Hrothgar, Heorot, and Threats to Heroism

Hrothgar, Heorot, and Threats to Heroism September 8, 2016

Beowulf revolves around three battles between the hero and threatening monsters—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. The central focus of the first two fights is Heorot, the mead-hall of Hrothgar, king of Denmark. The mead-hall is the focus of a complex of imagery. As in the Odyssey and Macbeth, the festive life of the mead-hall is a microcosm of an ideal society. The hall is the hub of a gift economy. Once Heorot is built: “Nor did he renege, but doled out rings and torques at the table.” Hrothgar builds the hall after a victory, as a public display of victory. Hrothgar received glory in battle, his band increased, then he built a mead-hall. He first builds a “house” of warriors and then a house for warriors.

When Hrothgar turns Heorot over to Beowulf’s protection, he tells him “Never since my hand could hold a shield have I entrusted or given control of the Danes’ hall to anyone but you. Ward and guard it, for it is the greatest of houses.” His boast is not just about Heorot but about the Denmark it represents.

Hrothgar’s heroic victory has cosmic dimensions. It’s a triumph over chaos, surrounded by fens, bogs, haunts of monsters. As Beowulf journeys to the mere to fight Grendel’s mother, he crosses a wilderness of untamed nature. The hall is an island of civilization in the gloom of the world, a lighted center for feasting, song, poetry, gift-giving. The poet makes the theological dimension of the hall explicit. Grendel becomes angry when he hears the songs of creation coming from the hall. The hall is creation organized to serve the ends of human happiness. It’s not only Denmark in little, but a little outpost of Eden.

But “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Hrothgar’s heroic victory, and the peace and order it brings, are threatened. It’s not just Grendel. The poem begins with a description of the founding of a civilization: Scyld Shefing established an empire, subdued other nations and forced them to pay tribute. Even this is tinged with loss as it climaxes in Scyld’s funeral. No sooner built than the poet is already looking ahead to the end of heroic civilization. The poem ends with the death of the hero, his funeral, and predictions of future destruction of the Geats. Enemies will take advantage of Beowulf’s death, and the poet looks grimly ahead to a future war with Swedish.

That the Danish court is crumbling is brought out in subtle ways in the poet’s description of the celebration that follows Grendel’s death. Grendel has been defeated, but there are threats within the hall. Chief among these is the problem of succession. Hrothgar and Hrothulf, “father’s brother and brother’s son,” uncle and nephew, were friends “in those days” without any hint of falsity. But the time limitation—in those days—suggests that in future days this friendship will vanish. At another point in the poem, the bond of uncle and nephew “was sound at that time, each was true to the other.”

No character represents the internal threat to the heroic order as clearly as Unferth, whose very name (“Un-peace”) signifies his effect on Denmark and who is described as a killer of kin: “toward his kinsmen he had not been kind at the clash of swords.” When Beowulf arrives, Unferth provokes him with a taunt: “he could not allow that another man should hold under heaven a higher title to wonders in the world than went with his own name.” In response, Beowulf says, “You have killed only kindred, kept your blade for those closest in blood; you’re a clever man, Unferth, but you’ll endure hell’s damnation for that.”

The poem begins with a creation scene, but reminds us again and again that beauty and order are under siege. It takes us to the edge of apocalypse, and leaves us hanging over it.

This setting helps us understand the role of the monsters. The monsters are not, as some critics have charged, folklorish intrusions into an epic poem. Rather, as Tolkein argued in a famous essay, they embody and externalize principles of darkness, disorder, evil that threaten the heroic civilization of Heorot. If the hall represents Denmark, the ideal society, the proper communion of men and creation, the assault on the hall is an assault on God’s world, the world of men. The monsters are demonic principles disharmony, the threat that the chaos will return.

The whole poem can me mapped by oppositions between principles of light and darkness, associated with characters and spaces:













Grendel embodies a particular form of chaos. A descendant of Cain the outcast, the one driven not only from the garden but from the land of Eden, Grendel is outside of the hall, outside of the circle of fellowship and gift-giving. He resents his isolation and despises their happiness. He is “God’s enemy.” Grendel has no other motive for his assaults on Heorot than simple resentment and anger that he has been excluded. He turns their feasting into cannibalism, the civilized table into a savage meal. Grendel is a cyclopian monster, consuming raw human flesh.

