As part of his report, Beowulf displays the hilt of the sword that he used to slay Grendel's dam; and it is examined by all the persons in the hall (lines 1677-98a). In this manner, some use is made of the bystanders as a point of focus.

The third report of the fight with Grendel's dam is given by Beowulf to Hygelac upon his return to Hygelac's court (lines 2115-43). The poet focuses upon Beowulf as the speaker while Beowulf focuses first on his foe (lines 2115-30) and then upon himself (lines 2131-43). The first phase deals with the attack by Grendel's dam and the slaying of Aeschere; the second treats in very general terms Beowulf's behavior in the combat. The focus of the speech is divided more or less equally between the two participants; 55% of the lines (16) are concerned with the monster and 45% (13) with the hero. This passage—the third account of the Grendel's dam fight—follows a few lines after Beowulf's version of his fight with Grendel, which ends at line 2100. The technique employed for narrating both affairs is similar. In each case, the bulk of the lines are focused upon the hero and his foe. Because it exhibits no new or striking narrative method, the second report, that dealing with Grendel's dam, seems to be a continuation of the first and thereby loses novelty. It is true that the first fight led directly to the second, but, for artistic purposes, they might better have been treated separately as they were in the initial versions.

Although the three versions of the battle with Grendel's dam do not differ greatly from each other, the poet has introduced bits of new information and altered the emphasis slightly so that no one version is an exact duplicate of another. In the second telling of this fight, no new details are presented during the recital of the actual combat (lines 1651-70); however, the gold hilt of the sword used for the slaying of the foe, though mentioned both at the time of the fight and during Beowulf's report of the encounter to Hroðgar, is displayed and described in detail (lines 1677-98a). In a sense, this exhibit does add to our knowledge of one aspect of the fight.

The third report of this combat (lines 2115-43) is little more than a summary of the information given in the other two versions. Only the fact that Beowulf cut off the head of his foe is added here to our total knowledge of this fight (lines 2138b-40a). It is somewhat surprising, in view of the careful treatment of the three reports of the fight with Grendel, that this reference to the fight with Grendel's dam should be so perfunctory. It seems almost as if the poet were including it merely for the sake of symmetry, in order to complete his scheme of reporting each fight three times.

Some skill appears to mark the handling of narrative focus in the presentation of Beowulf's fight with the dragon. Because the hero will not be alive at the end of the combat to give his own account of the fray and also because the poet seeks to reveal all facets of the hero in the role of king—his character as well as his prowess—it is necessary to concentrate upon him during the actual fighting. As a result, considerable attention (581/2 lines or 34%) is devoted to Beowulf in the initial account of the fight. Even greater stress (861/2 lines or 49%), however, falls upon the actions and thoughts of Wiglaf and the comitatus. By developing this focus, the poet is able to suggest some consequences of the combat, to comment obliquely on the fierceness of the fight, and to gain suspense by interrupting the action with an explanation of Wiglaf's relationship to Beowulf. Once again, there are two other references to this combat, though admittedly they are rather inchoate. A very short version is given by Wiglaf to the members of Beowulf's comitatus after the fight is over (lines 2877-83), and another sketchy report is made by the messenger sent by Wiglaf to announce Beowulf's death to his subjects (lines 2900-10a).

In the initial account of the fight with the dragon (lines 2538-71 la), four points of focus are employed: the description concentrates upon Beowulf, the dragon, both combatants together, and the bystanders—Wiglaf and the other members of the comitatus. With the exception of a long passage devoted to the comitatus (lines 2596-668), no one element is held before the reader's gaze for any considerable time; rather, the author's strategy is to shift rapidly from one focal point to another, affording the reader constantly changing points of focus. Ten times during the narration of the fight the focus rests upon Beowulf, seven times upon his adversary, three times upon both combatants together, and three times, including the long passage concerning Wiglaf and his sword, upon the comitatus. A representative passage reveals the poet's method: lines 2583b-91a deal with the failure of Beowulf's sword; lines 2591b-92 describe the resumption of the combat; lines 2593-94a treat the renewal of courage in the dragon's heart; and then the focus turns to Beowulf and his plight (lines 2594b-95). Thereafter the narrative is concerned with the flight of the comitatus, Wiglaf's loyalty, an account of his sword, his rebuke to his comrades, and his words of comfort to Beowulf (lines 2596-668). The result is a description of a fight in which the motion of the narrative focus creates an impression of violent activity corresponding to the vigor and movement of the struggle itself.

The second report of the battle (lines 2877-83), that given by Wiglaf to the other members of the comitatus, is dramatically necessary as a means of reproaching them for their cowardly behavior. Apparently they were not in a position to observe the fight closely, and some comment upon the battle is required to show them the results of their defection and to justify Wiglaf's charge (lines 2882b-83) that too few of them assisted him in the fight. Within his speech, Wiglaf deals particularly with his own actions and thoughts. He refers, for example, to the fact that "Ic him līfwraðe tley meahte / ætgifan æst gūðe" (lines 2877-78a), that "þonne ic sweorde drep / ferhðgenīðlan, fyr unswīðor / wēoll of gewitte" (lines 2880b-82a). His words are not really a summary of the fight but rather comments upon one aspect of it, his aid to his lord and the consequences of the faillure of the comitatus to do its duty. By focusing upon himself, Wiglaf can show his companions what they should have done; they, after all, were in a situation similar to his and could have acted as he did.

The messenger dispatched by Wiglaf to report the leader's death to the king's anxious subjects presents in a few lines a third account of the dragon combat (lines 2900-10a). He mentions Beowulf's inability to wound his foe and his death and then refers to Wiglaf and his loyalty in guarding his lord. The messenger is primarily concerned with the consequences of the fight, not with the fight itself, as his subsequent words (lines 2910b-3030a) indicate.

Neither the second nor the third report contributes new information about the combat. Nor is this illogical, for the original version of the encounter was detailed and lengthy (1731/2 lines). After the death of Beowulf, both Wiglaf and the messenger stress the outcome of the struggle, rather than the actual fighting, as the basis for predicting trouble for Beowulf's realm (lines 2884-91 and 2910b-3030a). To dwell upon the action at greater length would emphasize the manner in which the hero was killed and not the tragic consequences of his death. Nevertheless, because the poet in the second and third reports did not draw attention to the fighting, as was done in the accounts of the other two combats, the depiction of this combat is less emphatic, is likely to be less distinct in the reader's mind.

When we evaluate the results of the employment of these modes of narrating Beowulf's three fights, we conclude that the poet is most effective at precisely the wrong points in the poem. Greater narrative skill was employed in the depiction of the fight with Grendel than was displayed in the narration of either of the other combats. Because the poet controlled the narrative focus so well in this case, because he rendered the second and third accounts of that combat absolutely necessary for a full picture of the encounter, that fight strikes the reader as the most dramatic and vivid of the three. The fight with Grendel's dam follows immediately after the struggle with Grendel and loses some effectiveness simply because it is fundamentally the same kind of contention: heroic warrior versus monster. Although the poet did much to differentiate the two fights by varying the locales and the details of the fighting and made good use in each case of a dramatic audience, the impression still remains that the second is to some extent an inartistic repetition of the first. The reader even feels that the fight with Grendel's dam reveals no significant aspect of the hero that was not better exhibited in the first combat. Whereas the first two battles reveal Beowulf in the role of youthful warrior, the dragon fight displays his exemplary behavior as a mature king. Yet, in spite of the national significance attributed to the dragon affair as a consequence of Beowulf's kingship, that fight never impresses the reader as forcibly as does the battle with Grendel. Certainly, the less adroit handling of narrative focus, the fact that this is the third occasion on which Beowulf has performed in a difficult situation, and the greater attention devoted to Wiglaf, the comitatus, and the ramifications of the combat—all these contribute to the comparatively ineffective picture of this fight.

Theoretically, perhaps, the dire consequences attributed to Beowulf's death and the climactic position of the dragon fight within the story should elevate that struggle above the other two. But when we weigh these abstract considerations against the very striking effects achieved through narrative skill in the depiction of the Grendel episode, the fact is that we are more impressed by the Grendel fray. We seem to encounter the dramatic climax early in the story with two more combats still to be presented. To make the reader feel, as well as understand, that the dragon fight is the real climax, the poet should have subordinated the fights with Grendel and Grendel's dam and concentrated all his artistry, all the skill that he has displayed in the depiction of the first combat, upon the last.

Charles Moorman (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: "The Essential Paganism of Beowulf," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, March, 1967, pp. 3-18.

[In the following excerpt, Moorman identifies a pessimistic tone running through Beowulf and argues that it is the product of a pagan rather than a Christian view of life.]

One has only to glance at the criticism devoted to Beowulf in the last sixty years to see how firmly entrenched the so-called Christian interpretation of our chief Anglo-Saxon poem has become. Specialized studies, such as M. B. McNamee's interpretation of the poem as an "allegory of salvation," Marie Hamilton's view of the poem as reflecting the Augustinian doctrines of grace and providence, and the patristical studies of D. W. Rob ertson, Jr., R. E. Kaske, and Morton W. Bloomfield, as well as the more general treatments of A. G. Brodeur and Dorothy Whitelock, have apparently solidified Frederick Klaeber's original assertion that "Predominantly Christian are the general tone of the poem and its ethical viewpoint" and have thoroughly discredited the early arguments of H. M. Chadwick and F. A. Blackburn that the Christian sentiments expressed by characters and author are mere "colorings" in a poem which "once existed as a whole without the Christian allusions" (Blackburn). And certainly no student would wish to argue against such opponents that both the Beowulf poet and his audience were not possessed of the rudiments of Christianity or that, save perhaps in a few passages (168-69, 180-88, 1740-60), the Christianity expressed in the poem as it has come down to us is not a part of its original design. [The line numbering in my text is that of Klaeber's edition. However, in order to facilitate reading, I have throughout the article quoted from R. K. Gordon's translation of Beowulf, in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Everyman ed. (New York, 1926).]

Yet one feels that the scholars may have protested too much. The subject matter, the narrative line, and, more important, the tone of Beowulf are far removed from the more patently Christian poems of the Old English period, not only from the saints' lives and biblical paraphrases, but from those poems—Andreas and Judith, for example—that, like Beowulf, boast a strongly heroic character. The difference between Beowulf and these poems is ultimately more qualitative than quantitative: it is not so much a matter of more or less Christian coloration, or even of more or less specifically Christian subject matter, but one of point of view, of language and diction, and, especially, of tone. Compare for a moment the ending of Beowulf with the closing passages of Judith and Andreas, which, although they derive from the Old Testament and from Christian folk tradition rather than from specifically Christian scriptural sources, nevertheless share with Beowulf the heroic attitude:

Judith: Judith ascribed the glory of all that to the Lord of hosts who endued her with honour, fame in the realm of the world and likewise reward in heaven, the meed of victory in the splendour of the sky, because she ever held true faith in the Almighty. At the end she doubted not at all of the reward which long while she had yearned for. Therefore glory for ever be to the dear Lord who in his own mercy created the wind and the airs, the skies and spacious realms, and likewise the fierce streams and the joys of heaven. (Gordon, p. 358)

Andreas: and then they worshipped the Lord of glory, called aloud all together, and spoke thus: "There is one eternal God of all creatures! His might and his power are famously honoured throughout the world, and his glory gleams over all on the saints in heavenly majesty, with beauty in heaven for ever and ever, eternally among the angels. That is a noble King!" (Gordon, p. 233)

Beowulf: The warriors began to rouse on the barrow the greatest of funeral-fires; the wood-reek mounted up dark above the smoking glow, the crackling flame, mingled with the cry of weeping—the tumult of the winds ceased—until it had consumed the body, hot to the heart. Sad in heart, they lamented the sorrow of their souls, the slaying of their lord; likewise the woman with bound tresses sang a dirge … the sky swallowed up the smoke….

Thus did the men of the Geats, his hearth-companions, bewail the fall of their lord; they said that among the kings of the world he was the mildest of men and most kindly, most gentle to his people and most eager for praise. (Gordon, pp. 69-70)

It should be obvious, even from these brief quotations, that while Judith and Andreas, like The Fates of the Apostles and The Dream of the Rood—all of which end with death and unhappy events—conclude with paeans of triumph and rejoicing in the victories of the servants of God, Beowulf, save for a single reference to Beowulf's soul having sought out the judgment of the righteous (2820), ends in tragedy and disillusionment. Beowulf's death, however heroic it may have been, has unleashed the forces that will destroy his people, and the last three hundred lines of the poem, despite all the appeals of Whitelock to "things that last for ever" are pessimistic and foreboding in the extreme.

The difference between Beowulf and these other poems, moreover, does not lie merely with the fact that Beowulf ends tragically and the others with assertions of the joyful victories of the saints, though the conclusions of the three poems define an important part of that difference. For the whole of Beowulf, despite its Christian elements, is strongly and most un-Christianly pessimistic in its view of life and history. The narrative framework of the poem, the story of Beowulf's encounters with his monstrous opponents, demonstrates that although even the most heroic of men may for a time overcome the powers of darkness, he in time will be defeated by them. The background of Scandinavian history before which the action of Beowulf takes place and to which the poet constantly alludes makes precisely the same point of the fates of nations: societies rise only to perish, and it is only a few generations from Scyld Scefing to Hrothulf and from Hrethel to Wiglaf. In the end, no matter how great the personal valor, how strong the comites, how determined the heroic struggle, the dragons prevail and Heorot burns. It is thus no surprise that Andreas, which reflects an essentially optimistic Christian philosophy of history, ends with the followers of the saint praising the everlasting glory of God and his saints, and Beowulf concludes with a lonely funeral pyre and the lamentations of the Geats.

I bring forward this pronounced difference in tone between Beowulf and these patently Christian poems not in order to deny the presence of the many obviously Christian sentiments in Beowulf, but simply to reassert in the face of almost all recent criticism the essential paganism of the poem. However important to our view of Beowulf the principal Christian elements—the allusions to free will, Hrothgar's sermon on humility, Beowulf's moderation and thanksgivings to God, the identification of Grendel with the race of Cain—may be, they are essential neither to its narrative nor even to its major theme—the unyielding, though profitless, struggle of man against the forces of a malevolent nature. In the final analysis, the Christian elements are peripheral; they need appear in no paraphrase of the poem, they contribute nothing to its over-all effect, and they in no way affect either its structure or its thematic unity.

More important for this discussion, however, is the fact that in concentrating upon the Christian elements of the poem, we have failed to plumb the depths of its paganism. For just as the Christianity of the poem is at best conceived of as a surface coloration, so its paganism is the very hue of the material from which it is made. It is a comparatively easy process, for instance, to amass evidence to show that at the time the poem was written, the stern Germanic Wyrd (like Dame Fortuna) had become softened and shaped into an agency of the Christian God; indeed, it may have been so considered by the poet. But the action of the poem, if not always the comments of characters and author, asserts man's fate to be fixed and tragic; as Charles Kennedy has remarked, there is no evidence either in plot or in tone "to imply control of Fate by the superior power of Christian divinity." Hrothgar's speech on humility may well be an interpolation, but even if it is not, its sentiments are hardly in agreement with what we know of Hrothgar's actions in the poem; Brodeur, for example, frankly regards him as a pagan king. And while Beowulf may well be "brave and gentle, blameless in thought and deed, the king that dies for his people" (Klaeber, p. li), he is, nevertheless, of all men the "most eager for praise," and his actions in the poem are always those of the pagan Germanic chieftain rather than of the "Christian Saviour" that Klaeber thought him to be. He recognizes as binding all the customs and laws of the comites, including the obligations of the warrior to revenge himself on his enemies; he undertakes his exploits primarily out of a desire for both glory and gold; his last thoughts are "sad, restless, brooding on death" (2419-20); he feels just before his death that he has somehow angered a vengeful God (2327-31); and his final wish is to see the treasure hoard he has won (2743-51). Compared with these fundamental actions and attitudes, Beowulf's brief thanksgivings to God seem superficial, so much so that J. R. R. Tolkien remarks, "We have in Beowulf's language little differentiation of God and Fate." The much discussed identification of Grendel with the race of Cain can hardly be called Christian at all, though its source is scriptural; it is best taken simply as a means of expanding and intensifying the poet's vision of the evil forces of pagan nature that Beowulf faces. Moreover, as Klaeber said, we have in the poem no mention at all of the items of specifically Christian experience such as are found in the religious poems of the period: "we hear nothing of angels, saints, relics, of Christ and the cross, of divine worship, church observances or any particular dogmatic points" (p. xlix).

Its paganism, on the other hand, is essential to the thought and action of Beowulf. The externals of paganism—the omens, heathen sacrifices, pagan burials—are as peripheral as the externals of Christian sentiment. But the great concepts that determine the structure and theme of the poem—the unmitigated pessimism, the doctrine of an unyielding fate, the poet's insistence upon the code of the comites and upon the obligations of kinship and the vendetta, the praise of worldly heroism, and the glorification of prowess and courage for their own sakes—these are indispensable to any interpretation of Beowulf. All of these concepts point toward a deep-seated pagan tradition of thought and action which the Christianity of the poem has managed to color, but not to erase or disguise.

I suspect that we have fallen into the habit of seeing Beowulf as a Christian poem simply because we know more about late medieval Christianity than we do about the Germanic paganism of the Dark Ages. It is far easier to look back at Beowulf, Church Fathers in hand, from the Christian vantage point of the late Middle Ages than from the pagan point of view of earlier centuries from which so little information has come down. The remnants of paganism that did survive in Britain—the scattered altars, the maimed rites and dances, the denunciations from Rome and local clergy—tell us almost nothing. The precise relationships among the English, German, and Scandinavian mythologies are blurred. The very fact that a number of historians fall back upon Beowulf itself in order to "see therein much of the workings of the primitive English mind" should demonstrate the scantiness of our information concerning pagan Britain. Whitelock, for example, can be most explicit about the degree of Christian knowledge held by the poet's audience; she is, of necessity, silent concerning that same audience's knowledge of pagan doctrines. Yet whether or not one wishes to accept Margaret Murray's theory of a continuing English pagan tradition, one must accept the fact that the audience of Beowulf must have been very close indeed to its pagan heritage and could still understand and appreciate in its own terms a pagan tale, even though that tale might be shaped and rendered respectable by a poet with an eye cocked toward the local clergy.

There would also seem to be in the poem layers of pagan thought directly below those that appear on its surface. For example, there is far more emphasis on kinship and on its relationship to kingship and to the comites than appears at first sight. Historians disagree somewhat as to the importance of the family in Anglo-Saxon aristocratic society. Earlier historians argued that the Saxon invaders brought to England a tribal system of government in which the ties of kinship and the obligations of family duty determined both the social and the economic systems. But later historians, basing their conclusions on the evidence of what was known of Germanic institutions (information derived chiefly from Tacitus' Germania), seem agreed that Anglo-Saxon society was founded not so much on the old Germanic allegiance of kinsman to kinsman as on that of the devotion of thane to lord. "The most powerful bond in this new society," says Peter Hunter Blair [in Roman Britain and Early England, 1963], "was that which united lord and man in a close relationship which was neither national nor tribal but personal." Both groups, interestingly enough, use Beowulf as source.

It seems clear, however, that both the family and the comites, both kinsman and lord, claimed a large measure of the devotion of the Anglo-Saxon warrior. The story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 755 demonstrates that the duties to lord and kinsman might come into conflict and that, in this one instance at least, the obligation to lord proved stronger. Of the two claims, however, that of the family is admittedly older, and certainly in Anglo-Saxon times the demands of family loyalty must still have been heartfelt indeed: witness the grief of Hrethel upon the death of his oldest son, Herebeald, and his frustration at being unable to revenge his son's death. Beowulf is filled not only with constant allusions to kinship—the most obvious being the use of patronymic epithets—but also with statements that emphasize the importance of family relationships, particularly as they affect royal succession, to the plot, action, and theme of the poem.

The poem itself begins with a genealogy, that of the descendants of Scyld Scefing, from whom the throne of Denmark descends generation by generation, son to son, until it passes to Heorogar. The natural succession is broken with Heorogar, for the throne does not come down to his son Heoroweard, who is mysteriously passed over, but falls, disastrously, to Hrothgar, a brother of Heorogar. Presumably because of the weakness of his own sons, Hrothgar becomes involved toward the end of his life in a bitter contest for the throne with his son-in-law Ingeld. When Hrothgar dies, his nephew Hrothulf usurps the throne, at least temporarily, and in the resulting civil wars Heorot is burned and the noble Scylding dynasty comes to an end.

Much the same emphasis on the importance of family succession can be seen in the Geatish royal house. Herebeald, who is Hrethel's proper heir, is accidentally killed by his brother Haethcyn, who is in turn killed by the Swedes and is succeeded by Hygelac, the youngest of Hrethel's sons. After Hygelac's death the throne passes to his son Heardred, although Hygd, Hygelac's widow, first offers it to Beowulf. Heardred is soon killed by the Swedes, and the throne passes to Beowulf. But Beowulf has no sons, and upon his death the rule passes to Wiglaf, the last of the Waegmundings and the last of the Geatish kings.

The history of the two tribes, as given in the poem, points toward a general concept which seems to be germane to its theme: that rightful succession and, more generally, right family relationships assure peace and good fortune in the state, while interruptions in due succession and the disregard of blood ties result not only in bitter family feuds but in the overthrow of kingdoms.

This general theme of kinship and its relation to the fortunes of state is reinforced incidentally throughout the poem. Unferth is damned by Beowulf as the murderer of his brother, a fact which not only presages his future alliance with Hrothulf, but also perhaps links him with Cain and hence with Grendel. Certainly, he is to be contrasted with Beowulf; logically, Unferth should have been the man to whom Hrothgar and Wealtheow turned in trouble. Yet since Unferth was unfaithful to his own kinsman, Hrothgar makes at least a tentative offer of foster son-ship to Beowulf, who later may have ruled over Hrothgar's kingdom (3004-07). Unferth is thus in a sense the false son whose treachery destroys the state, Beowulf the true son who might have saved it.

The emphasis on family relationships may also explain the large place given to Wealtheow in the poem. In her concern for her sons, she is to be compared to the lamenting Hildeburh, the Danish wife of Finn, who sees her son and her brother killed in battle, just as Hygd, Hygelac's widow, loses her son in battle, and is later compared with Queen Thryth. By some curious transference—though this I would not insist upon—Wealtheow may be contrasted in the poem with Grendel's dam, who has also lost a son, but whose desire for revenge may well be contrasted with Wealtheow's great sorrow.

Time and again, the Beowulf-poet repeats the theme of kinship, along with its resulting entanglements and feuds: in the rebellion of Eanmund and Eadgils against their uncle, in Finn's war against his brother-in-law, in Heremod's seizure of the Danish throne from his brother and his resulting degeneracy, in Hygd's fears for Heardred. And Beowulf himself begins his final lament with the regret that he has no son to whom he may pass on his armor and that Fate has swept away all of his kinsmen save Wiglaf.

Although family loyalty as such is of course quite compatible with Christianity, the vendetta is not, and it is clear that in the Anglo-Saxon period, even down to the time of King Alfred, as Dorothy Whitelock says [in Beginnings of English Society, 1952], "it was unavoidable that there should be a clash between Christian and pre-Christian ethics in this matter of vengeance." As we have seen, the stern ethical code which stems from family loyalty and its effects upon society are far more central to the action of Beowulf than is the Christian code of conduct, which not only forbids family feuds and acts of revenge no matter how well justified, but in fact demands that all family relationships be put aside if necessary so that the Christian ideal of forgiveness and mercy may be followed.

But the insistence on family and rightful succession and on the identification of private and public weal may point toward a deeper (though perhaps by the time of Beowulf an almost forgotten) layer of pagan thought and practice. Beginning with Frazer, anthropologists and literary critics have seen as a ruling motif both in primitive society and in literature the ritual sacrifice of the sacral king as a means of assuring the continuing fertility of the land and the prosperity of the tribe. In The God of the Witches, Murray says:

The underlying meaning of the sacrifice of the divine victim is that the spirit of God takes up its abode in a human being, usually the king, who thereby becomes the giver of fertility to all his kingdom. When the divine man begins to show signs of age he is put to death lest the spirit of God should also grow old and weaken like its human container…. When the changes inevitable to all human customs gradually took place, a substitute could suffer in the king's stead, dying at the time the king should have died and thus giving the king a further lease of life.

(pp. 165-66)

One need not accept Murray's highly conjectural theories regarding Joan of Arc and Thomas à Becket as substitute victims in order to grant the basic truth of her assertion that the sacrifice either of the king or of his substitute was a fundamental part of the Germanic paganism which infused England in the Anglo-Saxon period and continued well into the Christian Era. The Ynglinga saga records that the Swedish King Domaldi was sacrificed by his people in order to improve a series of bad harvests, and Snorri records that Olaf the Wood-Cutter, one of the ancestors of the kings of Norway, was sacrificially burned in his house after a number of crop failures. And almost certainly the old sacrificial rituals, as E. K. Chambers says, lingered "in the country, the pagan, districts" and so "passed silently into the dim realm of folklore," most notably in England, according to Chambers, in the village festival play.

I would hardly claim that Beowulf is filled with references to human sacrifices disguised for court consumption by a pagan posing as a Christian. But I think it entirely possible that the matter of the poem does reflect something of the pagan notion of kingship and ritual sacrifice. No one would deny that after fifty years as king, Hrothgar has outlived his period of effective rule. Old age has robbed him of his youthful strength (1886-87). His dreams of glory in building Heorot have been shattered by the raids of Grendel, who in twelve years has completely demoralized the whole Danish court: the thanes no longer attempt to sleep in the hall at night, nor will Grendel consent to be bought off. Hrothgar himself is powerless even to approach his own throne, and in desperation the court abandons whatever shallow Christianity it professes and turns to pagan gods. In Murray's terms, the "spirit of God" has grown old within Hrothgar and has weakened "like its human container." Nor, apparently, can Hrothgar's son deal with the situation. The task of cleansing Heorot thus falls upon the young Beowulf, who replaces the old king in destroying Grendel and his mother and who is almost, but not quite, accepted by Hrothgar as foster son and heir.

His ineffectualness in dealing with Grendel is not the only sign of Hrothgar's decrepitude. The revolt of Ingeld during the old king's lifetime and the seizure of the throne by Hrothulf after his death are attributable to Hrothgar's senility and lack of judgment, a failing which Wealtheow plainly shares and which she clearly evidences in her trust of Hrothulf and in her plea to Hrothgar to be generous first of all with his own kinsmen and to leave to them, not to Beowulf, his subjects and kingdom. It is noteworthy that after Wealtheow's speech Hrothgar never again alludes to the "new kinship" he has offered Beowulf; instead, he proposes rewards of gold and riches for the killing of Grendel's mother and, after Beowulf has successfully destroyed this second menace, sends him home to Hygelac with a sermon on humility and the prayerful hope that in time Beowulf will become king of the Geats and will remain friendly to the Danes.

The point is, I think, that Hrothgar is allowed to live too long, that his prolonged rule brings about the destruction of his nation, and that Beowulf, who might have assumed Hrothgar's throne by virtue of his having saved the Danes, does not do so (or, if he does, does so only after the forces of revolt have destroyed the nation).

The second part of the poem helps to clarify the first. As Brodeur points out, the tragic conflict between the two parts is strikingly clear: Hygelac is dead, the Danes have been destroyed, and Beowulf, now an old man who, like Hrothgar, has ruled his fifty years, is now himself faced with Hrothgar's problem—a deadly monster and a group of cowardly thanes. Even before the dragon appears, the poet forecasts the death of Beowulf and begins to anticipate with increasing frequency the approaching destruction of the Geatish nation. And although Brodeur insists that the contrast between the closing lines of Part I, which show "the hero at home in his uncle's court …, Hygelac … alive and powerful, his realm … rich and strong," and the beginning of Part II, with its "terrible antithesis" to Part I, is "sufficient in itself, without irony," the comparison between Hrothgar and the Beowulf of Part II is surely both intended and ironic. Suddenly the young hero who saved an old king is himself an old king, the slayer of dragons is now about to be slain by a dragon, the savior of Heorot finds his own hall destroyed, and he who had ridiculed Hrothgar's untrustworthy thanes is now surrounded by cowards.

If we are to make sense of Beowulf'slast foreboding, bitter speeches, and hence of the last half of the poem, we must read them in this context. For they are not the speeches of a Christian hero who is satisfied with the fruits of his life's work and, having made his peace with God, is assured of his place among the saints. Even his last apologia (2724-51) is filled with regret that he has no son, that Fate has deprived him of kinsmen, that his only monument will be a hoard of treasure. He takes pride, of course, in the facts that he has kept the peace and that he has not sworn many unjust oaths or stooped to cunning attacks or killed his own kinsmen. But these are in the main negative accomplishments and are hardly the boasts of a triumphant soldier of Christ. These final speeches make it clear that Beowulf realizes that his struggles have been for the most part in vain, that Wiglaf is the last of the Waegmundings, and that the Geats are doomed. In the end his only thanksgiving to God is for the treasure he has been able to win for his people, a treasure which, ironically, is buried with him.

The picture of Beowulf presented in these scenes, especially those of Section XXXIII, which immediately precede the fight with the dragon, is disturbing in a number of ways. The poet says of him that he thought that by "breaking established law [ealde riht], he had bitterly angered God, the Lord everlasting. His breast was troubled within by dark thoughts, as was not his wont" (Gordon, p. 52). The usual interpretation of these lines is that suggested by Klaeber, that Beowulf "did not yet know the real cause of the dragon's ravages" (p. 211). Both Klaeber and Wrenn take the ealde riht to which the poet refers to be God's commandments, but the poet has made no mention of Beowulf'sbreaking any such laws, and it may well be that the passages of Section XXXIII following the statement of Beowulf'sdespair are actually attempts to explain the nature of the ealde riht that Beowulf has violated.

Having described the ravages of the firedrake and prophesied again the deaths of both Beowulf and the dragon, the poet tells us that Beowulf

scorned to seek the far-flier with a troop of men, with a great host. He feared not the fight, nor did he account as aught the valour of the dragon, his power and prowess; because ere this, defying danger, he had come through many onslaughts, wild attacks, when he, the man of victory, purged Hrothgar's hall….

