“For My People”: Brotherhood and Loyalty in the World of Beowulf

The themes of brotherhood and loyalty seem to be the strongest in the whole tale.  Throughout, people are serving and being served.  It is only when the flow of that give and take is interrupted that anything is wrong in this world.

Primarily, the camaraderie among fellow warriors is celebrated.  The very purpose of Heorot is as a venue to celebrate that fellowship, and it’s importance is shown very early on;  the text goes “For [Hrothgar] in time it came to pass, early, through the men, that it was fully furnished, the best of royal halls” (76-78).  Not only does the plot begin in earnest with Heorot, we are even given details of its origin.

Once the hall is in use, a key custom of these celebrations also emphasizes the bonds amongst these warriors: the pouring of the mead.  In Beowulf, “Wealhtheow came forth, Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of etiquette, greeted, gold-adorned, the men in the hall and then the noble lady gave out full cups, first to the East-Danes’ homeland-guardian, bade him be blithe at the partaking of beer; beloved by the people” (612-18).  Not only is Queen Wealhtheow showing hospitality in this–itself intertwined with notions of brotherhood–the warriors embrace it in their own participation.

It appears in Beowulf that an important part of being a warrior is loyalty to your commanding king as well as to your comrades.  Beowulf definitely starts his interactions with the Danes on the right foot, showing respect and deference.  He says, “Beowulf is my name; I wish to proclaim to the son of Healfdane–that famed sovereign–my errand to your lord, if he wishes to grant us that we, the virtuous one, might greet him” (344-47).  It is also worth noting that Beowulf had gotten the permission of his own king before going to assist King Hrothgar; and, of course, he will have followers of his own such as Wiglaf when he himself is king.

Beowulf’s willingness to confront the dragon despite his age also shows his dedication to his fellow men.  This is now in terms of fellow Geatish countrymen rather than fellow soldiers, but the quality remains the same.  Even in considering the golden treasure he is defending, he seems to forget the material enough to consider its significance.  The text states “Theirs was both together in the nation, inherited land, earth by ancestral privilege […] (2196-98).”  This points directly to the Norse culture where material possessions were tightly bound with personal relationships.

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Lastly of all, there is special emphasis on loyalty to a much greater Lord.  Right off the bat it is clear that Grendel and his Mother are the “kin of Cain” (107) and are irrevocably evil, so of course their enemy Beowulf is on the side of God and righteousness.  In showing Beowulf in this way, his piety then reflects on his loyalty to his faith and as a further connection to those who fight with him–his fellow believers.

And of course, more than anything else, Beowulf’s devotion is shown through his final monologue.  He says, “I for these riches to the Lord of All. thanks to the Glory-King, say by words to the eternal Lord, which I look on here, that I was able for my people before my death-day to gain such riches, now I for the old hoard of treasures have paid with my old span of life” (2794-2800).  This particular passage has the benefit of recalling his devotion to his fellow Geats as well as to God.

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A fine example of both the religion  and of the other beautiful objects that bound these people together is the Lindisfarne Gospels–on display at the British Library–with its famous illuminations.  In any Christian society at the time, the Lindisfarne Gospels would have been valued not only for their status as a sacred text, but also as a quality manuscript.  This would absolutely not have been an item for an average person for different reasons.  Primarily, it was in Latin–the language of religion and education rather than the vernacular (tiny English translations were later added in the margins.  Also, manuscripts took a lot of work, from turning animal hide into parchment to the painstaking work of the scribes.  As a major cultural artwork as well as a sacred text, it only goes to show how these various elements of family, country, faith, culture, and duty were so deeply connected.

Learn more about the Lindisfarne Gospels here.

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Beowuld You Believe It?

Beowulf begins and ends with a burial, emphasizing the importance of the practice and the impact of its implementation. The first, a recount of the good king Scyld Scefing’s, tells of his body being placed in a barge amongst a horde of his treasure. The second is Beowulf’s, who is enshrined in a barrow with his treasure in a spot marked by a fiery beacon. Both instances reflect the customs of the time, but also bring critique from the narrator. The reverence towards material wealth is faced with condemnation by this narrator, who seems aware that the act of keeping treasure as a grave-good is relatively pagan and clashes with the budding Christianity of the time. These burials reflect the clash between Christian and Pagan religion and the struggle to consolidate the two.

