and the forthright Unferth,
admired by all for his mind and courage
although under a cloud for killing his brothers,
reclined near the king. (1164-1167)
The poet seems to feel somewhat conflicted about Unferth as a character. On the one hand, Unferth has committed fratricide (killed his brother) – the ultimate sin in a world where a man’s allegiance to his clan and tribe are everything. Still, Unferth is courageous and clever, which counts for something in spite of his past crimes.
The cup was carried to him, kind words
spoken in welcome and a wealth of wrought gold
graciously bestowed: two arm bangles,
a mail-shirt and rings, and the most resplendent
torque of gold I ever heard tell of
anywhere on earth or under heaven. (1191-1196)
The exchanges of wealth between different kings and warriors can become extremely complex. In this passage, Beowulf is given gold, armor, and other rewards by King Hrothgar. After sailing home to Geatland, Beowulf presents some of these rewards to his own king, Hygelac.
In return, Hygelac gives Beowulf another set of treasures from his own stockpile. Why so many different exchanges? It helps to solidify the alliances and relationships between all three warriors.
Hygelac the Geat, grandson of Swerting,
wore this neck-ring on his last raid;
at bay under his banner, he defended the booty,
treasure he had won. Fate swept him away
because of his proud need to provoke
a feud with the Frisians. He fell beneath his shield,
in the same gem-crusted, kingly gear
he had worn when he crossed the frothing wave-vat.
So the dead king fell into Frankish hands.
They took his breast-mail, also his neck-torque,
and punier warriors plundered the slain
when the carnage ended; Geat corpses
covered the field. (1202-1214)
It’s interesting to trace this history of the golden torque, or necklace, in Beowulf. Given to Beowulf by Hrothgar, it is then presented to Hygelac, who will die wearing it. Beowulf will then bestow what seems to be the same torque (although we’re not completely certain, since the first torque gets stolen by the Franks at one point) on his only faithful follower, Wiglaf. Along with the golden torque, symbolizing kingship, goes glory – but also suffering and doom.
“Be acclaimed for strength, for kindly guidance
to these two boys, and your bounty will be sure.” (1219-1220)
strength and skill
In this passage, Queen Wealhtheow praises Beowulf for defeating Grendel and asks him to remember the rights of her sons in the Danish kingdom. It’s particularly interesting that Wealhtheow equates “strength” with “kindly guidance” – apparently being a strong man and being a wise one are pretty closely associated in this culture.
The monster wrenched and wrestled with him
but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
He relied for help on the Lord of All,
on His care and favour. So he overcame the foe,
brought down the hell-brute. (1269-1274)
Good versus Evil
It’s not always clear whether Beowulf is victorious because of his own strength and prowess, because of God’s favor, or because he’s fated to be on the side of good. Let’s just say he’s a very lucky guy. Grendel doesn’t have a chance.
The poet is careful not to give Beowulf all the credit for his victory against Grendel; if God hadn’t wanted Beowulf to win, he reminds us, then he wouldn’t win. In this context, religious faith means being willing to downplay your own abilities – or at least to be a little more humble and a little less boastful.
She came to Heorot. There, inside the hall,
Danes lay asleep, earls who would soon endure
a great reversal, once Grendel’s mother
attacked and entered. Her onslaught was less
only by as much as an amazon warrior’s
strength is less than an armed man’s
when the hefted sword, its hammered edge
and gleaming blade slathered in blood,
razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet. (1279-1287)
strength and skill
Although the usual pattern of a three act plot suggests that Beowulf’s second battle should be more difficult than his first, Grendel’s mother is actually a little bit weaker than Grendel himself. Still, the narrator reminds us that she’s a vicious, violent, unbelievably strong opponent. She’s compared to an Amazon, a member of a mythical tribe of female warriors in Greek mythology. Fighting Grendel’s mother is like fighting an Amazon, whereas fighting Grendel is like fighting a male warrior. What’s the difference? Well, the Amazon might be slightly less strong because she doesn’t have the same physical build as a man – but when a bloodthirsty warrior slices the crest off your helmet with a sword, you don’t really stop to think about the warrior’s gender, do you?
“[…] she has taken up the feud
because of last night, when you killed Grendel,
wrestled and racked him in ruinous combat
since for too long he had terrorized us
with his depredations He died in battle,
paid with his life; and now this powerful
other one arrives, this force for evil
driven to avenge her kinsman’s death.
