Published on February 15, 2008
BEOWULF: OF MEN AND MONSTERS: BEOWULF: OF MEN AND MONSTERS Feraco Search for Human Potential 30 November 2007 Noteworthy Features of the Poem’s First Half: Noteworthy Features of the Poem’s First Half The first portion of “Beowulf” is largely triumphant The flush of heroic youth Only one setback (Hrunting’s failure) Sadness in the stories (King Hrothgar’s storyteller) Hints that darkness will be coming Rogues’ Gallery: Rogues’ Gallery Ecgtheow – Father of Beowulf, husband to King Hygelac’s sister Killed Heatholaf years ago, starting a fued Fued was ended by a young King Hrothgar, who paid the “death-price” for Heatholaf Hygelac – The King of the Geats He will die wearing the torque Wealhtheow hands to Beowulf I was wrong – Beowulf will succeed him as king! No idea why I thought Beowulf succeeded Hrothgar…the movie must be working its way into my brain! The Danes’ Family Tree: The Danes’ Family Tree Shield Sheafson – The Danish king whose funeral marks the opening of the poem Beow – Shield’s son who follows in his footsteps as king Halfdane – Beow’s son; continues the family line of kings, and sires Heorogar and Hrothgar Heorogar is actually king of the Danes before Hrothgar; the latter takes the throne after his brother’s death Legend and Song: Legend and Song Sigemund – A dragon-slayer, Fitela’s nephew, and the subject of the royal storyteller’s song He wins the dragon’s treasure-hoard after defeating the monster Ironically, the scop is singing about Sigemund in order to honor Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel In actuality, the Sigemund tale foreshadows Beowulf’s battle with the dragon near the end of the poem – yet another example of Beowulf’s parallel structure Legend and Song, Part II: Legend and Song, Part II Heremod – An old king of the Danes Betrayed by his own men and forced into exile Although Heremod is mentioned in order to contrast him with the noble Beowulf, the scop (once again) foreshadows the young hero’s eventual fate Those of you who have finished already understand this; those of you who haven’t will soon enough! Second Performance: Second Performance Finn – The Frisian King mentioned by the scop during the second tale He reaches a truce with the Danes during their war, and keeps the peace with the survivors He allows the Danes to burn their dead on the funeral pyre, although he does keep the Danes from returning to their homes This decision eventually dooms him, as the Danes cannot tolerate exile Homesick and resentful, the Danes betray and murder him before stealing his queen Second Performance, Part II: Second Performance, Part II Hengest – The Dane who assumes command after King Hnaef is lost in the battle with the Frisians Hildeburh – A Danish princess who married Finn Carried away by the Danes after her husband’s slaughter “Modern” Figures: “Modern” Figures Beowulf – Not much left to be said about him He’s a Geat, and Ecgtheow’s son One of Hygelac’s thanes He will eventually assume the throne in Geatland Hrothgar – The king of the Danes, he builds Heorot Hall “Modern” Figures, Part II: “Modern” Figures, Part II Wealhtheow – Hrothgar’s beautiful and regal queen Wulfgar – One of Hrothgar’s retainers, he introduces Beowulf upon his arrival Aeschere – Hrothgar’s best friend amongst the retainers Carried off and killed by Grendma Villains and Knaves: Villains and Knaves Unferth – Another one of Hrothgar’s men; he envies Beowulf because he craves the same type of praise Unferth is intelligent, but he is not respected because he killed both of his brothers Grendel – The beast who lurks in the haunted mere A descendant of Cain, and thus cursed by God Grendel’s mother (“Grendma”) – A demon who attacks Heorot after Grendel’s demise Now, for the Main Course: Now, for the Main Course The characters are worth knowing, but there really isn’t much depth or subtlety to most of them Outside of Unfurth’s reversal (he gives Hrunting to Beowulf), most of the characters don’t change at all The themes give Beowulf the bulk of its lasting power A great deal happens at or just beneath the surface of the poem Just Sit Here and Wait for the End of the World: Just Sit Here and Wait for the End of the World Although the first half of the poem is about preservation – after all, Beowulf saves Heorot – the poem as a whole is about the ways in which things end The death of kings in war The funerals that bracket the poem Shield’s death opens the piece, and we barely see him alive! The end of courage, heroism, and loyalty in a darkening age The toll power takes on anyone who holds it The end of Cain’s line I Will Protect Myself: I Will Protect Myself In an interesting parallel, the poem is also about protection and restoration In the wake of Grendel’s attack, Heorot is rebuilt – only to be attacked again when Grendma arrives! Faith provides protection: Beowulf’s arrival in Denmark is treated as a gift from God, and his defense of the hall smacks of salvation It also saves Hrothgar, as Grendel cannot approach the throne; it is protected by God Faith also requires protection – notice how strongly the poet condemns those who burn pagan offerings in an attempt to save Heorot Creaky Tradition: Creaky Tradition One of the ways that “protection” – the maintenance of what we already have – subtly influences the poem is in its treatment of ritual and tradition These are our bulwarks against attacks from the terrifying darkness The ways we treat our dead The ways we treat one another The way we feast collectively The distribution of treasure The way we worship God The way we tell our stories The way we value family heritage The Battle Between Good and Evil: The Battle Between Good and Evil In the first half of the poem, this battle is fairly obvious (and therefore not as compelling) Beowulf = Good Monsters = Bad This theme returns in a more subtle fashion during the second half of the poem, when Hrothgar delivers a speech about the dangers of power and an exhausted Beowulf must defend his homeland against a marauding dragon The Motivation for Evil: The Motivation for Evil It’s worth noting that Grendel initially attacks the hall because he can’t tolerate the sounds of happiness or celebration It’s also worth noting – as I did in the latest blog-post – that Grendma doesn’t attack until Beowulf dismembers her son The motives for killing in the poem vary; some are supposedly “noble” (i.e., Beowulf killing Grendel), and some are decidedly less so (Finn pays for his truce with the Danes with his life) It’s interesting that killing always begets killing for specific reasons – defending tradition, seeking a way home, wreaking havoc in the name of vengeance Some Exceptions: Some Exceptions Ecgtheow’s murder of Heatholaf doesn’t seem to have been motivated by any greater, noble cause However, all things considered, it didn’t work out too badly; if Ecgtheow had never killed the man, Hrothgar wouldn’t have salvaged the situation, and Beowulf may never have sailed to Denmark As it stands, Beowulf goes seeking glory, but also to honor his lineage Family Trees: Family Trees I’ve mentioned lineage earlier, and I want to stress its importance to this poem I mainly want to make the ritualistic nature of honoring one’s heritage clearer Sons are always mentioned in the context of their fathers Family heirlooms are significant – especially considering the value these cultures place on objects and treasures Everything returns to protection and maintenance – continue the line, preserve the kingdom, etc. – by any means necessary (marriage, war, gifts, and so on) Presents!: Presents! Good kings collect treasure in war and tribute from their subjects – then redistribute that wealth instead of hoarding it Not to say the kings bought loyalty, but…they did, in a way These gifts provided individuals with a way to establish concrete ties with others (the torque Wealhtheow presents to Beowulf, for example) That Does It For Today!: That Does It For Today! Enjoy your weekend! Finish the poem so I can talk about the rest of it without dancing around the ending!!!