(Gordon, p. 53)

This passage, coming immediately after one of the many prophecies of Beowulf'sdeath, lays emphasis on the hero's great pride in his own strength and on his self-confidence, qualities which seemed perfectly fitting in the young hero, but strangely out of place in an old man brooding darkly on his transgressions. The poet would seem to be establishing here yet another comparison with Hrothgar and, incidentally, with Hygelac, this time in terms of their pride. Hygelac's raid against the Frisians so weakened the Geats that they were unable to aid Hrothgar's sons in their struggle with Hrothulf. Hrothgar in his pride had built Heorot, only to find that he could not inhabit it. Beowulf here scorns the safety of numbers in his self-assurance that he is still the same man who, fifty years before, defeated Grendel and his mother. Taken in this context, the sermon on humility delivered by Hrothgar to the young Beowulf suddenly makes sense, not as a Christian exposition of the follies of pride spoken by a pagan king, but as an explicit warning to Beowulf of the trap into which any aged king may fall, that of regarding himself as immune to the ravages of old age and faltering judgment and of thus disregarding the ealde riht of Germanic kingship. Beowulf, like Hrothgar, has failed to relinquish his throne while still in his prime; perhaps it is his realization of this failure that prompts his sudden despair.

The next few verses, moreover, provide an alternative, or more likely a supplementary, explanation of Beowulf'sdepression. Recounting the death of Hygelac at the hands of the Frisians, the poet says that Beowulf alone escaped the battle by swimming, this time carrying thirty suits of armor, "over the stretch of the gulfs" (Gordon, p. 53) back to his homeland. Although this incident is another example of Beowulf'sremarkable strength and skill in swimming, it is out of keeping with our idea of the Germanic hero and of the comitatus spirit, which demanded, above all, loyalty even unto death in battle. We should have expected Beowulf to have died at Hygelac's side, and it may well be that his flight is the violation of an ealde riht of the comites which he recalls and laments at the end of his life.

The next few lines (2369-79) introduce a possible third explanation of Beowulf'sdejection, one that also reflects Beowulf'sfailure in the past to understand the laws of both kingship and comites. The poet recalls that when Beowulf returned to the Geats, Queen Hygd, distrusting her own son's ability to protect the kingdom, had offered Beowulf the crown and that he had refused it, as Adrien Bonjour says, [in The Digressions in 'Beowulf,' 1950], "out of sheer loyalty towards the rightful heir." Subsequent events prove that it would have been better for his countrymen if Beowulf had accepted the queen's offer. Heardred is killed by the Swedes, and the war between Swedes and Geats culminates in an uneasy truce, which lasts only during Beowulf'slifetime. Although I agree with Bonjour that one purpose of the reference is to establish still another image of Beowulf'spower, I think that the poet, by placing the passage so close to the descriptions of the dragon's ravages, of Beowulf'senduring pride, and of his retreat from Hygelac's battle with the Frisians, makes a subtle but quite definite allusion to another failure in substitution, that of Beowulf for Heardred.

An account of Beowulf'srevenge upon Onela for the death of Heardred follows immediately and quite naturally; here again, the poet's aim may be to explain Beowulf'smelancholy in terms of his having broken ealde riht. Beowulf, of course, supports Onela's nephew in his revolt against his uncle, an engagement that results in Onela's death. Yet one must wonder at Beowulf'saction, since the text clearly states that after Heardred's death, Onela departed for Sweden and permitted (let) Beowulf to hold the Geatish throne. I strongly suspect also that the god cyning of line 2390 is Onela, whose attitude toward Beowulf is here praised. If this reading is correct, then Beowulf'slater action against Onela is inexcusable, the action of a proud Heremod who becomes improperly involved in what we should call "the internal affairs of another nation" in order, for the sake of revenge, to strike down a benefactor.

It is certainly possible that I am here guilty of overreading, or perhaps even misreading, the text, that—as the commentators have maintained—the poet introduces these incidents not to bury Beowulf, but to praise him. Yet, the allusions to Beowulf'spride, his escape from the battle with the Frisians, his refusal of the Geatish crown, and his role in the death of Onela, coming as they do immediately after the description of his melancholy and his feeling that the dragon's onslaught is a result of his somehow broken ealde riht, may perhaps serve to explain his dejection in terms of his violations of the pagan laws of kingship and the code of the comites. He in his pride has ruled too long, he has deserted the side of his dead lord, he has refused to take the place of an unworthy king in order to preserve his nation, and he has slain his benefactor. There is little wonder that "his breast was troubled within by dark thoughts."

To return to the main argument, I think it clear that the Beowulf of the second half of the poem is not that of the first. Fate, youth, his thanes, and at the end even his boundless self-assurance have deserted him. It is Wiglaf who now comes to the fore and, like the young Beowulf, is seen by his lord as a foster son. Yet again the substitution comes too late, and the words of Wiglaf, whom the Swedes hate, and the messenger leave us in no doubt of the heavy days to come. Having ruled too long, the old king dies, and with him the nation whose welfare had depended upon his strength and virility.

I am perfectly aware that in tracing, however cursorily, these vestiges of the sacral kingship in Beowulf, I may seem to have chosen my evidence overscrupulously, considered passages out of their contexts, and largely ignored the comments made by the Christian author on these passages, and that I may consequently be guilty of misinterpreting the characters and actions of the poem. Yet such is not wholly the case. Even though the actions of Section XXXIII that I have seen as reflecting the guilty thoughts of Beowulf just before his encounter with the dragon have been interpreted by others as praise of the hero, the poet himself in no way indicates that such is the case. The whole of the section is reported with an objectivity rare in the poem. In the same way, the sermon of Hrothgar, Wealtheow's plea that Beowulf protect her son, and the final speeches of the hero are presented without authorial comment. Moreover, the references to the Christian God are notably fewer in these harsh final passages than in the Grendel episodes. Save for Beowulf'sown reference to the approval of the Ruler of Men (2741), the poet's statement that Beowulf'ssoul has joined those of the righteous (2820), and the hero's reflection that he has perhaps angered God (2330), these Christian refer ences take the form either of rather colorless incidental allusions or of the poet's usual references to the will of God, which in these final scenes are matched by an almost equal and quite indistinguishable number of references to the power of pagan Wyrd.

The point is that, in its second half, the essential paganism of the poem is more evident than in the first. As the tragedy of Beowulf approaches, the Christian poet finds little to say concerning the hero's Christianity and little consolation in its assurances of the comforting thoughts of its saints. Beowulf dies a lonely death; he finds no real solace either in the thoughts of his accomplishments, which will be of no lasting value to his people, or in any expectation of future glory. And, unlike the authors of the religious poems of the period, neither does the Beowulf-post, though we are assured by the religious references in the poem that he was himself at least nominally a Christian.

I would suggest that, in the end, the archetype of the poem, or at least the folk elements from which it sprang, comes to dominate its mood and theme. The pessimism of Nordic mythology finally overshadows whatever bright er Christian colors the poem had in its conception displayed; its hero is revealed not as a Christian martyr whose life of trials and sacrificial death had advanced the cause of God in the world, but as an old man who, though permitted by Fate to win with the help of the young his last battle, nevertheless dies knowing that he has accomplished nothing of permanent value. And in this regard Beowulf is far closer to the heroes of the medieval epics that are obviously more pagan than Christian—the Nibelungenlied and the Njáls saga, for example—than to those of such patently Christian poems as the Chanson de Roland. For although the Nibelungenlied and the Njáls saga were presumably written by Christian poets, their heroes are in every way pagan in attitude and spirit. Gunnar and Njál, Siegfried and Rudeger perish as the result of feuds that are in the end as meaningless as they are futile. They do not die on behalf of noble causes, nor do they really serve their parties' best interests by dying, however well they die. Scandinavian mythology presented a negative, pessimistic view of history in which man and earth and giants were to be destroyed as the final act of a conflict between gods and giants in which all men, living and dead, were to take part. Although a new heaven and earth might eventually arise from the ashes of the old, the present life of man was marked not only by struggle, but by a sense of the futility of struggle.

It is into this literary and religious context that Beowulf best fits, not into that of the Andreas and the Chanson de Roland, whose heroes die assured of personal glory after death and of the eventual triumph of their causes. Beowulf is of the same age as the dragons he fights, an age in which the families of men were still more real than the Communion of Saints, in which the well-being of the land still depended upon the vigor of the king, and in which the forces of nature could still assume the shapes of trolls and dragons against which no man or comites could either endure or prevail.

Jane C. Nitzsche (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5592

SOURCE: "The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel's Mother," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 287-303.

[In the excerpt that follows, Nitzsche discusses the contrast between Grendel's mother and the feminine ideal and also analyzes her fight with Beowulf as a transitional link between Beowulf's battle with Grendel and with the dragon.]

The episode in Beowulf involving Grendel's mother has been viewed as largely extraneous, a blot upon the thematic and structural unity of the poem. If the poem is regarded as two-part in structure, balancing contrasts between the hero's youth and old age, his rise as a retainer and his fall as a king, his battles with the Grendel family and his battle with the dragon, then her episode (which includes Hrothgar's sermon and Hygelac's welcoming court celebration with its recapitulation of earlier events) lengthens the first "half" focusing on his youth to two-thirds of the poem (lines 1-2199). [The edition of Beowulf used throughout is Frederick Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnesburg, 3rd, ed. (Boston, 1936, with 1941 and 1950 supplements).] If the poem is regarded as three-part in structure, with each part centering on one of the three monsters or the three fights, then the brevity of her episode again mars the structural balance: her section, roughly 500 lines (1251-1784), is not as long as Grendel's, roughly 1100-1200 lines (86-1250), or the dragon's, 1000 lines (2200-3182). Even if her episode is lengthened to a thousand lines (from line 1251 to 2199) so as to include Hrothgar's sermon and Hygelac's court celebration, still Grendel's mother hardly dominates these events literally or symbolically as do Grendel and the dragon the events in their sections.

But her battle with Beowulf (and this middle section of the poem) is more than merely a "transition between two great crises," even though it is "linked with both the Grendel fight and the Dragon fight." The key to her significance may indeed derive from her links with the other two monsters in a way Bonjour did not envision when he made these statements [in "Grendel's Dam and the Composition of Beowulf," English Studies 30 (1949)].

Grendel and the dragon have been interpreted recently as monstrous projections of flaws in Germanic civilization portrayed by the poet as "Negative Men." Grendel is introduced as a mock "hall-retainer" (renweard, 770; healoegn, 142) who envies the men of Heorot their joy of community; he subsequently attacks the hall in a raid that is described through the parodic hall ceremonies of feasting, ale-drinking, gift-receiving, and singing. The dragon is introduced as a mock "gold-king" or hordweard (2293, 2303, 2554, 2593) who avariciously guards his barrow or "ring-hall" (hringsele, 3053), and attacks Beowulf'skingdom after he discovers the loss of a single cup. The envy of the evil hall-retainer and the avarice of the evil gold-king antithesize the Germanic comitatus ideal first enunciated in Tacitus' Germania and pervading heroic and elegiac Anglo-Saxon literature: the comitatus' well-being depended upon the retainer's valor in battle and loyalty to his lord and the lord's protection and treasure-giving in return.

Like these monsters, Grendel's mother is also described in human and social terms. She is specifically called a wīf unhyre (2120), a "monstrous woman'," and an idesaglæwīf (1259), a "lady monster-woman." "Ides" elsewhere in Beowulf denotes "lady" and connotes either a queen or a woman of high social rank; outside Beowulf, primarily in Latin and Old English glosses, ides pairs with virgo to suggest maidenhood, as when on idesan equals in virgunculam. In addition, as if the poet wished to stress her maternal role she is characterized usually as Grendel's mōdor or kinswoman (mage, 1391), the former a word almost exclusively reserved for her, although other mothers appear in the poem. It seems clear from these epithets that Grendel's mother inverts the Germanic roles of the mother and queen, or lady. She has the form of a woman (idese onlīcnes, 1351) and is weaker than a man (1282ff) and more cowardly, for she flees in fear for her life when, discovered in Heorot (1292-93). But unlike most mothers and queens, she fights her own battles. Maxims I testifies that, "Battle, war, must develop in the man, and the woman must flourish beloved among her people, must be light-hearted."

Because the poet wishes to stress this specific inversion of the Anglo-Saxon ideal of woman as both monstrous and masculine he labels her domain a "battle-hall" (nīosele, 1513; gīosele, 2139). (The dragon's barrow he describes equally appropriately, given the monster's avaricious symbolic nature, as a "ring-hall," as we saw previously.) In addition, he occasionally uses a masculine pronoun in referring to her (sē þe instead of sēo þe in 1260, 1497; instead of hēo in 1392, 1394). Such a change in pronoun occurs elsewhere in the poem only in reference to abstract feminine nouns used as personifications and to concrete feminine nouns used as synecdoches. Other epithets applied to her are usually applied to male figures: warrior, sinnige secg, in 1379; destroyer, mihtig manscaoa, in 1339; and [male] guardian, "gryrelīcne grundhyrde, in 2136. Indeed, in the phrase ides aglæcwīf applied to Grendel's mother as a "lady monster-woman" the aglæca not only means "monster," as it does when directed at Grendel (159, 425, 433, 556, 592, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269) or the water monsters (1512), but also "fierce combatant" or "strong adversary," as when directed at Sigemund in line 893 and Beowulf and the dragon in line 2592. Such a woman might be wretched or monstrous because she insists on arrogating the masculine role of the warrior or lord.

Her episode is thus appropriately divided like her monstrous but human nature and her female but male behavior into two parts to illustrate the various feminine roles—of the mother or kinswoman (mōdor) and queen or lady (ides glæcwīf))—she inverts. The poet constantly contrasts the unnatural behavior of Grendel's dam with that of the feminine ideal by presenting human examples as foils in each of the two parts. We turn first to an examination of the female ideal in Beowulf, then to a detailed analysis of the episode involving Grendel's mother and its two parts, and finally to some conclusions regarding the structural unity of the entire poem.


The role of woman in Beowulf primarily depends upon "peace-making," either biologically through her marital ties with foreign kings as a peace-pledge or mother of sons, or socially and psychologically as a cup-passing and peace-weaving queen within a hall. Wealhtheow becomes a peace-pledge or friousibb folca (2017) to unite the Danes and Helmings; Hildeburh similarly unites the Danes and Frisians through her marriage; and Freawaru at least intends to pledge peace between the Danes and Heathobards. Such a role is predicated upon the woman's ability to bear children, to create blood ties, bonds to weave a "peace kinship."

In addition, woman functions domestically within the nation as a cup-passer during hall festivities of peace (freoþo) and joy (drēam) after battle or contest. The mead-sharing ritual and the cup-passer herself come to symbolize peace-weaving and peace because they strengthen the societal and familial bonds between lord and retainers. First, the literal action of the freoouwebbe (peace-weaver, 1942) as she passes the cup from warrior to warrior weaves an invisible web of peace: the order in which each man is served, according to his social position, reveals each man's dependence upon and responsibility toward another. For example, after Wealhtheow gives the cup to Hrothgar she bids him to be joyful at drinking as well as loving to his people (615ff). Then she offers it to the duguo (old retainers), then to the geoguu (young retainers), and finally to the guest Beowulf. Second, her peace-weaving also takes a verbal form: her speeches accompanying the mead-sharing stress the peace and joy contingent upon the fulfillment of each man's duty to his nation. At the joyous celebration after Grendel's defeat Wealhtheow concludes her speeches with a tribute to the harmony of the present moment by reminding her tribe of its cause, that is, adherence to the comitatus ethic. Each man remains true to the other, each is loyal to the king, the nation is ready and alert, the drinking warriors attend to the ale-dispenser herself (1228-31). Yet minutes before she attempted to forestall future danger to her family and nation by preventive peace-weaving: she advised Hrothgar to leave his kingdom to his sons, and then, as if sensing the future, she reminded Hrothulf, his nephew, of his obligations to those sons (obligations he will later deny). Third, the peace-weaver herself emblematizes peace, for she appears in the poem with her mead-vessel only after a contest has been concluded. Thus Wealhtheow enters the hall only after the contest between Unferth and Beowulf (612); she does not appear again until after Beowulf has overcome Grendel, when the more elaborate feasting invites the peace-making speeches mentioned above. After Grendel's mother is defeated the poet preserves the integrity of the pattern of feminine cup-passing after masculine contest by describing the homecoming banquet at Hygelac's court, where Hygd conveys the mead-vessel. This structural pattern to which we shall return simultaneously weaves together the Danish part of the poem with its Geatish part.

Most of the other female characters figure as well in this middle section so that the female monster's adventures are framed by descriptions of other women for ironic contrast. The role of mother highlights the first half of the middle section with the scop's mention of Hildeburh (1071ff) and the entrance of Wealhtheow, both of whom preface the first appearance of Grendel's dam (1258) in her role as avenging mother. Then the introduction of Hygd, Thryth, and Freawaru after the female monster's death (1590) stresses the role of queen as peace-weaver and cup-passer to preface Beowulf's final narration of the female monster's downfall (2143). The actual adventures of Grendel's mother cluster then at the middle of the middle section of the poem.


In the first part of the female monster's section, the idea is stressed that a kinswoman or mother must passively accept and not actively avenge the loss of her son. The story of the mother Hildeburh is recited by the scop early on the evening Grendel's mother will visit Heorot. The lay ends at line 1159; Grendel's mother enters the poem a mere hundred lines later when she attacks the Danish hall, as the Frisian contingent attacked the hall lodging Hildeburh's Danish brother in the Finnsburh Fragment. The Beowulf poet alters the focus of the fragment: he stresses the consequences of the surprise attack rather than the attack itself in order to reveal Hildeburh's maternal reactions to them.

Hildeburh is unjustly (unsynnum, 1072) deprived of her Danish brother and Finnish son, but all she does, this sad woman (geōmuru ides, 1075), is to mourn her loss with dirges and stoically place her son on the pyre. In fact, she can do nothing, caught in the very web she has woven as peace-pledge: her husband's men have killed her brother, her brother's men have killed her son. Later the Danish Hengest will avenge the feud with her husband Finn, whether she approves or not, by overwhelming the Frisians and returning Hildeburh to her original tribe. The point remains: the peace-pledge must accept a passive role precisely because the ties she knots bind her—she is the knot, the pledge of peace. Her fate interlaces with that of her husband and brothers through her role as a mother bearing a son: thus Hildeburh appropriately mourns the loss of her symbolic tie at the pyre, the failure of her self as peace-pledge, the loss of her identity. Like Hildeburh Grendel's dam will also lose her identity as mother, never having had an identity as peace-pledge to lose.

As if reminded of her own role as mother by hearing of Hildeburh's plight, Wealhtheow demonstrates her maternal concern in an address to Hrothgar immediately after the scop sings this lay. In it she first alludes to Hrothgar's adoption of Beowulf as a son: apparently troubled by this, she insists that Hrothgar leave his kingdom only to his actual kinsmen or descendants when he dies (1178-79). Then she urges her foster "son" Hrothulf (actually a nephew) to remember his obligations to them so that he will "repay our sons with liberality" (1184-85). Finally, she moves to the mead-bench where the adopted Beowulf'sits, rather symbolically, next to her sons Hrethric and Hrothmund (1188-91). The past helplessness of the first mother, Hildeburh, to requite the death of her son counterpoints the anxiously maternal Wealhtheow's attempts to weave the ties of kinship and obligation, thereby forestalling future danger to her sons. Later that night, Grendel's mother intent on avenging the loss of her son in the present attacks Heorot, her masculine aggression contrasting with the feminine passivity of both Hildeburh and Wealhtheow. Indeed, she resembles a grieving human mother: like Hildeburh she is guiltless and galgmōd ("gloomy-minded," 1277); her journey to Heorot must be sorrowful (1278) for she "remembered her misery" (1259). But a woman's primary loyalty as peace-pledge was reserved for her husband, not for her son, according to the Danish history of Saxo Grammaticus. Perhaps for this reason Grendel's mother is presented as husbandless and son-obsessed—to suggest to an Anglo-Saxon audience the dangers inherent in woman's function as friousibb.

However, her attempts to avenge her son's death could be justified if she were human and male, for no wergild has been offered to her by the homicide Beowulf. The role of the masculine avenger is emphasized throughout the passage (1255-78) in defining her motivation to attack: she performs the role of avenger (wrecend, 1256) "to avenge the death of her son" (1278). Whatever her maternal feelings, she actually fulfills the duty of the kinsman. Unlike Hildeburh, she cannot wait for a Hengest to resolve the feud in some way; unlike Freawaru, she cannot act as a peace-pledge to settle the feud. Tribeless, now kinless, forced to rely on her own might, she seizes and kills Aeschere, Hrothgar's most beloved retainer, in an appropriate retribution for the loss of her own most beloved "retainer" and "lord"—her son.

The monstrosity of her action is at first not evident. Hrothgar suspects she has carried the "feud" too far (1339-40). And from the Danish and human point of view she possesses no legal right to exact compensation for her kinsman's loss because Grendel is himself a homicide. However, Beowulf later implies that the two feuds must remain separate, as she desires her own "revenge for injury" (gyrnwracu, 2118). Because she is legally justified in pursuing her own feud given the tribal duty of the retainer to avenge the death of his lord, regardless of the acts he has committed, she behaves monstrously then in only one way. For a mother to "avenge" her son (2121) as if she were a retainer, he were her lord, and avenging more important than peace-making, is monstrous. An analogy conveying her effect on the men in Heorot when she first appears suggests how unusual are her actions in human terms. Her horror "is as much less as is the skill (strength) of maidens, the war-horror of a woman, in comparison to a (weaponed) man, when the bound sword shears the one standing opposite" ("Wæs se gryre læssa / efne swa / micle, swa bio mægþa cræft, / w ggryre w fes be wæpnedmen, / þonne heoru bunden … andweard scireo," 1282-87). In their eyes recognizably female, she threatens them physically less than her son. But because female "peacemakers" do not wage war, the analogy implies, by litotes, that her unnatural behavior seems more horrible.

In the second part of her adventure she no longer behaves solely as an avenging monster, antitype of Hildeburh and Wealhtheow, who are both through marriage "visitors" to a hall like Grendel and his dam. Such hall-visitors contrast with the hall-rulers of this second part: the merew f as queen or guardian (grundhyrde, 2136) protects her "battle-hall," the cave-like lair, from the visiting hero like the regal dragon guarding his ring-hall, and like King Beowulf his kingdom, in the last section of the poem. Accordingly, the stress on the relationship between mother and son delineated in the first part of her adventure changes to a stress on the relationship between host and guest.

As a tribeless queen or lady (ides aglæcwīf) she rudely receives her "hall-guest" Beowulf (selegyst, 1545, gist, 1522) by "embracing" him and then "repaying him" for his valor not with treasure but with "grim grips" ("Hēo him eft hraþe andlean forgeald / grimman grapum," 1541-42) just as the dragon will "entertain" him in the future. Indeed, the parody of the hall-ceremony of treasure-giving is complete when a "scop" (Beowulf's sword, acting as bard) sings a fierce "war song" off the side of her head ("hire on hafelan hringmæl g l/ grædig gūolēoo," 1521-22). It is interesting to note that this "hall-celebration" of the mock peace-weaver to welcome her valorous guest Beowulf following her attack on Heorot and her curiously listless "contest" with Aeschere duplicates the pattern of mead-sharing ceremonies involving peacemakers which follow masculine contests throughout the poem.

It is also interesting to note that the contest between this apparently lordless "queen" and her "guest" contrasts in its mock-sensual embracing and grasping with the other two major battles of the hero—the briefly described arm-wrestling between Grendel and Beowulf, and the conventional sword-wielding of Beowulf against the fire-breathing dragon. Indeed, before Beowulf arrives at the "battle-hall" Hrothgar introduces the possibility of a Grendel's father in addition to the mother, even though they do not know of such a father (1355), and of possible additional progeny of such a father or even of Grendel himself (through an incestuous union with his mother?): "hwæþer him ænig wæs ær acenned / dyrnra gasta" (1356-57). His ostensible point is to warn Beowulf of additional monsters lurking nearby, but it serves as well to remind the reader that Grendel's mother has an animal nature very different from that of a human lady. For during the passage describing their battle the poet exploits the basic resemblance between sexual intercourse and battle to emphasize the inversion of the feminine role of the queen or hall-ruler by Grendel's mother. This is achieved in three steps: first, the emphasis upon clutching, grasping, and embracing while they fight; second, the contest for a dominant position astride the other; and third, the use of fingers, knife, or sword to penetrate clothing or the body, the latter always accompanied by the implied figurative kinship between the sword and the phallus and between decapitation and castration.

First, she welcomes him to the mere with an almost fatal embrace similar to the "embrace" (fæom, 2128) to which Aeschere has succumbed. She "grasped then towards him" (1501), seizing him with "horrible grips" (1502) envisioned earlier by the hero as a "battle-grip" (1446) and a "malicious grasp" (1447). Second, inside the "castle" (hof, 1507) where she has transported him both grapple for a superior position over the other. After his sword fails him, for example, he "grasped her by the shoulder," hurling her to the ground. The poet, conscious of the monster's sex and Beowulf's definitely unchivalrous behavior, drily protests that in this case "the lord of the Battle-Geats did not at all lament the hostile act" (1537-38). Then, as "reward for his valor, this lady "repaid" him with the treasure of her "grimman grapum," forcing him to stumble and fall (1541-1544), after which she climbs, rather ludicrously, on top of her "hall-guest" (selegyst, 1545), intent on stabbing him and thereby (again) avenging her only off-spring (1546-47). Third, the battle culminates in very suggestive swordplay, and wordplay too. Earlier her "hostile fingers" (1505) tried to "penetrate" ("ourhfōn," 1504) his locked coat-of-mail; now she tries unsuccessfully to pierce the woven breast-net with her knife. Previously Beowulf discovered his own weapon was impotent against the charm or spell of the "sword-greedy" woman (heorogīfre, 1498), who collects the swords of giants. Now the "sword-grim" hero substitutes one of these swords, an appropriate tool to quell such a woman. The "sword entirely penetrated [ourhwōd] the doomed-to-die body" (1567-68). After this final "embrace" of the "grasping" of her neck, the sweord wæs swatig secg weorce gefeh" ("the sword was bloody, the warrior rejoiced in the work," 1569). The alliteration links sweord and secg, to identify the bloody sword with the rejoicing, laboring "man-sword" (secg); the "battle" appropriately evokes erotic undertones. The equation of the sword and warrior, with the subsequent sexual connotations, resembles the synecdoche controlling Riddle Twenty, "The Sword," in which the sword becomes a retainer who serves his lord through celibacy, foregoing the "joy-game" of marriage and the "treasure" of children, and whose only unpleasant battle occurs with a woman, because he must overcome her desire while she voices her terror, claps her hands, rebukes him with words, and cries out "ungod." Similarly in Beowulf once the sword finally penetrates the body its blade miraculously melts—like ice into water—either from the poison of Grendel's blood or of his mother's, the poem does not specify which (1601). And even the mere itself, approached through winding passageways, slopes, and paths, and in whose stirred-up and bloody waters sea monsters lurk and the strange battle-hall remains hidden, almost projects the mystery and danger of female sexuality run rampant.

Such erotic overtones in descriptions of battles between a male and female adversary are not especially common in Anglo-Saxon literature but can be found in various saints' lives in the Old English Martyrology (ca. 850) and in Aelfric's Lives of the Saints (ca. 994-early eleventh century), and in another epic poem also contained in the same manuscript as Beowulf, Judith. In the saints' lives a large group of thirty-four portrays a physical conflict between a Christian woman and a pagan man wishing to seduce her physically or spiritually. The description of the torture the saint undergoes to preserve her chastity often veils with obvious sexual symbolism the act of intercourse, or else it lovingly lingers over the description of the virgin's rape (see, for example, the life of St. Lucia). The reason for such descriptions should be clear to those acquainted with the Canticum Canticorum and its celebration of the love of the Sponsa for the Sponsus (of man's soul for God, of the Church for Christ), providing an analogous basis for the holy sacrament of marriage. The woman saint as a type of the soul longs to be joined, as in intercourse, with her spouse Christ; the threat of seduction by a human male must be read as an assault on the soul by the Devil.

In Judith, a work like Beowulf contained … the fragmentary epic portrays similar sexual overtones in Judith's "battle" with Holofernes. As in Beowulf a warrior battles a monster: the blessed maiden grapples with the "drunken, vicious monster" (se inwidda, 28) Holofernes. However, the sexual role behavior of Beowulf occurs in reverse in Judith: Holofernes parallels Grendel's dam, but whereas the wīf is aggressive and sword-greedy, Holofernes seems slightly effete (his bed enclosed by gold curtains, for example) and impotent from mead-drinking: "The lord fell, the powerful one so drunken, in the middle of his bed, as if he knew no reason in his mind" (67-69). These hypermetrical lines heighten the irony of his situation, for the warrior swoons on the very bed upon which he intended to rape the maiden. Having lost his head to drink in a double sense he himself is penetrated by the virgin's sharp sword, "hard in the storm of battle" (79), thereafter literally losing his head. But first Judith draws the sword from its sheath in her right hand, seizes him by the hair in a mock loving gesture (98-99), then pulls him toward her "shamefully" ("teah hyne folmum wio hyre weard / bysmerlice," 99b-100a). The "b" alliteration in line 100 ("bysmerlice, ond þone bealofullan") draws attention to bysmerlice, which as a verb (bysmrian) elsewhere suggests the act of "defiling" (intercourse). In this line what seems shameful is apparently her embrace of the warrior's body while she moves it to a supine position. As in Beowulf, the female assumes the superior position; she lays him down so that she may control (gewealdan, 103) him more easily in cutting off his head. The ironic embrace and mock intercourse of this couple parallels that of Beowulf and the ides aglæcwīf: the aggressive and sword-bearing "virgin" contrasts with the passive and swordless man (Holofernes, Aeschere, and even Beowulf are all momentarily or permanently swordless). The poet's point in each case is that a perversion of the sexual roles signals an equally perverse spiritual state. Holofernes' impotence is as unnatural in the male as the wīf's aggression is unnatural in the female; so the battle with the heroine or hero in each case is described with erotic overtones to suggest the triumph of a right and natural sexual (and social and spiritual) order over the perverse and unnatural one. In the latter case Grendel's dam and her son pose a heathen threat to Germanic society (the macrocosm) and to the individual (Beowulf the microcosm) as Holofernes and the Assyrians pose a heathen threat to Israelite society (the macrocosm) and to the individual (Judith the microcosm).

