A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

when the men are asleep. He devours thirty of Hrothgar’s thanes. Beowulf hears of
the persecution of the Danes and comes to kill Grendel, in a tremendous fight at
night in the hall. The next night, Grendel’s mother comes to the hall and takes her
revenge. Beowulf follows her to her lair in an underwater cave, where with God’s
help he kills her. Finally, in old age, he has to fight a dragon, who has attacked the
Geats in revenge for the taking of a cup from his treasure-hoard. Beowulf faces the
dragon alone, but can kill it only with the help of a young supporter; he dies of his
wounds. The poem ends with a prophecy of the subjection of the Geats by the
Franks or the Swedes. The Geats build a funeral pyre for their leader.

Then the warriors rode around the barrow
Twelve of them in all, athelings’ sons.
They recited a dirge to declare their grief,
Spoke of the man, mourned their King.
They praised his manhood, and the prowess of his hands,
They raised his name; it is right a man
Should be lavish in honouring his lord and friend,
Should love him in his heart when the leading-forth
From the house of flesh befalls him at last.
This was the manner of the mourning of the men of the Geats,
Sharers in the feast, at the fall of their lord:
They said that he was of all the world’s kings
The gentlest of men,and the most gracious,
The kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.
The foundation of Germanic heroic society is the bond between a lord and his
people, especially his retinue of warriors. Each will die for the other. Beowulf ’s
epitaph suggests an ethical recipe for heroism: three parts responsibility to one part
honour. The origin of Beowulf ’s life-story, in the folk-tale of the Bear’s Son and his
marvellous feats, is transmuted by the poem into a distinctly social ideal of the good
young hero and the wise old king.
The heroic world is violent, but neither Beowulfnor Beowulf is bloodthirsty. The
poem shows not just the glory but also the human cost of a code built upon family
honour and the duty of vengeance. This cost is borne by men and, differently, by
women. In this aristocratic world, women have honoured roles: peacemaker in
marriage-alliances between dynasties, bride, consort, hostess, counsellor, mother,
and widow. In Beowulfthe cost of martial honour is signified in the figure of the
mourning woman. Here is the Danish princess Hildeburh at the funeral pyre of her
brother Hnæf, treacherously killed by her husband Finn, and her son, also killed in
the attack on Hnæf. Shortly after this, Finn is killed by Hengest.

Hildeburgh then ordered her own son
To be given to the funeral fire of Hnæf
For the burning of his bones; bade him be laid
At his uncle’s side. She sang the dirges,
Bewailed her grief. The warrior went up;
The greatest of corpse-fires coiled to the sky,
Roared before the mounds. There were melting heads
And bursting wounds, as the blood sprang out
From weapon-bitten bodies. Blazing fire,
Most insatiable of spirits, swallowed the remains
Ofthe victims of both nations. Their valour was no more.

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