Or so it seems to thanes in their grief,
in the anguish every thane endures
at the loss of a ring-giver, now that the hand
that bestowed so richly has been stilled in death.” (1333-1344)
Grendel’s mother sets out to avenge her son’s death by killing someone from the tribe that killed him. This type of revenge killing was common in medieval European warrior culture, suggesting that Grendel and his mother are more human than you might have thought.
“I have heard it said by my people in hall,
counsellors who live in the upland country,
that they have seen two such creatures
prowling the moors, huge marauders
from some other world. One of these things,
as far as anyone ever can discern,
looks like a woman; the other, warped
in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale
bigger than any man, an unnatural birth
called Grendel by country people
in former days. They are fatherless creatures
and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past
of demons and ghosts. (1345-1357)
Earlier in Beowulf, the narrator explained that Grendel and his mother are the descendants of Cain, connected to an Old Testament story and a Christian way of understanding the world. However, in this passage they seem more like Halloween creatures – “demons and ghosts.”
“Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.” (1384-1389)
Although the narrator of Beowulf has a Christian, Anglo-Saxon perspective, the characters in the poem believe that the only protection warriors have in the afterlife is the force of their reputation. In other words, Geat and Dane warriors aren’t trying to get into Heaven – they’re trying to leave tales of their great deeds behind them.
He went in front with a few men,
good judges of the lie of the land,
and suddenly discovered the dismal wood,
mountain trees growing out at an angle
above grey stones: the bloodshot water
surged underneath. It was a sore blow
to all of the Danes, friends of the Shieldings,
a hurt to each and every one
of that noble company when they came upon
Aeschere’s head at the foot of the cliff. (1412-1421)
It’s good enough for the most chilling horror movie: you’re tracking the monster, you see a bloody lake around the corner of the cliff, and then your friend’s severed head staring up at you. It certainly gives us the shivers.
The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes by the cliff,
serpents and wild things such as those that often
surface at dawn to roam the sail-road
and doom the voyage. (1425-1430)
It’s interesting that the sea monsters that infest the lake where Grendel’s mother lives are just thrown in for atmosphere. Beowulf doesn’t really have to fight them and they don’t pose a very important threat in the context of the plot. They do, however, make things feel more fantastic.
Beowulf got ready,
donned his war-gear, indifferent to death (1441-1442)
In a few words, the narrator sums up Beowulf’s attitude toward mortality: he is “indifferent to death,” realizing that it will eventually come to him, and not caring at all. While he lives, he will do great deeds. Eventually, he has accepted that he will die. That’s all there is to it.
Hygelac’s kinsman kept thinking about
his name and fame: he never lost heart. (1529-1530)
People always want to know what inspires heroes, athletes, and great leaders – what sustains them, emotionally and mentally, in tough times? In Beowulf’s case, it’s a bit egotistical – it’s the thought of his reputation. We can only hope that our other heroes are a little less selfish.
So the Shieldings’ hero, hard-pressed and enraged,
took a firm hold of the hilt and swung
the blade in an arc, a resolute blow
that bit deep into her neck-bone
and severed it entirely, toppling the doomed
house of her flesh; she fell to the floor.
The sword dripped blood, the swordsman was elated. (1563-1569)
Sometimes Beowulf does seem to take a bloodthirsty pleasure in his acts of violence, as in this scene, where he decapitates Grendel’s mother. The parallel structure of the last line of this passage – “The sword dripped blood, the swordsman was elated” – implies a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two, even though the poet doesn’t explicitly say that one caused the other.
Meanwhile the sword
began to wilt into gory icicles,
to slather and thaw. It was a wonderful thing,
the way it all melted as ice melts
when the Father eases the fetters off the frost
and unravels the water-ropes. He who wields power
over time and tide: He is the true Lord. (1605-1611)
Grendel’s mother’s blood melts the sword that Beowulf uses to decapitate her. The destruction of a sword seems nothing less than “a wonderful thing” to the narrator, who puts a lot of trust in the sword and in the battle-prowess of warriors.
“I have wrested the hilt
from the enemies’ hand, avenged the evil
done to the Danes; it is what was due.” (1668-1670)
Good versus evil
he battle between good and evil is a necessary part of Beowulf’s life; it consists of fighting for justice, for “what was due” to a people who have suffered wrongs. Notice that, in this passage, good is not just the opposite of evil – good is actually the process of avenging evil that has been done in the past. That’s a dangerous belief, because it leads to unending feuds and wars among the different Scandinavian and Germanic tribes.