 Sitting in Room 41 of the British Museum is an impressive collection of treasure salvaged from the Sutton Hoo burial site, a trove of Anglo-Saxon treasures discovered by Basil Brown in 1939. Brown discovered the skeleton of a large, eighty-foot ship, tracing back to early Anglo-Saxon society, with its precious cargo of grave-goods still intact. Although it is not clear who exactly the grave sight belonged to, the objects found are clues to what sort of person the owner was. Nearly all are those associated with the high class, leading many to believe the grave belonged to a lord or king. The mead hall cauldron and drinking horn suggest someone of high social standing within the community, the ornate golden goods establishing him as a wealthy, powerful individual. In addition to these desirable objects are weapons and remnants of battle, one of the most magnificent being a preserved helmet. These valuables validated the owner’s status and showcased his wealth, power, and prowess in battle. Enshrining someone with artifacts is a historically pagan practice and is indicative of a culture heavily focused on the afterlife and the journey towards it.

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Golden plate found at Sutton Hoo burial, one of the most magnificent pieces there.

The Sutton Hoo sight is reminiscent of Scyld Scefing’s burial, who also was laid to rest on a ship surrounded by his treasure. “In its bosom lay many treasures, which were to travel far with him into the keeping of the flood.” (Lines 40-42) Scefing’s ship not only had riches from the lands he had conquered but bore also, “…battle weapons and war-gear, blades and byrnies.” (Lines 39-40,) that assert his success as a warrior. These elements of power are in line with the expectations of a good king, and consolidate Scefing’s role as such. Yet for all the riches placed about his body, the narrator reveals that they are now useless because they have been set adrift to the sea. The fate of the wealth is unknown, “Men do not know how to say truly-not trusted counselors, nor heroes under the heavens-who received that cargo.” (Lines 50-52) and it will remain lost with Scefing’s prestige, surviving only through stories passed down. With this knowledge, the twenty lines depicting the trappings piled upon the ship are cast in a vain light, emphasizing that despite the reverence they are treated with, they are still simply objects.

Beowulf’s burial is similar in this respect, in that the burial of the treasure is treated as a folly. In the context of the customs of the time, Beowulf’s request to distribute his wealth may have been nonconventional. The Sutton Hoo shrine would have most likely been the appropriate burial of someone of Beowulf’s status, an assumption affirmed by the fact that the good king himself, Scyld Scefing, had a near identical burial. Despite being a Christian society, the Anglo-Saxons still operated under the influence of past customs, one such being the inclusion of grave-goods.

The British Museum had within Room 41, a display with early Pagan, Anglo-Saxon artifacts, many found in old burial sites. Ironically, many of the objects were similar to those found in the Sutton Hoo site, such as old swords and jewelry.

And although their exact purpose is unknown, they illustrate the value placed on prowess as a warrior and attainment of wealth, and one can imagine that these items are linked to the afterlife. According to the narrator of Beowulf, these items become obsolete as soon as they are buried, “…just as useless to men as it was before.” (Line 3168) This idolization of material wealth clashes with the heavy Christian language throughout the text. The author’s concerns towards the burial of these great kings offer insight into the growing pains apparent in the transition from paganism to Christianity. These Christian themes are apparent towards the closing, especially when juxtaposing Beowulf and Scefing’s lasting reputations. Scefing, a king of old, is remembered and honored for his conquests, as compared to Beowulf, who despite his similar feats, will be remembered as being mild and kind. Such characteristics are incongruous with the earlier idealized traits of a king, but rather are those valued in Christianity.

 

All that glitters

As a depiction of Anglo-Saxon culture, the renowned Old English poem Beowulf offers invaluable insight to the perspective and lifestyle of these early people. Some aspects of Beowulf’s tale seem strikingly familiar to our mythic notions about sword fights, dragons, and hidden treasure. Yet the deeper motivations of the characters are slightly more elusive to our modern sensibilities–what is the value of violence? Why does Beowulf feel the need to take on the dragon, even though his doom seems certain? And why is the prospect of treasure so powerful and manipulative?

