Thursday, 30 April 2015

Beowulf Read-Along - Starting Week One

Beowulf Read-Along
Week 1 - May 1 - 8; Lines 1 - 709


VOCABULARY (for those with the Heaney translation):

In case anyone needs a little help 

thole: to bear; endure

torque: a collar or neck chain, usually twisted

reaver: spoiler; plunderer

thane: free servant or attendant to a lord

bolter: covered in (blood)

bawn: enclosure of mud or stone walls around a house or castle

mizzle: mist or fine rain


Quick Summary:  So Hrothgar’s lineage begins with Shield Sheafson, his great-grandfather who was a foundling but built a prosperous kingdom through battle.  Beow was his son, who was followed by Halfdane, Hrothgar’s father.  Hrothgar is at first smiled on by fortune, but then Grendel appears, to ruin his precious Hall, eat his men, and disrupt his later years of kingship.  After 12 years of Heorot enduring the monster’s carnage, Beowulf arrives to settle a debt, promising to kill the vile creature or die in the attempt.  There is feasting and then Hrothar hands over Heorot to Beowulf to await Grendel ……


Lines 1-11:

The poem begins with the lineage of Hrothgar. What I find interesting to note is that Shield Sheafson did not inherit the kingship, but was actually a foundling who won it by his bravery and the fact he slaughtered countless numbers of people. "....... scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes ...... " These were the "virtues" that were admired, and allowed an unknown warrior to become king. (Lines 1-11)

Lines 20 - 25:

After Shield becomes king, the kingship seems to follow a path of direct lineage. Beow, Shield's son, is "prudent", "giving freely while his father lives so that afterwards in age when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him ....", an indication that not only do you need to be brave and a consummate killer, but that loyalty must be purchased for a king to remain in power: (Lines 20-25)

"Behaviour that's admired is the path to power among people everywhere." (Lines 24-25)

Lines 26 - 52:

We read about the funeral of Shield Sheafson. I was surprised to see the words: "No man can tell, no wise man in hall or weathered veteran knows for certain who salvaged that load." They seemed to know that the body could land somewhere and the treasure and offerings be taken by someone else. Interesting ..... (Lines 26-52)

Lines 56 - 82:

Halfdane is Beow's son and he had the three sons and a daughter, Hrothgar being the second son. When it says: "The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar......", we cannot be certain whether his older brother, Heorogar was killed in war, or that Hrothgar won more renown and loyalty than Heorogar, and therefore was accepted as king. Heorot, the great mead-hall, appears to have been built as a tribute to Hrothgar's greatness ........ (Lines 56-82)

Lines 126 - 147

I thought the author (and Heaney) did a wonderful job of describing Grendel. I almost shiver as I imagine him coming into the mead-hall with all the unsuspecting warriors asleep. Cain was God-cursed for murdering and being unrepentant and, like Cain, so is Grendel. In one swoop, he carries off 30 men! We are not directly told his size, but he must be huge.

What puzzled me in this section (and the upcoming ones) is that Hrothgar does not fight. He is an honoured king who must have reached such renown by the battles he has won and the people he has slaughtered. Why is he so hesitant to fight Grendel?

...."Their mighty prince, the storied leader, sat stricken and helpless, humiliated by the loss of his guard, bewildered and stunned, staring aghast at the demon's trail, in deep distress...."

WHY? Is he afraid? Even if Grendel is powerful, wouldn't dying a death to defend your home and people be more honourable than sitting and doing nothing? Is he simply old now and cannot get up the courage to fight? He allows the carnage to go on for 12 years! I am really perplexed by Hrothgar's lack of action. (Lines 126 – 147)

It sounded like Hrothgar was living in peaceful times, erecting a type of memorial for himself and then all of a sudden this monster appears and starts to wreak havoc. Perhaps he was looking for peace in his old age and, because of his age, is overwhelmed by such a unstoppable demon. I want him to spring up and at least take a few swings at Grendel but he is powerless. Not the response I'd imagine from a respected king of the Spear-Danes. 

Lines 194 - 355

Quite an impressive entrance by Beowulf and his warriors. Their courage, bravery and self-assurance is readily apparent to both the coast-guard and the warrior, Wulfgar, they meet at Heorot. I loved the coast-guard's response to Beowulf's statement that he has come to kill the monster: "Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what's said and what's done." (Lines 287-289)

Even after 12 years of the monster ravaging their halls, the Spear-Dane warriors still have respect for their king; Wulfgar calls him, "our noble king", "our-dear lord", "friend of the Danes", and "giver of rings".

And why has Beowulf come? Why would he risk the lives of himself and his men? To prove his bravery with a feat no one has been able to accomplish, or is there another reason ....???

