Beowulf ctd.

Beowulf answers Hygelac inquiries, telling him about his arrival at Heorot and his fight with Grendel. Two interesting details appear here: he mentions Hygelac’s daughter, Freawaru, who is betrothed to Ingeld, the son of Froda (not Frodo!), the king of Heaðobards who died in a battle with Danes. Freawaru is going to be “the peace-pledge”, the bride given away to end the feud between rivalling tribes. However, as Beowulf darkly predicts, when she arrives with her retinue at the court of her husband and some of his warriors start to recognize the swords and armour of their fathers, now worn by Danes as trophies, they are not going to obey the truce. Some critics like to wax poetic about how important women really were in Anglo-Saxon tradition, because in Beowulf, even if we only see them smiling nicely and pouring mead, they are these peace-weavers, being kind of diplomats of their era etc. But the truth is, you may have world’s greatest diplomatic skills, but exercising them in a culture which is always on the edge of war is a little bit like trying to play chess in a boxing ring.

Oral cultures are, to use academic jargon, agonistically toned. Anybody who has young children, has a miniscale sample of this every day (“Mom, Georgina pulled my hair!” “Because you said I have cooties!” “Oh, no, I didn’t!” “Oh yes you did”). Similarly, for Native American tribes in pre-Columbian America the state of war was a mode of life rather than an exceptional calamity. We see some attempts at containment of this in Beowulf: there are all these formal acts of verbal aggression such as “flytings”, it’s also extremely important to address each other properly – hence all these long and wordy requests, expressions of gratitude etc. And over and over again these boundaries are not sufficient and another war breaks out.

A small detail: when Beowulf describes Grendel, he mentions the monster had a pouch to put the bodies of the kidnapped people in. It’s an odd and strangely grotesque detail. Grendel is so effective partly because he is not really described apart from being big and nasty, so everyone is free to imagine him as scary as you want him to be. How big did he have to be to put people in a bag like I put a wallet in my purse?

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