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Beowulf tells Hrothgar to stiffen his upper lip and to get out there and get vengeance.
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“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Do not sorrow, wise lord! Better be it for each man
if he avenge his friend, than if he mourn long.
Each of us shall experience an end
to life in this world; achieve what glory you can
before death; that way you may be among the best of warriors
after you are no longer living.
Arise, protector of the realm, head out quickly,
so that we can find the trail of Grendel’s kin!
I to thee promise this: it shall not escape into protection,
nor into the earth’s bosom, nor into the mountain wood,
nor to the depths of the sea, try as it might.
This day you shall have patience enough
for each misery, as I have come to expect you to.'”
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Beowulf as Comforter
Before heroically avenging the death of his dearest counsellor and fellow warrior, Beowulf sets out to relieve Hrothgar’s sorrow and worry. This whole speech is nothing more than Beowulf saying “buck up” with the most genuine of tones. Though he manages to slip a reference to his own prowess in here in the form of a pledge to let no form of escape work for Grendel’s mother.
Looked at in comparison to the strange and nebulous descriptions of the land that the Grendels call home found in previous entries, this direct and simple affirmation makes sense.
In Hrothgar’s words as he tells Beowulf about the swampy mere you can feel the fear and the uncertainty that haunt his heart. If Grendel shook Hrothgar’s resolve and lead him to despair, then all the more the reprieve of that hell ghast’s terrifying hold on Heorot. Like the kid who sees his parents hide away the exact toy that he wanted for Christmas only for Christmas morning to yeild nothing but socks.
And so Beowulf’s hopeful tone is just what’s needed here. Though why he should bother cheering Hrothgar up instead of just saying “I’m here to kill your monster” needs some explaining, I think.
Beowulf could be buttering Hrothgar up with these words of assurance and his vow to track Grendel’s mother to the ends of the earth. But, I don’t think that Beowulf is capable of that sort of calculation just yet. Sure, he knows how to spin a story and how to phrase his speech when he’s talking to nobility, but to just simply coo at Hrothgar with pleasant words sounds like something Unferth is more likely to do than Beowulf. There’s a certain sliminess to it that I just don’t see in the teenage Beowulf’s capacity, however much he might alter even the retelling of his fight with Grendel to suit his audience.
Instead I think that Beowulf looks up to Hrothgar to some extent. We have no idea what his life among the Geats was like. Not to mention if he was singled out or maligned because (as far as I know) only his father was a Geat. Beowulf’s unnamed, though praised mother (ll.942-946), could have been from any clan.
Yet here this young man is, coming across the sea to valiantly defend a people whom he’s only met once before, and maybe at an age from which no memory survives even into the teenage years.
With Hrothgar being an older man in a place of authority, possibly the third that Beowulf has encountered in his life (including Ecghteow and Hygelac), I think it makes sense that the young man would want to comfort the old one. Doing so would help all three of these figures to align with each other. After all, there wasn’t much variety in the form that authority took in early medieval Anglo-Saxon society.
A person (usually male) had their authority either from their deeds (or well known stories of them) or from their knowledge (which would need to be enough to convince people that they had some connection with a greater entity, whether that be a god or a demon). Such were the ultimate authorities.
Since, as far as I know, all three of the authoritative men in Beowulf’s life were warriors, it makes sense that Beowulf would hold each to a similar standard. Ecgtheow, I can only guess, was a competent enough dad, one who at the least inspired Beowulf to become a brawler himself, and this tendency would have been further nurtured by Hygelac. So seeing Hrothgar in such a state, I think it’s just Beowulf’s natural response to try to build the man back up.
And this response is encapsulated in the passage’s final line, in which Beowulf mentions his own expectation for Hrothgar to be able to put sorrow aside and endure it through patience. Patience, a key characteristic of the strong and strategy-minded warrior as much as the faithful and thoughtful religious. How could Beowulf, someone who seems to be in the middle of the Venn diagram for these things expect anything less than patience from someone whom he sees as authoritative?
Wealhtheow is neither a man nor a warrior, but do you think that she has some authority in Heorot? Or is she just Hrothgar’s wife?
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Warriors and Thieves
Even in Old English, a “firgen-holt” would not hold “driht-guma.” Such a place as a mountain-wood (firgen (mountain) + holt (“forest,” “wood,” “grove,” “thicket,” “wood,” or “timber”)) would only contain þéof-mann.
The difference between “driht-guman” and “þéof-mann” being essential.
After all, “driht-guma” or “warriors” carry the connotation of someone in step with those around them.
Such a person is one who fights for those that he or she loves rather than just to fight for the sake of fighting or for themselves. Which only makes sense when you have a word that combines “driht” (“multitude,” “army,” “company,” “body of retainers,” “nation,” or “people”) and “guma” (“man,” “lord,” or “hero”). This mix suggests someone very much fighting for their fellow people, or at least someone who is part of a group of organized fighters in some sense.
Meanwhile, a “þéof-mann,” a “robber” or “brigand,” is singled out in Old English. Both of this word’s parts endure into Modern English, with “[dth]eof” meaning “criminal,” “thief,” or “robber,” and “mann” meaning “person,” “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” vassal,” “servant.”
But this word is very solitary. Only in “mann’s” indefinite sense or as “mankind” does it suggest a group of people, and one that is strangely more anonymizing than any of those general terms included in the definition of “driht”. So such a brigand is alone, without a clan or a lord. Which is exactly why you’d find such a “þéof-mann” in the “firgen-holt” but would have to look elsewhere for a “driht-guma.”
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Next week, Hrothgar, the Danes, Beowulf, and the Geats head out to the Grendels’ mere.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.