In this second part of her adventure, Hygd and Freawaru contrast with the wīf as queen or cup-passer as Hildeburh and Wealhtheow contrasted with Grendel's dam as mother in the first. Hygd, the first woman encountered after the defeat of Grendel's mother, as truly fulfills the feminine ideal of Maxims I as does Wealhtheow. Her name, which means "Thought" or "Deliberation," contrasts her nature with that of the bellicose wīf and possibly that of the war-like Thryth, whose actions, if not her name, suggest "Strength" (only in a physical sense; the alternate form of her name, "Modthrytho" or "Mind-Force," implies in a more spiritual sense stubbornness or pride). Although Hygd like the wīf and Thryth will be lordless after Hygelac's death, she does not desire to usurp the role of king for herself: doubting her son's ability to prevent tribal wars she offers the throne to Beowulf (2369ff). In addition, this gracious queen bestows treasure generously (1929-31), unlike the wīf and Thryth, the latter of whom dispense only "grim grips" and sword blows upon their "retainers."

The Thryth digression is inserted after Hygd enters to pass the cup upon Beowulf's return to Hygelac. Its structural position invites a comparison of this stubborn princess and the other two "queens," Hygd and the wīf. She appears to combine features of both: she begins as a type of the female monster, but upon marriage to Offa changes her nature and becomes a much loved queen. According to the poet, Thryth commits a "terrible crime"; she condemns to death any retainer at court caught staring at her regal beauty. That she abrogates her responsibilities as a queen and as a woman the poet makes clear: "Such a custom—that the peace-weaver after a pretended injury deprive the dear man of life—is not queenly for a woman to do, although she be beautiful" (Ne bio swylc cwēnlic þēaw / idese tō efnanne, þ ah oe hīo ænlicu sy, / þætte freoouwebbe fēores onsæce / æfter ligetorne lēofne mannan," 1940-43). The label "peace-weaver" (freoouwebbe) seems ironic in this context, especially as she does not weave but instead severs the ties of kinship binding her to her people and the bonds of life tying the accused man to this world. That is, for any man caught looking at her "the deadly bonds, hand-woven, were in store; after his arrest it was quickly determined that the sword, the damascened sword, must shear, make known death-bale" ("ac him wælbende weotode tealde / handgewriþene; hraþe seoþ an wæs / æfter mundgripe mēce geþinged, / þæt hit sceadenm lscyran mōste / cwealmbealu cyan," 1936-40). If she weaves at all then she weaves only "deadly hand-woven bonds" binding him to a grisly end. The "peace-weaver" cuts these bonds—imprisoning ropes—with a sword, simultaneously shearing the bonds of life to "make known death-bale." She resembles that other ironic peace-weaver, the wīf, who tried to penetrate the braided breastnet of Beowulf with her knife.

Both antitypes of the peace-weaving queen behave like kings, using the sword to rid their halls of intruders or unwanted "hall-guests." Unlike Thryth, the monstrous wīf remains husbandless, having lost her son, "wife" only to the mere she inhabits both in life and in death. At this moment in the poem, both Thryth and Grendel's mother belong to the past. If they represent previous inversions of the peace-weaver and cup-passer, and Hygd who is now passing the mead-cup to Beowulf's weary men in celebration signifies a present cup-passer, so the poet introduces a final queen, this time a cup-passer of the future who will fail in her role as the first woman, Hildeburh, failed in hers.

Freawaru, like Hildeburh, seems innocent of any crime. She is envisioned by Beowulf as a queen married to Ingeld of the Heathobards in a digression (2032-69) immediately preceding his summary of the battles with Grendel and with his mother. She will fail in her role as peace-weaver because of an underlying hostility—an old Heathobard warrior's bitterness over ancient Heathobard treasure acquired through previous wars and worn by a young Danish man accompanying the new queen. The fragility of this role is heightened even further when, in the third section involving the dragon, Beowulf inhabits a queenless kingdom and when Wiglaf must become the cup-passer, pouring water from the "cup" of Beowulf's helmet in a futile attempt to revive his wounded lord.

Indeed, three women characters appear outside this middle section to convey dialectically the idea that woman cannot ensure peace in this world. First, Wealhtheow, unlike other female figures, appears in the first (or Grendel) section of the poem to pour mead after Grendel's challenge has been answered by the hero. This first entrance symbolizes the ideal role of Germanic woman as a personification of peace, as we have seen. In antithesis, Beowulf's account of the fall of the wīf unhyre appropriately ends the poem's second (Grendel's mother) section which has centered on this role: the personification of discord, the antitype of the feminine ideal, has been destroyed. But in the poem's third section a synthesis emerges. The nameless and unidentified Geat woman who appears, like the other female characters, after a battle—this one between Beowulf and the dragon—mourns at the pyre. That is, the efforts of the peacemaker, while valuable in worldly and social terms, ultimately must fail because of the nature of this world. True peace exists not in woman's but in God's "embrace" (faeþm, 188).


This idea is implied in Hrothgar's sermon (1700-84), like the court celebration of Hygelac a part of the middle section belonging to Grendel's mother but apparently unrelated to it. In it Hrothgar describes three Christian vices in distinctly Germanic terms. Impelled by envy like Grendel, Heremod kills his "table-companions" (1713-14). Next the wealthy hall-ruler in his pride is attacked by the Adversary while his guardian conscience sleeps within the hall of his soul (1740-44). So the monster that specifically epitomizes pride in Beowulf, as in Genesis, is female—Grendel's mother—thematically related to Thryth or Modthrytho, whose name (if it can be said to exist in manuscript in that form) means "pride." Grendel's mother substitutes war-making for the peace-weaving of the queen out of a kind of selfish pride—if she were capable of recognizing it as such. Finally, this same hall-ruler "covets angry-minded" ("gytsa gromhydig," 1749) the ornamented treasures God has previously given him by refusing to dispense any to his warriors. So the mock gold-king dragon avariciously guards his treasure. Although the poet portrays the monsters as antitypes of Germanic ideals, his integument conceals a Christian idea. The city of man, whether located in a Germanic or Christian society, is always threatened by sin and failure.

Such sin alienates Christian man from self, neighbor, and God; it alienates Germanic man primarily from other men. Note that although in Beowulf each of the three monsters is described as guarding or possessing a hall, whether Heorot, a watery cavern, or a barrow, each remains isolated from humanity (and from each other—Grendel and his mother live together, but they never appear together in the poem until he is dead). Ideally when the retainer, the queen, and the gold-lord cooperate they constitute a viable nucleus of Germanic society: a retainer must have a gold-lord from whom to receive gold for his loyalty in battle; the peace-weaver must have a "loom"—the band of retainers and their lord, or two nations—upon which to weave peace.

Despite the poet's realization that these roles cannot be fulfilled in this world, this Germanic ideal provides structural and thematic unity for Beowulf. Grendel's mother does occupy a transitional position in the poem: as a "retainer" attacking Heorot she resembles Grendel, but as an "attacked ruler" of her own "hall" she resembles the dragon. As a monstrous mother and queen she perverts a role more important socially and symbolically than that of Grendel, just as the queen as peace-pledge or peace-weaver ultimately becomes more valuable than the retainer but less valuable than the gold-giver himself.

If it seems ironic that a Germanic ideal that cannot exist in this world can exist in art, unifying the theme and structure of the poem, then Grendel's mother, warring antitype of harmony and peace, must seem doubly ironic. The structural position of her episode in the poem, like woman's position as cup-passer among members of the nation, or as a peace-pledge between two nations, is similarly medial and transitional, but successfully so.

Jacqueline Vaught (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3797

SOURCE: "Beowulf: The Fight at the Center," in Allegorica, Vol. V, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 125-37.

[In the following excerpt, Vaught argues that Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother is more exciting than is his earlier battle with Grendel and that it is also more important to the poem's focus on heroism.]

Among the most helpful of recent approaches to Beowulf are those that have increased our understanding of the rise of the hero in the first part of the poem—in Tolkien's terms, the first of "two great moments in a great life … first achievement and final death." In showing how the poem attains that first "moment," the best of recent studies have drawn out implications that illuminate not only the social import of Beowulf's heroism, but the psychological and cosmological import as well. Until recently, that first moment of heroic achievement has been located in the fight with Grendel; correspondingly, the "entire episode … involving Grendel's mother has been viewed as largely extraneous, a blot upon the thematic and structural unity of the poem" [according to Jane C. Nitzsche, Tennessee Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 22 (1980)]. The effect of this critical consensus has been to raise many unanswered questions about the poem, including several that specifically involve Grendel's mother.

In the past year, however, both Michael N. Nagler and Jane C. Nitzsche, from different perspectives, have attempted to shift the weight of critical emphasis to the second fight. Nagler, working on "Beowulf in the Context of Myth," has located that particularly "climactic moment" at the bottom of the mere rather than in Heorot; and Nitzsche has addressed herself to proving that the dam, far from being an extraneous extension of Grendel, is "more important socially and symbolically" than her son.

I wish to affirm the essential Tightness of these views and to explore further the importance of Grendel's mother, the mere, and Beowulf's heroic victory there. The subsequent discussion will summarize Beowulf's heroic achievement, consider several ways in which the poem itself signals the importance of the fight in the mere, and suggest what is most important there—socially, cosmologically, and psychologically—to the hero. In doing so, I hope to show some of the advantages of the specific shift in critical emphasis from the first part of the narrative to the second.

In the most elementary sense, Beowulf does not conquer the forces threatening Heorot until he kills the dam and decapitates Grendel in the mere. As Klaeber says, "The fight with Grendel is rather monotonous and seems altogether too short and easy to give much opportunity for excitement." [Fr. Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1950), p lii. All references to the Old English text of Beowulf are from this edition.]

Nevertheless, the critics of Beowulf have usually joined the Geats and Danes in proclaiming Beowulf the hero after his fight in Heorot. We should remember, however, that the festivities prove ironically premature—the celebration being destroyed when Grendel's mother seeks vengeance for her son. Far from completing his quest, Beowulf's so-called victory in Heorot serves as a prelude that will amplify his fight against Grendel's mother, much as his verbal exchange with the coastguard prefigures his successful introduction to the king. It is not until the fight in the mere that Beowulf fulfills his development as the hero.

Stanley Kahrl's discussion of the word "feud" (fæhð) offers useful insights into Beowulf's role as hero. Comparing two lines that describe Beowulf in the second fight (l. 1534b and l. 1537b) with two lines describing Grendel earlier in the poem (ll. 135-7), Kahrl concludes that the passages suggest a similarity between Beowulf and Grendel since neither cares about the consequences of a feud. But, as Kahrl argues, the "normative maxim" (swa sceal man dôn) [So should a man act] applied to Beowulf in the mere shows that

Beowulf's attitude is praiseworthy, whereas Grendel's is not…. The distinction is that which we regularly make between the reckless courage of the criminal who has abandoned all hope and whose actions are purely selfish and the selfless courage of the hero who places the good he is defending before his instinct for self-preservation.

It is true that the selfish criminal is subtly contrasted with the selfless hero. Yet throughout the poem, similar contrasts are made between the kings and monsters who are destructive through greed and selfishness and the kings and heroes who exhibit generosity and selflessness. The importance of the lines describing Beowulf lies less in the concept of fæhð than in the context of the immediately ensuing defeat of Grendel's mother. As much as they stress Beowulf's selflessness, they signal the moment in the poem when he attains his selfhood and gains victory over Grendel and his mother.

Still, we can take a cue from the "normative maxim" that distinguishes the heroic Beowulf from the monstrous Grendel. That expression, swa sceal man dôn, calls attention to the fact that Beowulf fights in the mere, not with animalistic instincts of rage or fear, but with something potentially heroic and particularly human. That something is precisely the "unyielding will" (that, if realized, defines the hero) which Tolkien and others since him have claimed for Beowulf in the first fight.

That Beowulf is capable of an heroic exertion of will has been anticipated in the poem by his eagerness to fight for the Danes and by his initial power to overwhelm Grendel with fierce determination:

[Grendel stepped nearer and with his hands seized the strong-hearted warrior in bed, reached toward him, the fiend with his hands. Beowulf quickly took on the hostile purposes and with his arm sat up. Instantly, the keeper of crimes found that he had never met on middle-earth, from the corners of the earth, in any other man a greater grip. In his heart he became frightened in spirit; nor might he leave there for all that. His heart was eager to get away, wished to flee into his hiding-place.]

Yet in Heorot Beowulf's will is not taxed to the point of having to stand with unflinching resolve in the face of inevitable death. The ordeals he endures in the mere, however, test the full strength of his will. With no retainers to aid him and no weapon to protect him after Hrunting fails, Beowulf's will remains firm in his resolve to fight—despite the fact that the dam has overpowered him and that he despairs of his life. Instead of recoiling in fear as Grendel did in Heorot, Beowulf faces his opponent and proves himself the hero, defeating Grendel's mother in an act of pure will. As only a man can do, Beowulf'stands firm against the powers of destruction at the moment he physically stands against the dam:

[On his shoulders lay the woven breast-net; that protected his life, withstood the entry of point and edge. The son of Edgetheow, champion of the Geats, would have perished then under the wide ground had not his battleshirt, his hard war-net, brought him aid.—And the holy God granted victory; the wise Lord, the Ruler of the heavens, decided it rightly, easily, as soon as Beowulf'stood up again.]

Nagler, while agreeing that the mere is the central scene in Beowulf, argues that the "climactic moment" of the poem occurs a few lines later, in the ten lines (11. 1563-72a) that describe Beowulf's seizing the Giants' Sword, his decapitating Grendel, and the light's shining through the mere. Although I think it right to regard these ten lines as the climax of a basic Indo-European myth that Nagler reconstitutes, I think it wrong to accept them as the climax of the poem as we have it. In Beowulf that decisive moment occurs when Beowulf'stands against the dam, and it is marked at that moment by God's assurance of victory.

It is because Beowulf has already completed his development as the hero that God so easily (1. 1556a) grants him the victory. And it is because Beowulf has already defeated the monsters with the strength of his will that he then has the power to raise the Giants' Sword (a sword no other man could lift) with which he will physically conquer them.

The achievements and miracles that follow Beowulf's heroic stance—the seizure of the sword, the killing of the dam, the light's shining, the decapitation of Grendel, the melting of the blade, and the cleansing of the mere—all constitute the denouement, poetically reiterating and amplifying Beowulf's original heroic achievement. Thus, it is not his success in Heorot, but his stance in the mere that is the decisive victory socially, cosmologically, and psychologically toward which the first half of the poem has led. In the most literal reading of the poem, Beowulf accomplishes in the mere what he had originally intended when he came to Heorot. The hall is safe, and all is cleansed.

Long before Beowulf kills Grendel's mother in the mere, the poem indicates, chiefly through surprise and dramatic suspense, that the victory there is the climactic achievement that completes the rising movement of the first part of the poem.

Whereas there is never any doubt about whether Beowulf will overwhelm Grendel in Heorot, the audience remains as ignorant as Beowulf about the outcome of the second fight—that is, until the moment he regains his feet. R. M. Lumiansky finds no essential difference between the predictions of victory which occur before the fight with Grendel and the assurance granted in the fight with the dam. But as Richard Ringler notes [in Speculum 41 (1966)], the fight in the mere is "fraught with uncertainty, suspense and alarm in a way that the Grendel fight is not."

The intense uncertainty about the second fight is the culmination of dramatic suspense which arises from the moment Grendel's mother abruptly appears in the poem:

[Then it became evident, widely known to men that an avenger yet lived after the hostile one, for a long time after the grievous strife—Grendel's mother.]

As Irving notes [in Introduction to Beowulf, 1969], "She breaks into the poem as she breaks into the hall, out of nowhere." Though long-abiding (l. 1257b), this menacing "wrecend" is as surprising to the Geats and Danes, and to Beowulf, as she is to the audience.

After the dam's appearance, the marked increase in emotional tension continues to build through Hrothgar's description of the mere, which contains the suggestion that the mere is fatally hostile to society, and through the long march there. The dramatic technique of Beowulf is "cumulative, as when the poet first reveals Hrothgar's genuine fear of Grendel's lake … followed by the difficult march, the finding of Aeschere's severed head on the brink, and the slaying of the 'nicor.'" As they march to this dægel lond, the men move increasingly away from the known into the unknown, leaving behind both the familiar lands around the hall and society itself. The path becomes increasingly narrow until the men are forced to walk in single file; finally they reach the mere that Beowulf will enter alone. The tension is "felt rather than seen" and "grows with each line."

The cause of this tension is certainly felt, if not seen, by Beowulf when Grendel's mother seizes him in the mere and proves to be stronger than she had appeared on land. Then, in "almost total ignorance of what to expect," Beowulf is left in a state of extreme uncertainty that does more than simply sustain dramatic suspense. It is a state of uncertainty thematically equivalent to the Unknown—that which Beowulf must enter willingly and alone if he is to become the victor.

In a poem so obviously concerned with social loyalty (and the difficulty and transience of that), the fact that Beowulf is alone when he enters the mere is one of the largest signals that his experiences there are central to the meaning of the poem. As Nitzsche points out, isolation in Beowulf is a characteristic of the monsters, those alienated from and opposed to society: and the dam's isolation is one of the many manifestations of her perversity that comment ironically on the maintenance and ethics of the comitatus. Yet in the fight in the mere and during the Breca swimming match—the two episodes in the poem in which Beowulf is successful in slaying monsters—Beowulf'shares this "monstrous" characteristic of solitude.

The Breca episode has several parallels with the fight against the dam. As in the mere, Beowulf, alone, conquers the monsters with a sword; light shines and the waterways are cleared:

… on mergenne   mēcum wunde
be yðlafe uppe lægon,
sweo [r] dum aswefede,   past syðþan na
ymb brontne ford  briml ðende
lade ne letton.   Lēoht ēastan cōm,
beorht bēacen Godes,   brimu swaþredon …
(ll. 565a-70b).

[…the morning found them (the sea-monsters) lying in the leavings of the waves, dead from the sword-wounds, killed with the sword, so that thereafter nothing around the deep waterways hindered the passage of the seafarers. Light came from the east, the bright beacon of God; the sea became still.]

Much as he does in the mere when careless of his life (1. 1536b), Beowulf gains the reward that can be attained only by an "immersion of the individual in the sea of experience … ready to risk all in the meeting."

Yet Beowulf has not become the hero in the Breca episode. His "heroic" actions there are more accidental than willed. Meeting a boyhood challenge, Beowulf and Breca face the sea together to test their powers, not to use them for the benefit of society. Only accidentally does Beowulf become separated from his friend; and while fighting to stay alive, he inadvertently serves society by clearing the waterways of the sea monsters.

In the fight with Grendel, the more experienced Beowulf is prepared to endure the ordeal in order to help society. And although he attempts to fight Grendel alone and without arms (an attempt that marks him as the potential hero), Beowulf does not fulfill his quest as the hero—precisely because he is still within society, literally inside the walls of Heorot and the circle of his men. As the poem makes clear, no hand, however powerful, that is still connected to the hands of society is free to wield the blow that would conquer the forces threatening that society. It is thus particularly ironic that Grendel's arm is raised to the roof of Heorot as a sign of victory:

[It was a clear sign when the brave in battle set the hand, arm, and shoulder—there was all together, Grendel's grasp—under the vaulted roof.]

Although closely aligned to an entire set of hand imagery representing the interdependence of society, the arm and hand of Grendel are actually signs of mockery rather than of victory. As the Geats and Danes discover after Beowulf's first fight, chaos still reigns over Heorot.

In order to save society, the potential hero must leave the necessarily restrictive bounds of society and confront, as Beowulf did only accidentally in his youth, the destructive force directly. He must, paradoxically, become like the monsters, alienated from society—become the wræcca (meaning "wretch, miserable outcast, outlaw") in order to be the wræcca (also meaning "hero, avenger, champion"). Beowulf must symbolically leave his own country, then the familiar walls of Heorot—the "civilized world" that is "distinctly inside"—and follow the wræclastas [exile tracks] of Grendel's mother into the alien waters of the mere.

This motif is continued in the battle with Grendel's mother when Beowulf discovers that Hrunting, the chief protecting weapon of society that "næfre hit æt helde ne swa c / manna ængum" (ll. 1460b-61a) [never had it in battle failed any man], is ineffective in subduing the dam. As Nagler points out, some scholars have thought that "the failure of Hrunting when Beowulf'seems to need it most is part of Unferth's plot against Beowulf." Others, such as Thomas A. Shippey, have argued that Hrunting fails only because its conquering function in a core tale has been transferred in Beowulf to the Giants' Sword. Yet as Nagler convincingly argues, the two swords serve significantly different functions: the hero must learn that "whatever (relatively) ordinary, earthly weapons he brings with him are of no avail" in battling his opponent: he "must have recourse to the demon's own weapon" or to "a weapon that is in the demon's possession."

Although Nagler concentrates on the mythic and psychological levels of Beowulf, his point about the swords has social import. In order to defeat the force threatening society, it is necessary for Beowulf to learn that he cannot defeat it with Hrunting which, representing the "order and degree in human society" that weapons in Beowulf usually mean, is as incapable of defeating that force as Beowulf is within the civilized world of Heorot. When he stands alone in the face of impending death and, consequently, proves stronger than the threatening power of the mere, Beowulf makes manifest the heroic inner strength that then enables him to execute that strength in physical action. Only then is he able to lift the Giants' Sword, associated with "primordial conflict," and complete his quest as the savior of society.

That Beowulf's heroic quest has cosmological as well as social significance has been recognized by several readers. It is not surprising that most of them have, until recently, concluded that it is in the fight at Heorot, the symbolic "center of the universe," that Beowulf acts in a god-like manner by repeating the original act of creation. Nor is it surprising to find that Grendel's mother, who seeks to avenge her son (1. 1278b), is generally considered to be a humanized extension of Grendel's chaotic energy. Similarly, the mere is considered to have only human, rather than cosmological, proportions.

Certainly, Grendel assumes cosmological significance in the poem, hating (as both Bernard F. Huppé and Raymond J. S. Grant note) not only the men in the hall and the joy there, but the Song of Creation in particular. When Grendel hears the song (ll. 86a-92b), his fury and pain establish him as a force of destruction, utterly opposed to the force of creation. But just as the fight in Heorot only anticipates Beowulf's victory for society in the mere, the cosmological import of the first fight only anticipates that of the second.

Heorot has been recognized as being, symbolically, the "center of the universe, i.e., the place from which creation … was begun": and if the mere-hall is accepted as an inversion of Heorot, then it may also be recognized as the symbolic "center" of chaos, the place from which destruction springs. The mere, itself, with waters indistinguishable from the clouds (11. 1373a-76a), suggests uncreated, unformed chaos. Almost exclusively identified with the mere and the mere-hall, Grendel's mother is more of an extension of primal, chaotic energy than a humanized extension of Grendel. She is, notably, Grendel's mother—the source from which he and his destructive powers spring. This is one of the reasons that the dam, at home in the symbolic center of chaos, proves stronger there than she had appeared to be on land and why her fury is characteristically irrational and instinctive, whereas Grendel, if not exactly rational, approaches Heorot with premeditated cruelty (11. 710a-34b). It is the dam who is most nearly identified with the cosmological force of chaos and Grendel who, to some degree, represents the humanized extension of that destructive power.

The cosmological significance of Beowulf's victory in the mere is most clearly signaled by the two similes in that scene:

Lixte se lēoma,   lēoht inne stōd.
efne swa of hefene  hadre scīneð
rodores candel
(ll. 1570a-72a).

[The beam brightened, light shone within, just as the sky's candle from heaven clearly shines.]

[Then, because of the battle-sweat, that sword began to diminish, war-sword into battle-icicles. That was a wondrous thing—that it all melted, most like ice when the Father who watches over the times and seasons, loosens the frost's bond, unwinds the water-fetters. That is the true God.]

Both similes make connections between events in the mere and ones that carry connotations of the divine. Furthermore, the light's shining like heaven's candle suggests the first act of creation—a reading that follows not only from Nagler, but also from Grant's suggestion [in Leeds Studies in English, Vol. 8, (1975)] that light in Beowulf is "an image of creation or fire under control." Being rare in Old English poetry, the similes call attention to this special moment of Beowulf's god-like victory over chaos.

Yet the creative act on either the social or cosmological level is finally only a metaphor for the creative act potentially within every man. As the similes make clear, Beowulf's actions are only like a god's; however heroic, they are fundamentally human.

The confrontation between Beowulf and Grendel's mother is, psychologically, a concrete form of the abstract "battle of the inner self" [according to Jeffrey Helterman, ELH, Vol. 35, (1968)]. That battle may mean courage overcoming fear, will overcoming instinct, the conscious overcoming the unconscious, or any process in which the uncontrolled, potentially destructive energy of the psyche is conquered and converted into a constructive force. That process is the creation, or re-creation, of the self. In the poem, that process is presented in the form of Beowulf's facing the female monster, the antithesis of all his constructive, heroic qualities. That destructive force must be faced directly: avoiding it or repressing it may cause it to become manifest in a new and more powerfully destructive form—much as driving Grendel from Heorot leads to the mother's rising from the mere.

In order to earn the decisive victory, the hero must enter the unconscious, a symbolic landscape of the irrational and the unknown that can be entered only willingly and alone. In a passage that well applies to the episode in the mere, Joseph Campbell writes [in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949] that the journey of the hero is

fundamentally … inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished … life becomes penetrated by a knowledge of its own unconquered power. Something of the light that blazes invisible within … breaks forth, with an increasing uproar.

As he enters the mere, Beowulf makes his journey inward. Rapidly he discovers that neither society nor even his own physical strength can help him in this internal battle. But when he stands, he also finds the center of himself, the strength of his unyielding will: the Giants' Sword is revivified; light breaks through the opaque mere as Beowulf discovers his own power and emerges from the mere as the hero.

John D. Niles (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4719

SOURCE: "Ring Composition," in "Beowulf": The Poem and Its Tradition, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 152-62.

[In the following excerpt, Niles explains how the author of Beowulf used a repeating structural design known as "ring composition" to organize his poem and to draw connections between characters such as Beowulf and Grendel.]

The overall structure of Beowulf was once believed to be a product of a series of mistakes or fortuituous accidents. The author (or authors, for he was multiplied) was given credit for his fine sentiments and noble style, but not for his sense of form. Like most readers today, I believe that this view is based on a misapprehension of the poet's concept of what constitutes narrative form, and I want to help lay the view to rest by examining certain ways in which the poem shows patterning in its larger structure as well as on the level of the formulaic word or phrase.

One feature of the poem's patterning that deserves attention is ring composition, a chiastic design in which the last element in a series in some way echoes the first, the next to the last the second, and so on. Often the series centers on a single kernel, which may serve as the key element, so that the design as a whole may be thought of as an ABC … X… CBA pattern capable of indefinite expansion.

In her illuminating study of the rhetorical paterns used by Old English poets in extended verse paragraphs, Adeline Courtney Bartlett cites a number of passages that are organized according to what she calls an "envelope" pattern, in which the same word, phrase, or idea both begins and ends the passage. A good example of ring composition based on a verbal "envelope" not cited by Bartlett occurs early in Beowulf, in lines 12-19, which tell of the coming of Scyld's son, Beow (or Beowulf, as the scribe mistakenly calls him):

Đæm eafera wæs   æfter cenned
geong in geardum   bone God sende
folce to frofre;   fyrenðearfe ongeat
be hie ær drugon   aldorlease
lange hwile;   him bass Liffrea,
wuldres Wealdend   woroldare forgeaf:
Beowulf was breme   —blæd wide sprang—
Scyldes eafera   Scedelandum in.

To him in time   a son was born,
young in the land,   whom the Lord sent
to comfort the folk;   He knew the dire need
they had suffered earlier,   lacking a king
for a long time.   The Lord of life,
Ruler of glory,   granted them grace for this.
Beow[ulf] was famous,   his name rang widely,
Scyld's son,   in the lands of the North.

This self-contained verse paragraph clearly is framed by the word eafera, "son." Less obviously, it is built up not only as an envelope but as a ring. The second element in the ring is a phrase descriptive of Scyld's son, Beow: first he is said to be "young in the land" (13a), then he is described as "famous" (18a). Third is the equivalent of the phrase "God sent him as a blessing to the people" (13b-14a, 16b-17). The kernel of the passage is the reference to the Danes' long years of misery before the coming of Scyld (14b-16a). The poet uses ring composition as a means of traveling from the immediate reality (the Danes under Scyld's son, Beow) to an "other," legendary reality that is used as a point of comparison (the Danes in their previous years of misery), then back again to the present reality. Ring composition enables the poet to ease into and out of a picture of past terrors, as the Danes' previous sufferings are safely enclosed within the envelope of God's mercy.

Ring composition in archaic and oral narrative poetry is not confined to the short verse paragraph. It may be used as a way of organizing long passages as well, or even entire poems. In Beowulf it is a technique of major importance from beginning to end. The poet relies so greatly on this sort of patterning that, for him, balance and symmetry of thought must have been almost second nature. Of course, certain instances of ring composition in the poem might be dismissed as obvious and practically inevitable. The two sea voyages, for example (lines 205-228 and 1880b-1924), show a kind of symmetrical structure that could hardly have been avoided: journey down to the shore, embarcation, voyage across the high seas, disembarcation, journey up from the shore. Other instances of fairly simple ring composition are identified by Bartlett and by Constance B. Hieatt in their discussions of "double envelope" and "triple envelope" patterning in Beowulf. I call attention here to certain additional ways in which the poet built up his narrative using chiastic patterning of a sort that is neither obvious nor inevitable. The parts of the poem I single out are the episodes that tell of the midnight struggle between Beowulf and Grendel (702b-836), the subsequent feud between Beowulf and Grendel's mother (1279-1802a), and the battle many years later between Beowulf and the firedrake (2200-3136). A close study of these episodes shows that the Beowulf poet used ring composition not only as a minor rhetorical device or an occasional linking tool, but as a means of giving form to the most important events of his story.