Hrothgar spoke; he examined the hilt,
the relic of old times. It was engraved all over
and showed how war first came into the world
and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants.
They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord;
the Almighty made the waters rise,
drowned them in the deluge for retribution. (1687-1693)
When the poet describes the engraved hilt of the sword that Beowulf brings up from Grendel’s mother’s lair, it’s a strange mixture of pagan legend – a tribe of giants – and Christian story – the great flood. (Of course, sometimes critics interpret one of the kinds of angels in Genesis to be like giants, but that’s probably not what’s going on in this passage.)
“It is a great wonder
how Almighty God in His magnificence
favours our race with rank and scope
and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide.
Sometimes he allows the mind of a man
of distinguished birth to follow its bent,
grants him fulfillment and felicity on earth
and forts to command in his own country.” (1724-1731)
The poet hammers home that every fate is ordained by God. If a king rules his people well and consistently, it’s not necessarily because he’s skilled, but because God has allowed his skills to flourish.
“Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.” (1759-1768)
Hrothgar reminds Beowulf that he shouldn’t get too cocky; after all, no matter how many great deeds he performs, there will eventually be some kind of catastrophe that kills him. He may have nearly superhuman strength, but something will be his downfall anyway. Death comes to us all in the end.
Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage. (2177-2179)
Good versus evil
Late in the epic, we learn that Beowulf is not just good at fighting – he’s also morally good. He doesn’t take undue advantage of his enemies or his friends. But that’s almost an afterthought; it’s much less important to the storyteller than his prowess in battle.
The battle-famed king, bulwark of his earls,
ordered a gold-chased heirloom of Hrethel’s
to be brought in; it was the best example
of a gem-studded sword in the Geat treasury.
This he laid on Beowulf’s lap
and then rewarded him with land as well,
seven thousand hides, and a hall and a throne.
Both owned land by birth in that country,
ancestral grounds; but the greater right
and sway were inherited by the higher born. (2190-2199)
Tradition and customs
Beowulf and King Hygelac (whose father, Hrethel, owned the sword described in this passage) are both lords – they both “owned land by birth in that country,” Geatland. However, Hygelac has a slightly more prestigious family, so he has the right to be king over Beowulf, even though they’re about equally rich.
It threw the hero
into deep anguish and darkened his mood:
the wise man thought he must have thwarted
ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord,
broken His commandment. (2327-2331)
Beowulf assumes that his downfall is a punishment for breaking divine law, not just bad luck. In this world, everything seems to be extremely significant, and God appears to manage every detail of human life.
After many trials,
he was destined to face the end of his days
in this mortal world; as was the dragon,
for all his long leasehold on the treasure. (2341-2344)
Good versus evil
The final climactic battle between good and evil in Beowulf results in a draw: Beowulf destroys the dragon, but receives his death-wound in the process. We realize that, without Beowulf, the Geats will be attacked from all sides, and we wonder whether his heroic deeds have really created any lasting good in the world. Beowulf certainly hopes they have, but the future looks somewhat bleak.
Beowulf is fated to die – but so is the fantastic monster that he faces. Even dragons must face their own mortality in this poem.
Yet the prince of the rings was too proud
to line up with a large army
against the sky-plague. He had scant regard
for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all
of its courage or strength, for he had kept going
often in the past, through perils and ordeals
of every sort, after he had purged
Hrothgar’s hall, triumphed in Heorot
and beaten Grendel. (2345-2353)
Beowulf is completely unafraid of the dragon – so unafraid that he’s being a little bit dumb about how to fight it. Other kings might take an entire army to fight a dragon, but Beowulf is simply going to take it on one-on-one, the way he fought Grendel and Grendel’s mother when he was a young man. Perhaps, the poet hints to us, Beowulf is a little too courageous for a king, who needs to think about protecting his people.
“At seven, I was fostered out by my father,
left in the charge of my people’s lord.
King Hrethel kept me and took care of me,
was open-handed, behaved like a kinsman.
While I was his ward, he treated me no worse
as a wean about the place than one of his own boys.” (2428-2433)
It’s interesting to notice that we don’t hear about Beowulf’s childhood until the very end of the epic. For modern readers, the fact that Beowulf was raised as a foster son by King Hrethel probably seems really important; but for medieval audiences, Beowulf’s deeds as an adult are more important than his princely youth.
