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. 

Sunday 26 April 2015

Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week April 24-30

In honour of the birthday month of Elizabeth Goudge, The Emerald City Book Review is hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week.

I'm a little late with my post but better late and confused, rather than absent!  I was planning to read The Dean's Watch, but after starting it, I appear to have misplaced it.  I mean REALLY misplaced it!  I can't find it anywhere!  In any case, quelling my frustration at not being able to find a rather large hardcover book, I've abandoned my original plan and have picked up Island Magic to read.  I sat down to read it today and was immediately immersed in the story. Goudge's writing is so mesmerizing, beautiful and startlingly insightful.  I'm so glad that I decided to participate in this event.

My dream would be to finish Island Magic and be able to find and finish The Dean's Watch too, but I'm not particularly idealistic and know I will probably only have the time to get through one.  But at least I'll have an introduction to Goudge's writing, which I've been meaning to read for years and have yet to. Thanks for hosting, Emerald City!

Friday 24 April 2015

Beowulf Read-Along - Background Information

In another week we'll be starting our Beowulf Read-Along and, as promised, this post contains some helpful background information, including my brief summary of Tolkien's essay (for those of you who may not get the time to read it), culture, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Kennings and finally a link to Beowulf read in Old English.

Please feel free to add any information in the comments section that I may have missed; I've read the poem numerous times but I am by no means an expert and still have questions about some of the scenes and behaviour of the characters (as you'll see when I start posting my notes weekly).  I hope that while this is a read-along, it can also be a "read-together" and we'll all be able to add to each other's enjoyment of this wonderful classic!

The Monster and the Critics

There was and is quite a bit of controversy about this poem.  When was it written?  Was Beowulf a real person?  Is it a true rendition of a traditional story, or was it later altered by monks to insert Christian themes?  Tolkien addresses some of these questions in this essay where he essentially criticizes the critics of his time. He basically says that the majority of the critics have stripped Beowulf down until it is merely an historical document and then have examined its faults based on this dissection. He makes the case that it is much more than history ...... It is fable, myth, story, poetry, history, etc. ........ it is all of these things, but yet none of these things in the way that was understood by the pagan world up until the time of Beowulf. In fact, it is showing the merging of the Christian faith with the old pagan ideas, the poet looking back in time. Yet the fusion is not yet complete, which to me, makes the poem even more fascinating:

"It is through such a blending that there was available to a poet who set out to write a poem --- and in the case of Beowulf we may probably use this very word --- on a scale and plan unlike a minstrel's lay, both new faith and new learning (or education), and also a body of native tradition (itself requiring to be learned) for the changed mind to contemplate together ..............."

" ........ But that shift is not complete in Beowulf --- whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die: A theme no Christian need despise. Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees all glory (or as we might say 'culture' or 'civilization') ends in night ......"

You can read the essay here.


The year 410 AD historically marks the withdrawal of the protection and rule of the Roman Empire from Britain.  Increasingly under pressure from barbarian attacks, the British people began to hire mercenaries from Germanic tribes of the European continent.  While this plan was at first satisfactory to both parties, the mercenaries soon began to entertain ideas of expropriating parts of Britain for their own settlements. These tribes of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes soon began to conquer parts of Britain, driving the peoples into Wales and other far places.  This is where the name Anglo-Saxon originates.  

This history explains the link between the setting of the poem and its poet/author:  Beowulf is from Geatland (modern Sweden), Hrothgar is a Dane (modern Denmark), yet the poet is British.  He is most likely writing about his heritage. 

The dating of the poem is unclear.  Because Anglo-Saxon England was not Christianized until around 600 AD, and scholars believe that it was composed sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, that gives us a possible 400 year window of time.


To give a very simplistic overview of a very complex topic, the pagan culture of Beowulf's time was basically a blood-feud society; if someone offended you, you would simply try to massacre him and his family, which, of course, would require him and/or his relatives to attempt the same. It was a form of justice that was often cyclical and quite bleak.

'Wergild' was money that a man or family could pay in compensation for a killing instead of having himself or one of his relatives killed.    