Lines 399 - 498

Beowulf is clear with Hrothgar that he only wants his men to contend with the monster:

" ....... my one request is that you won't refuse me, who have come this far, the privilege of purifying Heorot, with my own men to help me, and nobody else." (Lines 429-432)

Beowulf does not know the Spear-Danes. He does not know if he can trust them, how much he can trust them, how they fight, what their actions might be during a fight, etc. When he left Geatland, I got the impression that he chose his warriors carefully, as he knew it was going to be a great task and perhaps not one he was willing to share with men who had not been able to deal with the monster and men whom he did not know. (Lines 427 - 441)
Ah ha! Now we find out the motivation for Beowulf's offer of help. Hrothgar payed wergild for one of Beowulf's father's (Ecgtheow) killings and gave him shelter in his banishment. Because of his father's debt, Beowulf owes Hrothgar a favour as well as his allegiance.  Is it telling that Hrothgar brings up this debt instead of Beowulf? Does this fact decrease impression of the unselfish act of bravery Beowulf is presenting? (Lines 456-479)

We also find out that Hrothgar's older brother, Heorogar had died but we don't find out why. (Lines 467-469)

Lines 499 - 709

The verbal sparring and boasts between Beowulf and Unferth is a long section of the poem and therefore gives an indication that it is rather important. It is the height of ungraciousness (and not to mention stupidity) to try to make a renowned warrior, and especially one who has arrived to rescue the kingdom, look foolish. Beowulf extinguishes any influence Unferth's words might have had with a magnificent accusation, basically calling him a coward and accrediting him with murdering his family.  It's a shocking allegation. Killing other people's kin is expected, but killing your own is truly heinous. I assume Unferth is left alive after 12 years because of his cowardice, yet Beowulf firmly puts him in his place ..... " ...... you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell ....." (Lines 499 - 606) [Strangely, in the audiobook version read by Seamus Heaney ------ wonderful, BTW -------- they chose to delete this whole section, a crime I think, because it is so necessary to later understand Beowulf's character and motivations]

We also see a rare appearance of a woman in this story, Wealtheow, Hrothgar's queen. There is obviously a respect for women in this society and Beowulf treats her with great courtesy. (Lines 607 - 641)

As he prepares with his warriors to face the monster, notice that Beowulf says: " ......There's nothing you wish for that won't be yours if you win through alive ...."  A little monetary incentive towards bravery! (Lines 642 - 661)

As to why Beowulf decides to fight Grendel unarmed, I can only assume that he wants an even match.  Honour is all-important in this society.  I can see Unferth accusing him of having an advantage with a sword, but by using only his bare hands, he will win even more glory for himself. It is funny that Beowulf uses a pillow when he sleeps: "Then down the brave man lay with a bolster under his head .... " :-D There is quite an emphasis in this section of God having control over the situation .......... previously Hrothgar had gone to his counsellors and pagan gods but it is quite clear here that the author wants us to see that Beowulf has God on his side. (Lines 662 - 709)

 Please put any questions, comments, or answers to the questions below in the comment area even further below!

  1. Why do you think that Hrothgar has not fought Grendel?
  2. Why do you think Beowulf allows Unferth to speak to him in such a manner?
  3. Any thoughts with regard to the pagan vs. Christian references so far?
  4. Did a few of these scenes remind you of any of Tolkien's works?

Week 2 starting post will go up on May 8th!  


The following are answers to the above questions.  Please keep in mind, that these answers are my opinions (or often guesses) based on the text.  Often, they may not be the only answer, just aspects of the poem that have stood out for me.

1.      In this culture, the king should have fought.  The fact that he hasn’t is unusual.  Is it because he is too old, or too weak, or too scared, or is Grendel simply too menacing to expect an outcome other than death?  I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to know exactly why, but I do think it’s an important point of the story, in that his behaviour is counter to what is expected.
2.    Again, there is no reason given.  And again, Beowulf’s response is counter-cultural.  He should have challenged Unferth and killed him.  However, his actual response is rather mild.  Another indication of a difference in the cultural norm.
3.    What is so fascinating is that there is an intermixing of both pagan and Christian views.  They neither appear entirely Christian or pagan.  On one hand, they thank God and invoke His goodness and His control over situations, and on the other they profess fate and seek out pagan counsellors.  While both beliefs are still present, they grate against each other, and I can understand, at some point, that one will have to win out over the other.

4.    For me, King Theoden of Rohan shone out from Hrothgar, and Meduseld was Heorot. 


  1. Woohoo! I shall start tomorrow. Also, new knowledge: "reaver" as a word was not invented by Joss Whedon for Firefly. :D

    1. I saw Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing film, but otherwise know nothing about him. Shall I check out Firefly ..... or not ......?

