Thursday, 7 May 2015

Beowulf Read-Along: Starting Week Two

Beowulf Read-Along
Week 2 - May 9 - 16; Lines 710 - 1250


VOCABULARY (for those with the Heaney translation):

hasp: shut or fasten

hoop: clasp or encircle

hirpling: a fast but uneven gait.

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


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

Traits of Grendel

Picking up from the last section, I thought I would label some descriptions for Grendel.  My sympathy for him is non-existent, and and here is why:

".... blood-lust rampant ...."
" .... powerful demon ....."
" ....a fiend out of hell ...."
" ..... grim demon ......"
"...... God-cursed brute ....."
" ..... creating havoc ......."
" ....... greedy and grim ...."
" ...... inflamed from the raid ......"
"....... merciless Grendel ......"
" ...... malignant by nature, he never showed remorse ..."
" ..... hall-watcher's hate ......"
" ......Grendel ruled in defiance of right ......."
" ......vicious raids and ravages of Grendel ...."
" ...... long unrelenting feud ....."
" ..... how he would never parley or make peace nor pay the death-price ......"
" ..... all were endangered: young and old ....."
"....... dark death-shadow ......"
" ..... reavers from hell ......."
"....... inflicting constant cruelties ...... atrocious hurt .... "
(Lines 85-166)

He is evil, a murderer and, not only does he kill the people, he is "inflamed" by killing (and probably by eating his killings). He does not distinguish adults from children but will gladly murder both. He has never shown any remorse for his actions and, in fact, refuses even to speak with the Spear-Danes to make peace, nor will he pay the wergild. I can well imagine the terror the Danes feel towards this vicious creature, as they are powerless to stop his ravages.

I did not understand by my translation that the Danes came into Grendel's territory. In fact, the Danes appear to have been in the area for generations and Grendel's appearance seems relatively recent, but the text is not completely clear.

What bothers Grendel, is the joy that he is hearing: the lovely note of the harp, people singing and laughing and speaking about God. He hates everything that is good and is overcome with the will to destroy it.

Lines 710 - 835

And yet another example of Grendel's evil as he comes to Heorot preparing more murders: " ...... And his glee was demonic, picturing the mayhem ......." The fact that he was excited with joy at the though of killing and dismembering helpless people, makes me shiver. (Lines 730-731)

Okay, this is perhaps the goriest description I remember reading in any book: " ..... struck suddenly and started in; he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench, bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body utterly lifeless, eaten up hand and foot ..." Yuck! (Lines 739-744)

As soon as Grendel knows that he has met someone who is a match for him, he immediately is "desperate to flee" and "hide", which paints him as a coward and a bully, although this word is entirely too weak to describe his demonic character. (Lines 754-763)

From the text, I understood that Beowulf decides to fight Grendel without a sword because of a type of honour; he wants to meet him on equal terms.  Is that what everyone else understands? Now, during the fight, his warriors try to attack Grendel with their swords but, " blade on earth, no blacksmith's art could ever damage their demon opponent. He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge of every weapon ..." "He" appears to mean Grendel, which perhaps indicates that he has access to magic .....??? Of course, by having Beowulf fight the monster with his bare hands, it makes him appear more heroic.  (Lines 790- 807)

Lines 836 - 1061

" ....... Beowulf's doings were praised over and over again. Nowhere, they said, north or south between the two seas or under the tall sky on the broad earth was there anyone better to raise a shield or to rule a kingdom ...."  Beowulf the hero! Of course, this deed would have given him enormous respect and power. (Lines 855-860)

"..... Yet there was no laying of blame on their lord, the noble Hrothgar; he was a good king ..."  Hrothgar really should have tried to kill Grendel himself and, even if he died in the process, at least he would have died with honour. However, by the above lines, we can surmise that even if he had been cowardly, he must have had other good qualities that engendered respect in his warriors and allayed their scorn. The poet makes certain to include this line, so it appears to be important.  Again, this reminds me of King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings ..... and Heorot is very like Meduseld, the Golden Hall in Rohan. (Lines 861-862)

