Beowulf ctd.

I am listening to a live transmission of Lohengrin from Bayreuth and there’s a storm raging outside my window as I am writing this post. However, this excerpt is rather peaceful. The order is restored and the first thing you have to do is cleaning up, like in this poem by Wislawa Szymborska. Then they start a feast, Beowulf and his men are presented with a lot of gifts and Hrothgar pays also a compensation for the Geat Grendel ate.

As any handbook of English literature will tell you, one of the most popular devices in OE literature is the litotes, or an ironic understatement. There are many of these throughout Beowulf, e.g. in this segment “It was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts/In front of the hall-troops” (ll. 1025 – 1026). Is it the national English fondness for understatement signalling itself that early?

Beowulf ctd

In the morning, the populace, having noticed the traces of Grendel and smudges of blood the wounded monster left runs to Heorot to see for themselves what happened. The minstrel starts to compose a song in Beowulf’s honour, which starts, somewhat irrelevantly, with a praise of Siegmund (from the Volsunga Saga). The idea is, presumably, Siegmund was the best and so is Beowulf. Hrothgar says, “Ask for anything”. He apparently doesn’t have a daughter or the fairy-tale trope about rewarding the hero with the hand of the princess hasn’t been invented yet. Instead Beowulf got the hand of Grendel. Hargh hargh.

Beowulf ctd.

After the party the warriors go to sleep. A bit foolhardy, if you ask me, taking into account that they know perfectly well the hall is visited nightly by a flesh-eating monster. But they don’t expect to get out of this alive, so why lose any sleep over it? Still, I don’t think I would be able to sleep under the circumstances. That must have been some strong mead/beer. Grendel arrives and is observed by Beowulf, who didn’t fall asleep and now is waiting for him to make his first move. His first move is to eat a guy who was closest, then moves over to Beowulf and is for a nasty surprised when Beowulf atttacks him. They fight so hard that they almost wreck Heorot to pieces, finally Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm and the monster skulks off to die.

A few points here. First of all the author (and he is almost certainly a clergyman, since in these times they were about the only literate people) does his best to make all his characters Christian, perhaps retroactively. There is a lot of talk about God and how Beowulf wins not only thanks to his supernatural strength, but also because it was God’s will. Now, I don’t think it was just the matter of the author/scribe scratching out “Odin” and writing “God” instead. I’d love to hear from an expert on Germanic religion, should anybody like that ever come by this post, but my impression is that Germanic gods were not as involved in people’s lives as the Judaeo-Christian God. They were also themselves subject to “wyrd”, i.e. fate, while the Christian God is its master.

This, however, creates some head-scratcher moments, like with the first Geat who is devoured by Grendel. He is basically a Red Shirt, and while I understand that waiting for your opponent to make the first move makes sense tactically, the guy might prefer Beowulf would have stepped in earlier. And of course that doesn’t put God’s providence in such a good light, but that brings the whole question of theodicy, over which theologians and philosophers argued for centuries, so let’s not be too critical of the author of Beowulf for not solving it.

Another head-scratcher is that while Beowulf announced twice that he is not going to use any weapons in his fight with Grendel, his warriors try to help him by trying to wound Grendel with their swords. They are ineffectual because they don’t know that Grendel has been charmed (a bit like Achilles) and no sword can hurt him, but still. Now, I don’t think that you need to adhere to such an elevated code of fair play when dealing with a man-eating monster, but then it’s kind of inconsistent when Beowulf renounces any weapons, but his warriors don’t.  And, what is more, they gang up on him. Even in my school playground, we knew that a number of people against one was not cool.

Beowulf ctd.

All right, party time! The table is set, everybody gets down to drinking while a minstrel is providing entertainment. One Dane, Unferth, starts what was known in Germanic literature as flyting – or, in more  contemporary terms, a diss. (Bragging was a very important part of Anglo-Saxon table conversation too, And you could even argue about the similarities between the four-stress line of Old English poetry and the most popular hip hop rhythms) Unferth claims that Beowulf lost an Iron-Man style swimming competition with his friend Breca. Iron-Man quite literally, as they were supposed to swim in full armour and with their swords. Beowulf corrects him, saying that after five nights they were separated by the waves, then he fought all the monsters in the sea and then was cast ashore in Finland. It’s not quite clear whether the  purpose of the contest was to outlast the other swimmer or to reach a goal first, so I’m not sure whether in sporting terms this would be a draw or a win for Beowulf. Anyway, that makes Unferth shut up.

 Also, the first woman show up – the queen Wealhtheow (I literally have to copy and paste this name, as I am unable to type it in all its Old Germanic glory.) Unfortunately she doesn’t get much to do, apart from ceremonially handing the goblet to the warriors while being arrayed with gold, as the text insistently reminds us several times. This makes her the ultimate trophy wife, I guess.

After that, the king wishes Beowulf good night and good luck, and Beowulf begins his watch.


Beowulf ctd.

Beowulf finally gets to meet Hrothgar face to face and offer his help. This is more complicated than it sounds because all the actors have to negotiate through the complicated codes of Germanic/Old Norse codes of behaviour. First of all, you have a bunch of armed guys inside the king’s hall – they say they come in peace but how can you know? So they’re allowed to see Hrothgar in their armour but without their shields and spears. They, on the other hand, have to trust that the Danes won’t make off with their equipment. Beowulf asks for the privilege of facing Grendel only with his own men, although it is actually Hrothgar who is going to be indebted to Beowulf, if he wins, and if he loses, at least it’s not going to cost Hrothgar any more lives of his men. Beowulf also downplays the chances of his own success, saying he doesn’t want a big funeral if he dies, he only asks for his mail shirt to be sent back to his king. And he is going to fight Grendel with his bare hands, to give the monster the level playing field, because Grendel doesn’t use any weapons either. Hrothgar also reminisces that he once paid on behalf of Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father, the wergild (man price) for the man Ecgtheow had killed, so even though he doesn’t say it expressly, Beowulf presumably feels indebted to him. On the whole, these Vikings come off as rather subtle lot in their dealings. I wonder if anybody has ever attempted a transactional analysis of all these goings-on,

Beowulf ctd.

The action does not exactly move very fast. The Geats left their boat on the shore and proceed to Heorot, led by the coast watchman. Beowulf asks the herald to introduce him to Hrothgar and finally reveals his name. King Hrothgar on hearing Beowulf’s name says he knows him.

Beowulf ctd.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to write about in this instalment. Beowulf hears about Danes’ problems, gets on the ship with his team, arrives in Denmark. The watchman seeing a boat full of armed men landing is understandably worried – if they are attackers, how strong they have to be if they even don’t try to hide? – but Beowulf (whose name actually has not been mentioned so far) answers something along the lines “We arrive in peace, take us to your leader”.

More Christianity vs. paganism: when Beowulf announces his plan, the elders “inspect the omens”. On the other hand, when they arrive safely, they thank God, who seems to be a Christian or at least monotheistic God.

On a side note, isn’t it funny that two major works of English literature: the earliest and (arguably) the greatest take place in Denmark, with nary an Englishman or Englishwoman in sight? And, with all due respect to Denmark and Danish culture, the English don’t seem to be particularly interested in them apart from these two examples.