The exhibit on early Medieval life at the British Museum provides an excellent introduction to the structure of Anglo-Saxon society that helps to shed light on some of these questions. One of the exhibit plaques describes a system of warrior-kings who emerged as the leaders of various fighting factions. These factions were the predecessors of a more consolidated Anglo-Saxon kingdom that would develop over the centuries. Military success attracted followers to the various kings and their ability to defeat other factions directly determined the strength and wealth of their kingdom. In this way, violence and fighting were not only inescapable, but actually desirable in maintaining the stability of the warrior-tribe society. The success of this violent system at building a positive sense of community is evident in Beowulf in the poet’s depiction of the mead-hall. After the victory over Grendel, the warriors gather in the hall to celebrate their success and wealth, as “The lay was sung, / the entertainer’s song. Glad sounds rose again, / the bench-noise glittered, cupbearers gave / wine from wondrous vessels…The best of feasts it was” (Liuzza 1159-1162, 1232). This scene highlights the way in which the violent tradition of warring kings fostered the ideals of kinship and loyalty which bound Anglo-Saxon society together.

Because fighting was such an important part of Anglo-Saxon life, it is only natural that weaponry became the fundamental symbol of power and wealth. The British Museum features many examples of ornate and extremely valuable weapons and armor. For instance, the famous Sutton Hoo helmet and accompanying sword were both evidence of the power and importance of the buried man. One exhibit plaque even claims that swords were the most highly valued and prestigious piece of weaponry an Anglo-Saxon warrior could possess. This gives us a heightened appreciation for Beowulf’s famous sword which he breaks against the dragon, and the blade which finally delivers the killing blow. The museum exhibit also introduces the idea of rings– often attached to the hilt of a sword or blade, these are understood to be symbols of loyalty and the pledge of a warrior to his king. Lastly, the exhibit explains the function of chain-mail armor in early Anglo-Saxon warfare. Possessing such armor was yet another symbol of military prowess and wealth; many went unprotected into battle (British Museum). These details about Anglo-Saxon weaponry all help to contextualize the presence of such items as swords, rings, and chain-mail in the tale of Beowulf. Each time his blade is described, a ring is mentioned, or armor is described serves to further prove Beowulf’s legendary prowess.

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An ornate sword-belt featured in the British Museum’s Sutton Hoo exhibit.

 

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A complete replica of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet. The detailed metal-working makes this piece extremely valuable and an indicator of the great wealth and importance of the owner. 

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The sword pictured in the center would have been a very valuable weapon– at the hilt you can see a ring has been attached.

If waging battle between competing kingdoms was the way in which Anglo-Saxon politics were executed, then the economy was dependent upon the confiscation and loss of treasure. It was the promise of capturing wealth from competing factions that motivated and fueled the social system. The amount of treasure possessed by an Anglo-Saxon was a direct reflection of his power and success in life; thus, burying treasure with the dead was an integral part of honoring ancestors and promoting the legacy of a family. Evidence of this can be seen, again, in the incredible wealth preserved in the Sutton Hoo burial. In reading Beowulf, this understanding of the importance of treasure perhaps explains two of the more confusing plot elements. First, Beowulf’s decision to confront the dragon– despite the fact that doing so is almost certainly fatal and the fact that attack against the dragon would be technically unprovoked by attack against Beowulf’s kingdom– might be better understood as a deeply rooted compulsion: no honorable king, loyal to the interest of his people, could learn of such a treasure hoard and not fight to take it for his own. For these Anglo-Saxons, battle-won glory and legacy were held in the highest possible esteem and were not forces to be reckoned with by common sense or caution. In addition, we might better understand the survivors’ choice to memorialize their leader by burying him with the hard-won treasure rather than keep the wealth and make practical use of it. Treasure, and this treasure in particular, possessed more than monetary or material value– the wealth was seen as a symbol of Beowulf’s legacy. The idea of possessing treasure was inextricably caught up in the concept of honor to the point that any sense of economic practicality was completely overridden by the all-important task of ensuring Beowulf’s legacy as a warrior-king “most eager for fame” (3182).

