Kin, Rings, and Feuds: an Unlearned Reading of Beowulf

The Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle, loosely contemporary to the original composition of the poem

I have just finished my first reading of Beowulf. It wasn’t an easy read, even in translation
Reading Beowulf was inevitable for me. First brought to my attention in detail by Professor Nicholson in my late Latin class on Bede, it has since been on the periphery of my Early Medieval studies, trips to Denmark, and readings in other literature (like J.R. Tolkein and Professor Anatoly Liberman’s Medieval [German] Literature class).
I say this was an ‘unlearned read’ because I did not read this book alongside a class, nor did I read much in supporting commentary or articles. I have studied many related topics, but never Old English directly. Thus, I blunder in to express what are only vague opinions and reflections on my modern interpretation of the work. I read the translation by J.R. Tolkein, which while probably not the best translation, was because I was curious if I could notice a major LOTR crossover.
The amazing-looking Polish edition of Tolkein’s translation of Beowulf

Kin, Rings, and Feuds

Let me summarize Beowulf for you:

  • People fight, either monsters or other people in ongoing feuds, and die
  • Battle leads to treasure (not just gold, but swords, armor, horses, jewelry)
  • Everyone is tied together, either by kinship or by feuds of revenge
  • In between fighting, men in mead halls sit, drink, and tell stories and histories

These plot elements are tied together around Beowulf and three major events:

  • Fighting Grendel, Fighting Grendel’s Mother, and Fighting the Serpent

It is interesting how that most of the fighting occurs in ‘historical’ narratives which explain how the current political situation (those feuds) among the peoples (Geats, Swedes, Franks, etc) and kings (Hrothgar, Hygelac, Beowulf, and older fictional kings like Scyld) arose. Indeed, it felt that these narratives occupied most of the story, although giving it little of its structure.
The only major fighting we get to see ‘in person’ in the narrative is between Beowulf and monsters. My mind can conjure all sorts of reasons for why this might be the case: because the author did want to so overtly play sides in current political events and so stuck with fantasy, because the author was attempting to compile both legends (the monster battles) and oral history (legacy as a real king) about Beowulf (like in the Nibelungenlied) and this was the most coherent focus, because of the poets skill (or possibly lack thereof), because that in adding these details the author sought to do the best form of world building he had available in order to transform an ordinary tale into an epic, or any other number of reasons.
But here’s my vote: the author wanted to give the real story, a great story, and the complete story. In order then, we can see the author trying to give the ‘real’ story by tying the story deeply into what would have been the common knowledge of historical events of their world – even if some of those events, especially the earliest kings and origins like Scyld are probably not the exact historical truth. I can see an author struggling with an audience – likely an audience aware of similar stories and different versions of the same – loudly disagreeing with his version. By packing the tale full of accepted past events of the histories of Geats, Swedes, and Danes, the author may have achieved a more respectful audience.

Notably Beowulf does not have any superpowers, simply armor and a good sword (a sword which breaks, even). A major difference between then and now seems to be that we often see heroes as having been born strong, while then, heroes were more transformed by their deeds into stronger figures (albeit they had to be of sufficient privilege to be in the sword and armor bearing group of men to begin with).

As for the achieving of a ‘great story,’ here is where the monsters come in. I am leaning here heavily on my medieval literature knowledge here from Professor Liberman. He argued quite persuasively that a hero achieved his status as a hero by magical encounters with great forces, particularly monsters. Indeed, while the medieval ages were not perhaps as violent as many people today believe, they were still quite bloody, and for one great man to slay another great man would have been nothing special. Beowulf is packed with leaders killing leaders, but Beowulf must surely stand out for he fought monsters, and died not at the hand of another man, but to a mutual death with a huge, flaming dragon.
Finally, the author sought a ‘complete story’ in a way that we don’t normally see today. Nearly every book, movie, and story told is laid out with at least some element that can be used to go to a sequel. Now, admittedly money is a major motive in this. Yet still, we also tend to leave characters at the prime of their life with hope of many happy days ahead. Beowulf is different.
While not nearly as explicit as a modern work, we can still see how Beowulf’s great fight against Grendel earns his rise from a relatively minor noble figure, to a man who was second to the throne, earning the kingship as the bloody nature of feuds picks off the then-current king. Yes, that doesn’t seem too different from today. Yet the last part of the book begins with Beowulf as king, and spends time discussing some of the more mundane feuds and battles Beowulf has endured. Fifty years later he has one great battle still to perform – the older Norse men seem a bloodthirsty bunch both still fighting and urging younger warriors at the mead bench to do the same – which will end in his death. The conclusion then goes into detail about the consequences of his death and the lavish funeral he receives.
Thus, the complete story of Beowulf is given. He doesn’t just become king, he lives being a king, and dies gloriously. It makes me think that, were, Thor as the Norse imagined him, to see his Marvel counterpart, he’d be wondering why we took so long to get around to showing his death to Jormungandr – a fact notably left out of the movie Thor Ragnarok.  Indeed, as a modern reader, I am often left wondering, ‘what happens next?’ It’s fun to imagine, but usually it’s even better to have the authoritative answer. I imagine having more stories coming to final conclusions, and yes, including main character death, wouldn’t be a bit healthier for our society.