“The treasures that Hygelac lavished on me
I paid for when I fought, as fortune allowed me,
with my glittering sword. He gave me land
and the security land brings, so he had no call
to go looking for some lesser champion.” (2490-2494)
Beowulf explains his relationship to King Hygelac as a straightforward exchange: Hygelac gives him land and wealth, and Beowulf gives Hygelac his loyalty and service in battle in return. Of course, they’re also foster brothers. Yet, somehow, the almost economic money-and-land-for-fighting relationship is more important to who Beowulf is than the family ties.
Beowulf spoke, made a formal boast
for the last time: “I risked my life
often when I was young. Now I am old,
but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight
for the glory of winning, if the evil one will only
abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open.” (2510-2515)
Even at the end of his life, Beowulf makes sure that he’s continuing to add to his reputation and fame by his brave deeds. As he faces death, he sustains himself by continuing to think about the name that he’s made for himself.
“I would rather not
use a weapon if I knew another way
to grapple with the dragon and make good my boast
as I did against Grendel in days gone by.
But I shall be meeting molten venom
in the fire he breathes, so I go forth
in mail-shirt and a shield.” (2518-2524)
strength and skill
Beowulf is careful to explain why he allows himself the advantage of armor and weapons in his battle with the dragon: it’s because the dragon has its own special advantages: poisonous venom and the ability to breathe fire. It’s not enough for Beowulf to battle the dragon. He has to emphasize that, in doing so, he really is meeting the creature on a level playing field, demonstrating his own strength and prowess, not just using better weapons.
So the king of the Geats
raised his hand and struck hard
at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper
went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
billowed and spewed. (2575-2583)
Even the dragon’s death-agonies are depicted in gruesome detail, as it thrashes and spasms in response to Beowulf’s attacks. We think that as a film, if it were made exactly the way it’s written, Beowulf would definitely get rated R for “intense scenes of fantasy violence.”
And now the youth
was to enter the line of battle with his lord,
his first time to be tested as a fighter.
His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade
would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered
as soon as they came together in the combat. (2625-2630)
The battle with the dragon is Beowulf’s last courageous act, but for Wiglaf, it is only the first test of his courage. Unlike the other Geat warriors, who fled in fear when Beowulf needed them most, Wiglaf will pass this test.
“As God is my witness,
I would rather my body were robed in the same
burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body
than go back home bearing arms.
That is unthinkable, unless we have first
slain the foe and defended the life
of the prince of the Weather-Geats. I well know
the things he has done for us deserve better.
Should he alone be left exposed
to fall in battle? We must bond together,
shield and helmet, mail-shirt and sword.” (2650-2660)
Wiglaf has thoroughly internalized the code of the medieval warrior. He believes that it is better to die because of a courageous act of loyalty than to survive and make it home without attempting the task you set out to do. He also places his loyalty to his “gold-giver,” or king, above his own life.
by the thought of glory, the war-king threw
his whole strength behind a sword-stroke
and connected with the skull. (2677-2680)
Beowulf is able to behave courageously by constantly keeping thoughts of his reputation and the possibility for fame and glory in mind.
by the thought of glory, the war-king threw
his whole strength behind a sword-stroke
and connected with the skull. And Naegling snapped.
Beowulf’s ancient iron-grey sword
let him down in the fight. It was never his fortune
to be helped in combat by the cutting edge
of weapons made in iron. When he wielded a sword,
no matter how blooded and hard-edged the blade
his hand was too strong, the stroke he dealt
(I have heard) would ruin it. (2677-2687)
strength and skill
Throughout Beowulf, swords snap, melt, and otherwise fail their owners. During Beowulf’s final battle with the dragon, the narrator explains that our hero is just too strong for the blades of the swords forged by men. It’s just one more hint that Beowulf’s strength is more than human, mythic in its proportions.
When a chance came, he caught the hero
in a rush of flame and clamped sharp fangs
into his neck. Beowulf’s body
ran wet with his life-blood: it came welling out. (2690-2693)
The poet doesn’t spare us a final scene of violence: Beowulf’s death, seemingly from a severed artery in his neck. Even our hero becomes no more than a corpse by the end of the epic. Now that’s depressing.
The old lord gazed sadly at the gold.
“To the everlasting Lord of All,
to the King of Glory, I give thanks
that I behold this treasure here in front of me,
that I have been allowed to leave my people
so well endowed on the day I die.” (2793-2798)
As he dies, Beowulf seems to feel conflicted about the treasure that he has won from the dragon. On the one hand, he is glad that he’s leaving a great deal of wealth to the Geat people, which should lend power and authority to their nation. On the other hand, he looks at the gold “sadly,” suggesting that he doubts whether it was worth sacrificing his life for it.
