Remember my study of gender in medieval epics and Arthurian romance?
Yeeaah, it’s been a while so here’s an easy refresher:
- Intro post: https://letteredmadness.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/men-dont-cry-unless-theyre-as-manly-as-gilgamesh-sir-roland-or-odysseus/
- Gilgamesh: https://letteredmadness.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/166/
- Intro to The Odyssey: https://letteredmadness.wordpress.com/2018/09/19/lets-get-down-to-busi-ness/
- Odyssey Part 1 (Women): https://letteredmadness.wordpress.com/2018/09/25/ladies-first-part-one-of-gender-in-the-odyssey/
- Odyssey Part 2 (Men): https://letteredmadness.wordpress.com/2018/10/14/the-hero-you-thought-you-knew-odysseus/
And now? It’s time for Beowulf. I’m using the Signet Classics version of Beowulf, translated by Burton Raffel. A term I will use in this is wergild, which was a Germanic law at this time, the payment for damage to property and injury. If someone, or many someones, had been killed, it was a life that was paid (originally started in order to prevent blood feuds).
We are told about Hrothgar’s lineage and his history, and then how Grendel came to be the terror of Herot. And we’re told that when they first discovered Gredel’s crime at daybreak:
How well he had worked, and in that gray morning
Broke their long feast with tears and laments
For the dead. Hrothgar, their lord, sat joyless
In Herot, a mighty prince mourning
The fate of his lost friends and companions,
Knowing by its tracks that some demon had torn
His followers apart. He wept, fearing
Just like in the Odyssey, we see that it is normal for men to display their grief in public, and to cry for lost companions and followers.
Beowulf is first described as “Higlac’s follower and the strongest of the Geats.” Interesting, isn’t it, being known as a follower? Anyway, Beowulf
Heard how Grendel filled nights with horror
And quickly commanded a boat fitted out,
Proclaiming that he’d go to that famous king,
Would sail across the sea to Hrothgar,
Now when help was needed
Note, it doesn’t say he went for glory or adventure but says Beowelf went when needed. This is a trait of manliness: helping both friends and people you’ve never met but only heard of, and going immediately.
Beowulf and his crew reach the Danish shore, and are met by a Danish watcher who asks “Exactly who you are, and from where, and why.” Hmm, how would Odysseus answer that challenge? He might tell the watcher where he’s from, but he would certainly lie about why he’s there, and probably make up a false name. Remember, the first thing we learned about Odysseus is that he doesn’t trust others and he lies throughout his journey. How does Beowulf respond?
“We are Geats,
Men who follow Higlac. My father
Was a famous soldier, known far and wide
As a leader of men. His name was Edgetho.
[. . .]
And we have come seeking
Your prince, Healfdane’s son, protector
Of this people, only in friendship: instruct us,
Watchman, help us with your words! Our errand
Is a great one, our business with the glorious king
Of the Danes is no secret; there’s nothing dark
Or hidden in our coming. You know (if we’ve heard
The truth, and been told honestly) that your country
Is cursed with some strange, vicious creature”
Beowulf has given the watchman the truth (we know these are truths because they are never contradicted in the story) to all three of his questions. True, he did not say his name directly, but presumably he’d be known by his father’s name. He also acknowledges that maybe what they heard was wrong, and there is no creature, giving the watchman the opportunity to correct them, at which point they’d presumably leave peacefully. Further, he asks the watchman for advice. True, Beowulf does have motivations for doing so, but this also shows a respect for the watchman’s role that Odysseus so commonly lacks. When Odysseus is first given advice? He doesn’t follow it, but assumes it’s untrustworthy. Beowulf, however, displays some trust in the watchman, especially considering how he listens to the man and does what he says.
And what is the result?
“A soldier should know the difference between
And deeds, and keep that knowledge clear
In his brain. I believe your words, I trust in
The same result Odysseus gets: what he wants. But Beowulf accomplishes his aim quicker. The watchman’s words struck me as almost being aimed at Odysseus, as I had just read the Odyssey. Odysseus’ words and deeds often contradict each other, and people let him get away with it, even praise him for it. But the watchman is making it clear that such behavior is not acceptable, and that soldiers should be aware of it. He also is telling them that their actions in the country are not tied to his trust and belief in them.