One of the most critical elements of this culture was the relationship between the king (or lord) and his warriors.  The appellation of “ring-giver” in the poem gives us a clue as to how this relationship played out.  In return for loyalty, the king would reward his followers with lavish gifts.  In return for his generosity, the warriors, or “thanes”, would fight for him in times of danger from his enemies.  It was imperative that the lord and his thanes establish this foundation; if it failed in any way, the society surrounding it would collapse.

On a more positive side, this society admired the qualities of loyalty, bravery, courage, and perseverence, although these qualities weren't necessary extolled for the virtue itself but more in the context of allegiances that would preserve the family unit or oneself.  

"Wyrd" or fate was understood as a man's destiny: what was going to happen to him without any control on his part. For example, from a modern standpoint, a man might think that by choosing not to go into battle, he would not die. The view of a warrior from Beowulf's culture would be that honour demanded he fight and 'wyrd' would determine whether he lived or he died. My sense is that 'wyrd' was not a negative concept (his 'wyrd' could cause him to have courage in battle and earn great renown). I also think they did not necessarily view death as emotionally as we do now; it just was, and while there may be regret, it was simply part of life. What was most important is that one died with honour and renown.

Treasure Hunt: With the above in mind, keep special note of Beowulf's actions and behaviour in certain situations during the poem. I'm going to ask some questions as we go along ..... :-)

Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry followed old Germanic verse. The meter goes by stress-count (stressed syllables) rather than syllable count as we are used to in, for example, iambic pentameter (five pairs of syllables, second syllable stressed). Anglo-Saxon verse balances two main stresses in each half of a line.

Alliteration (the repetition of sounds) is often used in contemporary poetry, but the Anglo-Saxons used it even more. Beowulf uses alliteration in almost every line, with a least one alliterating words in each half line, but often more.


A kenning is a poetic device which uses compound words or phrases that identify persons, places, or things in expressive imagery. Usually colourful figures of speech are used to substitute the common name of the noun, an attribute of it, or something closely related to it.

Examples from Beowulf:

Whale-road & Swan-road = the sea

Bone-lappings = ligaments

Sky-candle = the sun

Heaven's joy = the dawn

Iron-shower = battle

Beowulf Read in Old English

Here is a link to the opening lines of Beowulf read in Old English by Benjamin Bagby:

Other Sources

In Search of Beowulf (BBC) Historian Michael Wood returns to his first great love, the Anglo-Saxon world, to reveal the origins of our literary heritage. Focusing on Beowulf and drawing on other Anglo-Saxon classics, he traces the birth of English poetry back to the Dark Ages.”  Wood makes a few sweeping statements for dramatic effect, giving information as if we know it, whereas actually we can only guess, but overall this is a very interesting episode, including a glimpse of the original manuscript and a view of a performance of the poem. (approx. 1 hr)

Beowulf - BBC Radio 4“Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the epic poem Beowulf, one of the masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon literature. Composed in the early Middle Ages by an anonymous poet, the work tells the story of a Scandinavian hero whose feats include battles with the fearsome monster Grendel and a fire-breathing dragon. It survives in a single manuscript dating from around 1000 AD, and was almost completely unknown until its rediscovery in the nineteenth century. Since then it has been translated into modern English by writers including William Morris, JRR Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, and inspired poems, novels and films.”  Three professors from Oxford, King's College London and Worcester College discuss the poem. (43 min.)

*** Excerpts of Beowulf read by Seamus Heaney from the Norton Anthology of Literature site (see #1)  Thanks for the heads up, Dawn!

*** Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf - archived MOOCS course from MIT

*** On Translating Beowulf - Seamus Heaney - I love what he says about people forgetting that with poetry, there is an important relationship between sound and meaning

Of course, some of the above links include spoilers, so you may want to wait until after you've read Beowulf to check them out.

I believe that's it for now.  The opening post for our first section will go up on April 30th.  

(*** = additions to post) 


Hwæt! We Gar-Dena   in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga,   þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas   ellen fremedon!

Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. (Tolkien translation)