All the preliminary action of the poem leads up to a single event, the hero's hand-to-hand struggle in Heorot. Before the fight begins, Grendel stands for a moment at the door of Heorot and laughs to see his sleeping prey (730b). When the fight is over, it is Beowulf who stands at the door rejoicing (827b). The act that initiates the fight—Grendel's devouring the young warrior Handscioh, even his feet and hands—is balanced later by Beowulf's similar act of brutish violence in wrenching Grendel's arm from his body. When the monster first grapples with Beowulf, the poet notes the deadly effect of Beowulf's grip on Grendel's hand ("his fingers burst," 760b) and indicates that the ogre "wished to flee" (wolde fleon, 755b). Toward the end of the fight the poet reverts to a similar bone-crushing image ("his joints burst," 818a) and indicates that Grendel "had to flee" (scolde … fleon, 819-820a). At the climax the poet twice calls attention to the uproar in the hall and to the fear that grips the listening Danes (767-770, 782b-788a). All the details of the fight radiate about a single kernel, the moment of extreme violence when Heorot itself seems about to fall (771-782a). Formless though the episode might seem at first, owing in part to the repetitive, stop-and-go narrative movement that has been described rather generously as "lack of steady advance" [see Frederick Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. with 1st and 2nd supp. (Boston, 1950), p. lvii. ], the narrative coheres. Important events align themselves into contrastive pairs that center about the moment of awesome fury when the mead hall begins to splinter around the two antagonists, whose struggle is still unresolved.

Longer and more complex is the account of the events that occur from sunset of the second day until sunset of the third day of the hero's stay in Denmark. The episode centers on the critical fight between Beowulf and Grendel's mother on the floor of the mysterious pool that serves as the monsters' home.

At the start of the day, Hrothgar, Beowulf, and their companions emerge from their chambers and learn of the attack made by Grendel's mother during the night. In a long speech Hrothgar recounts the death of his chief thane, Æschere, and describes the monsters' pool (1321-82). In a short reply Beowulf expresses his determination to average Æschere's death (1383-96). Toward the end of the day these two speeches are answered by another pair, a brief address in which Beowulf reports on his success (1651-76), and Hrothgar's long, homiletic speech on the subject of pride (1700-84). In like manner, the journey of the Danes and Geats to the pool (1399-1421) is later balanced by the briefly described triumphant return of Beowulf and his men to Heorot (1632-50). On the journey out, the narrow trail taken by the men is called an "unknown path" (1410b); on the return trip, the same route has become "known ways" (1634a). Each journey culminates in the image of a severed head—first Æschere's, then Grendel's. When the Danes and Geats first come to the banks of the pool, they gaze with horror on the blood welling there, the blood of Æschere. After Beowulf has emerged from the mere, the poet again calls attention to the blood staining the water, now the blood of the monsters. Other details echo back and forth in similar fashion: the ceremonious arming of Beowulf in his helm and byrnie (1441b-54) and the swift removal of his helm and byrnie after his return (1629-30a); the hero's solemn farewell before the fight and his comrades' joyous greeting of him afterward; his descent through serpent-infested waters and his later ascent through the same waters, now miraculously "all cleansed" (1620). From first to last, events on the third day in Denmark succeed one another not haphazardly, but in the order imposed by a sustained narrative intelligence.

Some of these correspondences are admittedly of little consequence. If the hero survives his descent through the waters of the pool, for example, he can be expected to swim back up; if he journeys overland from Heorot to the pool, he can be expected to return. All the same, the consistency with which events after the fight echo earlier events is a special characteristic of the Beowulf poet's style. One observes little patterning of this sort in, for instance, the corresponding episode of Grettir's Saga (chaps. 65-66), in which the story is nearly linear in its development. In Beowulf, few narrative events stand alone; most are linked to others in complex interrelationships.

Equally characteristic of the poet's style is the way in which thesis is answered by antithesis. The horror of the second night in Heorot is answered by the calm of the third; solemn farewells are answered by joyful greetings; the once infested waters become miraculously cleansed. Rarely in Beowulf is an event repeated in the same terms and with the same emotional coloring. More often, one event is balanced by another that resembles it in certain respects but contrasts with it in others. Between the monster's midnight attack and Beowulf's triumphant return from the pool, events seem clouded. Fear of the unknown hangs over all, making even familiar paths look weird and unknown. After the fight, events seem to take place in the clear light of the sun.

Less elegant in its patterning, though in some ways still more interesting, is the third great episode, the story of the aged hero's fight against the firedrake. Apart from certain transitional lines that summarize some of the chief events of the preceding years (2200-10a, 2354b-96), this episode occupes the whole of the second great part of the poem up to the final fitt. Although any scheme that claims to account neatly for all the events in this part would be an oversimplification, the episode does not lack form. In this section—the loftiest and most magnificent of the poem—speeches, journeys, allusions to Swedish-Geatish hostilities, and references to the splendor of the dragon's hoard are ranged in complementary pairs about the scene of the hero's final combat and death.

Although the fight itself and its immediate aftermath are recounted linearly, this kernel episode too reveals the poet's tendency toward stylization and patterning. Three times the dragon attacks before Beowulf and his young kinsman Wiglaf cut him down (see 2569, 2669-70, 2668); three times the wounded king speaks before he dies (2724-51, 2792b-2808, 2813-16). Framing this central episode like a pair of trumpet cells are two speeches that express in brief the code of conduct on which both Beowulf and Wiglaf have based their actions. In the first of these Beowulf addresses his comrades and kinsmen for the last time and affirms in emphatic words his intention to live and die by the heroic ideal (2535b-37). The second speech is Wiglaf s. It concludes with an equally emphatic approach to the same comrades and kinsmen, who in the meantime have been found conspicuously lacking in the stuff of heroism: "Death is better / for any man than a life of shame!" (2890b-91). Framing these two speeches are two longer ones alluding to ancient Swedish-Geatish hostility, which threatens to erupt again into war. Beowulf addresses the first of these to the Geats (2425-2509); the second, the "Messenger's Prophecy," is spoken by an unnamed Geat who is given the gloomy task of bearing the news of the fight to his countrymen (2900-3027). The dangers of war, which had seemed hypothetical, are now both real and immediate, and the messenger depicts them with grim precision.

In this episode as in other parts of the poem, ends and beginnings are intertwined. The initial account of the dragon's hoard (2231b-70a) finds a counterpart in the later description that introduces the theme of a charm or curse laid on the treasure (3047-57). In each passage the poet dwells with evident delight on the splendor of the hoard: the rings and cups plated with gold, the swords, the helms, the byrnies. After the later description, the rifling of the barrow's treasures by eight chosen Geats answers to the event that set this episode in motion, the rifling of the barrow by an unknown fugitive. Even the "Lament of the Last Survivor" (2247-66), the celebrated digression in which the last survivor of an ancient tribe is depicted in the act of bequeathing his tribe's treasures to the earth, finds an echo in Wiglaf's solemn address to his fellow Geats as they stand over their dead king (2864-91).

Wiglaf's speech is the last in the poem, and it is heavy with the melancholy tone that has been sounded through out this episode. Its speaker has more than a little in common with the speaker of the earlier "lay." Wiglaf too is a last survivor, as Beowulf makes clear in his final speech, when he addresses him as "the last of our tribe, the Wægmundings"' (2813-14a). Wiglaf too has lived to see the death of his former lord. He stands gazing on the same treasure that the last survivor had held so lovingly, and he buries it "as useless to men as it had been before" (3168). The last survivor witnessed the breakup of a kingdom. Wiglaf fears the same fate for the Geats. Between the speech of the last survivor and Wiglaf's concluding speech, between the first rifling of the treasure and the last, there is little advance in tone. The same sense of impending doom hangs over all.

In the main, one may conclude, the poem consists of three major episodes of different length and complexity, each one of which shows ring patterning. The question remains: How are these episodes articulated into a single coherent story of epic length?

If the reader does not become lost in the many byways of the narrative, the large-scale symmetry of its design will be evident: (A) introduction, (B) fight with Grendel, (C) celebrations, (D) fight with Grendel's mother, (C) celebrations, (B) fight with dragon, (A) close. The three great fights that constitute the main body of the poem are separated by two substantial interludes in which the hero's triumphs are celebrated with gifts, feasting, and songs and speeches alluding to legendary heroes. Surrounding the whole—enveloping it in the wraps of eternity, as it were—are passages of opening and closing that look deep into the past, in the story of Scyld, and far into the future, in the dark forebodings of the "Messenger's Prophecy" and in the building of a barrow for the dead king that is to stand ever after "as a remembrance to my people" (2804).

In the grand design as well as in its parts, events answer to one another. The poem ends where it begins, with a eulogy for a dead king. And before and after these eulogies? Stories of the kings' funerals. In a way too consistent to be the result of chance, events in the poem's gradual unfolding find a reply in events from the poem's gradual close. Although these events are like one another in some ways, they are antithetical in others. Scyld is an ideal king, for example, but is preeminently a king of war and conquest. Beowulf, an equally ideal king, is renowned for his keeping of the peace: of all worldly kings he is "mildest and most gracious to his people" (3181-82). The fight with Grendel is the young Beowulf's first great test, and he meets it with extraordinary vigor. The moment he puts his hands on Grendel, the joyful outcome of the fight is no longer in doubt. The fight with the dragon is the aged Beowulf's last test of all, and he meets it with almost superhuman fortitude. In this fight, the narrator's frequent and all too clear asides (2341b-44, 2419b-24, 2511a, 2589-91a, and 2725b-28) impress on the audience the dark end that is drawing near.

Most of the chief correspondences that knit the poem together are obvious. Others, less obvious, appear with equal force when one reflects on them. Hrothgar's command to build Heorot, for example (67b-76a), has a parallel in Beowulf's request to have his barrow built (2802-08). Each edifice, adorned with gold in magnificent quantities, is to stand high (hlifade, 81b; hlifian, 2805a) over the surrounding countryside, a monument to future generations of the glory of the past. Each is given a special name—Heorot, Biowulfes beorh—and each shines bright (311, 2803a). Heorot echoes with the song of the Creation (90b-98), and over the barrow is heard the lamentation of the Geats (3148b-55a).

To a remarkable extent, the structure of Beowulf can be described in terms of a series of major and minor pairs. The two great parts of the poem—the parts that together make up Tolkien's "balance" and "opposition of ends and beginnings"—are the largest pair. Another contrasting pair consists of the Grendel fight and the dragon fight. Somewhat smaller are the sea voyages to and from Denmark. Smallest of all are minute echoes of diction that ring too clear to be fortuitous, such as "unknown path" (1410b) and "known ways" (1634a).

Many of these correspondences, great and small, converge on a single narrative event of great intensity: the hero's struggle against Grendel's mother in the depths of the monsters' pool. The choice of this event as the structural center of the epic is not casual. At this point in the narrative the young hero has his closest brush with death; he is in fact given up for dead by the Danes, who think that the blood welling to the surface of the pool is his. Insofar as Beowulf is marked out as "a mythic figure of death and resurrection," as Albert Lord has maintained, it is here that he can be said to suffer symbolic death. Thereafter, the hero returns to his native land to take his rightful place in society as a mature and respected adult.

Readers of the Odyssey will note a curious and appropriate parallel between the ring structures of these two poems. As others have observed, the adventure that forms the kernel of the story of Odysseus' wanderings (books 9-12) is the Nekyia, the tale of his journey to the land of the dead. The corresponding event of the Aeneid will leap to mind: book 6, Aeneas' descent to the underworld to consult the shades of the dead. Like Homer and Virgil, the Beowulf poet had the narrative genius to develop his story around its point of greatest mystery. In doing so, he called to mind the greatest story of Christendom as well. By repeatedly associating Grendel and his mother with the creatures of hell, he presents Beowulf's descent in terms that call to mind Christ's legendary harrowing of hell, as recounted in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Such echoes may have been unintentional, of course. There is no way of knowing if the narrator was consciously alluding to Christ's descent, although he evidently drew on established conceptions of the mouth of hell. Virgilian influence in the poem is uncertain, and direct Homeric influence can be ruled out. In developing a narrative that has points in common with certain critical parts of the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and the story of Christ, the author may unconsciously have been drawing on the same age-old popular traditions (or the same psychic depths) that inspired Homer, Virgil, and the early disseminators of the Christian myth. All one can say with confidence is that to an audience familiar with these mythically cognate materials, such associations between Beowulf and other legendary heroes are an appropriate means of enriching the poem. Thanks largely to the way in which it centers on a complex of events that resonates deeply with famous stories of the past, Beowulf is transformed from what it might have been—a fairly straightforward tale of the deeds of a good man—into a work of superb psychological and mythic suggestiveness.

Far from having been an unskilled compiler of separate tales, the poet was endowed with a keen (although always flexible) sense of narrative form. His epic develops in a leisurely manner, as events in the poem's gradual beginning eventually find their equivalents in the poem's gradual close, so that the work as a whole has the solidity and grace of a well-planned piece of architecture. Beowulf is no mere collection of "fabulous exploits redolent of folk-tale fancy" (Klaeber, p. xii). It is no sightless narration, nor is it a clumsy joining of two tales. It is a well-wrought epic poem. Its chief materials may be highly disparate, but in ordering them the poet shows his competence in relating a long, cohesive verse narrative.

While it is tempting to believe that the structural patterning of Beowulf has some relation to the poem's special conditions of oral performance or to the conditions of oral composition among hypothetical prototypes of the text, this relation is too problematical to be assessed here. Patterning of any sort is mnemonically useful to an oral poet or to a performer of oral poems, just as it is useful to any stage performer (whether singer, storyteller, actor, musician, toastmaster, or nightclub entertainer) who does not rely on a fixed text as the basis of his or her performance. Ring composition could serve as one elementary type of mnemonic patterning: as Cedric Whitman observes, "The oral poet, having mentioned A, B, and C, picks them up later on in the order C, B, and A, since it is natural to reconstruct a chain of thought backwards." All the same, oral texts taken from the field have not been shown to exhibit complex ring structures comparable to those evident in the Iliad and Beowulf. Perhaps these structures exist, but the necessary field work and analysis have not been done. Moreover, even some polished literary works (such as Tom Jones and Paradise Lost) show complex ring patterning. The various sorts of ring composition in Beowulf may plausibly be taken as traits that would be useful to an oral poet or performer, but further conclusions are premature.

More important, perhaps, is the question of audience response. What aesthetic effect would the patterning in the structure of Beowulf have had on an audience of Anglo-Saxons listening to the poem? And what is the aesthetic effect of such patterning on a person reading the poem today?

Assuming that the poem was composed for oral presentation, one might think that an audience of Anglo-Saxon monks or thanes could hardly have been cognizant of the poem's close-knit design. If the poem was recited during a single evening, how could listeners have held the Scyld episode in mind until the poem reached Beowulf's funeral? How or why would they be thinking of Grendel at the time of the dragon's attack? If the performance was drawn out over several sittings, the audience's perception of patterning would be yet more faint. All the same, one suspects that the patterned structure of Beowulf would not have been wholly without aesthetic effect. No concern is purely structural; one cannot conceive of structural phenomena in literature that are devoid of aesthetic implications. To the question of whether or not Homer's audience could possibly have caught the signs of such "fearful symmetry" in the Iliad, Whitman replies, "The human mind is a strange organ, and one which perceives many things without conscious or articulate knowledge of them, and responds to them with emotions necessarily and appropriately vague. An audience hence might feel more symmetry than it could possibly analyze or describe." An audience of Anglo-Saxons listening to a performance of Beowulf might well have had certain definite, though unarticulated, expectations about the proper way of conducting such an epic song. Among these may have been the expectation that in a well-wrought tale, no one narrative event would stand alone; no event would be thought of as random or isolated, without antecedents or consequences. The story of the coming of Scyld, for example, might have set up certain expectations that would not have been satisfied until the singer came to tell of the passing away of Beowulf. The story of the young hero's rout of Grendel, a monstrous creature whose eyes blaze like fire, who has been ravaging a king's hall in midnight attacks, and who reminds one of the walking dead, might likewise have set up expectations that would not have been satisfied until the poet came to sing of the hero's last fight against the dragon, a more terrible creature, whose mouth breathes fire, who has razed a royal hall in a midnight attack, and who comes as inexorably as death itself. The probability that such expectations would have been unconscious makes them no less real. Moreover, one need not assume that they were unconscious. An audience that had heard a story told often, with variations, might have become sufficiently discerning to appreciate even subtle instances of thematic echo.

To a modern reader able to review the text in detail, comparing event with event, speech with speech, and word with word, the poem has a readily apparent symmetry of design that exerts a clear aesthetic effect. In Beowulf, it would appear, human success and failure are conceived of as an inseparable pair. As in other poems of the Anglo-Saxon corpus, joy does not occur apart from sorrow, creation apart from dissolution, human success apart from failure. The founding of the Scylding dynasty is answered in time by the tribal dissolution facing the Geats. Æschere's head demands Grendel's. Heorot gives way to war or flames, and in its place stands a barrow. In Beowulf, as Joan Blomfield has pointed out, there is no simplistic development of either character or plot. In a tale such as this, "the concluding affairs must be implicit in the beginning," as one is made to see "the ever-present identity of seed in fruit and fruit in seed." John Leyerle has put the matter more pessimistically: "The sudden reversals inherent in the structure … give to the whole poem a sense of transience about the world and all that is in it … With each reversal the elegiac texture is tightened, reminding us of impermanence and change, extending even to the greatest of heroes, Beowulf … A bright and golden age of a magnanimous man vanishes, even as it seems hardly to have begun."

The dominant mood created by this recurrent play of joy against sorrow, creation against dissolution, may strike some readers as fatalistic, and it may well be; but if so, the poem's fatalism stems from a realistic understanding of the limits that bound earthly success. The poet seems to have lived enough of life to appreciate the awful ease with which time and an indifferent fate blot out even the most glorious of human achievements. Possibly the realistic fatalism of Beowulf may be the melancholy of a person looking back upon a former heroic age whose virtues he admired intensely. Possibly—more plausibly, it seems to me—such fatalism is an innate part of the heroic view of life. Whatever the explanation, the poem has power to move, and that is its reason for being.

Richard Butts (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "The Analogical Mere: Landscape and Terror in Beowulf," in English Studies, Vol. 68, No. 2, 1987, pp. 113-21.

[In the following excerpt, Butts maintains that the Beowulf poet's description of Grendel's mere, or pool, is meant to be nightmarish rather than realistic.]

The description of Grendel's mere in Hrothgar's speech to Beowulf (1345a-1379b) is an extended metaphor for terror. [The text of Beowulf used throughout this paper is that of Friedrich Klaeber's edition, Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd. ed. (Lexington, Mass., 1950).] The difficulty of reconciling all the features of the landscape surrounding the mere into a realistic picture has been noted by previous commentators. But to take an unsympathetic view of the poet's accomplishment here and read the description as an unsuccessful attempt to accurately and realistically render a natural landscape is to misread it. The poet gives us Hrothgar's description not so as to present a natural landscape but in order to point to the realm of the supernatural. The supernatural, thus evoked, allows for a mode of language and thought which is ideally suited for expressing the poet's prime concern: the collective terror of men in the face of the unknown. The purpose of the poet is less to describe a particular topography than it is to communicate some sense of men's imaginative and psychological response to Grendel.

Even the most cursory examination of the principal imagery associated with Grendel's mere reveals the highly unnatural character of the landscape. The morning after the attack of Grendel's mother on Heorot, Hrothgar tells Beowulf of the two "ellorgæstas' (1349a) and the place from which they come in a speech which, although detailed, is also highly elusive. That Grendel represents something beyond the experience of the Danes—something beyond the limits of the natural and social order with which they are familiar—is reinforced by an imagery which suggests that the monster is part of a world which is both temporally and physically distinct from the world of contemporary men. From Hrothgar, we learn that 'þone on geardagum Grendel nemdon / foldbuende' (1354a-1355a). The phrase 'on geardagum' recalls a legendary time, existing at the extreme edge of human memory. Hrothgar's knowledge of it is fragmentary and tentative; it is a time so far removed from the understanding of contemporary men that knowledge of it is preserved only in the songs of the scop, of 'se be cube / frumsceaft fira feorran reccan' (90b-91b). From this dark and mysterious time, Grendel has come to terrorize the Danes. Figuratively, this earlier time is a time of darkness; it signals a dark prehistory before the dawning of the Danish civilization which culminates in Hrothgar's reign and the building of Heorot, the 'beahsele beorhta' (1177a). Grendel is consistently characterized as a creature of the darkness. The first reference to him in Beowulf describes him as 'se þe in þystrum bad' (87b). Grendel is the 'deorc deaþscua' (160a) who lives in a darkness quite literally

[Grendel] sinnihte heold
mistige moras; men ne cunnon,
hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþaþ.

Consonant with the temporal alienation of Grendel from the world of the Danes is the physical separation of his territory from the haunts of men. Hrothgar tells Beowulf that Grendel and his mother are 'micle mearcstapan' who 'moras healdan' (1348). The severity of the terrain over which Hrothgar leads Beowulf and his retainers in order to reach Grendel's lair further underlines this separation of the world of monsters from the world of men; the men travel by:

steap stanhlipo, stige nearwe,
enge anpapas, uncub gelad,
neowle nœssas, nicorhusa fela.

The technical challenge which the Beowulf poet must overcome in relation to the mere is the inadequacy of language to convey a complex and subtle state of mind, in this case, the psychological mood of men toward Grendel and all the greater unknown which he represents. The principal difficulty encountered in describing a psychological mood is that it resists most forms of univocal description. The linguistic problem points to a deeper epistemological one. Hrothgar tells Beowulf: 'No paes frod leofab / gumena bearna, bœt bone grand wite' (1366b-1367b). The Dane's reference to the bottom of Grendel's mere is as much a figurative emblem of the limits of what can be known and said by men as it is an allusion to the depth of a body of water. Rendering a psychological mood poses a similar problem of description for the poet insofar as a state of mind or psychological mood is not as readily an object of sense as is, say, a 'sincfæt' or a 'gubsweord geatolic'. When the mind is turned inward to focus on a psychological mood as an object of knowledge, the mind must perceive it more intimately and less through the medium of sense; the process is more intuitive than it is empirical. Yet in spite of this rather formidable obstacle to communication, the poet does succeed in offering to his readers an understanding of a dominant psychological mood which is simply too exquisite to be contained within the conventional conceptual dimension of language. He communicates this mood through an analogical mode of thinking and description in which details of the physical landscape are consciously manipulated to evoke a psychological landscape.

Hrothgar calls the land in which Grendel and his mother live the 'dygel lond' (1357b). The dominant chord struck by the landscape description is one of otherworldliness, an intimation of the supernatural conveyed by the threatening images of the

[ … ] wulfhleoþu, windige næssas,
frecne fengelad, þær fyrgenstream
under næssa genipu niþer gewiteþ,
flod under foldan.

The image of the 'wulfhleobu' mediates between the natural and supernatural resonances of the landscape. Wolves do move in the natural landscape with which Hrothgar and Beowulf would be familiar, but these animals are also traditionally associated with death and the horrors of the battlefield where warriors pass from the world they know to the unknown beyond. The disappearance of the 'flod under foldan', with the 'fyrgenstream' flowing under the darkness of the headlands—foreshadowing Beowulf's descent into the water to do battle with Grendel's mother—is also emblematic on a more general level of this passage from light and the natural world to the mysterious darkness of whatever lies beyond it. The supernatural character of Grendel's mere is enhanced by the 'hrinde bearwas, / wudu wyrtum faest' (1363a-1364b) which overshadow the water and the eerie spectacle which may be seen there each night, the 'nipwundor' (1365b) of the 'fyr on flode' (1366a). Perhaps the most powerful evocation of the supernatural, almost magical mood associated with Grendel's mere comes at the climax of Hrothgar's speech where the old king, in his attempt to impress upon Beowulf the very fearful and unnatural aspect of the place, tells the young Geat the story of the 'heorot hornum trum' (1369a), the extraordinary hart which gives up its life to the hounds rather than brave Grendel's mere.

I have suggested that the poet's manipulation of details to evoke a supernatural landscape is supported by an analogical mode of thinking and description. The poet's interest in the supernatural signals, I believe, a concurrent interest in the psychological: the landscape which the poet has offered us with his description of Grendel's mere is, in effect, the landscape of dreams. For example, the odd combination of frost and fire—the frost of the 'hrinde bearwas' (1363b) and the fire of the 'fyr on flode' (1366a)—juxtaposed in the same scene seems inappropriate to what we would expect of a natural landscape. But such phenomena might easily be combined by the associative logic of dreams or visionary experiences. In fact, such a juxtaposition of elemental symbolism, and particularly the oxymoronic figure of the 'fyr on flode', is highly characteristic of the surrealistic heightening of consciousness that we associate with dreaming.

A similar combining of disparate images distinguishes the poet's description of the mere itself. Overshadowed by the 'wudu wyrtum fæst' (1364a) and fed by the falling 'fyrgenstream' (1359b), the mere has been described by some commentators as an inland lake. Influenced by the corresponding scene in the Grettissaga, Klaeber remarks that the 'outlines' of Grendel's mere are 'fairly well understood' as a 'pool surrounded by cliffs and overhung with trees, a stream descending into it, and a large cave behind the fall'. But the 'windige næssas' (1358b) and 'næssa' (1360a) are more suggestive of formations along the seacoast than they are of inland hills. And the closing imagery of Hrothgar's speech, the turbulent images of the 'yþgeblond' (1373a) of Grendel's mere which 'up astigep / won to wolcnum, ponne wind styreþ / laþ gewidru' (1373b-1375a) seems less appropriate to the site of an inland pool than it does to the open ocean. Later, when Hrothgar, Beowulf, and their retainers visit Grendel's mere, they find the water populated with fierce sea creatures:

Gesawon þa æfter wætere wyrmcynnes fela,
sellice sædracan sund cunnian,
swylce on næshleoþum nicras licgean,
þa on undernmæl oft bewitigaþ
sorhfulne siþ on seglrade,
wyrmas ond wildeor.

The poet's conflation of lake and sea imagery thwarts any clear picture of Grendel's mere; each cluster of imagery undermines the signifying power of the other. Details of the description of Grendel's mere are manipulated by the poet to produce a subversive rhetoric, subversive to the extent that it militates against its own cognitive content. The poet is quite capable of describing a scene closely and realistically when he chooses to do so, but here, in spite of the accumulation of realistic details built into Hrothgar's speech, we are left with what is, I think, an intentionally contradictory picture. And this is not an undesirable feature of the description. Because the cumulative and overwhelming force of this tension between conflicting clusters of images inhibits any single cognitive perception of the scene, it necessitates a nonintellectual, almost emotional response in the reader; the reader is left with the impression of having submitted to a subtle sensual experience rather than to a carefully marshalled description of a body of water. Such a poetic strategy is quite consistent with the kind of appeal the poet wishes his description to make: it recreates the appeal of the elusive yet symbolic landscapes of the dreams which embody our most profound and primal fears. It is morning when Hrothgar delivers this speech to Beowulf; traditionally the time in Old English poetry of misery without consolation, it is of course also the time when the night's dreams are remembered.

The scenic confusion of the lake and sea imagery also functions to render Grendel's mere more terrifying. The sea represents a source of the hostile unknown; it is a place from which come 'niceras' (422a), the 'wedera cealdost' (546b) and invading 'searohasbbendra / byrnum werede' (237a-238b). To the extent that it is bound up with the imagery of an inland lake, the sea is brought closer to home, and consequently, made more threatening. Symbolically, the sea and what it represents is internalized: as this source of terror is associated with an inland lake, it is seen to have invaded the terrestial home of the 'foldbuende' (1355a). The figurative entry of the sea into the land parallels the narrative action of Grendel's nightly raids on Heorot. Hrothgar's beguilingly simple statement to Beowulf 'Nis þæt feor heonon / milgemearces, þæt se mere standeþ' (1361b-1362b), underlines just how much the very source of terror lies within the literal and the psychological domains of men.

Hrothgar's story of the 'hæþstapa' (1368a), the hart which surrenders to the hounds rather than escape by entering Grendel's mere, is an elegiac testimony to the fear all creatures have of Grendel:

þeah þe hæþstapa hundum geswenced,
heorot hornum trum holtwudu sece,
feorran geflymed, ær he feorh seleþ,
aldor on ofre, ær he in wille,
hafelan [beorgan].

In a characteristic understatement, Hrothgar adds 'nis þæt heoru stow' (1372b). It is significant that the poet has chosen to designate his fugitive animal a 'heorot' (1369a); 'heorot' is, of course, the eponym for Hrothgar's great hall, the symbol of the prosperity and security of the Danish kingdom. The poet was no doubt sensible of the figurative and poetic overtones of such a word here at the climax of Hrothgar's speech, especially as this is the only occurrence of 'heorot' as a common noun in Beowulf. The noun allows the poet to sum up the collective fear of the Danes into the vivid metonymy of the fleeing hart. This métonymie shrinking of men's fear into the image of the fugitive hart has the typical function of condensation in dreams: there is conveyed an intensity of impression that could not have been achieved by the mere statement that all creatures, including men, fear Grendel. Hence, Hrothgar's elegy for the hart is as much an elegy for Heorot, the 'healærna mæst' (78a), and the people whom it represents. In the death of the hounded hart, we may even find a métonymie prophecy of the fall of Heorot itself in the Heatho-Bard conflict.