The tale of Sigemund, the dragon-slayer is a comparison between his exploits and those of Beowulf,  but does it also have another function?? (see questions) (Lines 884-914)

Of course, with Beowulf's defeat of Grendel, the first acknowledgement is to the Lord and His favour, but there is someone else who is mentioned ..." ...... But now a man (Beowulf), with the Lord's assistance, has accomplished something none of us could manage before now for all our efforts.  Whoever she was who brought forth this flower of manhood, if she is till alive, that woman can say that in her labour the Lord of Ages bestowed a grace on her ....."  Part of the honour of victory is given to Beowulf's mother, another example of renown and recognition given to a woman. (Lines 938-945)

Beowulf's mighty deed has certainly put Unferth in his place: " ..... There was less tampering and big talk then from Unferth the boaster, less of his blather ......." Perhaps he will now give Beowulf the respect he has certainly earned. (Lines 978-980)

And my favourite line: " ...... Whoever remains for long here in this earthly life will enjoy and endure more than enough ...." It is a wise statement. The author is not fatalistic, like I might have expected, but contrasts "enjoy" and "endure" for a balanced picture of life. (Lines 1060-1061)

Lines 1062 - 1157

This is what I understood from the poem of the battle between the Danes & the Frisians:

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

Lines 1158 - 1250

Here we see what appears to be a somewhat nervous Wealhtheow trying to secure the succession of kingship for her sons:

"......(to Hrothgar) and now the word is that you want to adopt this warrior as a son. So, while you may, bask in your fortune, and then bequeath kingdom and nation to your kith and kin, before your decease. I am certain of Hrothulf (Beowulf). He is noble and will use the young ones well. He will not let you down. Should you die before him, he will treat our children truly and fairly. He will honour, I am sure, our two sons, repay them in kind when he recollects all the good things we gave him once, the favour and respect he found in his childhood ....."

Just the fact that she has to make his speech indicates that she is not sure at all that Beowulf will honour her sons, and while this speech is diplomatic, Beowulf could not fail to miss her point.

I must say, this would be the perfect chance for Beowulf to attack Hrothgar and win treasure, bounty and more renown for himself. Hrothgar is weak and Beowulf is admired (and probably feared) by everyone. It is a perfect opportunity!

The gift of the torque to Beowulf is interwoven with a story of Hygelac's death while wearing his torque. I got the impression that the message here was that, while treasure was good and perhaps even necessary to this culture, it cannot give life and that their fate could certainly be affected by their decisions. Is this a different tone than we have heard previously in this poem? 

" .... Fate swept him away because of his proud need to provoke a feud with the Frisians ..."


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

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

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


  1. Regarding Grendel living in the same area as the Danes, I interpreted it as, yes they had co-existed, and maybe not even known each other, but it was the arrival of Christianity that 'awoke' him. Heorot was built where a lot of people congregated (?) and it was not only the singing, but singing about creation that enraged him so. Which seems kind of weird to me, a mead-hall where they sang something like hymns. Anyway, my take on it.

    1. Yes, Dawn, I think you're right. My Swanton translations says that Grendel was a "notorious prowler of the borderlands", but he didn't appear to have a directed malice until he heard the singing praising God. Perhaps it reminds him of his curse and that he is severed, not only from other people, but God as well ....???

      As for Heorot, I think we may interpret a mead-hall as more like a bar because of the drinking and then it has a negative connotation, but for the Danes, it appears like it was one of the most majestic, unequalled halls around, that was a symbol of Hrothgar's fame and glory. Seen that way, it makes it more likely for them to sing hymn-like songs there. I also picked up the foreshadowing of Heorot being burned to the ground in the future, which I hadn't before ---- so good to have these different translations! :-)

  2. oops - should have said "Heorot was built AND a lot of people congregated there".

