Today we begin reading the classics together! Over the next four weeks we’ll be reading and discussing the great medieval poem Beowulf, beginning with the Harrowing of Heorot. Everyone is welcome to join us, even if you start late.
Today’s reading assignment was lines 1-490. From this point forward, we’ll be reading 800-900 lines per week until we finish the poem (get all the reading assignments here). Each week I will write a brief overview of the reading, along with some of my insights, interpretive points, and applications. In the comments section, you can share what you’ve learned, ask any questions you have, and offer any points of application.
At just over 3,000 lines, Beowulf is one of the most glorious and powerful poems in British literature. Its beauties are of a harsher type: the warmth and light of the mead-hall are always threatened by what might come in the wild of the night. But the fragility of the community also gives rise to noble heroics.
Beowulf was written sometime after the Christianizing of Saxon England but before the Norman Conquest (c. 650-1000 BC). The story reflects the culture transition of Anglo-Saxon Britain from paganism to the new glories of Christianity.
Though written in English by a Christian author, the setting of Beowulf is Scandinavia, and the hero is from the Geats, a tribe from southern Sweden. Though the story shows remarkable invention and artistic unity, the author likely used a well-known folktale as the source for his poem.
Though we could say much more about the background, authorship, and source texts of this poem, the really important thing is the poem itself. So let’s get to the poetry.
Shield Sheafson and Hrothgar
Beowulf begins by describing the royal line of Shield Sheafson, a helpless foundling in a boat (like Moses) who becomes a great Danish king (also like Moses). Shield was a good king because he was generous with gifts to his warriors, he fought well in battle, and–most importantly–he left his people with an heir to the throne, Beow, who was also a good king. Without a king, the people lack protection from invaders and from potential civil war as warriors vie for the throne.
Beow’s line continued to his son Hrothgar, who built Heorot, a glorious mead-hall. The mead-hall represented the solidarity of the community, for it was the place of feasting, drinking, and singing. The bonds of king and warriors were strengthened through gifts the king gave in the hall, boasts were made that kept warriors brave in battle, and songs were sung to keep fresh the memories of past heroism.
Grendel Comes to Heorot
In the Anglo-Saxon view of the world, the natural world was always dangerous. Nature always threatened the survival of the community. From nature came storms, wolves, enemy armies–and monsters.
Shortly after Heorot is built, Grendel lays siege to it. Grendel is a monster descended from Cain. Because of his father’s fratricide, Grendel still suffers exile from the communities of men. Doing what monsters do, Grendel revives the old feud by killing thirty Danish warriors sleeping in Heorot and feasting on them in his lair.
He returns again the next night, and the next. For twelve winters Grendel haunts Heorot, devouring anyone foolish enough to be found there after nightfall. The cheer of the Danes has ended: Heorot has become a sepulchre, the hall of a demon-king.
Oppressed and helpless, the Danes petition their old pagan gods for help. At this point, the poet inserts himself into the poem to condemn pagan idols and to counsel trust in the Lord. This is the first instance of a conflict between the pagan and Christian worldview. Watch for these clashes, because they give clues to the purpose of the poem.
Beowulf Comes Over the Sea
Hearing of the Danish terror, the peerless young warrior Beowulf sets out with fourteen other warriors to deliver the Danes from the monster. He sails across the sea, from Sweden to Denmark, beaches his ship, and is challenged by the Danish watchman who guards the coast.
After the watchman hears Beowulf’s intent, he gives curious advice: “Anyone with gumption/and a sharp mind will take the measure/of two things: what’s said and what’s done” (ll. 287-89). In other words, he exhorts the young warrior to make sure his words and deeds match. Beowulf has promised to bring deliverance, so the watchman warns him against both cowardice and vain glory-seeking. He exhorts Beowulf to keep his boasts and not to let his pride outstrip his ability.
Notice that though Beowulf first appears in line 194, but doesn’t give his name until line 343. This technique of delayed identification draws our attention to the action of Beowulf, as if Beowulf couldn’t waste any time giving his name, even to the watchman. This should also remind us of another hero who came from across the sea to deliver a people enslaved in fear to a demon tormentor–a hero who didn’t reveal himself immediately either, who had “no form or majesty that we should look at him” (Is. 53:2).
After the necessary formalities, Beowulf presents himself to Hrothgar and makes his bold boast. In Anglo-Saxon culture, boasts were not merely chest-thumpings, but were a vital of the warrior culture. Boasts made before a number of witnesses would be remembered by the warrior at the crucial moment before the fighting started. Remembering his boast–his verbal contract–would steel his bravery when it mattered most.
Remarkably, Beowulf not only promises to fight Grendel in single combat but to fight him without weapons or armor. He does this because Grendel doesn’t use weapons, and Beowulf wants a fair fight. And so, the stage is set for the battle of hero and monster: “hand-to-hand/is how it will be, a life-and-death/fight with the fiend” (ll. 438-440).
But, in true Germanic fashion, before the fighting comes the feasting (or is it the other way around?). Hrothgar invites Beowulf to sit down for meat, mead, and melody–a feast to honor his guest. Notice how Beowulf has already begun to end Grendel’s tyranny: Hope has returned to Heorot for the first time in twelve winters.
But Spring is coming…
For next week, please read lines 491-1231, which describe the fight with Grendel and its aftermath. Then come back on Wednesday so we can talk about it.
Since we’re reading this book together, take some time to share your responses and insights to this reading in the comments section below.
Posts in This Series
Read all the posts in the Beowulf series:
- BW1-The Harrowing of Heorot
- BW2-The Fight with Grendel
- BW3-Fighting Grendel’s Mother
- BW4-Fighting the Dragon