A recurrent theme in Hrothgar's speech is the ability, or the inability, of men to know. Hrothgar's 'selerædende' (1346a) describe the appearance of Grendel and his mother 'þæs þe hie gewislicost gewitan meahton' (1350). The poet underlines just how little knowledge the 'foldbuende' (1355a) possess about the monsters: 'no hie fæder cunnon, / hwæþer him ænig wæs ær acenned / dyrnra gasta' (1355b-1357a). With respect to Grendel's mere itself, 'No þæs frod leofaþ / gumena bearna, þæt þone grund wite' (1366b-1367b). And Hrothgar warns Beowulf'Eard git ne const, / frecne stowe, þær æu findan miht / sinnigne secg' (1377b-1379a). Clearly linguistic features of the description of Grendel's mere are bound up with epistemological features. And underlying the organization of the description is the simple proposition that phenomena begin to elude verbal expression the more they approach the limits of human knowledge. But the striking corollary to such a proposition is that phenomena beyond the limits of human knowledge are beyond most forms of verbal expression. (Practically speaking, from the historical perspective of the Danes, Grendel and his mother come from some preternatural realm outside the bounds of human knowledge.) Such phenomena are accessible, however, through an analogical mode of expression. The poet's mode of description in Hrothgar's speech corresponds to a form of analogical language which Northrop Frye, in The Great Code, calls the métonymie mode. Although the term 'métonymie' carries several meanings, Frye primarily uses it to denote a form of language in which 'the verbal expression is "put for" something that by definition transcends adequate verbal expression'. In Hrothgar's speech, aspects of the landscape are 'put for' the collective and psychological response of the Danes to Grendel. It is not surprising that Hrothgar's ironic understatement 'nis þæt heoru stow' (1372b) is cast as a negative construction. Because of the preternatural character of the place he is describing, it is much easier for him to say what it is not than what it is.

The poet offers several very specific clues in the text to indicate that he is working within the sphere of analogy and that he is describing no ordinary landscape but rather the landscape of the soul. Of some interest is his use of the verb reotan in the clause 'roderas reotab' (1376a). The verb reotan, 'to weep', would seem more appropriate to a human agent, but here, as it is used to describe the action of the skies over Grendel's mere, it suggests an analogical mode of thought: it intimates that features of the landscape bear an analogical relationship to things human. The diffuse light at the mere contributes to the analogue of the melancholy mood by creating a dark and shadowy atmosphere. While the skies pour rain down on the mere, the air becomes gloomy ('lyft drysmap'—1375b). Like the 'weeping' of the personified skies, the narrative event of the air becoming gloomy has emotional overtones, introducing a melancholy, despairing quality, even as it suggests, from a visual perspective, the darkening of the landscape. Earlier, Hrothgar has told Beowulf that trees overshadow the mere ('wæter oferhelmaþ'—1364b). This imagery of shadows and darkness associated with the mere has a subtle affinity with a corresponding human darkness, perhaps even a terrifying and unexplored darkness within the soul. We can read the progress of the 'fyrgenstream' (1359b) under the 'næssa genipu' (1360a) in this context of analogy as a symbolic entry into the dark interior of the souls of men.

The most substantial indication the poet offers of this analogical mode—an indication so obvious as to be perhaps overlooked—is that Grendel and his mother, the two 'ellorgasstas' (1349a), are cast in almost-human forms. According to what Hrothgar has been told, Grendal's mother 'wæs … idese onlicnes' (1349b-1351a). And Grendel himself 'on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd, / næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oþer' (1352a-1353b). While there are very few explicit similes in Beowulf, the poet is quite sensitive to the nuances of analogical thought. He likens Grendel to a man 'næfne he wæs mara' (1353a) not simply as a device to aid his reader to visualize the monster (although the comparison does serve that function) but as part of his sophisticated program to intimate that while the monster may move through the exterior landscape, it also inhabits the human—the psychological—landscape. Grendel and his mother represent a horrific and primitive force, something far below the level of the conscious mind; yet the effect of the poet's description is to identify the monsters intimately with men.

Earlier the poet offered a somewhat sympathetic description of Grendel's mother after the death of her son. Highly understandable in human terms, her motive for attack on Heorot is maternal vengeance: 'Ond his modor þa gyt/gifre ond galgmod gegan wolde / sorhfulne siþ, sunu deoþ wrecan' (1276b-1278b). But what is particularly striking about this portrait of Grendel's mother is that it seems like a demonic parody of maternal love, coming as it does less than one hundred lines after Wealhtheow publicly presents Beowulf with the Brosings' necklace and asks him to act as a protector to her sons, Hrethric and Hrothmund: 'ond þyssum cnyhtum wes / lara liþe! Ic þe þæs lean geman' (1219b-1220b). And some one hundred lines previous to Wealhtheow's appeal, Hrothgar's scop tells of the conflict with the Frisians and of how, among other things, the Danish Hildeburh, a symbol of victimized and grieving maternity, loses her son (as well as her brother Hnæf and her husband Finn) in the ensuing battles:

This close succession of maternal figures either solicitous for or grieving for their sons, first Hildeburh (1071a-1080a; 1114a-ll 18b), then Wealhtheow (1180b-1191b; 1219b-1220b; 1226b-1227b) and finally Grendel's mother (1276b-127 8b), serves to draw attention to the suggestive affinities between the mothers of warriors and the mothers of monsters.

This association of the human and the demonic is nowhere more succinctly captured than in Hrothgar's final challenge to Beowulf: 'sec gif þu dyrre!' (1379b) says Hrothgar of the dangerous place where Beowulf may find the 'sinnigne secg' (1379a). Although Old English poetry is renowned for its litotes, the Beowulf poet does have a more than adequate vocabulary at his disposal with which to describe Grendel's mother as a monster, demon, or some such other fitting adversary for Beowulf, for example, 'aglæca' (wretch, monster, demon, or fiend), 'laþ' (hostile or hateful one), 'manscaþa' (wicked ravager or evildoer), 'bana' (slayer or murderer), and 'feond' (enemy or fiend) to name only a few. It might then appear as something of a disappointment that he has designated her with the neutral and rather common 'secg'. Certainly we have come to expect a more colourful language at such dramatically crucial moments. Yet if we are sensitive to the nuances which the poet is manipulating in Hrothgar's speech, we will find that he has made a particularly apposite choice of words. The noun 'secg' in most contexts means 'man'. But as it refers in this instance to the monster, it economically captures the weird and intimate affinity of the human and the demonic in the single image of the 'sinnigne secg' (1379a). Such an otherwise slight noun is freighted with sinister connotations by virtue of its local context; it adds an even more disturbing and ominous subtext to Hrothgar's challenge to 'sec gif bu dyrre' (1379b), hinting at the possibility—a possibility of which Hrothgar himself may be unaware—that the fiend which Beowulf must face is as much within as it is without.

Linda Georgianna (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "King Hrethel's Sorrow and the Limits of Heroic Action in Beowulf" in Speculum, Vol. 62, No. 4, October, 1987, pp. 829-50.

[In the excerpt that follows, Georgianna studies the lengthy, meditative speech that Beowulf gives just before his fateful battle with the dragon in the second half of the poem.]

Just prior to his last fight, Beowulf delivers a long speech on the headlands above the dragon's cave (11. 2425-37). [All references are to line numbers as given in the edition of Frederick Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. with 1st and 2nd suppls. (Boston, 1950).] It is, with the exception of his report to Hygelac on returning from Heorot, Beowulf's longest and perhaps his most puzzling speech. Little has been written about the speech as a whole; in fact, rather little attention has been paid to any of Beowulf's speeches, which is perhaps not surprising given Beowulf's stated preference for deeds over words. "It is better for a man to avenge his friend than to mourn much," Beowulf tells Hrothgar, and indeed in a heroic narrative we might ordinarily expect actions to take precedence over words. So it dismays those who would judge the poem primarily as a heroic narrative to find, as Klaeber did, that despite the hero's initial appearance as "an aggressive war hero of the Achilles or Sigfrit type," Beowulf is in fact "somewhat tame, sentimental, and fond of talking," and nowhere more so than in this speech.

When viewed primarily in terms of whether or not it "advances the action," Beowulf's speech before the dragon fight must seem inept. Not only does the rambling monologue itself delay the fight, but the central story told in the speech concerns the sorrow and death of a hero and king for whom heroic action is delayed endlessly. Deferral or delay, evident throughout the poem in its style and structure, emerges here to become a subject of the narrative, suggesting that the poet's interests may not lie solely in fostering what Klaeber calls "true epic movement." On the contrary, in the speech under discussion as well as in the second part of the poem generally, the poet seems intent on disengaging his audience from the forward movement of the heroic story in order to suggest the limits of heroic action and perhaps of heroic narratives as well.

In the Danish episodes, at least, action predominates. Beowulf's words in Heorot seem for the most part mere extensions of his deeds. His boasts, while polite, are also fairly direct and squarely focused on the deeds of courage he is about to perform. References to history or to circumstances are subordinated to the promise of action. The poem's opening lines, "We have heard about the glory of the Spear-Danes in the old days …, how those princes did brave deeds," herald in a major key the theme of old heroic deeds and the fame such actions have brought.

But in what is usually regarded as the poem's second half or movement (11. 2200-3182), the focus shifts. Edward Irving remarks [in A Reading of Beowulf, 1968] that in Beowulf "history is made in Part I, while it is studied in Part II." In the Heorot episodes deeds are done. Memories seem fresh, manageable, and close at hand, and although we sometimes see further than the characters—the poet's remarks on the devil worship of the Danes are a notorious example—for the most part such moments seem exceptional intrusions upon an otherwise unmediated view of Beowulf's glorious deeds. But in the poem's second half, deeds are talked about and meditated upon, described over and over from different angles of vision and at different paces. The revisionary impulse seems at work here, creating a complicated context for the text of Beowulf's deeds by emphasizing causes, connections, and circumstances. In fact, so involved does the poem become in what could be called deep background that the central act of part two—Beowulf's fight with the drag on—is at times all but lost sight of.

In the first part of the poem one can hardly miss the fight with Grendel, which is prepared for with what has been described as fine cinematic skill. In most cases everything but the poetic present is clearly labeled a digression, often in the form of a scop's song concerning some self-contained and chronologically remote episode. But in part two, it is the present itself that seems the digression. Beowulf's fight with the dragon at times seems a thin, brief, somewhat dreamlike moment all but overwhelmed by the involved, repetitive accounts of past action and forecasts of the future: how the treasure came to be here, how the dragon came to be here, how Beowulf came to be here, and what will become of them all and the Geatish people with them. The heroic moment, the present, so significant at the poem's beginning, is in the second part almost bled of significance and reality as meaning shifts to the past and future.

Nowhere are these distinctions between the two parts of the poem more apparent than in the poet's preparation for Beowulf's last fight. Nearly two hundred lines separate Beowulf's ordering his shield from his using it, lines dense with historical material spanning the history of the Geatish people. More than half of these lines make up Beowulf's speech, delivered as he sits on the headlands above the dragon's cave. The hero's "gilp-cwide" of part one (11. 407-56), delivered to Hrothgar as a tactful but confident piece of self-advertisement, is replaced here by a retrospective, highly digressive, meditative speech, less a preamble to action than an amble through various related and unrelated memories of childhood, both joyful and sorrowful, memories of the brave deeds of kinsmen and finally of his own glories as a hero. Out of this odd blend of elegiac stasis and heroic affirmation Beowulf'shapes his resolve to fight the dragon. But the speech has a different effect on the audience, I would argue, distancing us from Beowulf's coming battle and from his heroic world, undermining the value and effectiveness of heroic action at precisely the moment when the hero is most relying on it.

The speech consists of a series of dissociated memories juxtaposed without comment: early childhood memories of Beowulf's happy youth in the hall of his grandfather, King Hrethel; the story of Herebeald's accidental death at the hands of his brother Haethcyn; the even more digressive simile comparing Hrethel's sorrow to that of the father of an executed felon; and finally a brief recalling of the Swedish-Geatish feud that follows upon Hrethel's death. Beowulf ends his reverie by reaffirming his loyalty to Hygelac, proved by his hand-to-hand combat with Daeghrefn, presumably Hygelac's slayer. The poet breaks the speech briefly here, then resumes with Beowulf's boast, which closely follows the phrasing of his earlier boasts, a promise to attempt to perform a "great deed" (mœrpu fremman, 1. 2514) and win fame and treasure.

The speech, which situates Beowulf for the first time in a personal as well as dynastic and national history, is treated by most critics as evidence of Beowulf's age and new depth of character. It certainly represents a side of the hero we have not seen before. For a character so often associated with the action of the moment, this speech represents a real turn in showing Beowulf reflecting in an almost leisurely way on Hrethel's sorrow and unheroic death. Beowulf's meditative mood is especially surprising in that he is virtually at the dragon's door. The hero has pondered his possible guilt, ordered his shield, assembled his men, and hastened to the cave; the time for reflection seems long since passed. John Pope explains the speech as the poet's way of representing the hero's old age realistically in terms of Beowulf's experience and frame of mind without having to portray him as subject to the "ordinary infirmities of age." In Pope's careful reading the speech serves the double purpose of preparing at the same time for Beowulf's death and for his battle: the stories of Hrethel and the mourning father serve the first purpose, while the stories of more recent Geatish feuds and Beowulf's own triumph serve the second. Edward Irving further develops the relationship between these two purposes in terms of character, arguing that for Beowulf the case of King Hrethel serves as a negative example of his own current situation. Thus "the will to act is defined by its opposite, the world without action," a reading which might help to explain Klaeber's enigmatic note, "The king's morbid surrender to his grief is significant." Although King Hrethel could find no remedy for his sorrow, Irving argues, Beowulf is still free to act and gain revenge from the dragon just as his kin did in the Swedish-Geatish feud. His meditation on King Hrethel and the nameless father causes him to hesitate but ultimately feeds his resolve to act, thus increasing his stature in our eyes. The poet, according to Irving, presents a new standard of heroism., involving sympathy and understanding in addition to "the capacity to act in total dedication." Eamon Carrigan, somewhat less sympathetic to the hero than Irving, at least sees Beowulf's turn from elegy to heroic affirmation as logical: Beowulf "now sees the acceptance of feuding as an escape from the elegiac hopelessness" of Hrethel's death. Rejecting despair, he quickly recalls those kin who could and did gain vengeance and fame, Haethcyn for the attack by the Swedes, Hygelac for the death of Haethcyn, and Beowulf himself for the death of Hygelac. Such memories propel him toward his final boast announcing his intention of performing a deed of fame.

Such interpretations, which emphasize the psychological coherence of the speech and its function as a preamble to the poem's final action, are useful and are preferable to the critical tendency to treat apparent inconsistencies or shifts in point of view in this poem as evidence, in and of themselves, of interpolation, loss of lines in the manuscript, or a happy disregard for coherence. Yet there is also a danger in underplaying inconsistencies and gaps in this poem, especially when it is done in the name of "realistic" character development. In reading the speech as an indication of Beowulf's maturity, readers have to work hard to smooth out inconsistencies, supply needed transitions and logic, and in general remold the speech into a more modern "dramatic monologue" than perhaps it is. For Beowulf is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be. His transitions connecting joyful childhood memories to the tragedy of Herebeald's death, the mourning of the nameless father, King Hrethel's death, and the Swedish-Geatish feud are by no means smooth, but rather abrupt, confusing, and disorienting. They tell us more about the poet's methods and habits of mind than Beowulf's growing sensitivity to sorrow. The emphasis on delay, introspection, and indirection describes the Beowulf poet more aptly than Beowulf the character; indeed certain parts of the speech, such as the reference to Hrethel's having "chosen God's light," are distinctly out of character, and thus all the more disconcerting to an audience. A better explanation for the structure and subject of the speech lies not in Beowulf's character but rather in the poet's method, particularly in the poem's second half, of disorienting his audience by suddenly shifting the terms of his story. The effect, rather than encouraging a closer sympathy with Beowulf in his old age, is to force the audience to distance itself from the hero and the action of the narrative present. In short, the poet engages in what might nowadays be called a revolt against the narrativity of the poem's first half. He frustrates our desire for narrative progress and logic even as he frustrates his hero's need for clarity of vision and purpose in this speech, which is itself an interruption of the narrative and, in addition, has as its subject a hero's inability to act as a heroic narrative would require. This is not a new idea. What now might be called antinarrativity was described years ago in a famous section of Klaeber's commentary titled "Lack of Steady Advance." What is new is the modern or postmodern taste for subversive elements in narratives. For Klaeber, they were simply "trying."

The story of Herebeald's death and Hrethel's sorrow forms the imaginative center of the speech. As the earliest episode in Geatish history related in the poem, it is roughly equivalent to the Scyld Scefing story in Danish history, the story with which the poem begins. Yet, unlike the story of Scyld, with its ceremonial, epic gran deur, the story of Herebeald's death seems in its very ordinariness out of place in a heroic tale. In addition the story is introduced not as an archetypal moment from the distant past that somehow captures the essence of a nation's history, but rather as an almost random piece of personal history, unexpectedly recalled. Finally the story is disorienting because it is so abruptly introduced (at 1. 2435) after Beowulf's "joys of the hall" reverie, which appears to introduce the speech but contradicts its tone. The speech begins:

In my youth I survived many battle storms,
times of war. I remember all that.
I was seven winters old when the lord of treasure,
friend of the people, took me from my father.
King Hrethel received and kept me,
remembered our kinship, gave me treasure and feast.

As a man in his stronghold, I was to him in life
no more hated than his own sons,
Herebeald, Haethcyn, and my dear Hygelac.
For the eldest, undeserved
a murder bed was spread by a kinsman 's deed,
when Haethcyn, with an arrow from his horn-bow,
struck down his friend and lord,
missed the mark, and shot his kinsman;
one brother shot the other with a bloody arrow.
That was a fight without a price, a wrong wickedly done,
wearying to the heart and mind. Nevertheless, the noble prince
had to lose his life and die unavenged.
(11. 2426-43, emphasis mine)

The center of treasure, feast, and kinship becomes the setting for a "murder bed" spread by a kinsman, a movement both sudden and unexplained. The outlines of the story of Herebeald's death are clear enough, but the details further intensify the confusion surrounding the event. The eldest son of Hrethel and heir apparent is tragically killed by a stray arrow shot by his younger brother Haethcyn. We are given no further circumstances directly, but because arrows were only rarely used in battle, the suggestion is that the accident probably occurred not during a battle, but during a moment of leisure, perhaps at a sporting contest, making the tragedy all the more unexpected. Herebeald, the king's eldest son and presumably a hero, meets his fate not on the battlefield but in an almost careless, arbitrary way. Instead of hitting his target, his brother simply "missed the mark," hitting Herebeald instead. The event itself therefore seems as much a deviation from the stuff of epic as the telling of it is from Beowulf's usual discourse. If, as Klaeber notes, boys were frequently sent to court at a young age for their education, then we might well wonder, given his earliest memories, just what Beowulf learned there.

To confuse matters further, the poet's diction stresses contradictory sides of the event. On the one hand, he emphasizes the inherent pathos of a man who unwittingly kills a kinsman who was both "friend" and at least potentially his "lord." The image of the arrow stained with a brother's blood combines the accidental nature of the death with the tragedy of kin-killing. But on the other hand, the poet treats the death not as an accidental tragedy, but as a wicked crime. Haethcyn makes for his brother what the poet calls a "murder bed," a unique compound found only in this poem and one which stresses the domestic circumstances of the kinsman's deed. The act is called a "crime wickedly done" (fyrenum gesyngdad), an unavenged death described in the cold terms of economics and law as "a fight without a price" or recompense (feohleas gefeohi). Suddenly and without warning or transition the kinsman's tragic "dæd" becomes a fight, a feud (fœpo), and the doer becomes a life-slayer (feorh-bonan, 1. 2465).

This dual representation has confused many readers. As though to argue with the text, Benjamin Thorpe adds a note to his transcription insisting that accidental homicide was punishable. Some imaginative readers, eager to see this deed avenged, interpret the simile of the mourning father which immediately follows as a reference to Hrethel himself, mourning the hanging of his second son for the murder of his first. David Williams, in keeping with his interest in the Cain motif, treats the event almost exclusively as intentional fratricide, hinting that Haethcyn may have had his brother in mind as his target all along. But in spite of our critical desire for certainty (if not for revenge), the poet simply refuses to let us have it one way or the other, either as tragic mishap or as wicked crime. In part the confusion can be traced to contemporary secular and ecclesiastical law, which treat the deed of homicide itself as crime or sin, regardless of the intent or motive. Old English penitentials, for example, distinguish accidental from intentional homicide but nevertheless treat both as punishable offenses. However, although accidental homicide was theoretically punishable, this particular case represents a further complication, as Dorothy Whitelock established many years ago. Insofar as this event is considered a fight, it does have its price or wergild, but because the deed was done by a kinsman, there is no appropriate person of whom to demand the price. King Hrethel, whose duty as the victim's kin is to exact vengeance or compensation from the killer's family, is also the killer's father. Thus there can be no avenging Herebeald's death and no resolving Hrethel's dilemma.

While evidence from Anglo-Saxon culture may help to clarify the backgrounds of Hrethel's dilemma, the poet's diction seems calculated to emphasize not clarity but the confusion of the events. That is, it is precisely the unresolved nature of Herebeald's death in the mind of Hrethel that holds the poet's attention in this passage. In addition to grieving for the loss of his son, he seems to grieve for the loss of a whole system of values that had seemed coherent, a system centered on kin loyalty and the satisfaction gained by vengeance. In a sense, Hrethel dies of ambivalence:

To be unable to act, as Achilles tells Odysseus in the underworld, is a hero's idea of hell, which we recall also in Bryhtnoth's frustration before the battle of Maldon. But worse is not to know how to act. Bryhtnoth knows what he must do; the tide merely keeps him temporarily from meeting his enemy on the battlefield. But all the time in the world will not help Hrethel, whose resolve to act is itself caught between love and hate, between the opposing duties of hero, king, and father. Able only to brood over a predicament whose solution eludes categories he formerly recognized as separate and stable, Hrethel chooses despair and death.

The simile of the nameless mourning father expands both the causes and effects of a grief like Hrethel's, again focusing on the death of a son, this time not an accidental or unexpected death but the sanctioned execution of a felon. Like Hrethel, this father is helpless "when his son hangs, a joy to the raven, and he, although very old and wise, cannot perform any help for him." The stress on performing or accomplishing (gefremman) again reinforces the loss of purpose. Further intensifying the mourning father's bitterness is that he, unlike Hrethel, has no more sons. To outlive one's children is to outlive one's own future, to unredeem time. Perhaps that is why the father's "song" quickly becomes a highly generalized ubi sunt lament:

Full of sorrow, he looks on his son's dwelling,
deserted wine-hall, wind-swept resting place,
bereft of joy. The rider sleeps,
warrior in the grave. There is no sound of the harp,
no pleasures in the courtyard, as there were before.
(ll. 2455-59)

Surely this passage describes not only the loss of an individual but of a whole way of life, summed up in the lost joys of the hall; it is reminiscent of the so-called lay of the last survivor in Beowulf (ll. 2247-66) and of the great brief elegies as well. If this mourner is not the last of his race, he might as well be. Cut off from his future as well as his past, set adrift from society itself (because society condemned his son to an unavengeable death), the father, like the last survivor, sings a lament, this one both for and by a solitary: "an æfter anum" (l. 2461), literally, "one for another," or perhaps, "one here for one gone." For this father, as for King Hrethel, all connections between one and another have broken down, depriving the world of its definition and shape. The last we hear of the nameless father is that "þuht him eall to rum, / wongas ond wicstede" (ll. 2461-62), "all seemed to him too roomy (or open), the land and the house." The poet makes the highly suggestive phrase "eall to rum" the point of contact between the nameless father and King Hrethel, to whose case he now returns. In part, the image of roominess is an amplification of "windy resting place" of a few lines above and refers to the emptiness and perhaps the imagined disrepair of the empty hall. The hall's inside now seems indistinguishable from the outside, and the father retreats to his bed (l. 2460), a smaller enclosure, perhaps to find the protection and comfort formerly afforded by the hall as a whole. But in this highly generalized version of the idea—all seemed too roomy—we are reminded that for a father who is no longer a father, contemplating a hall which is no longer a hall, the world as a whole has lost its definition and its limits. Early in the poem, the construction of a hall was given almost mythic status; the building and naming of Heorot seemed to represent Hrothgar's success in asserting order and control over the dangerous chaos of the dark world outside. Now we witness the opposite process, as we are invited to imagine the disintegration of the hall and the protection it once afforded.

The suddenness of the transition from the final thoughts of the nameless father back to Hrethel's condition supports such a generalized reading of these lines. For Hrethel's hall is not, in fact, empty. On the contrary, it still awaits its moment of glory and great prosperity in the reigns of Hygelac and Beowulf, a glory already evoked for the audience in the poet's description of the splendor of Hygelac's reception of Beowulf on his victorious return from Heorot (ll. 1888-2000, 2152-99). But for Hrethel, as for the mourning father of the simile, confusion, paralysis, and chaos have replaced duty and definition. Both men are insiders who suddenly see themselves as outsiders, sufferers of a form of internalized exile. The world seems to them too roomy in part because they feel they have no place to go. Time as well as space has been permanently altered for these two fathers. As Edward Irving remarks, "In the world of no action, present time can blur with future or past; time no longer matters because it is wholly unredeemable."

In suspending narrative time while he has Beowulf tell these stories of the past, the poet reproduces in the audience feelings similar to those experienced by Hrethel and the nameless mourning father. Not only have we been diverted from Beowulf's upcoming battle with the dragon, which seems continually pushed further and further into the future as we regress further into the past, but in addition we have been invited as we follow Hrethel's perspective to dismiss the future of the Geats altogether, a future which includes the entire narrative present of the poem. Hygelac, the figure who looms so large throughout the rest of the poem, is not even named in this passage, but is merely one of the "sons" to whom Hrethel leaves his lands (ll. 2470-71). Furthermore the poet as it were sandwiches the analogy of the mourning father between the two parts of Hrethel's story, producing in the audience some of the same confusion and collapse of distinct categories experienced by Hrethel. The poet's abrupt juxtaposition of Herebeald's unavenged death with the execution of a criminal is inherently confusing and disorienting, as is shown by the bizarre theories put forth by critics to explain the connection. Even Whitelock's sensible explanation of the passage in terms of the similar helplessness of the two fathers to gain revenge or compensation, while important for its cultural insight, does not fully account for the obvious disparity in the two situations. In so suddenly moving from the accidental death of a guiltless royal heir to the shameful execution of a nameless felon, the poet encourages his audience to seek similarities and thus blur distinctions ordinarily regarded in Anglo-Saxon poetry as representing opposing categories. The innocent and the guilty merge, victim and villain are treated as one, and the criminal or outcast operating at the very edges of his society is as much mourned as a noble prince living at the very center of his world. The king's own confusion, described as "wearying to heart and mind" (l. 2442), stems from his identification with both the victim and the villain, and the poet's diction and patterning encourage the audience to share in Hrethel's crisis of identity.

Significant narrative effects result from the poet's choice to include Hrethel's story at this point in the narrative, and to tell it in such a way as to duplicate Hrethel's confusion in the audience. The primary effect of the poet's treatment of Hrethel's sorrow, it seems to me, is to underscore the limits of heroic action, and to distance the audience from the forward movement of the heroic narrative. In destabilizing or confusing the categories of innocence and guilt, victim and villain, insider and outsider, the poet begins to undo the basis of heroic action as it is represented in the poem's first half.

In the Heorot episodes Beowulf's heroic actions depend upon a context of freely chosen battles against enemies clearly identified as outsiders. Faced with evidence of the bloody death of Æschere, Beowulf says exactly what a hero is expected to say when he announces that "it is better to avenge a friend than to mourn much." The heroic "emergency," considered essential to epic protagonists, already exists, awaiting only an appropriate hero to confront the obviously monstrous adversary. It is true that early on in the epic the poet toys with the idea of presenting Grendel as a complex and even sympathetic figure, but Beowulf's arrival in Heorot serves in itself as an act of clarification, shedding light on the shadowy figure of Grendel. All doubt and ambiguity about the mysterious "hall thane" are resolved as Beowulf lies in the dark hall and observes the awful otherness of this monster: he eats thanes, "feet and hands" (l. 745).

In the dragon episode of part two, however, the closer Beowulf moves toward performing a heroic feat, the more confusion and ambiguity the poet infuses into the narrative, diverting our attention from the dragon fight and toward a more distant and critical view of the heroic world within which Beowulf so confidently and so splendidly operates. The death of Herebeald, conceived of as a fight without recompense (feohleas gefeoht), calls into question the coherence and meaning of the heroic world, which depends substantially on vengeance and fame to lend meaning to death. Herebeald's death is seen as incomprehensible not only in its causes—whether viewed as an accident or as a crime, the randomness of the event is what is stressed—but also in its effects: the king's immobilizing sorrow, the breakdown of his relationship with his next surviving son (an essential tie in this society), and ultimately the king's death followed by the release of violence on Sorrow Hill. The poet further expands the consequences of a single arrow that missed its mark when he juxtaposes Hrethel's sorrow with that of the father who sees in the death of his executed son the disintegration of the joys of the hall and even of the hall itself. In fact, Herebeald's death and Hrethel's hopeless sorrow threaten the coherence of the heroic world in something of the same way that Grendel did earlier when his nightly raids rendered Heorot "useless" (unnyt, l. 413), actions as incomprehensible to the Danes as the feeless fight is to Hrethel, and similarly conceived of by the Danes as a "feud" which Grendel refuses to settle with compensation (fea, l. 156). But in the case of Hrethel's sorrow, the feud has no traceable (and therefore eradicable) origins, and the enemy, if he is an enemy, is not an alien monster but a member of the family.

I do not mean to suggest that Beowulf himself sees the story in this way. On the contrary, the poet's emphasis on Hrethel's confusion and his narrative technique, which encourages a similar disorientation in the audience, mark a distinct divergence at this point between Beowulf's concerns and our own. Until now, although we sometimes know more than Beowulf knows, our knowledge rarely interferes with his heroic purpose, but rather supports it. The approach of Grendel's mother is a good example: we have already seen the hero respond splendidly to the immediate threat of one monster, and our knowledge of the approach of another, which precedes Beowulf's knowledge, calls up our expectation that the hero will once again rise to the heroic occasion. If anything, our foreknowledge actually anticipates, and in some sense even produces, another victory for Beowulf. But in his treatment of the attack of the dragon, which initially seems to provide a similar heroic emergency, the poet complicates our response to the hero's efforts by continually intruding to provide the audience with knowledge of which the hero is necessarily ignorant.