Extra information about Anglo-Saxon culture found here (Washington State University) and here (Susan Oldrieve).

 

Burial, Memory, and Truth: Preserving What We Are Remembered for in Beowulf

It is sad to say that we do not know much about the Anglo-Saxons, their culture and way of life fading in to obscurity simply because not much still exists from this time in history. However, one of the treasures we have from the Anglo-Saxon period is the epic poem of Beowulf, an epic poem where the titular hero slays Grendel, a man-eating monster, Grendel’s vengeful mother, and later meets his fate at the hands of a greedy dragon. Even though the action of the poem is what it is more popularly known for, sparking countless adaptations, the action does not make up the bulk of the novel. The action of the poem is punctuated with stories told by other character’s and Beowulf’s encounter’s with them. It is through these interactions with other characters in the poem, particularly Unferth and Wiglaf, that we perhaps get a glimpse into Anglo-Saxon life through Beowulf, specifically a focus on honor and remembrance which become a reverberating theme through the poem and the Sutton Hoo Exhibit in the British Museum.

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Copy of the first page of the Beowulf manuscript from the Electronic Beowulf Manuscript. http://ebeowulf.uky.edu/ebeo4.0/CD/main.html

 

Early in the poem, Beowulf Unferth recites a version of the swimming competition Beowulf was competing in and suggests in which Beowulf lost to Breca because he was outperformed by him, saying “…In keeping of the water/ you toiled for seven nights, and he outswam you,/ and had more strength.” (Liuza 516 -518). Beowulf counter’s Unferth’s story, discrediting him and saying “…Unfert my friend, drunk with beer,/ you have said about Breca,/ told of his adventures! I will tell the truth–” (Liuza 530 – 532) and continues to tell the “truth,” wherein he was assailed by sea monsters and had to sufficiently deal with them before he could continue with the competition. In this instance we can see that Beowulf, and presumably Anglo-Saxon culture, is concerned with the truth and remembering true versions of real stories as to preserve the honor of the characters therein. This becomes a recurring theme in the poem as more stories are told and paint various character’s actions as more and less honorable. Using Beowulf as an archetype of Anglo-Saxon values in a similar vein as Hercules is to the Greeks, we may then presume that Anglo-Saxons were concerned with honor in their community and giving credit where credit was due, that those who have committed great acts deserve to have them remembered and remembered correctly as a form of respect.
This heavy concern with remembrance comes up again at the end of the poem when Beowulf has died, showing that it is not only the titular hero who is concerned with appropriately remembering and honoring the deeds of others. After Beowulf has been mortally wounded by the greedy dragon, his servant and friend Wiglaf chides the other Geats who ran from the dragon for their cowardice, Beowulf dying because of it. Wiglaf cries out against the other Geats disastrous actions, saying “all the happy joys of your homeland,/ shall end for your race; empty-handed/ will you go, everyman, among your tribe,/ stripped of land-rights, when noblemen learn/ far and wide of your flight,/ you inglorious deed. Death is better/ for any earl than a life of dishonor!” (Liuza 2885 – 2891). Wiglaf’s words make it clear that the other Geat’s actions were not only dishonorable, but have consequences which they will be infamously remembered for. In this regard Wiglaf is a reinforcement to the idea of using Beowulf as a model of Anglo-Saxon values as in the point in the story Beowulf is the late king and a second character shares his beliefs and imposes them on other characters.
In contrast to admonishing the other cowardly Geats for abandoning Beowulf’s side while he and Wiglaf were fighting the dragon, Wiglaf also sets up the funeral pyre for Beowulf. As a means of honoring their fallen king, Beowulf is burned on a funeral pyre to honor his memory and actions, burying him, and a barrow is built for him out at sea. Looking at Wiglaf as an archetype of Anglo-Saxon ideals of honor, we can begin to see how the Sutton Hoo burial relates to the Anglo-Saxon poem. Judging from the items in the burial, it was done to honor a great warrior. The online exhibit, alongside the physical exhibit, showcases a plethora of helmets and swords, partial helmets and swords, and shields and partial shields along with other relics of Anglo-Saxon history. These artifacts would have possibly been buried with a figure or series of figures like Beowulf, kings and warriors who others wanted to honor and pay appropriate tribute to in death. With this burial we can see why the Anglo-Saxons would have been so preoccupied with truth and honor and how they relate to honor as our memory is the only thing we leave behind, and it is what we will be judged on even after our death, so it is imperative that not only people remember it right, but what they have to remember is honorable and something we want to be known for.