Reflections on a Past World

A Smaller World

A map of the world of the people mentioned in Beowulf  from

Today, we live in a massive interconnected world, and that clearly effects how we think. One quote that particularly struck me was, “the flaming dragon had been scorched from his own glowing fires; fifty measure feet in length he lay at rest” – line 2552. Fifty feet, as in, smaller than the semi-truck I saw driving by just now? Almost certainly far less in mass than the truck. That’s hardly a beast of consequence in my mind. Yet I doubt the author would have mentioned the size in detail if he hadn’t expected it to be meet with amazement.
That trend continues in the sizes of hosts we see travel. Men travel in small bands of five, seven, twelve, or so. Surely larger hosts were sometimes gathered, but even in an epic such as this we do not see them. Even the number of deeds performed by Beowulf, essentially two great feats counting Grendel and mother as one, is far fewer than our own non-divine legendary heroes like Ironman or Captain America these days. All things are smaller, even in an epic.
Yet, although everything is smaller, the world is still large. Storytellers and heralds exchange news about events from people all across the North Sea in a way that suggests such information was familiar to all. I think the network concept of ‘weak links’ comes in here. Although few people had traveled far and wide, there many individuals who had a connection with one place or another and together they managed to hear quite a bit. The whole world also feels, despite the greater difficulty in distance, more personal. Everyone perhaps could feel far more a part of their world, and – at least among the elite – far more in control of it. They simply weren’t diluted amongst an inconceivably vast population as we are now.

A World of Coming and Going

A typical celebratory arrival of the ship the ‘Viking’ c. 1890 from Friends of the Ship Viking

Most events about which the author lavishes attention can be classified either as an arrival or a departure. The scenes in the hall before and after Beowulf fights Grendel occupy far more time than the battle. It is clear that the great ‘occasions’ – holidays even – of this world are organized around the arrival or departure of some group or other. I don’t think I can even understand that properly. I’ve gone at most about ten days on remote outdoor trips without regular contact with the outside world, but it takes effort to do so, and it can only really be temporary. I suppose leaving high school, college, or other break-ups from a larger community result in a something of the same experience, but even then, I knew I could, if I wanted, see, talk, or message with every one of these people at any time.
The familiarity and expectation of long-term departures seems to influence how else these people see the world. Death – especially with a ship burial like that in the opening with Scyld – really seems only an extension then of the other voyages taken. Expanding this further, it might seem of great note to us that a king died and someone only loosely of the royal family like Beowulf would take his place, yet the author seems to treat this as perfectly normal. The whole world that we see here is transitive and expects major change to occur far more frequently than we do now.

A Different Sort of Greatness

“That he was ever of the kings of earth of men most generous to men most gracious, to his people most tender and for praise most eager” -line 2665

This line gives me trouble. It is the very last line of the entire poem, and so quite significant. Yet of the four elements mentioned, only one really get mentioned at all in the poem: the generous giving of gifts. It makes me think that this line was added, or modified latter (after all, the poem as we have it today is a version copied 250 or so years after its first writing). Or maybe the author here is giving a nod to other important parts of society, which otherwise don’t get mentioned in this action-adventure poem? The number of things with barely a mention in Beowulf are manifold: the logistics of these operations, women, agriculture, children, daily chores, and so on.
Yet overall it is worth noting that only two things of power seem to exist in this world: treasure and death. Wealth (along with mead and other drinks) binds together larger groups than kinship alone can. The gift-giving for great deeds is almost divine part of their world, which none, at least in the idyllic world of literature, dares to disrupt. Gifts received, more than anything else, is what Wiglaf calls upon to remind the cowardly comrades of Beowulf of the duty they owe their lord to come to his aid. Death stands out, respectively, for being the only real finality we see to events, the judgement of this world.
And then, what is greatness? Magical conquests aside, greatness is simply having wealth and having long avoided death (‘him who oft endured the iron hail, when the storm of arrows urged by bowstrings fled above the wall of shields’). Magical deeds then bring the character up from more ordinary realms of greatness into the truly legendary. Which I suppose is basically how all of human history goes: power over people (usually with physical resources) and time to develop those assets leads to the ability to do great things. But we really don’t admire those acts nearly as much as we admire acts of which also bring the new, mystical, or divine.

Lord of the Rings and Tolkien Connections

The Golden Hall Meduseld from the Lord of the Rings modeled after the hall Heorot from Beowulf

I don’t really see many direct connections between LOTR and Beowulf, which comes as surprise. True, there are countless similarities between the two, but those similarities could just as easily be explained by Tolkien relying on other sources and ages. I think the greatest difference is that Beowulf is a story of communities, that although connected by the sea, are quite isolated from each other. Meanwhile in LOTR all nations are tied into a single great fate, and thus many of the elements of Beowulf would have seemed out of place in the world of Middle Earth. Perhaps this is why Tolkien made the Rohirrim a nomadic horse people even though the Norse and Anglo-Saxons who inspired them really weren’t. Thus, he gave them a wandering nature, but left them still tied well to the land so that they must fight for it.
It’s quite remarkable how much Tolkien borrowed from history while yet managing still to create entirely new peoples. He made an ancient-medieval world come to life, and it was all the more evocative for not connecting to reality. Perhaps the author of Beowulf was aiming for the same when he made great Beowulf’s great feats of a fantastical kind, in encounters with monsters.

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