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‘A Better Man than I!’
A Warrior Be #16: Impressions of Beowulf
Lines 456-499 of John McNamara’s translation
Hrothgar has the most heart-felt words until this point of the poem. In the shadow of the King’s pained recollections the words of the hero pale to mere tactical efficiency. The hope of the people might rest with the stern hero but their soul is vested in the unfortunate King. The King recalls his forbearers as better than he, that he knew Beowulf’s father as a bloodyhanded and loyal man prone to feud and once on the run. As with most tribal societies, killing a member of the in-group was strictly taboo and called for ostracism. Hrothgar actually paid to settle the feud for Beowulf’s father and hence Beowulf’s actions may actually reflect a debt of honor.
Hrothgar now recounts his sorrow:
Lines 474-479
“…what Grendel has brought
to humiliate Heorot with his hateful schemes
and his horrid attacks. My battle-troop dwindles,
now less a war-band. Wyrd [1] swept them off
in the terror of Grendel. May God quickly
cut off that mad pillager from power to act.”
Tolkien will reflect the figure of Hrothgar in the King and Steward of two kingdoms in his Middle Earth trilogy, assailed by supernatural menace. The continued stress on pillaging, sneak attacks and such suggest the rising of a conquered and more primitive folk, much as the Messennians rose against the Spartans time and again, being survivors of an earlier age whose forefathers were conquered by the Dorian Spartans.
Those men targeted for death are most often of the sword-bearing class, possibly echoing class warfare infused with racial hatred and religious antipathy.
The king than offers Beowulf a seat and suggests he “unfasten his thoughts.” Once again thoughts and words are reckoned as weapons and treasures. There is also a lack of a slave to fill the guests’ cup, this being done by a thane, a ranking man of the warrior class.
Notes
-1. Wyrd is the force of fate and is a heathen concept, as is the idea expressed on line 490 by the king that his guest is possessed of his own spirit.
End Section 7
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