Terrorizing the Danes, Grendel becomes effective ruler of Heorot. A usurper, he rules by fear and terror, not by law and custom, not by generosity and feasting. He embodies everything that is opposed to the settled life of Danish society. As Beowulf and Grendel battle, the poet calls Beowulf and Grendel the “claimants to Heorot.” Grendel’s counterpart in the hall is Unferth, also a child of Cain. Unferth will later take the kingdom by treachery and become a usurper, as Grendel is. To put it in generalized and abstract terms, Grendel represents the threat that resentment poses to civilized life, a threat that always exists. More sociologically, Grendel is the threat of the outsider, the exile.

Grendel’s mother represents a different sort of threat. She doesn’t act with the pure malice and malevolence of her son. She operates according to the principles of blood-feud: if you kill my kin, I will kill you. Grendel was an unsettled wanderer, but Grendel’s mother has a chamber, an anti-hall, adorned, like Heorot, with the plunder of her wars. Heorot is above ground, while Grendel’s mother lives underground. She lives under water, a frequent image in literature of chaos. Hers is a hellish alternative to the Eden of Heorot. She is more human than Grendel himself, and so more terrifying.

It’s significant that Grendel’s mother, not his father, attacks. Mothers are entwined with kin. The hall is the preserve of men, the place of masculine power and political counsel, which seeks to to overcome feminine devotion to family. As in Aeschylus, the opposition is between family and city, woman and man, politics and oaths and gifts v. Kinship. To the poet, Grendel’s mother represents a demonic feminine, an unmaternal order of uncivilization, a perverse order of kinship.

Grendel’s mother has many counterparts in Heorot. The bard sings the song of Finn, king of Frisians or Jutes who married the Danish princess Hildeburgh to bring peace between the two peoples. While Hnaef (a Dane) is visiting his sister, he and her son are killed by Frisians. Danes, led by Hengest, force concessions from Finn, but Hengest finally takes vengeance. The song points to the fragility of marriage alliances, and casts doubt on Hrothgar’s plan to solve his dispute with the Heathobards by giving his daughter as a bride. This song, and others in the poem, show that there are plenty of Grendel’s mothers within heroic society.

The dragon is a negative of the king. Draconian vices are directly opposed to heroic virtues. The hero acts out of sacrificial devotion to his lord or to his people, but dragon acts out of greed. Dragons are sheerly destructive; the hero may use violence, but ultimately for constructive purposes. The hero, and especially the king, is a “ring-giver,” but the dragon hoards treasures. The dragon, like Grendel’s mother, forms a parody of Heorot with all his treasures. It is fitting that Beowulf fights this anti-king after a long and successful reign.

Digressions throughout the poem anticipate the fight with the dragon. The songs that immediately follow Beowulf’s victory over Grendel place Beowulf in the context of great heroes. The first is brief song of Sigemund, a dragon-killer, and there is also a song of Heremod, who promised to be a deliverer for his people, but evil gripped him. Hrothgar later expands on the negative example of Heremod, who attacked table companions and refused to give gifts. Hrothgar is reminding Beowulf that open-handedness is the way to power. Beowulf has strength of hand as a hero, but as a king he has to have open hands. As a king, he will have to be an anti-dragon.

For the poet, the dragon no doubt had satanic overtones. As with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf again goes into the enemies lair to fight. He crushes the worm and secures the plunder for his people, dying in the midst of winning the battle, so that his death is the occasion of a great victory.

We can spin off tropologies, as the Christian poet perhaps intended us to do. Heroic order—order of all sorts—is always threatened by the resentment of outcasts, the bloodlust of kin, the greed of kings. It will survive only if there are Beowulfs enough to fight off the monsters. Much as he admires it, the poet isn’t sanguine about the future of heroism. Beowulfs die, and Beowulfs rarely have successors. And after that, the deluge.

Melancholy as the poem is, we shouldn’t forget that Wiglaf is there till the end, and lives on as a witness to heroes past, testimony that might yet inspire heroes of the future.

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