A prime example occurs just prior to the story of King Hrethel, in the poet's insertion, by way of another confusing digression, of the history of the dragon's treasure, a story told to us but not to Beowulf (ll. 2231-77). The last survivor of a race, we are told, buried his people's treasure, their final legacy, because there was no one left to protect and use it. It would seem that such treasures were not meant to be resurrected or made useful again (the poet's inclusion later of the curse on the treasure [ll. 3051-57] only reiterates the point), and thus Beowulf's attempt to win the treasure seems misdirected or out of joint with its narrative context. Although the poet does not criticize Beowulf himself, who cannot be faulted for his ignorance of the treasure's history, nevertheless our knowledge does interfere with Beowulf's heroic pursuit and with the narrative process itself. Not only does the story of the treasure delay our hearing of Beowulf's fight with the dragon, but also the subject of the last survivor's story, which is the end of all heroic stories as the race of heroes dies out, urges reflection and elegy rather than action and narrative progress. As we listen to one hero consign his people's now useless legacy to the earth, it is hard for us to anticipate with any shared pleasure another hero's delight in winning the same treasure.

In the case of Beowulf's speech on the headlands an even more vexed relationship between hero and audience is established. Here it is Beowulf himself who delays the action to tell a nonheroic story of suffering and paralysis which occurs not because of some monstrous invasion calling for heroic action, but as the result of a mishap. Furthermore the story describes Beowulf's legacy more fully than it has ever been described before. At important points in the narrative Beowulf has been identified with artifacts described as "Hredles lafe," Hrethel's heirlooms, literally the remains of Hrethel. It is only now that we learn that in addition to heroic treasures, Hrethel also left a legacy of impotence and sorrow. But the story of Hrethel's sorrow, which revises our vision of heroic history, seems to have only a momentary effect upon the hero who tells it. Those who would argue that the speech is designed to show Beowulf's new depth of character seldom discuss the movement of the speech as a whole. After telling us that Hrethel gave up the joys of men and "chose God's light" (an odd image for a pagan to use, especially one about to choose immortal fame through heroic action instead), Beowulf abruptly turns, with what might be described as relief and certainly a sense of pride, to the kind of story he knows best, the fast-paced, heroic story of the Swedish-Geatish feud which erupts upon King Hrethel's death: "My kinsmen avenged that [a Swedish attack], the feud and the crime, as was well known!" He treats the story in terms of the triumph of heroic action reasserting order after the slaughter of many Geats on Hreosnabeorh, or Sorrow Hill (l. 2477). The place of battle is aptly named, for the story, as Beowulf tells it, suggests that for heroes the most appropriate response to the sorrow and hopelessness of death is heroic action. This half of Beowulf's speech is dominated by the heroic language of strict reciprocity, described in simple economic terms: Haethcyn "bought" revenge but paid with his life, a "hard bargain"; Hygelac had no need to "buy" warriors elsewhere, because Beowulf "repaid" him in battle for the gold he was given. In the place of an incomprehensible "feeless fight," Beowulf posits the language of heroic economy, which emphasizes action and reaction, with payment in kind delivered immediately.

To be sure, this is the sort of story the hero needs to support his resolve to act bravely against great odds. Like many of his critics, Beowulf seeks from his stories a certain clarity and single-minded purpose, which provide the grounds for a conventional epic boast. But for the reader alert to the poet's reflective methods, the context of Beowulf's last battle becomes increasingly complex. As though to emphasize the limitations of the heroic perspective, the poet late in the poem provides a retelling of the story of the Swedish-Geatish feud told earlier by Beowulf in the speech we have been examining. The messenger's long speech following Beowulf's death (ll. 2922-98) supplements and counterpoints in several ways Beowulf's speech on the headlands before the dragon fight. Both are substantial speeches centrally occupied with Geatish history, and with the history of the Swedish-Gaetish feud in particular. The messenger refers repeatedly to "Hrethel's people," a somewhat unusual name for the Geats in this poem, and one which recalls the recently told story of Hrethel's sorrow. But in spite of the ways in which the speech recalls Beowulf's version of heroic history, the differences are more striking. The messenger's version of the feud, seven times as long as Beowulf's, emphasizes not the triumph of one side or the other but the frenzied action, the abrupt reversals of battle, and the brutal violence unleashed by both sides. In particular, the messenger follows the hunting down and killing of the Swedish king Ongentheow. While in Beowulf's version Ongentheow's death is briefly described as suitable payment for the death of Haethcyn, in the later, expanded retelling, Ongentheow is portrayed not as an enemy, but as something like Beowulf's double, an "old," "wise" king who dies protecting his "hoard," here defined with pathos as consisting of his wife and children. At the moment when he is "brought to bay"—the animal image is typical of the poet's treatment of this battle—he is referred to with great sympathy as the "shepherd of his people," hunted down by two Geats whose names mean wolf and boar. If for Hygelac the feat of killing the old king calls for a ceremonious exchange of treasure (including even, as Eofor's prize, Hygelac's daughter in marriage [ll. 2989-98]), to the messenger himself the only reciprocity involved is summed up in his grim description of how the treasure was gathered: "one [live] warrior plundered another [dead] one."

Although many feuds are alluded to in the poem, the Battle at Ravenswood is the only one described in any detail, and the poet waits until almost the end of his poem to focus on this grim representation of feuding. When only briefly alluded to, the vengeance and fame obtained in battle may seem, as they do to Beowulf, the heroic alternative to immobilizing, hopeless sorrow. Indeed that was precisely the case earlier when the brooding Hrothgar "leaped up" (ahleop, l. 1398) upon hearing Beowulf choose vengeance over mourning. But as the audience's perspective widens in the poem's second half, and particularly with this close-up view of the very feud Beowulf described not long before in such positive heroic terms, we see as the hero cannot that the differences between fighting and despairing are more apparent than real. For all of the action involved in the Battle of Ravenswood, the hopelessness of the heroic cycle of battle and vengeance seems just as clear. Heroic battle is not finally represented in the poem as an antidote to Hrethel's sorrow; rather it is in many ways another version of the same thing.

Finally it is the poet's blurring of the distinction between action and paralysis that most seriously unsettles the basis of heroic action. In the stories of Hrethel's sorrow and Ongentheow's death the poet shows us how severely limited heroic action is in overcoming or explaining that which remains for the characters the "wonder" of death. Early on in the poem we were invited to view the devil worship of the Danes as the desperate act of a benighted, unredeemed people:

But so early in the epic, this view of heathen hopelessness could easily be dismissed as an intrusion in the narrative process; after all, Beowulf was on his way precisely to offer Hrothgar comfort (bot, l. 281; frof[or], l. 628); and change (edwenden, l. 280). Beowulf's actions not only restore the Danes to Heorot but also restore the swift pace of the heroic narrative, which depends on an unhesitating, active response to the challenge of life's sudden reversals—its edwenden-ness. Only at the poem's end do we sadly come to recognize that for all its grandeur and epic possibility heroic action provides at best only the illusion of hope and change.

This is not to say that the poet asks us to dismiss Beowulf's heroism. On the contrary, even in the passage just cited, which treats the poem's pagan characters with uncharacteristic moral sternness, regret outweighs condemnation as the poet repeatedly stresses what the heathen "did not know" and could not know about an afterlife in "the Father's embraces," rather than the "fire's embraces." Furthermore, if the poet here seems to satisfy even the strictest demands of Alcuin, who dismissed his heroic ancestors as "pagan … and damned kings," he also immediately follows this statement with a skillful, vivid narrative of an unequivocal heroic emergency—a good king's hall rendered useless by the monstrous attacks of the worst example of an enemy, one who not only feuds with his neighbors but eats them—and an exemplary hero, whose generosity, courage, and strength provide exactly what seems needed to counter the foe. Even Alcuin would have to admit that in the war against the forces of chaos, Beowulf fights on God's side, if not on God's behalf.

But this is not the only story the poet has to tell, nor his only way of telling a story. And in the accumulation of his stories, as well as in his method of juxtaposing, delaying, and retelling stories—in short, his lack of steady advance—the poet is able to lead his audience first to embrace the efforts of the poem's pre-Christian heroes, then slowly and regretfully to recognize that the hope of the heathens—hœthenra hyht—is no hope at all. The brave hero kills the monster, but the monsters keep on coming, and more and more the outsiders come to resemble the kin and folk whom the hero would protect. King Hrethel's confusion and paralysis, instigated by what he views as a mysterious, random act, and resulting in what is imagined as the irrevocable loss of the joys of the hall, serve for us, if not for Beowulf, as an example of a more general confusion and paralysis at the heart of heroic society, the cause of which is ultimately a lack of belief in and hope for meaningful or permanent change. Beowulf knows as well as any Christian that "lif is læne," but Beowulf's choices in the face of life's transitoriness come to seem extremely limited, especially in the light of such stories as that of King Hrethel's sorrow. A man either fights as a hero or flees as a coward, and each fight requires this heroic choice, without regard for what may lie beyond the next fight or even the last fight. The rewards the hero seeks in return for fighting—fame, vengeance, and treasure—come to seem equally limited and shortsighted. Beowulf deserves and gains all of these rewards before he dies, but the Christian poet cannot help asking his audience to consider, even if only from time to time, what such gains are ultimately worth. Ultimate values, causes, and effects are not invoked often in the poem, which commemorates more often than it moralizes the past, but when they are invoked, the result is to unsettle the narrative profoundly, to disorient the audience enough to disengage it from the lure of heroic narrative. In short, lack of steady advance, rather than being a defect of the poem, is the point. By the end the poem is not so much a heroic narrative as it is about heroic narratives, in which, the poet suggests, advances and retreats are equally illusory.

The story of King Hrethel's sorrow, like that of the last survivor and the Battle of Ravenswood, is part of this process of gradually revealing the limits of all heroic action, even that of a hero as courageous and strong as Beowulf. This story, unlike the poet's earlier representations of the Danes' devil worship, presents the hopelessness of the heathens primarily in secular terms. A nonheroic story whose telling itself delays the hero's pursuit of revenge and fame, the story is also about the disillusionment visited upon a hero who can no longer make effective choices or gain fitting rewards. Caught between conflicting duties and loyalties, apparently expecting neither "comfort" nor "change," Hrethel can only choose death.

Within the context of the issue of heroic choice the metaphor used by the poet to describe Hrethel's death is particularly unsettling:

He then, amid that sorrow, too grievous that befell him,
gave up the joy of men, chose God's light,
left to his sons, as a happy [or blessed] man does,
his land and towns, when he went forth from life.

The Christian reference seems quite out of character for a heathen hero and has attracted a good deal of attention. Most editors treat the phrase "godes leoht geceas" as a "Christian euphemism" or "periphrasis" for "he died." In Beowulf's discourse the phrase seems to serve as little more than an inert metaphor, attributable to the poet's habit of characterizing his heroes as generally pious, if not committed to specific church doctrines. But the poet's phrase—his phrasis—cannot be gotten around quite so easily. Similar references elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon poetry are unambiguously Christian, referring to the choice between the transitory joys of this world and the eternal rewards of a life of Christian renunciation. Hrethel has certainly experienced the transitoriness of his earthly joy, his "gum-dreamas," and in his choice of phrase the poet may express his own hope that the fact that Hrethel "gave up" worldly joy comes close enough to a rejection of earthly rewards and pleasure to win him God's favor. But at the same time, in the context of this resolutely secular speech, the phrase has other, contrary effects. Here Beowulf, who still thinks of himself as free to choose heroic action in the pursuit of fame and treasure, but who is at the same time unaware that he has a "sawle hord" which is about to depart (ll. 2420-22), dwells upon what seem to him the devastating effects of Hrethel's lack of choice. In this context the reference to Hrethel's choosing God's light seems painfully ironic, for it points to the one choice which the poet believes could help Hrethel, were it available to him. But Hrethel cannot choose "God's light." In fact he chooses death precisely because as a pagan hero he cannot hope to transcend the need for earthly joy. If the poet's choice of phrase suggests that he holds out some slight hope for Hrethel (as he does later for Beowulf), the same phrase also reminds us that Hrethel imagines none for himself. Thus the Christian reference serves to express both respect and deep regret for Hrethel's dilemma, by reminding a Christian audience of the gulf separating even noble pagans from Christians. Looked at across this gulf, Hrethel's immobilizing sorrow and Beowulf's heroic choice do not seem altogether different.

Richard J. Schrader (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5200

SOURCE: "Succession and Glory in Beowulf" in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 90, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 491-504.

[In the following excerpt, Schrader traces Beowulf's involvement in the lines of succession for both Danish and Geatish kingship, and illustrates how earthly glory and valor serve as important but fragile marks of distinction for these pagan rulers.]

At the opening of Beowulf the poet celebrates the glory (þrym) and valor (ellen) of the ancient Danish kings (þeodcyninga, æþelingas). [All Beowulf quotations are from Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Fr. Klaeber, 3d ed. (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1950).] For more than sixty lines he traces these qualities from their apparent beginning with Scyld Scefing to their culmination in Hrothgar, a great-grandson. This is the full Scylding line to that point, but the poem makes clear that there were earlier rulers of the Danes, presumably living before Sceaf, men such as Heremod and Hna;f. They are not mentioned until other themes require them; here the poet has established a translatio gloriae in which they have no part. The nature of the glory and the means of its transmission will have important consequences in Danish history (as presented in the poem), and similar ideas attached to succession appear in the Geatish section as well.

The celebration of glory has such emphasis because human praise is the highest goal of the pagan characters, providing justification for individuals and a collective heaven for nations in a world where nearly all the apparent motion leads to dead ends. The poet may well have absorbed these lessons from the City of God, where Augustine contrasts earthly and heavenly (true) glory and speaks of pagans even more high-minded about the other things of this world than the Scandinavians of Beowulf:

Wherefore, when the kingdoms of the East had been illustrious for a long time, it pleased God that there should also arise a Western empire, which, though later in time, should be more illustrious in extent and greatness. And, in order that it might overcome the grievous evils which existed among other nations, He purposely granted it to such men as, for the sake of honour, and praise, and glory, consulted well for their country, in whose glory they sought their own, and whose safety they did not hesitate to prefer to their own, suppressing the desire of wealth and many other vices for this one vice, namely, the love of praise…. But since those Romans were in an earthly city, and had before them, as the end of all the offices undertaken in its behalf, its safety, and a kingdom, not in heaven, but in earth—not in the sphere of eternal life, but in the sphere of demise and succession, where the dead are succeeded by the dying [sed in decessione morientium et successione moriturorum]—what else but glory should they love, by which they wished even after death to live in the mouths of their admirers? … For as to those who seem to do some good that they may receive glory from men, the Lord also says, "Verily I say unto you, they have received their reward"

[Matt. 6:2].


After a destitute youth Scyld was a terrorizer of his neighbors. His glory (weorðmyndum, l. 8) was such that they were compelled to obey him (hyran scolde, l. 10) and pay tribute; that, emphatically, was a good king (l. 11). At death, he goes to the same Lord (frea, 1. 27) that gave worldly glory to his son and successor, Beowulf Scylding (l. 16). It is a self-ordered funeral, like that which closes the poem, and he carries with him considerable treasure. As if in ironic compensation for the way he arrived (taking ll. 43-46 as litotes), all the pieces that are specified are war gear. Under a viking banner (segen, l. 47) he goes they know not where.

The interjected description of his son Beowulf adds that the people had suffered long from lordlessness before Scyld arrived, establishing a clear break with whatever had come before. God sent the young man to prevent a recurrence and gave him glory, which spread widely (woruldare, l. 17; blæd, l. 18). After summarizing the qualities of the good, if warlike, king, the poet has portrayed the worthy successor, a young man who uses his time as heir apparent to prepare for kingship (ll. 20-25). With his father out of the way—and the poet takes pains to underscore Scyld's passing (ll. 55-56)—the portrait resumes, but with few additional details except that this Beowulf was beloved (l. 54).

Even fewer lines are devoted to Healfdene, the next to rule the glorious (glæde, l. 58) Scyldings, and his children are merely listed. It is tempting to follow Klaeber's reconstruction (p. xxxvi) based on Scandinavian sources and assume that we are to understand that Healfdene was killed by Ingeld's father, Froda, chief of the Heathobards, but the poem is silent on the matter. We learn later that his son Heorogar succeeded him, then Hrothgar. Neither they nor Halga are seen as his avengers.

The field of view has progressively narrowed until the focus is exclusively on Hrothgar. Now it will open to describe his contributions prior to the coming of Grendel. To this point we have been given an outline of Danish history down to the poem's present. Outside this Stammbaum, which is an introduction that sets the standards by which to judge Hrothgar, there is also in the poem a fragmentary prehistory which is not so glorious. The poet looks in two directions by having Hrothgar's scop celebrate Beowulf's triumph over Grendel with a mention of Sigemund's carrying off a dragon's treasure in a boat (ll. 895-97); though presumably not considered a Dane, he was known for his ellen-deeds (l. 900). Beowulf leaves Denmark with a boatload of treasure, and all of the dragon's hoard is buried with him when he leaves Geatland. The glory and valor shown in his climactic fight have ambiguous results, and the reburial of the treasure signifies the end of his tribe's glory, unlike Scyld's passing from the Danes.

The poet contrasts Sigemund with the notorious Heremod, whose ellen subsided (ll. 901-2) and who did not live up to his ancestral rank (fœderœþelum, l. 911). The poet's language makes it clear that he was a Danish king and predecessor if not father of Scyld. He was ignored at the opening because the translatio begins when the Danish Beowulf succeeds the eponym, Scyld. Later on, Hrothgar himself elaborates on Heremod's offenses. He says that his Geatish rescuer will be a comfort (to frofre, l. 1707) to his people as Heremod was not to the Danes—and we recall the same phrase used of the former Beowulf (l. 14). Heremod was part of a disordered past outside the continuum of glory. Here the Danes are called Ecgwela's retainers for the only time, and in the next half-line Honor-Scyldings (l. 1710). I think that the balancing of the two is deliberate: Ecgwela is an unknown king, a "mythical" figure even to Hrothgar and part of a tradition before Scyld, as Scyld (only once) is son of the absent Sceaf (l. 4). Heremod was forced into exile and killed (l. 1714), creating a lordless situation of the kind it was the function of Scyld to alleviate. ([Adrien] Bonjour goes so far as to claim that Heremod's death was followed by the very interregnum that Scyld ended.) And when in power he would not reward the Danes for glory (dome, l. 1720).

To this same "mythical" time we should presumably assign Hnæf, slain at Finnsburg, and his father Hoc. Hnæf was a Danish chief sung about by Hrothgar's scop not long after the Sigemund-Heremod vignettes. Hnæf's people are called Half-Danes, Danes, and Scyldings, but their relation to the Danish royal house as it is presented in the poem is obscure. For the scop it is a story that shows the vengeful Danes in a good light, but it is not told in his voice. It has been paraphrased and structured in such a way as to make prominent the sorrows of Hildeburh, Hnæf's sister, rather than to celebrate the revenge ethic. In fact it is another tragedy of lordlessness (cf. l. 1103). It says of those on the pyre that their glory (blœd, l. 1124) was gone.

So the true line begins with Scyld. Fittingly, the first words about his great-grandson Hrothgar are that he was given success in war, glory (weorðmynd, l. 65) in battle, but this good king's retainers eagerly obeyed (georne hyrdon, l. 66). The warlike Scylding kings have sufficiently pacified the realm that a great meadhall can be built. None was mentioned for the Danes before this, and Scyld was instead known for destroying those of others (l. 5). That the glory of Hrothgar, at least, soon will end is made clear at once. Heorot will burn, probably during a feud with his son-in-law in a failed attempt to use marriage to keep peace. And before that he must deal immediately with Grendel (l. 86). He says at one point that prior to this invasion he was always able to protect his people (ll. 1769-76), maintaining the tradition started by Scyld.

For now his court is ideally ordered, reflecting the stability of the dynasty. To enter that court and be accepted by it, Beowulf must undergo a succession of challenges by persons of increasing importance. He is passed from one to another in an initiation that culminates in formal adoption, and so he enters Scylding history as if a Dane in the great tradition. First he encounters the coastguard, where the issue is whether these alien seafarers (ll. 254-55) are wanderers arriving in the style of Moses-like Scyld or march-haunting Grendel (l. 103). The coastguard wants to know their lineage, and Beowulf reveals the names of his uncle and father (ll. 252, 260-63). When satisfied, this servant (ombeht, l. 287) guides them (l. 292) to Heorot.

There they must deal with another ombiht (l. 336), the herald Wulfgar. He too wants to know about their noble lineage (œþelum, l. 332), but feels that they come not as exiles but out of heart's greatness / glory (higeþrymmum, l. 339). With that, Beowulf finally discloses his name (l. 343). Hrothgar adds to the Geat's family tree when he supplies Beowulf's grandfather, telling Wulfgar that he indeed knows the recent history of that family (ll. 372-75) and bidding him to inform Beowulf that he knows his œþelu (l. 392). Wulfgar guides them in (l. 402).

Later on, after the formal introduction to Hrothgar, Unferth makes his problematical challenge. Among other things, he is disturbed that Beowulf's glory (mœrða, l. 504) is greater than his, and among Beowulf's rejoinders is the charge that Unferth slew his own brothers (ll. 587-88), which the poet later confirms (ll. 1167-68). Even if this test is a formal flyting, it forces one to consider whether the Scylding heritage is sufficient to handle a military problem that involves not the destruction of a meadhall but the spiritual pollution of it. Beowulf's particular glory, soon to be engrafted onto that of the Danes, is that he alone can cleanse Heorot.

Finally, he meets Wealhtheow, who should be associated with these challengers. She makes no demands at this point, but her mead-dispensing precipitates Beowulf's vow (ll. 611-41). Her relevance to the process under discussion becomes clearer after the slaying of Grendel and the adoption of Beowulf, when Beowulf moves back through the same series of persons (or their equivalents) and out of Danish history. On this occasion she finds Hrothgar sitting with and trusting the suspicious Hrothulf and Unferth. Her function here is to make Beowulf aware that his adoption is not to be at the expense of the Danish royal line, which will in time have enough troubles from within. She properly addresses her husband first, enjoining him to leave the kingdom to their sons (ll. 1178-80), even though that kind of succession is not inevitable in the world of the poem. Somewhat fitfully she trusts that Hrothulf would be a good regent (ll. 1180-83) and asks Beowulf to be kind in instruction, gentle in deeds to her boys (ll. 1219-20, 1226-27), that is, to take no more upon himself than what she expects of Hrothulf, citing the loyalty of the court about him as an (ironic?) example of what she means (ll. 1228-31). Later, Beowulf promises Hrothgar that he will protect his son (ll. 1836-39), and events prove that he had no designs on the throne.

Unferth (mentioned twice in passing after his challenge) reenters the action as a supporter of Beowulf in the encounter with Grendel's mother. He lends him a sword that had done ellenweorc (l. 1464), though he himself lost glory (dome, l. 1470) by not daring the venture himself. In that, he represents all the Scyldings, and the same might be said of the sword. It fails to help Beowulf, though he expected to work glory with it; for the first time its glory ceased (dom, ll. 1491, 1527-28). Beowulf returns it, with thanks (ll. 1807-12). He had already exchanged for it what may be the sword Hrothgar gave him for killing Grendel (ll. 1023, 1488-90).

Beowulf does not reencounter Wulfgar, the ombiht, herald, and guide who came before Unferth in the prior (reverse) sequence. The only other ombiht is a Geatish attendant to whom Beowulf entrusted his sword before the fight with Grendel (l. 673). But another Danish hall-thane does appear on the night before Beowulf's departure (l. 1794). He guides him (l. 1795) not to another encounter but to bed.

So too the final meeting with the coastguard is entirely amiable. Beowulf gives him (or another attendant) a gold-wound sword (ll. 1900-1901). Perhaps, in challenging the fifteen Geats alone, the coastguard had shown more of the old glory than any other Dane Beowulf met. Like Scyld, the hero departs in a boat laden with treasure (ll. 1896-98), but he does not leave much hope behind.

The Danes are first made hall-less and then are lordless in their reversion to disorder. The Heathobard feud involving Hrothgar's son-in-law Ingeld will destroy Heorot, in the customary understanding of those early allusions to its burning. Beowulf imagines a scene (ll. 2032-69) like that which he heard Hrothgar's scop portray in the Finnsburg lay, where a man is goaded to take vengeance on the slayers of his lord. Beowulf cannot know the full outcome, but the poet evidently does. And then Hrothulf, by all indications, will take the throne after his uncle Hrothgar dies. They were friends then (ll. 1019, 1164), when Beowulf visited. Wealhtheow expects that Hrothulf will be good to her boys if he remembers how well she and Hrothgar treated him when a child (ll. 1180-87). Beyond this "admirable subtlety," in Klaeber's words (p. xxxii), the poet does not go. No matter what happened in "real" history, he implies trouble ahead. If this does not fit facts exterior to the poem, then we should remember that he also makes Sigemund a dragon-slayer and contrives a demise for the Geats: poetic facts are made to serve themes. Further, it is significant that Hrothulf is not assigned the kind of glory he receives as Hrólfr Kraki in Scandinavian lore. The poet does not bother to detail the Danish succession, leaving us to infer that the translatio ends with Hrothgar—or Beowulf.

His first words to Hrothgar affirm that he is Hygelac's kinsman (l. 407), but he says less about his ancestry than what he told either the coastguard or Wulfgar. We could be meant to assume that he knows what Wulfgar would report, but it is also a gesture of courtesy, identifying himself with a formulaic phrase as a kind of verbal handshake with a man who knows him already—Hrothgar (in his first words) tells him without qualification why he had come (ll. 457-72). He is not reading the visitor's mind: all signs imply that Ecgtheow, Beowulf, and Hrothgar were well acquainted with each other. Beowulf came to return the favor performed for his father, when Hrothgar paid wergeld to end a feud at the very time he was consolidating his own power after the death of his brother Heorogar (ll. 465-69); the fates of the two families were linked thereafter.

For the first time, Hrothgar voluntarily gives control of the hall to another (l. 655), bidding him to remember glory (mœRþo) and display mighty valor (mœgenellen) (l. 659). These are the qualities that will make him worthy of association with the Scylding line laid out for us at the beginning. But Hrothgar already knows that only Beowulf, not any of the Danes, has them in sufficient measure to qualify for the task. Beowulf later says to his men that God will assign the glory (mœrðo, l. 687) in the battle, and it is given to Beowulf (guðhreð, l. 819). The happy Danes speak of his mœrðo (l. 857). They say that no one is more worthy of a kingdom (l. 861), though they do not find fault with Hrothgar, for "þæt wæs god cyning" (l. 863), and after the second fight Hrothgar will say the same thing about the young man's royal qualifications (ll. 1845-53). Both in their way are worthy Scyldings.

Hrothgar ratifies his honorary lineage by adopting him into a new kinship (niwe sibbe) while praising nonetheless, in Biblical terms, the woman who bore him (ll. 942-49). Hill has explored the complexities of the scene, noting that "Hrothgar first spiritually adopts Beowulf and then seems to offer the right of succession," signs of which are the four treasures; "Hrothgar offers something that falls between legal adoption and mere fraternal spirit." That ambiguity—along with Beowulf's never indicating that he wants to take over and his stressing his loyalty to Hygelac upon returning home—is the poet's way of maintaining the spiritual nature of the succession. Beowulf acknowledges the ellenweorc (l. 958) that brought this about, nicely pointing out that Grendel is feasceaft (l. 973). The reader can associate this with the original condition of Scyld (l. 7), the only times the word is used in this part of the poem: "feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad" ([he was] found destitute; for that he received help). Not so for Grendel: "feasceaft guma frofre gebohte" (the destitute man [has not] bought help). Grendel has sunk back into the primordial disorder from which the Scyldings have always escaped thus far. Among the gifts Hrothgar gives Beowulf is a segen gyldenne, like the one bestowed on Scyld for his last voyage (ll. 47, 1021).

As he prepares to fight Grendel's mother, Beowulf reminds Hrothgar of the adoption, that is, that he is now fighting as his son (ll. 1474-79). The poet calls him a Scylding warrior—"freca Scyldinga" (l. 1563)—and the sense of that genitive plural is the same as in the appellation of his namesake, "Beowulf Scyldinga" (l. 53). Beowulf pointedly remarks that Hrothgar need no longer fear harm "from that side" (l. 1675), that is, external threats, once he has defeated Grendel's mother. Hrothgar responds by affirming that Beowulf's glory (blœd, l. 1703) has been established, that he will be a help (to frofre, l. 1707) to his people, the language used of Beowulf Scylding (ll. 14, 18). His advice includes a warning that Beowulf's present blœd of his might (l. 1761) will wane, which is why he should learn from the story of Heremod and from Hrothgar's own failure to protect his people. For now, though, Beowulf is confident enough to promise help to the king if he should be terrorized by his neighbors ("ymbsittend egesan þywað," l. 1827), presumably the neighbors terrorized into submission by Scyld:

egsode eorl[as] …
oð þæt him æghwyle ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde.

That Beowulf takes his filial role seriously is reflected by the first thing he reports to Hygelac about Hrothgar: "he seated me with his own sons" (l. 2013; cf. ll. 1189-91). The first treasure he commands to be brought in is the banner (l. 2152), as it was the first treasure Hrothgar gave him (l. 1021). Another connection with dynastic matters is the armor he likewise turns over (ll. 2155-62). He says that Hrothgar told him to tell Hygelac that Heorogar, his older brother and predecessor, deliberately passed over his own loyal son in giving the armor to him. It has not gone to Hrothgar's natural sons, either. Now it passes to Hygelac as a permanent reminder of the favor done for a Geatish exile at the time Hrothgar took the throne. Unfortunately, Beowulf will never again have a chance to act as a male peace-weaver for the Danes, as the succession evidently bypasses all of Hrothgar's sons.

Beowulf's great opponents in Denmark may be thought of as an opposing dynasty, remnants of another time and place of disorder. They too have a pedigree, connecting them by a vague and metaphorical "thence" (l. 111) to the race of Cain: giants, elves, evil spirits. These physical progeny were destroyed by the Flood; Grendel and his mother are their spiritual heirs. He is also the antithesis of Scyld. For instance, he comes at the end of a line and not the beginning. A destroyer of his neighbors, he nonetheless spares their meadhall, where he had total rule and fought against the right (l. 144). While "men knew not" where Scyld traveled in the afterlife, they know not where Grendel goes here and now (ll. 50, 162). It is both a usurpation and a parody of all the conquering that has gone on before. Fittingly, he is feasceaft at his end (l. 973), not his beginning, and is succeeded by a parent, not an offspring.

