Washington State University
“Hwæt!” begins the poem with the founding of the Danish dynasty. Often translated into “Lo” or “So,” this is actually the empty British “What?” that doesn’t ask any question really. British Colonels in 1940s films use this expression at the ends of declarative sentences: “Another murder investigation successfully concluded, what?”
We’re soon smacked with some kennings (“whale-road,” “ring-giver”) and epithets and appositions (“the Lord of Life, the Ruler of Heaven” or “the Lord of Life, the glorious Almighty”) and gnomic verses (“In this way a young man ought…”). Note the traces of oral tradition (“I have not heard of a ship more splendidly furnished…”). In Shield’s funeral we have the Anglo-Saxon tendency to see the opposition, or blur, between ends and beginnings, risings and settings, with the ever-present sense that man and his works shall perish. Similarly, the creation of Heorot, the mead-hall built by Hrothgar (whose name means Red-Spear), the community-center/tavern, is also introduced with a brief flashforward to its eventual destruction by fire. The hall is established at the same time we hear about Grendel, excluded from this society. His being a descendent of Cain is a convenient Christian overlay to this monster of folklore. But Grendel’s monstrosity is really a matter of him being a “mearc-stapa” — a border-stepper. See the monsters of Beowulf for some perspective on his significance.
Beowulf has a name that oddly does not alliterate with all the names in the work that it should. This is because it is not his “real” name, but a mythological one in the form of a “kenning” — an Anglo-Saxon compound noun that metaphorically stands for something else.
BEO-WULF = BEE-WOLF = BEE-ENEMY
So what is the enemy of the bee? A swatter? Agrichemicals?
[Answer: A bear.]
And Beowulf has some kind of folklore background, some connection with the bear. Beowulf fights Grendel with his bear-like grip in the poem.
After making it past the coast-guard, Beowulf comes to the court of Hrothgar where we catch a glimpse of his Queen Wealhtheow, serving as cup-bearer and, presumably, peace-weaver. Unferth (= Unpeaceful One) seems either a jealous or perpetually disgruntled retainer, maybe a wicked counsellor, but actually he serves a rather useful function at the court of Hrothgar. The King must be courteous and hospitable, but these visitors always need to be scrutinized, so Unferth isn’t just a trouble-maker. [Later the royal court may have a designated “allowed fool.”] The test Unferth puts Beowulf to is called a “flyting” — a challenge of words, a ritual and not a fight — and note that Hrothgar does passively let this take its course. Unferth certainly has done his homework and uses direct facts. The newcomer must defend himself and “unlock his word-hoard.” Here Beowulf has to reinterpret the facts put forth; yeah, he did not make good on his boast but he was side-tracked by sea-monsters (“nicors”) he had to slaughter and so on.
Don’t ask why everyone gets drunk while waiting for Grendel, nor why Beowulf waits for a bit of vampirism before doing anything. In any case, the pronoun blur in the fight of grips (“he knew his fingers’ power to be in a hateful grip”; “his fingers cracked”) suggests that Beowulf and Grendel are doppelgangers to some extent. The assertion, “He rejoiced in his night-work,” is used for each character at different times.
After Beowulf’s triumph, Hrothgar pontificates regarding the deserved pride of “whatever woman brought forth this son among mankind” — a perspective that, with the story of Hoc’s daughter in the Finnsburg lai witnessing the “slaughter of kinsmen — where before she had the greatest of world’s joy,” offers more than some foreshadowing of the next monster.
Heorot is “adorned by/with hands”! Grendel’s mother attacks and seems to adhere to the dynamics of a blood-feud in some respects: killing just one of the men, and one dearest to Hrothgar, for example. A thane recalls hearing about two monsters in the past, not just the one. Now he tells us!
Hrunting the sword has a name, a story, and almost has a personality. Beowulf renders the obligatory boast and, journeying to the mere and submerging, becomes the hall invader now. Grendel’s mother seems dismissed when Beowulf instead brings back another chunk of Grendel himself. The magical sword is a one-shot deal and cannot make the transition back out of fantasy-land under the mere.
Hrothgar the emotional old man speaks with Beowulf the young stoic warrior, and we hear a lot about “one hundred half-years” and the principles of good and bad kings.
Fifty winters do pass and Beowulf as an old king faces a “wyrm” — the obsolete term for dragon. A vague Christian overlay again appears — the problem is started by either “one of twelve” or a “thirteenth” man stealing a chalice. It’s Beowulf to the rescue — and ultimately self-sacrifice — and by and large the comitatus is worthless. It’s exciting (and extremely rare) for the leader to put himself on the line, but does this make Beowulf a good king? It was appropriate behavior for a young warrior, but shouldn’t he be more like Hrothgar and sit back while the thanes prove themselves? Indeed, Beowulf seems to create a power vacuum, and when one woman laments prophetically about the land being overrun by the Swedes, we might note that she’s right: we’ve heard of Swedes, but whoever heard of the Geats? They’re goners.
Note the sighting of “the work of giants” — probably Roman ruins that this dark-age people have forgotten the origin of.
The last vision is bleak. If your king killed a dragon, what would you do with its corpse? Here it just gets dumped. The gold is thrown on Beowulf’s pyre. Waste and desolation.
The last line: “They said that he was of world-kings the mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people [lovely Christian virtues, but get the last Anglo-Saxon zinger:], and most eager for fame.” !