  3. I did not register that Grendel was enraged at the "joy" or of the arrival of Christianity. That is thought-provoking. I'm going to have to go back to those passages and re think them. Thanks for the insight.

    1. As I think more about Grendel, he reminds me more and more of Satan in Paradise Lost. His malice almost goes beyond understanding and his hatred of others reflects a hatred of himself. Very chilling.

  4. I think this is one of the occasions where the author's Christian beliefs is misleading the reader. Christianity didn't come to Scandinavia until long after Beowulf's time.

    1. When I first read Beowulf I thought that some of the "Christian" references sounded almost dissonant in this blood-feud society. Yet, when I thought if over, if I tried to imagine a Christian writing it to promote Christianity, it didn't work at all. The only "Christian" references in the poem are Old Testament references. There is no mention of Christ or some of the more important Christian beliefs of being saved and having everlasting life. You'll see later that this blood-feud society is very much present, not only in the poem, but in the poet's voice.

      I'm away at the moment, but if I remember from my notes, the first recorded missionary in Denmark was around 700, but of course, no one knows whether there were unrecorded visits earlier. And here we have a Anglo-Saxon poet writing about events in Scandinavia, so that further complicates matters. Tolkien tries to address some of the guesses and opinions of historicity in his essay, which is interesting but for me just serves to emphasis that we can never really know. So I tend to side with Tolkien in that the poem is a looking back in the time, when there was the first glimmerings of Christian thought in a pagan word. When I look at it that way, I think the poet balances both beautifully.

    2. I also wonder if an existing poem didnt have the religious references added later? It is odd how sometimes the author refers to God, other times to fate.

    3. Yes, there is certainly some speculation out there that it was altered by monks because there are two different copyists. But then I wonder to what purpose? I could only assume to add their faith to an earlier epic. Again, then why is there no reference to Christ or salvation or scripture or anything would be important in their faith? And why would you, as a Christian monk, leave in elements of a cultural identity that you were trying to eradicate? If this was the purpose, it just doesn't make logical sense. But if, as a poet, you were trying to show the slow change that Christianity wrought, it makes more sense, or at least more sense to me.

      But of course, this topic can lead you to myriad of unanswerable questions like: How important is the original? If it had been altered, do the alterations make it less representative of the culture? What am I going to have for dinner tonight? ;-) Heavens, so many questions, so few answers, huh?)

    4. yes, the more I read it, the more questions I have!

  5. We have a couple copies of Beowulf hanging around on our bookshelves including one with the original text and the translation on opposite pages and one version that is a graphic novel. Maybe it's time to read this classic! I am fascinated by the language and Grendel does sound like the wickedest of vile demons.

    1. Yay, Carol! So glad that you're joining in. It should be a pretty quick catch-up.

  6. Eeek, I'm already behind! I'll catch up this week :)

    1. Luckily with this poem, it's not too hard to do. Looking forward to you joining us.

  7. The character of Unferth is interesting to me. What caught my attention is that in the Heaney traslation there are a couple of references to him killing is brothers. With Grendel and his ancestors being "cast out" for Cain's sin of killing Abel, it is interesting to me that Unferth seems to be liked by the other Danes, and part of their clan even though he has killed his brothers. Not only that, but it is mentioned twice (maybe 3 times -I thought there were three referenes, now I cant find the third). I'm not sure what to make of this.

    587 - You killed your own kith and kin
    1166 - under a cloud for killing his brothers

    1. A really good catch, Dawn! I hadn't made the connect fratricide between Cain (and therefore Grendel) and Unferth.

      A question for you ...... what made you think that Unferth was liked by the other Danes? It seems from the poet's description of him that he (the poet), at least, didn't think much of him, and I probably extrapolated that reaction to the Danes too, but I may have missed something. I'm a little surprised too that Unferth wasn't cast out for his crimes. One reader once speculated that Unferth was one of the few remaining warriors left because of his cowardice, and it's a valid observation. With 12 years of Grendel's marauding, there probably were a huge number of warriors killed, yet Unferth remains alive. Hmmmm .......