The watchman tells them that he will guide them to Hrothgar, and to leave their boat as it’ll be protected by his men. I highly doubt Odysseus would be ok with this. There would be at least some mention of misgivings. But Beowulf? All we’re told is “Then they moved on. Their boat lay moored, tied tight to its anchor.” Beowulf and his men simply do what the watchman advised, and no one makes it a huge deal.
When Beowulf meets with Hrothgar we see that he does have something in common with Odysseus: he’s boastful. However, he keeps his boasting short and gives himself credibility, referencing how his people have seen his strength and know of his journey to Hrothgar. Note that: his people know where he is and what he’s doing. Vastly different from Odysseus or Telemachus.
Another trait Beowulf shares with Odysseus is that he can be well, over-the-top as he declares he will use no weapons or shield in his fight against Grendel, though he gives his reasoning that: Grendel does not use such things (a desire for equaling the field) and Higlac might think less of him if he doesn’t (reputation is important in this epic just as it was in The Odyssey). He also is sure to ask for the opportunity to fight Grendel (“A single request!”), showing respect for Hrothgar and acknowledging his authority as king, and asks them to send his armor to his people if he fails, so that they know what happened to him.
In line 613, we are introduced to the story’s first female character: Welthow, Hrothgar’s queen, who greets the warriors and brings the communal cup, which goes to Hrothgar first; she then brings it from warrior to warrior. When she meets Beowulf she salutes him and is thankful to serve him.
Alright. That’s the classic “female.”
However, Beowulf responds and acknowledges he may fail but he and his comrades came here knowing that. We’re told Welthow is pleased, and carries the words back to her husband, the king. Thus, we see how women are involved in more subtle ways.
When Hrothgar leaves, he embraces Beowulf and wishes him well. Kings hug warriors. Beowulf has connections and an illustrious family history, but he himself is just a warrior at this point in time, and a warrior of the Geats, not the Danes. And yet, it is normal for the king to hug him. It’s again normal for men to display emotion.
Interestingly, in lines 710–790 the story follows Grendel as he ventures from the marshes into the hall, a monster narrative that we never have in The Odyssey. Of course, Grendel isn’t humanized much, or redeemed at all.
Beowulf defeats Grendel, tearing off “Arm, claw and shoulder and all,” and Hrothgar comes to the hall, sees the night’s result, and praises not only Beowulf, but his mother:
“The woman who bore him, whoever, wherever,
Alive now, or dead, knew the grace of the God
Of our fathers, was granted a son for her glory and His.”
Thus, a mother’s reputation can be tied to her child. There can be negative connotations to that of course, but it is interesting that the mother, not the father, is praised for how Beowulf is as an adult.
“Beowulf, best of soldiers,
Let me take you to my heart, make you my son, too,
And love you”
Family can be made through oath, not just blood or marriage. Further, men should praise other men, and the women who birthed them.
The celebration continues, and in it we get a significant moment of the female. Many famous figures from epics have been mentioned in Beowulf already, such as Siegmund, and in lines 1066 through 1159, a version of the tale of Hnaf’s betrayal is told. Though she is only named here only as “Hnaf’s sister,” Hildeburh’s tale is one of a violation of marriage, as her husband Finn attacks and kills her brother and one of her sons. Another theme of this story is also about the wergild being withheld, prompting Hengest to later take revenge. The story foreshadows Grendel’s mother’s appearance. However, while Hildeburh is a figure of an epic and someone to empathize with, Grendel’s mother is not. She also is denied the wergild, and also resorts to revenge, though hers goes unfulfilled.
The song finishes and is Welthow who once again brings a communal cup, and tells her husband to praise the Geats and give them treasures freely. Then she puts Beowulf in charge of taking care of her sons, should their father die, as their nephew. She then sits with her two sons and Beowulf. She gives Beowulf Brosings’ necklace, telling him to “Wear these bright jewels,” for it was not uncommon for men to wear necklaces. A man wearing a necklace with gemstones on it nowadays is an unusual sight. Again, she asks Beowulf to take care of her sons, and she praises him further. Perhaps the telling of Hideburh’s story reminded her that enemies can come from unexpected quarters, and that her sons may need someone to turn to should she and Hrothgar perish.