“Order my troop to construct a barrow
on a headland on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.
It will loom on the horizon at Hronesness
and be a reminder among my people –
so that in coming times crews under sail
will call it Beowulf’s Barrow, as they steer
ships across the wide and shrouded waters.” (2802-2808)
The final measure of Beowulf’s successful establishment of an identity as a warrior and a king is his memorial, Beowulf’s Barrow.
Tradition and customs
The building of barrows, or huge mounds of earth filled with treasures, is a traditional way for Scandinavian and European tribes in the Middle Ages to commemorate great men and women after their deaths. You can think of barrows as a combination of tomb and memorial. Beowulf’s Barrow is going to be built on top of the spot where his funeral pyre burned.
“You are the last of us, the only one left
of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,
sent my whole brave high-born clan
to their final doom. Now I must follow them.”
That was the warrior’s last word.
He had no more to confide. The furious heat
of the pyre would assail him. His soul fled from his breast
to its destined place among the steadfast ones. (2813-2820)
With his last words, Beowulf recalls the now-deceased members of his clan, passing on their history and fame to Wiglaf. Death is not always just the loss of a single life; eventually whole clans, whole tribes, and whole nations are lost.
the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood,
the ones who had let down their lord earlier,
the tail-turners, ten of them together.
When he needed them most, they had made off.
Now they were ashamed and came behind shields,
in their battle-outfits, to where the old man lay. (2845-2851)
Although the ten Geat warriors who ran away from the battle with the dragon are scorned as cowardly by the poet, they aren’t totally vilified. After all, it’s not one man who runs away while the others all stay – everyone runs away and only one man, Wiglaf, is brave enough to stay. This suggests that true courage is somewhat uncommon and that most warriors, at least when they’re facing a dragon, have momentary lapses in bravery.
Then a stern rebuke was bound to come
from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards. (2860-2861)
After Beowulf’s death, Wiglaf reprimands the other Geat lords for their lack of courage.
“So this bad blood between us and the Swedes,
this vicious feud, I am convinced,
is bound to revive; they will cross our borders
and attack in force when they find out
that Beowulf is dead.” (2999-3003)
Tradition and customs
Blood feuds were, sadly, a traditional part of early medieval culture, too. Every time a man from one tribe kills a man from another tribe, it’s possible that the revenge killings will eventually escalate into a full-scale war. At the end of Beowulf, a Geatish messenger predicts that, with the strong king Beowulf dead, another blood feud will break out between the Geats and their rival tribe, the Swedes.
That huge cache, gold inherited
from an ancient race, was under a spell –
which meant no one was ever permitted
to enter the ring-hall unless God Himself,
mankind’s Keeper, True King of Triumphs,
allowed some person pleasing to Him –
and in His eyes worthy – to open the hoard. (3051-3057)
Even a dragon’s treasure hoard seems to be under a spell to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Once again, pagan and Christian elements blend; the “spell” that keeps men from reaching the gold is associated with God “allowing” someone to “open the hoard.”
The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf,
stacked and decked it until it stood four-square,
hung with helmets, heavy war-shields
and shining armour, just as he had ordered.
Then his warriors laid him in the middle of it,
mourning a lord far-famed and beloved.
On a height they kindled the hugest of all
funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
and drowned out their weeping, wind died down
and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
burning it to the core. (3137-3148)
Beowulf’s funeral pyre is the final image of the epic, creating an interesting parallel to the opening scene, Shield Sheafson’s burial at sea.
And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels
and a trove of such things as trespassing men
had once dared to drag from the hoard.
They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure,
gold under gravel, gone to earth,
as useless to men now as it ever was. (3163-3168)
At the end of the epic, the narrator seems to remind us that all the gold and treasures in the world are useless to men in the broader context of life, death, the afterlife, and real human needs. However, maybe what’s really useless about his treasure is that it’s buried underground with Beowulf, “gone to earth,” the way that the gold was before it was dug up and fashioned into treasures. Only when it’s in the world, circulating, being used to pay for things or as a reward, can the gold actually be useful to men.
Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
chieftain’s sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be conveyed from his bodily home. (3169-3177)
Tradition and customs
Beowulf’s lords celebrate his life by retelling the stories of his great deeds, a traditional way of mourning and preserving the memory of a great man at the same time.