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Hrothgar makes a speech thanking god – and so far only god – for ridding the Danes of Grendel.
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“For this sight to the almighty thanks
be given immediately! Great grief I endured,
the affliction of Grendel; always may god work
wonder after wonder, the shepherd of glory!
It was not long ago, that I expected never
to meet anyone who could soothe
my miseries, when blood-bedecked
stood the best of halls gory from battle,
wide-reaching woe knew everyone so that
none would venture near, so that for a long time
the people in their stronghold had to hold out against
hated demons and evil. Now shall we have through
the might of god this deed done,
a thing requiring skill that that none before
may have even conceived of.”
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Beowulf as Beefy Missionary or Hrothgar’s Propaganda
In this passage, or rather, in this the first half of Hrothgar’s speech, Beowulf is suspiciously absent. Instead, this god character gets top billing.
So what’s the deal with this?
I mean, Beowulf makes mention of god and god’s favour and help in his boasts and stories of past deeds, but Hrothgar really doesn’t say much of anything about god up until now. The way I see it, this could mean that Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon twist on a missionary – think Rambo crossed with an evangelist – or that Hrothgar has converted (or just always been quietly Christian) and is now using Beowulf’s victory as a bit of propaganda to stir his people to conversion.
In the first instance, Beowulf makes for an archetypically macho missionary. And, the first half of the poem definitely supports this interpretation.
With the Danes you’ve got a people at their wits end. Their own gods have done nothing to help them and none who have come to deal with Grendel have succeeded for the last twelve years. Then this Beowulf fellow shows up and suddenly that Grendel problem’s dealt with. Of course, if in this analogy Grendel represents something like wrong belief or vile practices or the perceived wickedness that comes from being a non-Christian, then things are definitely sped up for dramatic effect. Though the speed at which missionary Beowulf turns his audience toward his message can be found in other stories, like that of Saint Boniface, who chopped down a sacred oak tree in one swing and replaced it with an evergreen, unwittingly setting up what would become the Christmas tree and, according to the story, converting crowds. Of course, Christianity has always brought its own host of problems to the various places it’s been taken, either because of the people bearing it or the way in which it melded or failed to meld with the target peoples’ beliefs. Still. With Beowulf as a super hero missionary who spreads the Word through his thirty-men strong grip, things getting done quickly is unsurprising.
What’s more when it comes to this missionary reading, though, is that if we jump ahead to the instance with Grendel’s mother, we can then read that as Beowulf facing off with powerful and seductive temptation. In which case Grendel’s mother represents the possible feelings that Beowulf has for Wealhtheow and/or vice versa, feelings that could lead to a terrible scandal. But, when he defeats Grendel’s mother, Beowulf proves himself to be so good at what he does that he’s able to overcome that potential scandal, too.
The alternative reading, that Hrothgar is just using Beowulf’s victory as a way to do some preaching himself, digs up a thing or two, as well. Namely that Hrothgar may have been so dejected when we first meet him because he’d converted but his people hadn’t followed since it alone hadn’t rid them of Grendel. But with the defeat of Grendel at the hands of Beowulf – a warrior who entrusts himself to fate and to god – Hrothgar sees an opportunity to put Christianity into a positive light and proceeds to do so by saying that without god none of this would be possible. It wouldn’t even be conceivable (ll.941-942a).
In the light of these two possible readings of this passage I think it’s important to note that I feel I can get away with these sorts of analyses because Beowulf would’ve been written down by someone who had at least experienced the Church’s educational system. In other words, whatever this story was when it was simply being told, it took on a few Christian elements in its being written down. And maybe the possibility of reading Beowulf as a missionary or Hrothgar as a Christian propaganda opportunist are just products of it having been written that way. Maybe.
What do you think is happening with religion here? Is Beowulf a macho missionary? Is Hrothgar a propagandist? Or are both true?
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Poetic Compounds found in Poetry
I’m not sure if prolonged exposure to Beowulf has made me a little jaded when it comes to Anglo-Saxon compound words or what. But this passage’s crop of them just isn’t doesn’t stack up to previous passages’. Gone are the combinations of words with almost opposite meanings, or senses that you’d normally not put together. Instead we have stuff that’s much more straightforward, but that still carries the quirk of age.
Take for instance “un-geara.” This isn’t a compound word in the truest sense, since it’s just the word for “yore,” “formerly, “in former times,” “once,” or “long since” with the prefix “un” stuck to it. But still, it’s pretty interesting to look at. I mean, this one means “not long ago” but literally translates as “not formerly.” You can clearly see the connection there, in that if something isn’t formerly, then it’s simply “not long ago.”
The word “heoro-dreorig” gets more straightforward as it’s just a combination of “heoro” (“sword”) and “dreorig” (“bloody,” “blood-stained,” “cruel,” “grievous,” “sad,” “sorrowful,” or “headlong?[sic]”). So it means “gory from battle,” though a more literal translation would be “sword gory.” I think it gets across its sense of the messy leavings of battle quite nicely. After all, even the sharpest knife, the most battle ready, is going to catch some of the gore, some of the blood on itself, and so too would anything that was the setting for battle, such as Heorot.
The word “wide-scofen” gets a little more poetic, thankfully. A combination of “wide” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “scufan” (“shove,” “thrust,” “push,” “push with violence,” “urge,” “impel,” “push out,” “expel,” “deliver up,” or “display”) this word means “scattered far and wide.” A simple translation of the two words gives the sense of things being shoved or pushed wide apart, though. And I think the nuance here is important because unlike the modern English “scattered far and wide” to say that something’s been shoved far apart suggests a more forceful and immediate agency to me. It’s not that some invisible force from on high has scattered these things involved, but something more immediate, something that exercised force directly on them or on their surroundings has forced these things apart. Shoving things wide apart is just so much more evocative than the seemingly random sense of being “scattered far and wide”. So it goes without saying that this is my favourite compound of the passage.
Though “land-geweorc” is a close second. Combining “land” (“earth,” “land,” “soil,” “territory,” “realm,” “province,” “district,” “landed property,” “country as opposed to town,” or “ridge in a ploughed field”) and “weorc” (“work,” “workmanship,” “labour,” “construction,” “structure,” “edifice,” “military work,” or “fortification”), this word comes out as “fortified place,” though literally translated it means something like “earth structure.” So it’s not just some sort of structure built on the land, but there’s a very real sense here that this structure or fortification is built very much with the land in mind. Whether that means that it’s built into its area’s natural features or if it means that it’s simply taking advantage of those features, this combination really makes me think of something built cleverly rather than with a lot of sweat and labour. Actually, as with “wide-scofen” there’s a certain connotation of immediacy to this word which I find really interesting. Why? Because it carries with it a sense almost of being closer to the natural world and being able to take advantage of knowledge of its rhythms and patterns.
Why do you think old words like “wide-scofen” (which looks like “wide-shoved” if you think about it) changed to different phrases with similar meanings? Does this just reflect a change in taste, or is there something more at work in these changes?
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In the next entry, Hrothgar’s speech continues and he mentions the man of the hour.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.