      I've always thought Unferth's main purpose was as a "lense" or a "window" through which the reader sees Beowulf. Much of what is there in the poem seems to perform this function. In any case, their interactions are certainly important and certainly give us insight into our hero.

    2. Well, the Danes "liking" Unferth is not precise. I should have said, I think he seems to have some position and respect, and have Hrothgar's favor instead.

      Line 1166:

      "And Unferth sat at Hrothgar's feet; everyone trusted him,
      Believed in his courage, although he'd spilled his relative's blood" (Raffel)

      "Unferth the spokesman at the Scylding lord’s feet sat: men had faith in his spirit, his keenness of courage, though kinsmen had found him unsure at the sword-play." (Gummere)

      I did a bit of googling today and checked a couple of commentaries. The first one pointed out that there is another parallel beteen Cain and Unferth and that is envy. Cain killed Abel because he was jealous that God did not like his offering, but he liked Abel's. So even though Beowulf and Unferth were not brothers, he made the conection that Unferth was jealous of Hrothgar's reaction to Beowulf appearing to take care of Grendel.

      The second thing I checked out was a little book that is available for the Kindle called "Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn", by R.W. Chambers. Its quite heavy going, but essentially he flat out calls Unferth "evil". He rejects the claims of others that "killing his brothers" meant that he somehow failed them during a battle, rather than a cold-blooded murder.

      "...stern words of the poet mean only that he had indirectly caused the death of his brethren by failing them, in battle, at some critical moment. I suspect that this, involving cowardice or incompetence, would have been held the more unpardonable offence, and would have resulted in Unferth's disgrace. But a man might well have slain his kin under circumstances which, while leaving a blot on his record, did not necessitate his banishment from good society. All the same, the poet evidently thinks it a weakness on the part of Hrothgar and Hrothulf that, after what has happened, they still put their trust in Unferth. Here then is the situation. The king has a counsellor: that counsellor is evil. Both the king and his nephew trust the evil counsellor. A bitter feud springs up between the king and his nephew. That the feud was due to the machinations of the evil adviser can hardly be doubted by those who have studied the ways of the old Germanic heroic story. But it is only an inference: positive proof we have none." (1)

      Remind you of Wormtongue, Cleo?

      1. Chambers, R. W. (Raymond Wilson) (2011-03-30). Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn (Kindle Locations 686-689). . Kindle Edition.

    3. Here are a couple of more translations for you:

      "... and the forthright Unferth, admired by all for his mind and courage although under a cloud for killing his brothers, reclined near the king ......" (Heaney)

      "There also the spokesman Unferth sat at the feet of the lord of the Scyldings; both of them trusted his spirit, believed he had great courage, although he had not been honourable towards his kinsmen in the play of swords...." (Swanton)

      "There too Unferth, the king's sage, sat at the feet of the Scyldings; lord. Each man among them trusted in his mind's temper, that he had a mighty heart, albeit he had not in the play of swords dealt mercy to his kin ....." (Tolkien - his lines 958-963)

      So what do you make of that? Taken all together Gummere's translation seems the weakest. I almost feel that the Danes admired Unferth for his courage, but were repelled by his dishonourable act; you know, how you can be impressed with someone's aptitude for something while highly disliking their character? But it says that he was a sage or spokesman, so he did have their trust in some way.

      I didn't get the impression that Unferth failed his brothers in battle. At the most I thought they could have been practicing fighting and he got carried away and killed them. But I thought they were fighting each other, not someone else.

      Thinking about Unferth's treatment of Beowulf initially: the envy is obvious, yet Unferth is called a "sage" or "spokesman". I would think such a man would be diplomatic instead of choosing to insult a man who could be their saviour. Such paradoxes in this man!

