Notes: Beowulf, Monsters and Glory

29 Jul 2020

Grendel sneaks in and kills one man (eating him in the process). When he attempts to kill Beowulf in his sleep, Beowulf puts Grendel in a shoulder lock. Grendel is surprised by this, and tries to escape. Beowulf’s counterattack, hitting at the culminating point (a time when an attack is at its weakest) of Grendel’s attack, shocks Grendel so much that he gives up the initiative. Furnishings in the Hall are wrecked, collateral damage in the retreating Grendel and chasing Beowulf’s fight. The hunter has become the hunted. Grendel is called a hell-serf, outlining his low social status. His violence is the violence of a loser- an ancient equivalent to a school shooter, envious and driven to violence as a last resort for attention. Beowulf tears Grendel’s shoulder and rips the arm off as a trophy, sealing his win and the status that comes from a win of his choosing (recall that he declares -how- he will win before he wins). His boast is made true, making the victory all the more rewarding.

News travels fast, and many local chiefs and warriors (members of the masculine world, checking to ensure Beowulf’s boast is indeed true) arrive to follow Grendel’s trail, and note that he seems to have drowned (struggling with his wounds) in a body of water as he was escaping.

Beowulf is praised far and wide. Notably, Hrothgar does not lose status in this: he is still considered a good King, probably because he reaps the benefit of allowing Beowulf in, and Beowulf knew to give Hrothgar credit, thereby keeping the complex social hierarchy intact.

This feats attracts a singer, known for his songs of Sigmund (a legendary character who defeated a dragon, among other things). His song of Sigmund insinuates that as Sigmund’s status grew, Sigmund’s King’s status fell (since that King was anxious and insecure about his role). This insecurity led to an ambush, which killed the King.

Hrothgar (coming from the woman’s quarters with his wife and all her maidservants) gives Beowulf a grateful speech, and recognizes him as a son. Beowulf suggests that the fight isn’t over yet, and that Grendel is still alive. However, all this praise gives him more strength to face the next leg of the fight. The strong get stronger, and the weak get weaker. Everyone dies in the end.

Everyone parties, and the land seems united. The men exchange weapons and armor as gifts, and the King gifts horses and a luxurious saddle to Beowulf. Beowulf’s men, in turn, receive gifts of gold. Following a competent leader yields reward.

A poem is presented on the fall of Finn, another legendary hero. Finn is killed due to resentment from within his own halls.

Since Hrothgar suggests that he’s adopting Beowulf, Wealhtheow (who no doubt feels threatened by the prospect of having a living legend as a rival for her sons) moves to secure her children’s inheritance (Hrethic and Hrothmund) by reminding her husband of the loyalty of her nephew Hrothulf. She’s insinuating that if Beowulf moves to take the throne on Hrothgar’s death, Hrothulf will be better poised to protect the throne for Hrethic.

Wealhtheow then rewards Beowulf with a torque, and tells him of his high status, beseeching him to take care of her sons. This way, all the angles are covered for them.

The warriors sleep with their kit handy, ready for battle at any time.

Yet, one of the men is killed. It’s Grendel’s mother, here for revenge. She escapes into swamps. As it turns out, Beowulf was not present- he was given another place to sleep. We find that the man who was killed is Aeschere (it’s interesting to note that in the story, action often persists without clear identification of the players until the dust is settled), Hrothgar’s right-hand man.

Hrothgar offers Beowulf more gifts to avenge Aeschere’s death. Beowulf maintains that vengeance (or action) is a better method of mourning for a warrior than mourning, since any status earned in combat will serve to keep the spirit of that warrior alive long after his death. Essentially, Beowulf tells Hrothgar to man up. “Endure your troubles to-day [Not tomorrow, not next week- today]. Bear up and be the man I expect you to be”. This was the pep talk Hrothgar needed, and he is driven to action.

They kill some water-dwelling creatures. Grendel’s mother is said to dwell in the water. Beowulf, not fearing death, puts his kit on. Unferth (who, if you recall, questioned Beowulf’s ability out of his insecurity) gives him the sword Hrunting. Beowulf requests that if he dies, Hrothgar treats him as his son by taking care of his men and Beowulf’s own lord, Hygelac.

He dives in. Unlike with Grendel, he fights Grendel’s mother with all his technological advantage. Yet, it does not help him. It fails, and it looks like all is lost. Yet, Beowulf thinks of his reputation, of how his status might secure his immortality, and this gives him the strength to keep fighting.

He throws his sword aside, and grapples Grendel’s mother on the ground. She pulls out a knife and tries to stab him, but his armor, at least, works.

He finds a bigger sword in Grendel’s mother’s armory, and uses that instead. With this, her own loot, he kills her. He finds Grendel’s body and defiles it in revenge by decapitating it. There’s treasure in her lair, but he only brings back the sword (the blade is melting, but hilt is gold, lavish, and intact) and Grendel’s head as a trophy.

“the wandering fiend let go of her life in this unreliable world”.

His reputation secured, Beowulf gives an account of his fight, followed by a promise of everyone’s safety. He gives Hrothgar the hilt, a sort of restitution taken from the Grendels.

Hrothgar warns Beowulf that when someone is very dominating, they are only dominating insofar as they are following the will of God. When they forget, when they overreach and stop rewarding their men and the people who support them, they fall out of God’s grace. They are deposed, due to their own addictions and fixations.

All strength fades, best not get attached to it.

Hrothgar relates how he thought he would always be the strongest thing around, until, after experiencing victory for fifty years, he gets soft and was attacked by Grendel- laid low for his pride.

Everyone parties, while Beowulf finally lets himself rest deeply.

Beowulf returns the sword Hrunting to Unferth, and does not blame Unferth for the sword’s pallid performance. In fact, he thanks Unferth for its use.

As Beowulf leaves, he invites Hrethic (Hrothgar’s son, the crown prince) to visit Geatland, since travel reveals much about a man to himself.

Hrothgar thanks Beowulf for bringing the Danes and the Geats together in an alliance, even though they’ve had a history of conflict.

In their parting hug, Hrothgar senses two things about the future. One, that they will never meet again. Two remains unnamed, but the poems and songs all hint at some inter-human conflict.