With the arrival of his mother we are given the same genealogy and the same "thence" (l. 1265). The two are all the more mysterious and terrible to the Danes for having no pedigree they know of (ll. 1355-57). Having admitted ignorance of their ancestry, Hrothgar goes on unwittingly to reveal their spiritual heritage by describing the hellish mere. The monsters' hall is on the other side of the mirror. When they enter the Danish world it is to fight against "the right." Since they are absurd inversions, it is not surprising that (in a much-remarked role and gender reversal) mother is the successor and avenger of son.

Their world has relics of the antediluvian giants with whom they are associated. Whereas "old sword made by giants" is a reflexive formula in the later part of the poem (ll. 2616, 2979), it takes on real substance in the underwater lair, where Beowulf enters prehistory, outside any surviving lines of human descent. Beowulf uses such a sword (ll. 1558, 1562, 1679) when the gift from the Danish court fails. Its hilt then undergoes a translatio. Having already outlasted the giants and the Grendel clan, it now passes from Beowulf to Hrothgar (ll. 1677-86). The "origin of the ancient strife" is written on it (ll. 1687-93), along with the death of the giants, but that is another story Hrothgar does not know. In entering the modern world, the weapon has lost its edge; only its wisdom remains. So too the wisdom of Hrothgar is the chief relic of Scylding glory.


The Geatish succession, by contrast, is not as richly imagined, and an element of disorder obtains in all of it before Beowulf. The only figure named who might precede Hrethel is Swerting, the uncle or grandfather of Hygelac (l. 1203). The Geats of the story are most properly Hrethlings (l. 2960). Like Healfdene he has three sons and a daughter, and like Hrothgar he takes Beowulf into his family (ll. 2428-34). The long process seen in the first part, where Beowulf crowned and ended Danish glory, is here foreshortened in a series of disasters that brings Beowulf to the throne, when the history of disorder ends until the dragon arrives. Hrethel's son Haethcyn accidentally kills his brother Herebeald, after which their father dies of grief and hostility with the Swedes ensues (l. 2472). Hæthcyn is killed by Ongentheow at Ravenswood when the Geats attacked out of arrogance (l. 2926), leaving them lordless (l. 2935). Like a Scyld, Hygelac rescues them from that condition, arriving under viking banners (l. 2958). We already know that he will not live up to what is promised here, dying under a banner during another needless raid, his body and treasures passing (gehwearf l. 1210) into the hands of inferior warriors.

Beowulf does not seize the kingdom; it "passed" to his control when Hygelac and his son Heardred died, as the sword "passed" to Hrothgar (gehwearf, ll. 1684, 2208). Hygelac's widow Hygd had wanted him to play the part of Hrothulf and displace his cousin when the king died, not trusting her young son's abilities (ll. 2369-72). But these feasceafte ones (l. 2373) could not prevail upon him to supersede Heardred, who rules until his death in the Swedish wars. Then it is Beowulf's natural turn.

The transition had begun long before, when Beowulf merged his part in Danish history with the future of the Geats on the occasion of his return. His recapitulation and his yielding of treasures to Hygelac are acts of obeisance. Also, Beowulf has "few [that is, no] near relatives" except for the king (ll. 2150-51)—a situation that anticipates his lonely end. The first thing brought in from Hrothgar's bounty is a banner (l. 2152), perhaps to be thought of as the one carried on Hygelac's fatal raid. A bit later he gives Hygd Wealhtheow's present of a necklace (l. 2172), which had already been associated with that venture (l. 1195). If the Hrethling dynasty is a story of decline, Beowulf's life has been one of increasing glory, from a youth who was thought worthless (ll. 2183-88) to one now given Hrethel's sword and enough land to make him an underking (ll. 2190-99). All of this is toward the end of the first part.

In the second, Beowulf is proud that none of his neighbors (ymbesittendra, l. 2734) had been able to oppress the Geats with terror (egesan, l. 2736). He founded new glory for the Geats, as had Scyld for the Danes, and prevented those surrounding him from repeating Scyld's viking depredations. The treasure buried with him included a golden banner (l. 2767), chronologically the last of these viking symbols in the poem, and what glory there is in the viking way for the Geats passed with him. His demise and, later, that of the Geats are owed to entanglement in two problematical successions. First, Beowulf becomes involved in the Swedish matter as king by helping the feasceaft Eadgils (l. 2393), grandson of Ongentheow, whom Hygelac's men had slain at Revenswood. Eadgils and his brother Eanmund had fled the wrath of their uncle Onela (who, along with their father Ohthere engaged in slaughter of Geats at a time before Ravenswood [l. 2475]) and were protected by Heardred, Hygelac's son. Onela invaded, killing Heardred and Eanmund. With the aid of Beowulf's people, Eadgils returned to kill the king and take the throne. It develops that Wiglaf is carrying the sword of Eanmund, whom his father had slain; it was a reward from Onela (11. 2602-19). The matter is complicated, difficult for anyone to take in at one reading (or hearing), and even so the poet is careful to establish that there is a line, one that enters the poem's history with Ongentheow, though with the usual hint of a prehistory in the epithet Scylfing for the Swedes. And again the Scylding pattern is reversed, with a destitute youth coming at the end of a line whose purpose in the poem is to rob the Geats of what little glory there is before and after Beowulf.

The second "succession" involves the dragon and a reenactment of the Danish adventure with new twists. Like Hrothgar Beowulf nad lived through many ellenweorca (l. 2399) beforehand, and his own hall is burnt (ll. 2324-27). His final ellenweorc (l. 2643) costs him his life, as Hrothgar's warning proves accurate. In one sense the dragon is the successor of Grendel, introduced in the same way ("oð ðæt an ongan," ll. 100, 2210) and ruling with the same power (rixode / 2rics[i]an, ll. 144, 2211), the only times those expressions are used. In another sense his career is the opposite of Beowulf's, beginning with a treasure barrow on a bluff by the sea (ll. 2241-43). He enters the poem as the successor of the "last survivor," guarding the hoard for three hundred years before a cup is stolen by a feasceaft man (l. 2285)—as with Eadgils, the sign of an ending about to occur. Only the lair has an eternal (ece) aspect to it, being the work of giants (ll. 2717-19) and surviving from Geatish prehistory like Grendel's antediluvian sword. The treasure, vainly cursed by men of old (ll. 3051-57), was meant to stay there until Doomsday (l. 3069), as was the dragon (l. 3083). In fact the gold is still in the ground, thanks to its burial with Beowulf, as useless to men as ever (ll. 3163-68).

The translatio of the gold had been wrongly continued by the thief, leaving Beowulf no choice but to fight its rightful guardian. Antiheroically, this wretch finds no ceremonial progression in his approach to Beowulf's throne (ll. 2281-83?, 2403-5) and remains nameless; like the earlier servants and not the hero, he does the guiding (l. 2409) when it is time to meet the dragon. This intruder from the deep past—not, like Grendel, a spiritual heir of anything—is the Geats' nemesis, and the end of the tragedy will be the primal terror worked by men like Scyld (egesan, l. 3154), as the female mourner rightly predicts, for all their praise of Beowulf's valor-work and glory (ellenweorc, l. 3173; lof l. 3182).

That will be the outcome of long-standing feuds, however, not their present lordlessness, for there is one last inheritor of Danish and Geatish glory. As Beowulf had "few [no] near relatives" when making his act of obeisance to Hygelac, so when, while dying, he passes regalia to Wiglaf (in lieu of a son [ll. 2729-32]), he remarks that Wiglaf is the last of their race, the Wægmundings (ll. 2813-14)—probably Swedes, but their relation to the Geatish royal family is unstated. Wiglaf is also called a Scylfing (Swede) and a kinsman of the unknown Ælfhere, to cloud the issue further (ll. 2602-4), and his father had fought for the Swedes. In any event, having been informally adopted by Beowulf he stands in the same relation to the Hrethlings as Beowulf does to the Scyldings, the fifth, adoptive, and last true successor to the eponymous founder. Beowulf's failure in his dying speech to predict disaster like the messenger or the female mourner is a judicious signal of confidence in Wiglaf and further evidence that he regards him as the next king.

However, Wiglaf's refusal to take a share of the treasure, magnanimously attributing the victory to Beowulf, is a way of burying all the glory of the Geats. The tribe is now feasceaft in every sense. Its history from the beginning had been one of unwisdom until Beowulf, who alone represented the same prymm achieved by the Danes before Grendel intruded. The Danes had experienced ever-broadening glories, safe from external threats, while the Geats seem never uninvolved in feuds before Beowulf. His intervention in the Danish succession had happy results and represented a new pinnacle for those people. Similar interventions in Geatland only ensure the downfall of his own people, whose chaotic history compares poorly with that of the Danes.

Fidel Fajardo-Acosta (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2760

SOURCE: "Intemperance, Fratricide, and the Elusiveness of Grendel," in English Studies, Vol. 73, No. 3, June 1992, pp. 205-10.

[In the following excerpt, Fajardo-Acosta argues that Grendel acts as an instrument of divine punishment against the immoral Danes and that he can only be defeated by someone like Beowulf, who is virtuous and self-restrained]

One of the most difficult and baffling puzzles posed by the story of Grendel and his enmity with the Danes in Beowulf is perhaps that which refers to the extreme difficulties experienced by the Danes in disposing of the monster. The strength and size of Grendel together with his supposed invulnerability to swords and his habit of striking at night under the cover of darkness account partially for the helplessness of the Danes in dealing with their enemy. These explanations, however, cannot in any way be considered as fully satisfactory or even approach the challenge of wholly accounting for the nature of the problem. The idea that a relatively sophisticated society of warriors, such as the tribe of Hrothgar, could find no solution to the nightly ravages of Grendel and endured his outrages for nearly twelve years suggests that an investigation is required in order to clarify the precise nature of the Danes' failure to get rid of the monster. Beowulf's success in his man-to-man wrestling match with Grendel clearly points out the fact that Grendel was in no way invincible and that both his strength and courage had well defined limits. Why was it then that the Danes could not put together a large enough army to confront and defeat the monster? Surely the lack of cour age and fighting power could not have been a factor in a society of individuals who made their living as pirates and pillagers accustomed to face and defeat fierce enemies both at home and abroad. The very regularity of Grendel's behavior in his nightly ambushes of Heorot Hall hints at the fact that even if the monster was indeed exceedingly strong, a cunning counter-ambush could have been prepared by Hrothgar's troops to imprison and destroy the enemy. Neither the powers of strength and martial prowess nor the treacherous stratagems of war could possibly have been lacking or unknown to Hrothgar and his men. That in spite of their knowledge of war and the tricks of fighting the Danes failed for twelve years to stop the monster and had to be in the end shamefully rescued by a foreigner is indeed strong evidence of the fact that the figure of Grendel and the problem that is posed for the seemingly defenseless Danes embody a mysterious and symbolic significance which it is the purpose of this study to help elucidate.

Studies of the nature and character of Grendel often point out the idea that in spite of his undeniably human characteristics Grendel can be seen as a symbol of evil in general, possessing all the attributes of the devil as they were perceived by Christians in the early Middle Ages. The references in the text to Grendel as a descendant of Cain (Il. 107, 1261) have also attracted the attention of scholars and helped in the characterization of the monster as a destructive force connected to the concept of radical evil in the Judeo-Christian tradition. [All textual references in this study refer to the text of Beowulf in Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Fr. Klaeber (Lexington, Mass., 1950).] In his character as a supernatural, demonic force, it is perhaps simple to understand the enormous power of Grendel over the society of the Danes. The reason why the Danes are deserving of and vulnerable to the attacks of the devil is, on the other hand, a different question. The Beowulf poet seems to suggest that indeed the Danes had themselves made their society open to the attacks of the devil through their own heathen way of life and their worship of demonic forces:

Hwilum hie geheton æt hærgtrafum
wigweorþunga, wordum bædon,
þæt him gastbona geoce gefremede
wið þeodþreaum. Swylc wæs þeaw hyra,
hæþenra hyht; helle gemundon
in modsefan, Metod hie ne cuþon,
dæda Demend, ne wiston hie Drihten God,
ne hie hum heofena Helm herian ne cuþon,
wuldres Waldend.
(Beowulf: 175-183)

Sometimes they offered at heathen temples
sacrifices to idols, they vowed words
that the soul-slayer would help them
against distress. Such was their custom,
the hope of heathens. Full of hell
in their spirits, they did not recognize the Ruler,
the Judge of deeds; they did not know the Lord God,
nor indeed did they praise the Protector of Heaven,
the Lord of glory.

Therefore, according to the Beowulf poet, the presence and ravages of Grendel among the Danes appear to be a phenomenon directly related to the behavior and character of the Danes themselves. Elsewhere I have argued that indeed Grendel appears to be himself a Dane sent into exile for mysterious reasons by either Hrothgar or his predecessors. Whatever the literal identity of Grendel, however, in his role as an evil spirit with a mission to torture and punish Hrothgar and his people, Grendel seems indeed a sort of manifestation of a divine decree against the way of life of the Danes. Both the character and behavior of Grendel appear in some sense to mirror and reflect the immoral essence of the character of the Danes whom he so viciously victimizes.

The idea that the Danes, as individuals and as a tribe, suffer from severe moral shortcomings which make them deserving of the curse of Grendel is well supported by the internal, textual evidence in the poem. The criticism of the Danes seems in fact a very understandable impulse on the part of a Christian, Anglo-Saxon poet interested in condemning the way of life of the barbarian Danish tribes who not only adhered to a semi-pagan ideology and lifestyle but who were also the proverbial enemies of the newly-Christianized and relatively more civilized groups inhabiting the English islands at the time when the Beowulf poet was composing his epic. The creation of Grendel and his characterization as the very embodiment and epitome of evil appears to have as much to do with the condemnation of un-Christian principles and ways of life in general as with the criticism of the Danish people in particular on the grounds of their failure to adopt a more civilized and Christian way of life.

The vices of intemperance in the consumption of alcoholic beverages and the drunken, brutish, destructive, and often criminal behavior associated with alcoholism appear to stand foremost in the mind of the poet in the articulation of his criticism of the Danish people. Unferth, Hrothgar's ineffectual champion, is the particular figure in the story which the poet seems to have chosen to represent the essence of the moral problems plaguing the Danes and the consequences of those problems in rendering even the greatest of the Danish warriors into boastful but useless defenders of the kingdom against the threat of Grendel. In his response to Unferth's challenges during the party preceding Beowulf's confrontation with Grendel, Beowulf accuses Unferth of being 'beore druncen' (l. 531; 'drunk with beer') and also notices the fact that the reputation of the Danish champion is tarnished by the crime of fratricide:

… ðu þinum broðrum te banan wurde,
heafodmægum; þæs bu in helle scealt
werhðo dreogan …
(Beowulf: 587-589)

you became your brother's slayer,
your close relative; therefore you shall in hell
suffer damnation.

The faults that Beowulf sees in Unferth appear to be part of a larger problem associated with the character and behavior of the Danes in general. As Geoffrey Hughes suggests [in English Studies, Vol. 58 (1977)], it appears that 'something is rotten in this state of Denmark.' The situation that the poet seems to consider as representative of the essence and consequences of that problem is the very one embodied in the scenes depicting celebrations in the beer-hall. In general, after the warriors have become blind-drunk during such celebrations, they seem to forget the distinction between friends and enemies and are very apt to commit the worst atrocities, including, as in the case of Unferth, the slaying of one's own relatives. Such a situation appears to stand behind the infamous Finnsburg episode, the story told by the minstrel in Beowulf recounting the tragic fight that broke out between Danes and Frisians during a feast and which ended with the slaying of the Danish king Hnaef and his nephew, along with many other men. Excessive drinking turned the initially friendly gathering of Danes and Frisians into what the poet characterizes as 'morþorbealo maga' (line 1079; 'the slaughter of kinsmen'). It is perhaps interesting to note that in another work—Shakespeare's Hamlet—similar to Beowulf in the fact of its being the product of a Christian, English author writing about the Danes of the early Middle Ages, the attitudes presented concerning the character and behavior of the Danish people are also similar to those in the Old English epic. In Hamlet we not only find a character, Claudius, who, like Unferth, is guilty of both intemperance in drinking and fratricide but we also hear from Hamlet's own mouth a clear statement of the reputation of drunkards enjoyed by the Danes among other peoples. After noting that Claudius plans to spend the night drinking and carousing, Hamlet tells Horatio:

But to my mind, though I am native here
and to the manner born, it is a custom
more honored in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
makes us traduced and taxed or" other nations.
They clepe us drunkards and with swinish phrase
soil our addition, and indeed it takes
from our achievements, though performed at height,
the pith and marrow of our attribute.
(Hamlet 1. iv: 14-22)

The image of the monstrous Grendel feasting to his heart's content on the bodies of the Danes in the midst of Heorot Hall acquires a larger significance when juxtaposed with the notion of the Danes' intemperance and the crimes generally committed in the beer-hall under the influence of a few too many cups of mead. The idea that for twelve years starting right after the construction of Heorot Hall, night after night an invisible monster visits the beer-hall and mutilates and devours thirty of Hrothgar's warriors begins to appear under this perspective more than as a literal explanation of the disaster, as a figurative account of the devastations caused by the warriors' own drunkenness and brutish violence, Grendel—a monster who because of his voracious appetite and his links to the figure of Cain stands in the story as an unequivocal symbol of intemperance and fratricide—needs therefore to be interpreted as a mirror image and symbolic representation of the vices and flaws in the character of the Danes themselves, vices which indeed are very costly to the Danish society and whose effects could be compared to those of a monster revaging the country. [John] Leyerle correctly notes [in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 37 (1967)] that "in Beowulf monsters are closely associated with the slaying of friends and kinsmen. They function in part as an outward objectification and sign of a society beset by internecine slaughter between friend and kin."

The elusiveness of Grendel, his enormous strength, his seeming invulnerability to weapons, the idea that he attacks at night and completely unseen by either victims or survivors, and the fact of his virtually complete dominance of the Danes are facets of the monster's characterization which make perfect sense when considered from the perspective that Grendel is a symbolic rather than a literal monster in the epic. Indeed it is quite impossible for the baffled Danes to capture and destroy a monster who only manifests itself after the warriors have fallen victim to the effects of alcohol and who proceeds to quickly conceal itself within each and every one of the revelers once the effects of the drink have dissipated. Grendel is a highly elusive 'evil spirit' who is an integral part of the character and personality of the Danes themselves. As [James W.] Earl points out [in Thought, Vol. 57 (1982)], Beowulf is characterized by a "pervasive language of spiritual warfare, in which the enemy has been internalized and the battlefield is the soul." The problem which the Danish people confront in the menace of Grendel is none other than that posed by their own brutish behavior—the monster is therefore primarily an internal enemy which can never be defeated with weapons and whose presence can only be exorcised through a process of self-examination and personal transformation which the Danes seem incapable of bringing about. [Stephen C] Bandy notes [in Neophilologus, Vol. 56 (1972)] that 'these benighted warriors of Hrothgar cannot learn. They are the slaves of their appetites. In Bandy's view, the Danes are victims of 'self-indulgence (and specifically drunkenness).'

Not surprisingly, it is only a foreigner, a non-Dane who holds the key to the solution of the Grendel problem. In the figure of Beowulf, the Danes find a man whose ability to defeat Grendel is grounded not so much on pure brute, physical force but on a miraculous sort of strength generated by certain gifts of moral character and which are characterized by the poet as God-given. In particular, the poet chooses to emphasize the idea that Beowulf is different from Unferth and from the rest of the Danes in the fact that he seems able to control both his violence and his consumption of alcohol. That degree of temperance and self-control are then characterized as being intimately related to his awesome physical strength:

Swa bealdode bearn Ecgðeowes,
guma guðum cuð, godum dædum,
dreah æfter dome; nealles druncne slog
heorðgeneatas; næs him hreoh sefa,
ac he mancynnes mæste cræfte
ginfæstan gife, þa him God sealde,
heold hildedeor.
(Beowulf 2177-2183)

Thus he showed himself brave, the son of Ecgtheow,
a man known in battles, of good deeds,
he acted according to discretion; when drinking he slew
no hearth-companions; his spirit was not violent,
but he of mankind the greatest strength,
a generous gift that God gave him,
held as a warrior.

Beowulf's ability to defeat Grendel is a function of his temperance and self-restraint. He is the only one in the entire company of Geats that accompanied him to the adventure in Denmark who manages to stay sober enough to perceive the entrance of Grendel into Heorot Hall. Bandy notes the 'remarkable wakefulness of Beowulf and further suggests that 'only the warrior who is first defeated by his own weakness can become the prey of Grendel and his evil.' Thus, as a man capable of temperance and self-restraint, Beowulf easily catches the fierce Grendel and holds him by the hand in a wonderful allergorical representation of precisely the manner in which the virtuous man holds in check his own violent passions and appetites. Although fated to succumb to the temptations posed later in the story by the fiery dragon, in the Grendel adventure Beowulf exhibits a degree of self-control and moral virtue which make it possible to see the Geatish hero as a sort of spiritual warrior engaged in a dangerous psychomachia or internal battle from which he emerges victorious as the vanquisher of the monstrous passions and violent tendencies which lurk inside his own heart and the hearts of all human beings. In this manner, Beowulf achieves a moral victory for himself and for the Danes which has to do with the importance in a human society of finding certain individuals of outstanding moral character who can serve as an example to others of the possibility of defeating the monster within. The joy of the Danes at the success of Beowulf in his encounter with Grendel can then be understood as a celebration of the opening of avenues of human character and behavior up till then unknown in Danish society. From this perspective it is then possible—though not entirely accurate—to compare the figure of Beowulf to that of Jesus Christ as a spiritual hero and redeemer of humanity. Such a comparison however should never be allowed to obscure the fact that for all its seeming virtue and goodness, the behavior of Beowulf, as a warrior and mercenary engaged in the pursuit of wealth and fame, remains highly problematic from a Christian point of view and determines the fact that the hero is doomed to tragedy and failure in the ultimate confrontation with the dragon, the symbol of all evil and the strongest of the satanic forces in the universe of Beowulf.

Ward Parks (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5151

SOURCE: "Prey Tell: How Heroes Perceive Monsters in Beowulf," in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 92, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 1-16.

[In the essay that follows, Parks focuses on the ambivalent nature of all three monsters in Beowulf but particularly on that of Grendel, whose shifting status as both animalistic predator and human-like opponent adds to the terror associated with him.]

Since ancient times, the bestiality of man has been a topic of such resonance in the discourse of high culture as to suggest that it strikes upon deep tensions in the human psyche. While certain features of this problematic relationship between the human and infrahuman are fairly stable, in different eras it has been conceived through radically differing paradigms. The Christian ascetic, for example, while acknowledging the bestial within the human soul, castigated it as the source of fleshly temptations that distract the pilgrim in his ascent to God. Seeking a mechanism of relationship on the material rather than the spiritual plane, Charles Darwin shocked the religious sensibilities of his day by postulating that the kinship is genetic and evolutionary, that man is literally descended from the ape. In the last few decades, the rapidly maturing sciences of ethology and sociobiology have vastly enlarged the body of evidence concerning the social behavior of higher life forms and the role of such patterns in an evolutionary process. In this study I would like to bring some of these modern behavioral perspectives to bear on an ancient poet's delvings into the same basic issue. For the ambiguous standing of the Beowulf monsters, and more specifically the liminality of the brood of Grendel, who is neither fully human nor fully bestial, is an essential defining characteristic of the particular challenge to human community that the poet wishes to pose. And Beowulf's response, heavily laden with symbolic gesture, is designed to reconstitute this catastrophe in terms acceptable to the heroic world view.

The fundamental ambivalence that Grendel embodies and that Beowulf must resolve relates to the distinction between predatorial and agonistic aggression. In brief, Grendel wants to ravage like a predator, whereas Beowulf insists on contesting with him like a conspecific adversary (that is, as a member of the same biological species). The association between the poem's horrific imagery and mood—especially in its early movements—and the theme of predation is very clear. Consider the famous passage that immediately precedes the Beowulf-Grendel encounter. The glæca (monster) has just made his way from the dark and misty moors into the great Danish hall of Heorot, finding there a delectable comitatus of savory, sleeping Geats. Seeing no need for delay, Grendel proceeds directly to the feast:

ac hē gef ng hraðe forman siðe
slæpendne rinc, slat unwearnum,
bat banlocan, blōd drum dranc,
synsnædum swealh; sōna hæfde
unlyfigendes eal gefeormod,
f t ond folma.

(but he seized quickly on the first pass a sleeping warrior, he tore him up with ease, bit his body, drank blood in streams, swallowed huge chunks; at once he had devoured the entirety of that lifeless man, feet and hands.) [See Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Fr. Klaeber, 3d ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1950), ll. 740-45. All subsequent textual citations will refer to this edition. Translations are my own.]

Now much of the ghastliness of this passage derives from the fact that Hondscioh—Grendel's victim (l. 2076)—is not just killed but physically eaten; the Beowulf-poet underscores this point through the graphic detail with which he describes the monster's gory meal. This is not a heroic contest between champions but a lion pouncing on a helpless deer. Were it not that we, the human audience, are perennially susceptible to this very concrete, very creaturely terror, the scene would not grip us as it does. The symbolic accomplishment of Beowulf the hero is to reject the role of prey and to establish himself as Grendel's worthy opponent. In the process, he begins to modulate aggressive violence in the poem out of the predatorial pattern of stealthy-attack-and-flight into that of formal, agonistically styled contesting.

Before focusing on the poem in detail, I need to state more fully the differences between the predatorial and agonistic aggressive patterns. The distinction between these aggressive modes in Beowulf can most clearly be seen in terms of three variables: objective, style, and interrelationship of the adversaries in terms of biological species. The objective of predation is obvious enough: hunters stalk their prey in order to make them their food. By contrast, formal agonistic contesting is usually undertaken for the control of some external resource (such as territory or mating prerogatives), or simply for the exhilaration of "winning." And so contest rivals need only to be beaten, not eaten. This difference in aim engenders contrasting combat styles. For predators, ceremonial display addressed toward prospective victims would in most cases be counterproductive; their purposes are better served by a secretive than by a well-advertised approach. Agonistic combatants, on the other hand, attach a great premium to such intangibles as high dominance ranking or "honor and glory" since, within their communities, these abstract gains are often betokened by and translate into concrete benefits. For these reasons they exhibit a penchant for elaborate battle ceremony accompanied by flamboyant threat displays and predictable styles of combat, preferably conducted in public arenas. Finally, the aggressive mode correlates significantly (though not absolutely) with comembership or lack of comembership in a species; that is, predators usually prefer victims from other species whereas agonistically styled duels generally match conspecifics. The converse does not hold true: interspecific aggression is not always predatorial, and violence among fellow-members of a species is frequently unceremonialized, as in the case of a stealthy murder. One might, moreover, cite exceptions, such as cannibalism, or elaborate game strategies in interspecific encounters. In general, nonetheless, predators prefer to hunt creatures over whom they enjoy overwhelming fighting advantages; and this state of affairs is best brought about interspecifically. By contrast, the ceremonialization of combat flourishes best amid symmetrical, thus intraspecific, opposition.

There are, of course, other types of aggression besides the predatory and agonistic. Indeed, the integrity of "aggression" as a scientific category has from time to time been questioned; and the accent of much recent research has fallen on its physiological determinants. Yet behavioral differentia cannot be disregarded, particularly in literary study where the subjects of investigation are, in a biological sense, nonexistent; and in the behavioral terrain that "aggression" seems conventionally to designate, the distinction between high-display agonia and low-display predation has a real heuristic value. In a recent study Robert O'Connell (1989) has made this point, showing that the alternation between predatory and "intraspecific" (i.e., agonistic) patterns has been a persisting theme in the history of weaponry and its deployment. Even in animal combat, he points out, that weaponry (such as a stag's antlers) biologically engendered for intraspecific combat is both more spectacular and less destructive than the weaponry of predation. Human warfare, he maintains, has witnessed a tension between the impulse toward an intraspecific ceremonialization that limits (though it by no means eliminates) bloodshed and an increasingly impersonal and destructive weapons technology that confers the advantage to those who wage war predatorially, without restraint. O'Connell's book is replete with superb examples, such as the Anglo-American naval establishment's stubborn distrust of the invisible and subversive submarine. Completed before I became aware of O'Connell's work, my own study of verbal dueling in heroic epic (1990) recognized a similar distinction. For the bragging and abuse exchanged between heroes joined in an agonistic encounter is fundamentally akin to threat displays between conspecific mammals, such as the roaring matches with which red deer preface their clashing of antlers. Predatorial encounters do not feature such bilateral symmetrical displays to anything approaching the same degree.

While the Beowulf-poet's artistry draws upon this contrast, of course we must recognize that neither he nor his fictional creations understood it through these same analytic categories. Yet a mouse trapped by a cat, while it may never have read Konrad Lorenz or E. O. Wilson, knows perfectly well that it has a problem; and so do the Danes. Moreover, the sheer gruesomeness of the Danish catastrophe makes it plain where the poet's sympathies lie. Modern readers critical of martial idealism are sometimes disposed to valorize the viewpoints of Grendel and his mother, arguing that their "monstrosity" is no worse than that of their human foes. John Gardner's Grendel plays on something of this sensibility. Yet such most emphatically is not the standpoint of the Beowulf-poet. His outlook is thoroughly homocentric—or, if I may unleash the neologism "anthroscopic," whose syllable - scop-, derived from the Greek verb skopein 'to see' puns with the Anglo-Saxon word for "poet." Such parochialism may be easily derided by persons who have seldom been exposed to physical violence; but when one's survival is in question, decentered and dehumanized viewpoints quickly lose their appeal. Critics who assume an impartial response to the massacre of the Danes have not sufficiently grappled with the imagistic horror of those scenes. In warlike times, or in their recent memory, mythic narratives of atrocities against human community are no joke. Neither the Scandinavians within the action of the poem nor the poet-audience group witnessing it has any sympathy to waste on demonic ravagers whose "lifedays" they, like Beowulf, "reckon beneficial to none of the [human] nations" (ll. 793-94). The only good predator is a dead predator: so say the prey.