A lot has been said about Grendel’s mother. I will note that we are told she was sad, thus she is attributed something humane though that was withheld from Grendel. She takes her wergild, “She’d taken Hrothgar’s closest friend, The man he loved most of all men on earth.” She takes someone who is close to Hrothgar, likely on purpose, someone whose death will really hurt the king, but a man, not his wife. Again, men are allowed to love each other, and because whether it is meant romantically or not is unclear, men are thus allowed many types of love.
Hrothgar grieves and asks Beowulf for his help. Beowulf says “Let your sorrow end! It is better for us all to avenge our friends, not mourn them forever,” evidence of the popular idea that men don’t grieve but instead go obtain revenge.
While Beowulf fought Grendel with neither weapon nor armor, he uses both when fighting the monsters in the lake and Grendel’s mother. Thus, while Beowulf is confident, he doesn’t underestimate his foes, displaying common sense. Something that is sometimes lacking in our male heroes.
Beowulf defeats Grendal’s mother, and the “monsters’ hall was full of Rich treasures, but all that Beowulf took Was Grendel’s head and the hilt of the giants’ Jeweled sword.” Looting the place, satisfying his greed? Not manly. He only takes the weapon he fought with and the skull of Hrothgar’s enemy. Beowulf promises Hrothgar that
“whoever sleeps in Herot
—You, your brave soldiers, anyone
Of all the people in Denmark, old
Or young—they, and you, may now sleep
Without fear of either monster, mother
Unlike Odysseus, who trailed chaos and death, Beowulf brings peace and security. Odysseus’ aim was only ever to get himself safely home. Beowulf seeks to bring safety to others, those who are in danger. Like in Gilgamesh’s period, safety in Beowulf’s period is gained only by a strong leader who protects his people. Hrothgar praises Beowulf, and then tells him to go home and use his strength on behalf of his own people now, and to not be as Hermod
“once was to my people, too proud
To care what their hearts hid, bringing them
Only destruction and slaughter. In his mad
Rages he killed them himself, comrades
And followers who ate at his table.”
Odysseus’ rages, his killing or desiring to kill the men who followed him, who he was responsible for? Not cool. Not acceptable. Hrothgar also tells Beowulf to push aside pride, reminding him that strength will someday fail. He then tells Beowulf to feast tonight and tomorrow they’d send him off with gifts and “Beowulf obeyed him.” I mean, sure, Beowulf was probably down with that plan, but still. He once again demonstrates respect for Hrothgar’s title.
When Beowulf leaves, we are told Hrothgar “kissed him Held that best of all warriors by the shoulder And wept.” In Beowulf’s time, kisses between men were therefore still acceptable.
Beowulf returns home and we are introduced to Higlac’s wife, Higd “wise and knowing beyond her years.” Females? Are once again associated with wisdom. A good woman is also generous give “gifts with open hands.” The daughter Thrith however, is too proud, has a vicious tongue, and her “hands would shape a noose.” This is noted as a great sin, for any woman
“Whether fair or black, to create fear
And destruction, for a woman, who should walk in
Of peace, to kill with pretended insults.”
Women are supposed to be gracious and wise, they should create a welcoming atmosphere. This perhaps is where we start getting the idea that women are in charge of the emotional atmosphere and should be happy and cheerful. Thrith does change when she marries, and maybe this is where the idea of men “taming” women through marriage came from. Thrith is praised now, as she is generous, good, and full of love for her husband. Evil or cruel women are therefore redeemable, an idea that we don’t always see in epics, or indeed any stories.
Beowulf reports to his lord not just about his defeat of Grendel, but also of Hrothgar’s plan and hope that “his quarrel with the Hathobards can be settled by a woman.” Beowulf predicts that this will not happen, and not because the woman wasn’t good enough or wasn’t loyal to her husband, but because after a short peace the wedding is ended and sons once more remember “their fathers who once wore them, fell with those helmets on their heads, those swords in their hands.”
Hrothgar is noted to be “a good king” who gave gifts Beowulf could not gain with strength, and riches to “prove his friendship, and my love.” In warrior tribes, it was a warrior’s duty to give his leader treasures he had gained and for that leader to divide the gifts among his people; this relationship was supposed to be one of love as well.