      Yes, yes! Great pick-up on the parallel with Wormtongue. It's so true!

    4. Thanks for the extra translations!

      OK, I have a theory what this fratricide thing is all about. We will run into it a couple more times (I did some reading ahead today). I think Cleo, you were right about Unferth being a lens for Beowulf, but I didn't see it at the time. I think that there are 2 contrasting themes (at least!!) that have to do with "Courage/Cowardice" and "Faithfulness to your kin and allies/Killing off your kin and allies". Because the poem deals with people in a culture that was forever going to war with each other, the notion of being loyal to your clan/family/allies was very important. Beowulf shows the positive side by coming to help the Danes, Unferth shows the flip side (other extreme) by having killed off his brothers. Likewise, Beowulf has courage to take on Grendel, Unferth does not. As Cleo said he is a lens to Beowulf by being his opposite. The particular instance of fratricide is not important so much, it just echoes the Cain/Abel theme and shows a worst possible case of disloyalty.

    5. Great analytical reading, Dawn to find these parallels. I completely agree. This poem is chock full of this type of device. When I initially read it, I could not understand why the poet would toss in "apparently" unrelated stories of people whom the reader didn't know (Sigmund, Finn, Heremond, etc.) until I realized that the original listeners would know exactly who these people were and that these stories provided very important functions. They allowed people/actions to be contrasted, strongly emphasizing acceptable behaviour vs. unacceptable behaviour. In that manner, they were instructional and, very often, timely reminders. They also serve to highlight to the reader the code of that society.

      I was also thinking (this is good .... really! ;-) ) ....... if you put the pagan blood-feud society in the middle, Grendel seems to fall on one side of it and Beowulf on the other, yet both are still attached to it. Grendel is seeking vengeance for a serving from family perhaps (Cain was separated/severed from God for his deed of murder), yet he will not follow the accepted norms of wergild; there was no possibility of peace with Grendel. Beowulf follows the societal dictates to a certain extent as he is obviously aware of and accepts the importance of fame and glory, and to a certain extent fate. Yet his behaviour can be merciful and temperate and kind, which falls outside of the cultural norm. Again, these are comparisons which allow you to see what is consistent with this society and what is different.

  8. Here's my post for this week:

    1. Thanks, Jean, and thanks for the extra information in your post. It made me think of certain inconsistencies in how Unferth is described and even Beowulf. I'll have to remember to come back to this in the next section and share my thoughts.

  9. I thought Wealhtheow's speech was more of a plea for protection of her son's and their rights! She knows Beowulf is strong and her husband not; she knows that her husband was unable to protect the kingdom and by getting rid of Grendel, Beowulf has pierced the only chink in Hrothgar's armor...she realizes this is the perfect time for Beowulf can seize the throne and end Hrothgar's family, which is why I feel that was more a plea for kindness "He is noble and will use the young ones well. He will not let you down. Should you die before him, he will treat our children truly and fairly "He is noble and will use the young ones well. He will not let you down. Should you die before him, he will treat our children truly and fairly"! Also I agree that there is a Christian element mingling with the Nordic folklore in this poem. But I agree with you that Christianity was still in its nascent stage and therefore we see in this work two parallel and contrasting paradigms - one of Christian world and the other of Nordic tales of demons and war lords!

    1. Yes, well said! I love the careful phrasing of her words: "He is noble and will use the young ones well. He will not let you down ......." etc. That means that if Beowulf does not support her sons, he is not noble and has let Hrothgar down. Very clever, Wealtheow!

      When I first read this poem, I thought the Christian and pagan references were rather awkward, but each additional time I read it, they become clearer to me and seem more well placed. If the Danes or Geats were suddenly all behaving with Christian values only, that would make me suspicious.

      In fact, it just occurred to me that everyone is speaking about Christian values, but they act based on their pagan ones. Everyone except Beowulf, who does show different actions. Hmmm..........