The poet's predatorial coloring of the original crisis implicitly imputes nonhumanity to Grendel; and other strokes in his portraiture accentuate this effect. He inhabits an inaccessible, underwater den and stalks the misty moors beyond the margins of human community outreach. Possessed of overpowering strength, he nonetheless prefers not to attack frontally but to 'ensnare' (besyrwan, l. 713) through stealthy nighttime assaults, carrying off in his glōf (l. 2085) what he does not devour at the time. When he enters Heorot he sees not prospective worthy adversaries by whom he might enhance his glory but only the 'expectation of a plentiful meal' ("wistfylle wēn," l. 734). Although it seems he could not "approach the throne" (ll. 168-69), whether God's or Hrothgar's, in all other respects Grendel exhibits disregard if not outright disdain for the symbols and ceremonies of human order, including even the civilities of warfare. Thus he eschews formal challenge and prebattle flyting—not, we must assume, out of fear but mere contempt. Similarly, he will not undertake the postbattle restoration of peace through "wergild" (ll. 154-58), such as one might hope for in intertribal feuding. These implied attitudes on Grendel's part are thoroughly predatorial: why should a cat come to terms with mice? Further—and this is a particularly telling detail—human weaponry is unavailing against him. And in this connection we should recall, as O'Connell points out, that the weaponry as well as the defensive strategy that evolution has designed for intraspecific combat is often useless or unused against predators. Thus the experience of the Danes and Geats echoes that of other prospective prey when they discover that, against Grendel, their swords do not bite (ll. 801-5).

That Grendel and his mother are indeed predators par excellence is underscored in one of the poem's most striking anecdotes. After Grendel's defeat has provoked the counterattack by his mother, Hrothgar sets about describing their lair to Beowulf. To highlight the baneful aura surrounding Grendel's Mere which the Geat will soon have to brave, Hrothgar introduces an explicitly predatorial figure (ll. 1368-72):

Ðēah þe hæðstapa hundum geswenced,
heorot hornum trum holtwudu sēce,
feorran geflymed, ær hē feorh seleð,
aldor on ōfre, ær hē in wille,
hafelan [beorgan]; nis þæt hēoru stōw!

(Although the heath-stalker hard-pressed by hounds, the strong-horned hart should seek the forest, put to flight from afar, sooner will he give up his life on the bank than go in to save his neck [lit.: head]; that is not a nice place!)

This passage works through an implied comparison of degree whose constant term is predatorially inspired terror. The hart is more frightened by the mere possibility of the death lurking beneath the waves than by its certitude at the teeth of the pursuing hounds. By so much, then, does the horror of Grendel's clan exceed that of other killers. Further, since Hrothgar's obvious intention is to give Beowulf a frank warning about the risks he is asking him to run, his anecdote implies comparison between the fate of the stag and that of any man who assails Grendel's abode. This association is strengthened by the fact that one of the terms in this passage for the hart, heorot (l. 1369), serves also as the name for the Danish hall. That men can be food for monsters Hrothgar knows all too well—no one better. Thus when the moment arises for him to summon his greatest descriptive powers to the imaginative construction of terror, it is a predatorial figure that he calls upon.

Yet while Grendel's man-eating habits dehumanize him, in other respects he is much akin to his human victims. This kinship has indeed a literal aspect. For on two parallel occasions, immediately prior to the first attacks of Grendel and his mother, the poet inserts ring-framed meditations (ll. 99-114 and 1255-78) on the lineage of these monsters that traces back to Cain, the original fratricide and child of the original human parents. Of course, the fact that eotenas, ylfe, orcnêas, and gīgantas are also descended from Cain (ll. 112-13) mitigates the force of this genealogical association between monsters and men as evidence of cohumanity. Nonetheless, the hostilities between these races are described in the language of feuding (fæhðe, l. 109) and resonate against an all-too-human background of intertribal warfare. Moreover, Hrothgar specifically reports that the two mearcstapan ('border-walkers,' l. 1348) bear human likeness: the mother has 'the likeness of a woman' ("idese onlīcnes," l. 1351) while her son is in 'the form of a man' ("weres wæstmum," l. 1352). It is true, however, that he is 'larger than any other man' ("mara bonne ænig man ōðer," l. 1353), so much so that four of Beowulf's retainers are required to carry just his head (ll. 1634-39). This size difference seems to imply the extreme unlikelihood of interbreeding between Grendel's kin and Hrothgar's; and in this connection we should recall that the ability of male and female to procreate is one of the marks of comembership in a species. Then again, Grendel and his mother exhibit human life habits and may have mastered certain human arts. Like humans, they occupy a hall (albeit an underwater hall) whose approach is guarded by a comitatus of sorts, if one wishes to view the nicors in this way; on the other hand, the exile imagery marking the comings and goings of the Danes' marginalized foes colors them with a contrary yet equally humanizing stroke. Moreover, even though Grendel does not seem to know the mastery of such 'good things' ("gōda," l. 681) as swords, his mother can put a dagger ("seax," l. 1545) to use, and they own a sword heirloom whose hilt records runically a piece of family history (ll. 1677-98), if we can assume that giants whom the flood killed are Grendel's distant relations. Taylor has gone so far as to argue that Grendel knows speech and writing, although he never displays these skills in the poem. Further lexical corroboration for Grendel's intermittent humanity can be found in Tripp's comprehensive table of terms for him and his kin, which indexes a mixture of associations human, monstrous, and diabolical. My point, in sum, is that Grendel is irreducibly ambiguous with respect to the human-nonhuman dichotomy; and this very liminality is essential to the poet's designs. Because Grendel devours Danes like so many rabbits, he casts the survivors into an insufferable role. Yet because he exhibits so many human traits, he is susceptible to the radicalizing agonistic challenge of the hero. Thus the poetic narrator and the hero collaborate in his transformation. To try to fix him and his mother into one category of the other would be to deny one of the poem's most essential acts.

I would like to emphasize that the distinction this essay is exploring, while of real bearing at certain points in the poem, is nonetheless of limited importance; in no way does it constitute the controlling theme around which all other elements in the poem are organized. Grendel's nature has dimensions that the distinction cannot elucidate. For example, Norse analogues (such as Grettir's Saga) suggest his literary affiliation with the draugr and other supernatural miscreants of legend and saga. While these literary traditions may themselves feed occasionally on the interplay between predator and agonistic rival, they have a full life of their own these terms cannot explain away. Moreover, as Tripp's table details in full, Grendel is at times characterized as an infernal creature—a 'fiend in hell' ("fēond on helle," l. 101), 'hell's captive' ("helle hæfton," l. 788), an 'alien spirit' ("ellorgast / ellorgaest," ll. 807, 1617, 1621), a companion of 'devils' (l. 756), indeed, a devil himself, if we accept that the reference of "d ofla" in line 1680 includes him. Russom has gone so far as to argue that Grendel lives in hell quite literally. His diabolical pedigree is reinforced by the repeated allusions to the feud between God and Cain's progeny. This world of Christian mythological reference and resonance implicates far more than just the interrelations between the human and infrahuman; indeed, Grendel's ambiguous predatoriality is less essential to his representation than these other associations are. Yet there is no need to unravel and rank these threads in his nature. Other illustrious monsters—such as Homer's Polyphemos or the cultured yet man-eating rakshasas of the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana—show similar blends of traits predatorial, human, and superhuman or supernatural. Each of these imparts to the resulting monstrous personality its own distinctive coloring, and none is reducible to another.

The ambiguity in Grendel's representation is exploited by Beowulf, who refuses to accept the premise of inequality that the predator-prey relationship presupposes but insists instead on conducting his anti-monstrous campaign in the high style, as between conspecific adversaries. It is true that most of his ceremonial display is directed toward his human cohorts, not the monsters; yet Grendel himself must bear much of the blame for this, since his reliance on surprise attack does not allow for dialogue. Nonetheless, the Grendel affair lies at the heart of Beowulf's intertribal dealings, which are notable for their altruistic motives and honorable course. Nowhere is this more evident than in his initial generous offer to risk his life for the benefit of a foreign people. To be sure, he has a family debt to repay, incurred when his father Ecgtheow was bailed out by Hrothgar during a difficult feud with the Wylfings (ll. 457-72); yet in the subsequent Danish crisis Beowulf presents himself without being asked and renders services that far exceed his obligations. Further, he binds himself to the Grendel venture with formal, unilateral pledges, first in his dialogue with the Danish coast guard (ll. 237-300), and later with Hrothgar himself (ll. 407-90). The culminating stage in this process arrives in his flyting with Unferth, where the Geat's heroic credentials are called up for inspection and wagered as the stake for victory or loss. This heroic flyting is an instance of a widely diffused contest genre whose defining characteristic is an oral contract binding one or both of the flyters to a martial test by which the quarrel will be adjudicated. In this case Beowulf and Unferth are the contestants, the right to claim heroic superiority is the prize, and Beowulf's fortunes against Grendel will measure their rival claims. The interesting point is that, since Grendel is unavailable for challenges and cannot be flyted with, his projected fight with Beowulf has now been woven into the structure of a larger intraspecific (man-against-man) contest that adumbrates a heroic ethos and conforms to a code of honor. Thus Beowulf's campaign against Grendel has been invested through his association with agonistic rather than antipredatorial overtones.

Since Grendel has been so thoroughly alienated from the homocentric (or anthroscopic) sensibilities of the poem, Beowulf's expedient of redirecting ceremonial display from monsters to men provides an acceptable substitute in bringing about the symbolic transformation that he desires. After all, the human community is trying to convince itself that it can combat with Grendel agonistically; Grendel's opinion on the likelihood of their success in such a project is thoroughly unwanted. Nonetheless, in his final boast at bedtime (ll. 677-87), Beowulf makes him the immediate beneficiary of a sincere and courageous heroic gesture. Ignorant of the charm by which, evidently, Grendel has rendered himself invulnerable to sword-blows (ll. 804-5), Beowulf renounces the use of weaponry on the grounds that Grendel, despite his great strength, is unversed in these arts. For the Geat does not consider himself inferior to his rival in war-strength (ll. 677-78) and wants to establish this in a fight where both enjoy the same advantages and limitations. God will assign glory as seems right to Him (ll. 685-87); and by this allusion to external witnessing (the third-stander) and supernal judgment Beowulf is calling upon one of the basic principles of the formal contest. In all of this Beowulf is distancing himself from the ruthless pragmatism typifying the self-protective stratagems of prey confronted with the overwhelming superior force of predators. To the contrary, he wants a fair fight between matched warriors; and as O'Connell points out repeatedly, the intraspecific fighting mode features symmetrical weaponry. Of course, all of this heroic idealism is quite lost on Grendel, one might say, since the brief moment of their encounter leaves Cain's man-eating descendant with no time to reflect on his opponent's gallantries. Yet again, this is quite beside the point. For the heroic service which Beowulf means to perform is for the benefit of the human community to whom he broadcasts these noble sentiments, not for his monstrous fëond.

Many readers have noted the lack of dramatic tension in the actual Beowulf-Grendel fight. For the moment that Grendel recognizes the quality of his foe, he becomes "hinfûs" (l. 755), 'eager to escape' to his 'hiding place' ("heolster," 1. 755) in the fens. Yet the poet tells us explicitly that his strength is greater than his mother's (ll. 1282-87). Why, then does the aglæca perform so poorly in this his death-struggle? Of course, he does not enjoy the home-court advantage that his mother does when Beowulf encounters her in her lair. Yet the more basic reason is that he has not come prepared to contest with a heroic equal; his reaction typifies that of a predator suddenly meeting up against more than he has reckoned on. Despite the bench-bashing and wall-shaking, his fight with Beowulf never emerges into the full status of an agonistic contest.

Such is not the case with Grendel's mother, who has been alerted by her son's misfortune to the presence of an adversary who cannot be dispatched with the ease that his predecessors were. Nonetheless, in keeping with the habits of her clan, she too introduces herself to the Danes predatorially. Waiting until the revellers have gone to sleep, she sneaks into Heorot, snatches Æschere, and escapes into the darkness; and that she has made a good meal of the worthy thane is to be inferred from one of the most ghastly images of predatory violence in the poem in the Danes' discovery of his head on the cliff beside her mere (ll. 1417-21). All the same, while her behavior is predatory, her motives are not. The poet tells us specifically that she made her woeful journey "sunu dāoð wrecan" 'to avenge the death of her son' (l. 1278); and in his speech to Beowulf the next morning Hrothgar characterizes her assault as an act of vengeance within a feud (11. 1330-45), not a food-foraging expedition. Moreover, Beowulf's encounter with her proceeds much as a battle of champions. His approach is proclaimed as a kind of challenge by the blowing of a horn (11. 1423-24) and the shooting of a nicor (ll. 1432-36); and before plunging into the waters he arms himself in the formal heroic manner (ll. 1442-54) and engages in a decorous exchange with Hrothgar and his former rival and new friend, Unferth (ll. 1455-91). Thus a predatorially styled initiative has been countered by a ceremonious, agonistic response; and in the fight that follows, it is Beowulf's policy that prevails. For this epic struggle is conducted not as a predatorial massacre but as a single combat on fairly equal terms. Both tear at each other by hand; each deals the other an unsuccessful stroke with a blade. And here a further symmetry emerges: for the inability of Hrunting (Unferth's sword-gift) to injure her (ll. 1519-28), which recalls Grendel's invulnerability against sword-blows (ll. 801-5), is paralleled by the success of Beowulf's corselet in turning aside her dagger-thrust (ll. 1545-54). In the end Beowulf slaughters her with her own sword. With this act, and with the retrieval of Grendel's head as a display and token of his victory, Beowulf has finally and decisively cast off the image of predatory victim with which the human community has been straddled from the outset of the poem. And in the process he has vindicated agonistic heroism as a means of dealing with such problems.

Readers have often noted that the dragon in Beowulf is quite dissimilar from his monstrous foregoers, and this observation certainly holds regarding the issue under study here. In fact, the dragon is neither so predatorial nor so human as Grendel is. True, he destroys Geatland with ruthless violence and evident contempt for the opposition. Yet he never actually eats anyone, at least that we hear of; and even if one wishes to argue that the poet simply omitted to mention this detail, the omission is itself significant. Gone from this portion of the poem are gory images of a monster tearing limbs from a helpless man, slurping blood, and gulping hunks of flesh. The terror, though no less real, is less corporeal. Yet while he is not a predator, the dragon does not project the image of a champion or conspecific adversary either. He does fit into certain human stereotypes—that of the guardian (weard and hyrde), the hall-dweller, the miserly and vengeful king. Yet he lacks a comitatus, does not appear to enjoy active membership in a tribe or clan, and boasts no genealogy. Further, he is serpentine, and thus conspicuously nonanthropomorphic, in physical appearance. This is a monster truly alien to human kind. The contrast between predator and conspecific adversary simply does not comprehend him. And since he does not inhabit the margins between these categories, he cannot be transformed through the same process.

Beowulf's response to his challenge nonetheless incorporates many agonistic movements; the Geat's heroism is indeed founded on agonistic paradigms to such a degree that he cannot eschew them entirely. Thus he prefaces his assault with formal boasts before his retainers and apologizers for the necessity of armor (ll. 2510-37); soon after, he broadcasts his arrival at the dragon's barrow with a shout of challenge (ll. 2550-53), not unlike flyting, that succeeds indeed in arousing the ire of the wyrm. Yet his realistic recognition of the need for sword and shield and byrnie, in view of the anticipated battle-fire and poison (ll. 2522-24), shows that certain agonistic proprieties have had to cede place to expediency. The dragon's menace is simply too overwhelming to permit overscrupulousness regarding the niceties of formal dueling. The battle that follows, while certainly a supreme contest in a sense, is characterized more by an asymmetrical parity than by a genuine matching up according to a single system of rules. Fire clashes against shield, fang against corselet, sword against bone, advance by foot against an uncoiling and slithering: Beowulf and the dragon do not share a single common term in weaponry or styles of attack and defense. Finally and perhaps most tellingly, Beowulf cannot, despite his boast, defeat his opponent single-handed; the dragon dies only when Beowulf and Wiglaf team up. In short Beowulf, despite his heroic preferences, has had to yield to necessity. The dragon simply must be killed, whatever the means; and while the spirit of agonistic adventurism has not been quenched altogether, cooperation between fellow warriors has emerged into greater prominence.

Thus agonistic heroism no longer stands in antithesis to predation. This dichotomy, so crucial to the Grendel sequence, has faded entirely out of view. At the same time I would like to suggest that the vacuum created by the disappearance of this concern is filled by another newly emerging problem that exhibits a certain metaphoric likeness on the level of human community to the threat that predation posed on the level of individual corporeal existence. From its outset the story has been played out against a background of intertribal friendships and feuds. In the last thousand lines, however, the frequency and duration of these digressions increases markedly. To my reading, some of the most horrific imagery unfolds in these passages, as when the terrible Swedish king Ongentheow drives the wound-weary Geats into Ravenswood and serenades them the night long with threats to hack them open with swords and leave them swinging from gallows-trees for the sport of birds (ll. 2936-42). What the Geatish messenger who recollects this episode from tribal history wishes to convey is that, with the dissemination of the bad news of Beowulf's death and the cowardice of his retainers, bloody assaults like this are only what the Geats have to expect. In a figurative sense, then, the Swedes and other enemies are threatening to dismember the Geatish nation and "consume its substance," as it were. We would be wise not to press this analogy too far. No one ever implies that the Swedes or Franks practice cannibalism or genocide; nor can we gloss over the distinction between the graphically concrete violence of Dane-gobbling and the more abstract violence in the "rending of a community." The former inspires terror of a stark, bodily variety, the latter, a somewhat intangible mood of oppression and sense of impending doom. Nonetheless, the relationship between the devouring of persons and of tribes is sufficient to ensure that the disappearance of corporeal predation from the poem's surface texture does not cause a loss of momentum and let-down in dramatic power.

The burden of this argument is not to promote the positivistic reduction of Beowulf into some kind of Darwinian allegory. The poem stands as a mighty expression of the human spirit; and its sweep and majesty are in no sense curtailed by its willingness to engage terrors of the most creaturely sort. Indeed, these fears occasion much of the supreme heroism in the poem and thus make possible the vindication of human courage in the face of a hostile world.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972

Baker, Peter S. "Beowulf the Orator." Journal of English Linguistics 21, No. 1 (April 1988): 3-23.

Focuses on Beowulf's speeches to prove that Anglo-Saxon poets and their audiences admired flowery and highly ornamented language.

Bandy, Stephen C. "Beowulf: The Defense of Heorot." Neophilologus LVI, No. 1 (January 1972): 86-92.

Argues that because the Danes are caught sleeping when Grendel attacks they are a symbol of their own moral blindness.

Barnes, Daniel R. "Folktale Morphology and the Structure of Beowulf" Speculum XLV, No. 3 (July 1970): 416-34.

Applies classic folktale structure to the poem Beowulf to prove that it owes its origin to early folktales.

Baum, Paull F. "The Beowulf Poet." Philological Quarterly XXXIX, No. 4 (October 1960): 389-99.

Examines critical reactions to the difficult language and two-part structure of Beowulf while speculating on the nature and intentions of its unknown author.

Benson, Larry D. "The Originality of Beowulf." In The Interpretation of Narrative: Theory and Practice, edited by Morton W. Bloomfield, pp. 1-43. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Contends that the unknown Beowulf 'poet did not rely heavily or mechanically on earlier sources and is instead a more original author than most critics suggest.

Bjork, Robert E. "Speech as Gift in Beowulf." Speculum 69, No. 4 (October 1994): 993-1022.

Compares speech-making to gift-giving in Beowulf arguing that each custom is crucial to the health of Danish as well as Geatish society but that both customs ultimately fail.

Brennan, Malcolm M. "Hrothgar's Government." Journal of English and Germanic Philology LXXXIV, No. 1 (January 1985): 3-15.

Analyzes the levels of government at work in the poem and how the Geatish Beowulf is processed through the Danish bureaucracy.

Brodeur, Arthur Gilchrist. The Art of 'Beowulf.' Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959, 283 p.

A book-length discussion of the poem's diction, setting, action, structure, and style, including an examination of its Christian and pagan elements.

de Looze, Laurence N. "Frame Narratives and Fictionalization: Beowulf as Narrator." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 26, No. 2 (Summer 1984): 145-56.

Focuses on the "Father's Lament" (told by Beowulf shortly before he battles the dragon) as the only so-called fictional tale in the poem.

Earl, James W. "Apocalypticism and Mourning in Beowulf." Thought LVII, No. 226 (September 1982): 362-70.

Approaches Beowulf as an "act of cultural mourning" that uses the religious myth of the apocalypse to bid farewell to the pagan heroic world and to replace it with Christian culture.

Florey, Kenneth. "Grendel, Evil, 'Allegory,' and Dramatic Development in Beowulf." Essays in Arts and Sciences XVII (May 1988): 83-95.

Examines those aspects of the poem's first half which encourage us to interpret the characters at more than face value, so that Grendel stands for "Evil" and Beowulf stands for "Good."

Frank, Roberta. "The Beowulf Poet's Sense of History." In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, edited by Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel, pp. 53-65. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982.

Maintains that the Beowulf poet shows an understanding of history by giving a consistent, complex depiction of Scandinavian society circa A. D. 500.

Fry, Donald K., ed. The 'Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, 177 p.

Presents eleven essays by well-known critics on a variety of topics concerning Beowulf including diction, point of view, and audience.

Greenfield, Stanley B. "Beowulf and Epic Tragedy." Comparative Literature XIV, No. 1 (Winter 1962): 91-105.

Discusses the differences between epic tragedy and dramatic tragedy, and explains how Beowulf qualifies as an epic tragedy.

——. "A Touch of the Monstrous in the Hero, or Beowulf Re-Marvellized." English Studies 63, No. 4 (August 1982): 294-300.

Argues that there is proof in the poem that Beowulf should be regarded as superhuman.

Halverson, John. "Beowulf and the Pitfalls of Piety." University of Toronto Quarterly XXXV, No. 3 (April 1966): 260-78.

Pursues the debate as to whether or not Beowulf is a Christian or pagan poem, pointing out that the god presented in the poem is "not uniquely Christian."

Hansen, Elaine Turtle. "Hrothgar's 'Sermon' in Beowulf as Parental Wisdom." Anglo-Saxon England 10 (1982): 53-67.

Argues that Hrothgar's speech, given after Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother, represents fatherly advice that would be considered appropriate by the Beowulf Poet's audience.

Harris, Anne Leslie. "Hands, Helms, and Heroes: The Role of Proper Names in Beowulf." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen LXXXIII, No. 4 (1982): 414-21.

Suggests that the Beowulf poet used word play to develop some of the poem's themes.

——. "The Vatic Mode in Beowulf." Neophilologus LXXIV, No. 4 (October 1990): 591-600.

Identifies and discusses the different types of prophecy at work in the poem.

Harris, Joseph. "Beowulf's Last Words." Speculum 67, No. 1 (January 1992): 1-32.

Analyzes the structure and impact of Beowulf's dying speech after his battle with the dragon in the final part of the poem and compares it to last words in other epics.

Helder, William. "The Song of Creation in Beowulf and the Interpretation of Heorot." English Studies in Canada XIII, No. 3 (September 1987): 243-55.

Argues that we are meant to see the building of the Hall of Heorot as symbolic of human goodness rather than of human pride.

Hill, John M. "Beowulf, Value, and the Frame of Time." Modern Language Quarterly 40, No. 1 (March 1979): 3-16.

Refutes the argument that as a Christian, the Beowulf poet distances himself from the pagan world of his hero.

Huffines, Marion Lois. "OE aglaeca: Magic and Moral Decline of Monsters and Men." Semasia 1 (1974): 71-81.

Speculates on why the Old English word aglaeca, the meaning of which involves both terror and magical powers, is applied to men as well as monsters in Beowulf.

Irving, Edward B., Jr. "The Nature of Christianity in Beowulf." Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984): 7-21.

Disagrees with the view that the close of the poem amounts to a Christian condemnation of Beowulf's life as a pagan.

——. "What to Do with Old Kings." In Comparative Research on Oral Traditions: A Memorial for Milman Parry, edited by John Miles Foley, pp. 259-68. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1987.

Looks at the manner in which old age is treated in Beowulf.

——. Rereading 'Beowulf' Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989, 183 p.

Examines the characterization, style, plot, and symbolism of Beowulf while emphasizing the oral nature of the poem.

Kahrl, Stanley J. "Feuds in Beowulf: A Tragic Necessity?" Modern Philology 69, No. 3 (February 1972): 189-98.

Traces the Old English word "feud" as it occurs repeatedly in the poem and discusses its thematic importance.

Kinney, Clare. "The Needs of the Moment: Poetic Foregrounding as a Narrative Device in Beowulf." Studies in Philology LXXXII, No. 3 (Summer 1985): 295-314.

Analyzes the effects resulting from the poem's shifts among past, present, and future, as well as between different points of view.

Lawrence, William Witherle. 'Beowulf and the Epic Tradition. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1963, 349 p.

With a view toward a general audience, Lawrence discusses the subject matter and story-telling traditions which the Beowulf poet relied on to compose this heroic tale.

Leyerle, John. "Beowulf the Hero and the King." Medium Aevum XXXIV, No. 2 (1965): 89-102.

Explains the "interlace" pattern organizing Beowulf into a coherent whole, and follows that pattern to the poem's contradictory major theme.

McNamee, M. B. "Beowulf—An Allegory of Salvation?" Journal of English and Germanic Philology LIX (1960): 190-207.

Presents the poem as a Christian allegory, with the hero Beowulf functioning as a Christ-like figure.

Moorman, Charles. "Suspense and Foreknowledge in Beowulf." College English 15, No. 7 (April 1954): 379-83.

Argues that while the outcome of each of Beowulf's battles is foreshadowed, the Beowulf poet's inventive presentation of these fights ensures that no excitement is lost.

Nagler, Michael N. "Beowulf in the Context of Myth." In Old English Literature in Context, edited by John D. Niles, pp. 143-56. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.

Asserts that Beowulf is mythic because it deals with universal mythological themes.

Niles, John D. 'Beowulf': The Poem and Its Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983, 310 p.

Looks at Beowulf as a product of an oral tradition which catered to an aristocratic, Anglo-Saxon audience.

Nist, John. "Beowulf and the Classical Epics." College English 24, No. 4 (January 1963): 257-62.

Compares Beowulf with the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid and concludes that the Beowulf poet was unfamiliar with the classical epics.

Oetgen, Jerome. "Order and Chaos in the World of Beowulf." The American Benedictine Review 29, No. 2 (June 1978): 134-52.

Asserts that the poem's structure, plot, and images reflect a concern with order and chaos as well as the belief that chaos will prevail on earth but not in heaven.

Overing, Gillian R. Language, Sign, and Gender in 'Beowulf ' Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, 137 p.

Takes a theoretical and feminist approach to Beowulf, with a look at women's roles as "peace-weavers" or resolvers of feuds via marriage.

Pearce, T. M. "Beowulf's Moment of Decision in Heorot." Tennessee Studies in Literature XI (1966): 169-76.

Contends that Beowulf makes an accepted, tactical decision to sacrifice his man, Hondscioh, in order to take Grendel by surprise.

Pearsall, Derek. "Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Tradition." In his Old English and Middle English Poetry, pp. 1-24. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1977.

Discusses the poem's history—its background, style, and possible date, and discounts the theory that it was composed orally.

Puhvel, Martin. "Beowulf" and Celtic Tradition. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1979, 142 p.

Compares the poem to Celtic folktales and proposes the theory that the Beowulf poet might have been influenced by Celtic literary traditions.

Renoir, Alain. "Point of View and Design for Terror in Beowulf." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen LXIII (1962): 154-67.

Asserts that the Beowulf poet skillfully used different points ofview to make the poem visually exciting for listeners.

——. "Oral-Formulaic Context in Beowulf: The Hero on the Beach and the Grendel Episode." In his A Key to Old Poems: The Oral-Formulaic Approach to the Interpretation of West-Germanic Verse, pp. 107-32. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.

Studies examples from the poem to support the suggestion that Beowulf ' was created by someone well-versed in oral composition.

Robinson, Fred C. 'Beowulf' and the Appositive Style. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985, 106 p.

Examines the stylistic and thematic ways in which the Beowulf poet conceives of "pagan heroic life" through a Christian point of view.

Short, Douglas D. "Beowulf and Modern Critical Tradition." In A Fair Day in the Affections: Literary Essays in Honor of Robert B. White, Jr., edited by Jack D. Durant and M. Thomas Hester, pp. 1-23. Raleigh, N. C: The Winston Press, 1980.

Presents an overview of modern editions of Beowulf and critical writings on the poem beginning with the late 1920s.

Smithers, G. V. "Destiny and the Heroic Warrior in Beowulf" In Philological Essays: Studies in Old and Middle English Language and Literature in Honour of Herbert Dean Meritt, edited by James L. Rosier, pp. 65-81. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.

Acknowledging the existence of Christian elements in Beowulf, the essay looks at the poem's secular and pagan aspects which function as "submerged layers of meaning."

Tarzia, Wade. "The Hoarding Ritual in Germanic Epic Tradition." Journal of Folklore Research 26, No. 2 (May-August 1989): 99-121.

Compares archaeological finds with the treasure hoards mentioned in Beowulf to draw conclusions about Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Tolkien, J. R. R. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Proceedings of the British Academy XXII (1936): 245-95.

Argues that critics have been treating Beowulf as a historical document instead of focusing on its merits as a poem.

Wentersdorf, Karl P. "Beowulf: The Paganism of Hrothgar's Danes." Studies in Philology LXXVIII, No. 5 (Early Winter 1981): 91-119.

Attempts to reconcile the pagan and Christian references in Beowulf

Whallon, William. "The Christianity of Beowulf" Modern Philology LX, No. 2 (November 1962): 81-94.

Argues that the Beowulf poet's rudimentary Christian beliefs serve mainly to unify what is principally a set of pagan tales of heroes and monsters.

Williams, David. Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982, 119 p.

Focuses on the biblical story of Cain as legendary rather than theological in its use by the Beowulf poet.

Woolf, Henry Bosley. "On the Characterization of Beowulf." ELH 15, No. 2 (June 1948): 85-92.

Examines the ways in which the poet successfully delineates Beowulf as heroic.

Additional coverage of Beowulf is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 1.

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