Curiously, during Beowul’s giving of treasure, the story seems to point the finger at Odysseus as it says
Beowulf had brought his king
Horses and treasure—as a man must,
Not weaving nets of malice for his comrades,
Preparing their death in the dark, with secret
Warrior tribes were built on trust. The warriors trusted their leader to provide for them and keep them safe, and the leader trusted his warriors to stay loyal to him. A distrustful person such as Odysseus would not be a hero in this kind of society. Further, the text again says Beowulf does not seek “killing his comrades in drunken rages” but in using his strength and “using it only in war, and then using it bravely.” Ouch, that must hurt Odysseus.
We also get a quick mention of how Beowulf as a boy “was scorned; the Geats considered him worthless.” Here is our “rags to riches” theme, though only touched upon briefly. We’re also told that Beowulf turned down the throne once (“Refused to rule when his lord’s own son was alive”) but later took it. “He was old with years and wisdom, fifty winters a king.” So Beowulf is over 50. Assuming he was 25 when he became king, he’s 75 when the dragon awakens!
And Beowulf’s immediate reaction? Is to blame himself. (Though it is argued whether the original story was Christian and this may have been written in later.)
Himself of breaking God’s law, of bringing
The Almighty’s anger down upon his people.
Odysseus would have blamed the gods, and it’s unlikely his first thought would be about people other than himself.
Beowulf goes to fight the dragon, saying “I’ve never known fear.” And with some final boasts, he says goodbye to each of his followers, and goes off to fight the dragon alone. But he falls,
And he suffered, wrapped around in swirling
Flames—a king, before, but now
A beaten warrior. None of his comrades
Came to him, helped him, his brave and noble
Followers; they ran for their lives […]
And only one of them
Remained, stood there, miserable, remembering,
As a good man must, what kinship should mean.
Kinship means a lot in The Odyssey as well . . . just not much to Odysseus, who is willing to kill his kin. The man who stays is named Wiglaf, and he draws his sword and joins the fight, remembering what Beowulf had done for them and how they “swore to repay him, When the came, kindness for kindness.” Instead of just fighting the dragon by himself, he makes his way to Beowulf. Beowulf makes a final strike, but his sword breaks on impact and the dragon pierces his neck. And then Wiglaf pierces further down with his sword, showing “his courage, his strength, And skill, and the boldness he was born with,” and then Beowulf draws his knife:
the bloodstained old king
Still knew what he was doing. Quickly, he cut
The beast in half, slit it apart.
It fell, their courage had killed it
Yeah. Beowulf slices a dragon in half with a dagger. Old man’s still got it. Unfortunately, the dragon’s fangs have venom, not something we generally see attributed to them anymore, and Beowulf knows he’s dying. He gives Wiglaf his last words, says he dies happy, and also wants to see all the treasure the dragon had and sends Wiglaf to bring him some. Can’t really call that selfish or greedy when Beowulf is literally teetering on the edge of death. He gets to see the treasure and dies. Wiglaf sits vigil, and when those who had fled returned, he admonishes them and tells them what happened, but he says Beowulf
“Alone, won his own revenge.
The help I gave him was nothing, but all
I was able to give; I went to him. knowing
That nothing but Beowulf’s strength could save us”
Wow. Sure he didn’t cut the beast in half with a dagger, but I would say he still helped a noteworthy amount, and he could have taken credit—who but him would ever know? But nope. Being humble appears again as a trait of manliness, folks. And acknowledging when someone is better or stronger than you, without feeling shame. Something that doesn’t seem to be a trait of manliness now.
Women play an important part in Beowulf’s funeral:
A gnarled old woman, hair wound
Tight and gray on her head, groaned
A song of misery, of infinite sadness,
And days of mourning, of fear and sorrow
to come, terror and slaughter and captivity
All of the warriors mourn as well, of course. But a difference between a death in war and a proper funeral seems to be the role of women. You may think she might be overdoing it, but Beowulf was well-known and had brought them peace. Without him, they are vulnerable. None of those things are an exaggeration, but likely events to happen without their king. Beowulf is cremated, given treasure and armor, which are buried in the ground, and his men ride around grieving and telling stories (an official funeral practice: the telling of stories about the person and their deeds).
Beowulf is arguably your more traditional hero. Unlike his depiction in that atrocious movie, Beowulf is a good man. Odysseus is not so clearly cut, which makes him a fascinating hero, but not one you’d necessarily want to emulate or date. Beowulf though? Beowulf I, at least, would date.