    2. Firefly is completely awesome if you are a nerd. It's kind of a Western in space. It's got some violence--it's a western after all--but the humor is fantastic.

      Now I want to watch it again. Good thing we have it on DVD.

    3. Your recommendation is good enough for me! I'm ordering it from the library.

      So much for the Beowulf conversation, huh? ;-)

  2. I wish I had time to join you in the read-along, but time and events conspire against me. In any case, I wish you and other readers well in the process. Be thankful that you are not reading _Beowulf_ as I was required to read it in school long ago: in its original English form. We even had read aloud performances. Yikes! Enjoy Heaney's translation.

    1. That's too bad, R.T. If you remember something from your first read, please feel free to jump right in. I did find an archived MOOCs course for Beowulf where you have to study it in Old English ....... I need to add it to my information page. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Woohoo..Now that the big fat wedding is done and over with, I started today! I found the notes really helpful and I am now plodding past 101 lines...will share more indepth insight once I complete the 700 milestone...loving the paean style of writing

    1. From a wedding to carnage. How nice for you. ;-)

      Alexander is making it sound majestic and triumphant? That's good. I must say that I'm impressed with the tone of Heaney's writing. He makes the poem sound wonderfully rich and glorious, a quality that seems to be diminished in my two other translations (Tolkien and Swanton). But it's too earlier to tell just yet.

  4. I am also loving Heaney - can not resist reading aloud (when nobody is around to hear me). Glorious stuff indeed and I'm wondering why I've resisted reading it for so long. Have to confess I haven't read enough Tolkien to be reminded of his work.

    I want to read again in case I've missed something but I do think Hrothgar is just too old to fight Grendel and win and knows it and then the long years of grief have led to a sort of passive acceptance, an 'it's all in the hands of the gods' attitude. line 477 ' fate sweeps them away......'

    1. Great point about fate, Cat. There is certainly that element to it. I had wondered if he had inherited a relatively peaceful kingdom and wasn't used to having to protect it, but it does mention that he has seen battles, so out goes that theory. Hrothgar has ruled for 50 years before Grendel showed up so there is definitely foreshadowing. He is Hrothgar's bête noire, so to speak. As for Tolkien, Hrothgar reminds me of Theoden and Heorot is Meduseld.

      I'm so thrilled that you're enjoying it. While Heaney's tone is majestic, it also really drives the story forward. Good stuff!

  5. I'm definitely liking the Heaney better than the first time I read it, though I still wish I had read the Raffel first.

    I am really interested in the transition from pagan to Christian traditions in the poem. My comment has to do with that and also with your question about why Hrothgar did not fight Grendel.

    Perhaps the author did this in order to impress just how frightening Grendel was - when he could carry off 30 men, no one could beat him - until Beowulf. Also - if he only attacked at night, in the dark, maybe it was much harder for them, than fighting someone in the daylight.

    Another related question I had - all the warriors went and slept somewhere else, but doesnt it sound like Hrothgar is still at Heorot? So what keeps Grendel from killing him? On line 166
    " He took over Heorot,
    haunted the glittering hall after dark,
    but the throne itself, the treasure-seat
    he was kept from approaching; he was the Lord's outcast"

    "Though he lived
    In Herot, when the night hid him, he never
    Dared to touch King Hrothgar's glorious
    Throne, protected by God - God,
    Whose love Grendel could not know."

    I am kind of stumped by this. Does this mean he could not kill the king? Or literally could not touch his throne? And why would he, if all he wanted was to kill and eat people? And why would the throne itself be protected by God?

    1. I looked up these parts in my other two versions and here's what I found:

      Michael Swanton tends to confuse the issue, saying that the "he" in "He could not approach the precious throne" is not clear whether it is Grendel or Hrothgar. However, it looks like the overwhelming concensus is that "he" refers to Grendel. Here is Swanton's translation:

      "On dark nights he dwelt in the treasure-decked hall, Heorot. Because of Providence he could not approach the precious throne, the source of gifts; nor did he feel his love."

      As for where everyone was, Swanton's translation appears more clear:

      "Then it was easy (for Grendel) to find the man who was seeking a couch for himself elsewhere, a bed among the outbuildings farther away ....... Whoever escaped the fiend held himself afterwards farther off and more securely. Thus one held sway over all and strove against right until the best of houses stood deserted." (Lines 138-143, I think)

      Swanton's translation is annoying because it gives line numbers for the Old English, but not the translation, and the translation is in prose and not spaced out to meet the Old English. Grrr! ;-)

      Tolkien's translation, for me gives more information, but his line numbers are off, which is rather maddening.