Beowulf: From Mouth to Manuscript

The exact origin of Beowulf is unknown, but based on the mixture of pagan and Christian motifs in the poem, it is likely that it spread by word of mouth for centuries before it was written down and recorded. As a result of this oral tradition, changes were made to contextualize the story, for new themes and motifs were added to fit the current traditions and belief system of the listeners. Due to these alterations, it is difficult to pinpoint from what year the text originates, but an approximate age of the manuscript can be calculated through analysis of the scripture and the parchment. According to the British Library, scholars argue that the manuscript was copied around 1,000 years ago in the early 11th century. Ultimately, the history of Beowulf shows the long legacy of its literary traditions, and its unknown origins in the distant past are a testament to the text’s popularity and significance.

 

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Beowulf manuscript  (source: apilgriminnarnia.com)

Beowulf is a part of the Nowell Codex, which is named after the first owner of the folios Laurence Nowell and includes texts such as the homily on St. Christopher, Marvels of the East, “Letter of Alexander to Aristotle,” and Judith. Nowell signed the top of the first page, making him the first recorded owner of the folios. After him, Sir Robert Cotton was in possession of the codex, and it was placed under the shelfmark Cotton MS Vitellius A. XV. The bookshelves were named after the busts that were placed above them, this means the Nowell Codex was in the bookshelf below the bust of Vitellius; “A” refers to the first shelf, and “XV” is the volume number on the shelf (penelope.uchicago.edu). The Nowell Codex shared this location with a Cottonian endleaf, a Medieval endleaf, and The Southwick Codex. The Cottonian endleaf serves as a table of contents that includes all of the aforementioned texts. Interestingly, Beowulf is not listed in ink, but is written in pencil within a space that was presumably left for it. The scribe could have been waiting for more information to fill in and never got to finish it. We could have lost some valuable material. Altogether, there are three languages present, Old English, French, and Latin, and they stem from the early 11th to the 17th century. Thanks to collectors like the Laurence Nowell and the Cotton family, we can study older texts in their original form and learn about the evolution of literature and the language. It is in part due to them that we can read Beowulf today.

Beowulf is the third poem in the Nowell Codex and lasts from folio 132r to 201v. According to the British Library, it is the longest epic poem in Old English and is more than 3,000 lines long. Some of the initial capital letters are somewhat emphasized; they are around three lines tall and a little rounder, but the rest of the text is quite plain, and most of the manuscript lacks any illumination. The amount of illumination, the scripture, and the ink help scholars identify the regions and the time period certain texts were written. During the fire of the Cotton Library, the edges got burned, destroying some of the letters and words toward the margins. This created a challenge for translators and scholars to figure out what could have been written in some places. Today, the text is placed in a paper frame to keep it from disintegrating and to prevent any further damage. It has come a long way since being placed on a shelf in a personal library.

Though it is a miracle we have a manuscript of Beowulf, it is curious to think about how and where the story originated from. Has the original plotline changed much? Has the Christian tradition affected the theme of it? Word of mouth is a fascinating process that raises such questions. People add and take away elements of a story as they contextualize it for their own telling. It evolves as communities evolve, and thus they survive time. If a story does not please the audience, it is not repeated, but the oral tradition allows for flexible variations which better please the listener; this allows the most successful versions to survive. While we know much about Beowulf, there is still so much unknown history about a manuscript that has become one of the most celebrated early literary texts of our time.