      " .... Thereafter not far to to seek was the man who elsewhere more remote sought him his couch and a bed among the lesser chambers, since now was manifested and declared thus truly to him with token plain the hatred of the hall-keeper; thereafter he who escaped the foe kept him more distant and safe ....

      Even thus did one lord it and against right make war, alone against them all, until empty stood that best of houses. ....... twelve winters' ....... Grendel strove a while with Hrothgar, wrought hate and malice, evil deeds and enmity .....truce he would not have with any man of the Danish host, nor would withhold his deadly cruelty, nor accept terms of payment; and there no cause had any of the counsellors to look for golden recompense from the slayer's hands; nay, the fierce killer pursued them still ..... men know not whither sorcerers of hell in their wanderings roam ......" (His lines 110-130; line 142-163)

      I found Tolkien's narrative a little choppy with his word placement somewhat awkward, but he gives excellent information. From him I understood:

      a) the atttack that carried off the 30 men at once, was the first attack and it was after feasting while the men slept. It appears Hrothgar was there with his men, as he examines Grendel's footprints;

      b) there is another attack and now a cycle is begun

      c) Grendel remains hidden and elusive; no one seems to be able to anticipate where he is going to attack next. Also he does not seem to just limit his attacks to Heorot. I don't think Hrothgar is at Heorot at this time ..... I assume he would try to find sanctuary, as does his surviving warriors

      d) effort has been made to placate him, through payment and diplomacy, etc. He will not accept anything but murder.

    2. So perhaps Hrothgar is simply being sensible, knowing that no one can overcome this monster.

      As to why Grendel cannot come near the precious throne, I don't have a definitive answer. Not only is Grendel cursed by God, Grendel hates God, so it doesn't surprise me that he cannot go near it. As to why it has special protection, to me, that is less clear. Has God not only protected the throne, but protected Hrothgar too to keep him safe?

      I do see a parallel with the above issue/question and another part of the poem, line 163:

      Heaney: " ..... nobody knows where these reavers from hell roam on their errands ..."

      Swanton: ".... Men do not know where those who share hell's secrets will direct their paths ...."

      Tolkien: " ..... men know not whither socerer's of hell in their wanderings roam ...." (his lines 129-130)

      Just as Grendel cannot touch or approach the throne (or perhaps Hrothgar) because his (Grendel's) connection with God is severed, so the Spear-Danes cannot anticipate the actions of Grendel because they do not understand the workings of supreme evil. I like this parallel.

      I hope that answers some of your questions, or at least makes certain issues clearer, Dawn. Please keep asking these questions; they make me think more and I'm getting even more out of the poem my sixth(?) time around! :-)

    3. Yes, that helped a lot. Actually, I had never thought about the "he" who could not approach the throne being Hrothgar. I checked yet one more translation: Gummere which is the free kindle one I had forgotten about:
      O’er Heorot he lorded, gold-bright hall, in gloomy nights; and ne’er could the prince
      approach his throne, -- ’twas judgment of God, -- or have joy in his hall.

      So it sounds like the translators have interpreted 'he' differently. Interesting.

      The free kindle Gummere translation has NO line numbers at all!!

    4. Yikes, more confusion! Perhaps it's a blessing that we aren't able to read Old English!

  6. The Gummere translation (free Kindle version) is kind of fun. He uses a lot of 2 syllable alliteration. Fun to read, but I would hate to read it aloud. For me it would be a tongue-twister. Here's a small sample:

    Twelve years’ tide the trouble he bore,
    sovran of Scyldings, sorrows in plenty,
    boundless cares. There came unhidden
    tidings true to the tribes of men,
    in sorrowful songs, how ceaselessly Grendel harassed
    Hrothgar, what hate he bore him,
    what murder and massacre, many a year,
    feud unfading, -- refused consent
    to deal with any of Daneland’s earls,

    1. With all these different translations, it's becoming apparent that there are rather obvious differences between the translators who chose to include the poetry and the translators who chose to concentrate on content (meaning). The original poem is apparently very much like Gummere's example ...... tons of alliteration per line. It gives us perhaps a feel for the old poem in a way, but I don't think it really conveys the sound or cadence of the original. It would be fun to listen to this one read out loud (by a professional) and then listen to Benjamin Bagby reading the original. The Swanton and Tolkien translations which go for meaning, tend to clarify certain questions that I was left with after reading Heaney. However, with Heaney, while the meaning is perhaps not always crystal-clear, you do get both the meaning and a very beautiful and elevated style of the poetry which sounds just lovely. I think Heaney has made a wonderful compromise between form and content.