The Women of Beowulf – Peace in Violent Times

In Beowulf‘s culture, reputations were mainly spread through storytelling, as most people did not have access to luxurious books.  Most people who knew the story of Beowulf at the time it was composed had probably never seen the original manuscript.  Beowulf himself tells a few stories of his recollection of the battle with Grendel (29), but the stories that are often overlooked (and arguably the most important) belong to Hildeburh and Grendel’s mother.

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Original Beowulf Manuscript – Courtesy of The British Library

Hildeburh and Grendel’s mother share a tragic bond because they have been traumatized in their pasts.  What sets them apart is how they deal with their traumas.

Hildeburh, sent to the kingdom by the Danes in hopes of bringing peace between enemies, tells her story in the Mead Hall, describing how she lost her entire family in a battle.  Being the only surviving member of her family, she could easily live a life craving vengeance for her enemies instead of being the peaceful woman that she is.

Grendel’s mother, angry about the actions against her son, has only one goal in her mind – revenge.  Her motives are the antithesis of Hildeburh’s.  She goes to the Mead Hall with the intention of finding the man who killed her son.  She rips his head off and takes Grendel’s hand back, which was the only thing left of her son.  Unlike Grendel, who eats every person he can, she doesn’t eat anyone – but her vengeance makes her harder to kill.  The first sword breaks, and the second one melts.

After visiting the British Museum and comparing what early to medieval Anglo-Saxon men and women were buried with, I began to understand why Hildeburh – and possibly Grendel’s mother – can be inspirational to us.  Women were buried with domestic items to symbolize their traditional ability to peacefully keep a household together.  Men, on the other hand, were buried with weapons and other war materials to show their bravery.

Domestic house-ware can always be relied on to work through thick and thin, so it can represent Hildeburh’s constant peace.  While Grendel’s mother is often perceived as the opposite – a ruthless monster – her unconditional love for her son gave her the bravery to fight for what she believed in.  The war artifacts that were buried with men can represent Grendel’s mother’s nontraditional values.

 

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Righteous Retribution: The role of vengeance in Beowulf

The Lord is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth. Rise up, Judge of the Earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve. – Psalm 94:1-2

Cain Murdering his brother Abel

Beowulf is best know as a warrior. Warriors were known for their bravery, their loyalty and their skill in battle. And when the monster descendant of Cain, Grendel murdered his friends revenge was in order. Beowulf’s thirst for vengeance though may have come from divine inspiration.

But what made Grendel a fitting victim for revenge?

To answer this question we first need to look at who the character of  Grendel is. One of the poems most important characters, Grendel is one of the three monsters that Beowulf fights and kills. We never know exactly what Grendel is. He is somewhere between an animal and a human. His outer appearance is animalistic and monstrous but Grendel is written as though he is led by human emotions. Grendel is a demonic creature who has descended from Cain.“Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts.” (106–107). In the bible, Cain committed the first murder by slaying his brother Abel, as a result he and his descendants were punished by God and made to walk the Earth for all of eternity. Grendel has left his home in the swampy lowlands, angered by a song that the bard was singing about God’s creation of the Earth. As a result, the envious Grendel comes up and slaughters all the men in the mead hall. Grendel is “[m]alignant by nature” (137) and as a descendant of Cain and a murderer is pure evil.

To see a video of Grendel in the 2007 film production attacking the mead hall click here.

copy of the Beowulf manuscript from the British Library

So we know that Grendel is evil but in a heavily Christian society what makes revenge ok?

The Anglo-Saxon answer is the bible. Because Grendel is a descendant of Cain, he is already being subjected to the righteous revenge of God. His further actions of murdering the allies of Beowulf added to his guiltiness and sin in Beowulf’s eyes. Because Beowulf is also seen as God-like he sees his justice against Grendel as righteous.

A fan illustration of Grendel 

Faith was incredibly important part of Anglo-Saxon life. While in Cambridge we visited a church that many people who were reading beowulf when it was first written would have worshipped their vengeful God. church.JPG