      Thanks for posting this comparison, Dawn!

  7. This is all so interesting! I have downloaded the Gummere so I can make some comparisons.

    Just wanted to let you know I'll be MIA for a few days - a bereavement in my husband's family.

    1. I'm so very sorry to hear about your family, Cat. Wishing you all the best and hope to see you back soon!

  8. Here's my post, a couple days late and fifty cents short: :)

    1. Thanks! I put the same comment on your blog, but please feel free to share and deep insights you get from reading Tolkien's notes. I'm sure we'd love to hear them.

  9. In answer to your question about the intermingling of religions in the text (something I also found very interesting) I'd like to add that based on the foreword of my translation (M. Alexander, Penguin edition), as well as personal observations, the discrepancy is partially explained by the fact that although Beowulf tells of a pagan society, it was written by a Christian cleric. For one, I found that in one passage the narrator emerges in the text to criticize the pagan rituals of the Danes, claiming that they did not know the true God (lines 170-190). Also in the same passage, the translator suggests, the Danes revert to paganism in a situation of danger, worry, fear, etc.
    As for what reminded me of Tolkien — as immature as this sounds — every time the text mentions giving rings and ring-givers, a childish smile pops up on my face. :D

    1. Hey Maria! Your Penguin edition really said that it was written by a Christian cleric??!!! I used to love my Penguin classics but I've been tending to gravitate towards Oxford Classics and now I'm beginning to realize why. The Beowulf poet is unknown, so their information is incorrect. It was transcribed by monks (actually two different ones) but with whom the poem originated remains a mystery. One of the questions is whether it was altered at a later date by the monks, so it almost seems that some scholars think that it wasn't written by a Christian but altered to include the Christian content later on. It all gets really convoluted, as you can imagine.

      A very good observation about the dichotomy within the poet's tale. Sometimes it's obvious that he's promoting a faith in God, and at others he appears to be supporting the existing culture. Quite fascinating.

      It's not immature at all! Most of us love gifts, right? I can imagine the anticipation as each warrior waits to see what he will receive. :-)

      I love your blog, BTW. I see that we're kindred spirits in our reading choices!

    2. No, no. I'm afraid the mistake is on my part! Ugh do I feel ignorant :( The edition acknowledges that the circumstances of the poem's composition and its authorship are unknown. However, it does mention that Christian monks worked on the text (as you mentioned) and then drops this line when discussing the pagan sacrifice bit: "[t]he author and the audience of Beowulf knew themselves to be in a new and a better dispensation." Everything got jumbled in my head.

      Although you are right, and Oxford Classics offer much better academic resources. But this copy was so beautiful I couldn't resist!

      So thank you for the correction! I wondered whether the Christian content was added later because in parts it certainly seems so.

      And thank you! When I found your blog I knew I had to subscribe. :)

    3. No problem at all, Maria! The origins of this poem are so convoluted and the controversy so broad that it's really difficult to get everything straight. I'm often having to go back and check facts/opinions.

      "...[t]he author and the audience of Beowulf knew themselves to be in a new and a better dispensation." I really like how he mentions the audience ----- you can (more or less) tell how the poet feels about the cultural situation, but it's important to muse over how his audience would have felt as well.

      Personally, I kind of doubt that the Christian content was added later. I know at times it seems thrown in at the beginning of the poem but mid-way it melds well and at the end there is almost a resurgence of pagan thought, although this is perhaps used in contrast to emphasis particular points. I put have some comments on this topic in week 2 but the general gist is: 1. if it was altered later, you would think it would be for a purpose; 2. if a Christian altered it, it would most likely be to promote their faith; 3. it would be very bizarre that a Christian would promote his faith using only Old Testament references and leaving out any mention of Christ, salvation or an afterlife, important cornerstones of the Christian faith. So based on that last point, a later alteration with a purpose, doesn't ring true to me. However, I think it could have been written originally either by a Christian or non-Christian poet who was truly trying to show the effect of Christianity on a pagan culture, giving us one small snapshot of that slow metamorphosis. I'm really hoping that someone will find something in an old library or house that will give us more information one day, but for now we can only surmise.

      Is your cover the new Penguin one? My Goodreads group posted it along with some other new covers they've done. Very cool!

      And thanks for the kind words about my blog! :-)

    4. Your explanation makes sense. I didn't give much thought to the absence of New Testament content. And I'll be sure to check out all of your posts as I progress with the poem. :)

      I'm not sure if it is new (as I picked it up at the used book store), but it is part of the books-that-inspired-Tolkien series and has a very bright & colourful cover.