It is the second year of Grendel’s raids on the Danes. The attacks have decimated Hrothgar’s dominion. His glory is waning, and other feudal lords are rising up around him. To the east, one such king is extending his circle of power much as Hrothgar once did, plundering neighboring villages and forcing them to swear allegiance to his hall. Hrothgar responds by gathering an army from the farthest reaches of his realm of influence. Grendel watches as these forces gather at Hrothgar’s meadhall and grow in number.
One night, when Grendel comes down to spy on the humans, he sees that they have left their campsites. He follows their tracks eastward, to the hall of the young King Hygmod, lord of the Helmings. Hrothgar assembles his troops before Hygmod’s door and calls him out. Hygmod appears on the doorstep with six retainers and a great bear on a chain. Hrothgar makes a speech, and it is clear that his troops would easily best Hygmod’s in battle. Extraordinarily calm, Hygmod drops his sword at Hrothgar’s feet with his left hand—a sign of a truce—and offers him gifts in order to avoid a battle.
Hrothgar refuses the Helmings’ treasure, but Hygmod tells him he has a treasure that will change his mind. Hygmod returns to his hall and emerges with his sister, a beautiful woman with long red hair. Hygmod offers her to Hrothgar, telling him that from now on she will be known as Wealtheow, or “holy servant of common good.” Grendel finds himself wracked with pain at the sight of Wealtheow; despite himself, she moves him just as the Shaper’s song once moved him. Weeping children run up to Wealtheow and snatch the hem of her dress, and Grendel can imagine himself joining them. Hrothgar accepts her as his bride. After a few days of speeches from both the Scyldings and the Helmings, Hrothgar’s men return home to Hart.
Throughout the winter, the presence of Wealtheow keeps Grendel from attacking Hrothgar’s hall, even though he understands that Wealtheow, in her goodness and selflessness, is no different from any other female creature he has encountered before. Even Grendel’s mother, disgusting and wretched as she is, would give her life to lessen his suffering. Sometimes Grendel goes to Hart to watch Wealtheow as she passes the meadbowl around the hall. Her presence seems to have affected all the Danes: the Shaper now sings songs of comfort, beauty, and love, and Hrothgar seems somewhat softened as well. One night, the other thanes taunt Unferth for having killed his brothers, but Wealtheow manages to stop the barrage with a word.
One time during the winter, Hygmod comes to visit Wealtheow, bringing with him a great troop of Helmings. Grendel watches the festivities through a hole in the wall. He notes the doting manner in which Hrothgar watches Wealtheow, and also the cunningly duplicitous looks that Hygmod shoots at Hrothgar. Back in his cave, Grendel is tortured by visions of Wealtheow, which tease him away from the nihilistic truth he has received from the dragon. The next night, Grendel storms the hall and catches Wealtheow up in his hands. He spreads her legs and thinks about cooking the “ugly hole” between them over a fire. But then Grendel, realizing that killing Wealtheow is just as meaningless as not killing her, suddenly releases her. He returns to the mere, happy that his forbearance has surprised the men and wrecked another one of their theories.
The first few pages of Chapter 7 mark a radical shift in the style in which Grendel narrates his story. Though he has consistently employed a mix of tones and diction, ranging from contemporary swearwords to mock-epic epithets, these pages go even further. The change is noticeable in the shape of the text on the page: beginning in Chapter 7, the text suddenly features italics, parentheses, brackets, and bulleted lists, at times looking more like a film script than a prose novel. The text’s expansion into other styles and genres parallels Grendel’s own growth as a narrator. As he matures, his language becomes more inventive and experimental. Grendel becomes a Shaper himself. As his linguistic abilities grow, Grendel also becomes more aware of the power of literature and stories. In the previous chapter, Grendel accepts his prescribed role in the Beowulf epic. In Chapter 7, however, he comes to understand that he is now bound by that identity: he asks, “What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?” Grendel now realizes that by fulfilling his goal—destroying the Danes—he will no longer have a purpose in life, thus destroying himself.
The shifting styles, particularly those that appear in parentheses, also illustrate Grendel’s constantly shifting and perpetually divided mental state. Although Grendel has visited the dragon and continues to be influenced by the creature, he has not fully accepted the dragon’s nihilistic teachings. Grendel is struggling to justify this nihilism against the emotional response he feels toward the lovely, inspiring Wealtheow. Grendel is fully aware of his divided state, and often uses parentheticals to undercut his own words:
I changed my mind. It would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live. It would be, for me, mere pointless pleasure, an illusion of order for this one frail, foolish, flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity.
By framing his philosophical justification as a “quote,” Grendel pulls us out of the present moment and forces us to consider the possibility that he does not really mean what he says. Earlier in the chapter, however, Grendel tells us that killing the queen would have meaning: it would be “the ultimate act of nihilism.” Killing the queen, thereby killing all the love and altruism that she inspires, would mean that Grendel will have finally chosen the dragon—a choice that he is not, at this point, quite ready to make.
Wealtheow, in addition to being an alternative to the dragon (a theme mirrored by the ruling sign of Chapter 7—Libra, the Scales), is the only significant female in the Danish community. Though Wealtheow is awe-inspiring in her beauty and comforting in her kindness, Grendel sees her less as an individual woman and more as representative of the state of all women—as he makes clear when he compares Wealtheow to his own wretched mother and finds little essential difference. In many ways, Wealtheow is little more than an epic poet’s stock vision of an ideal woman. She performs all the social functions of a proper queen: she is lovely and mannerly, and she brings balance to her community while rarely expressing needs of her own. Wealtheow is never shown with female companions, which underlines her function in this patriarchal society: she exists to articulate relationships between men. From the outset, Wealtheow is a gift from Hygmod to Hrothgar; later, in Hart, she finds herself shuttling among the Scylding thanes, making peace and fostering harmony. Wealtheow is even named in honor of her duty to the men of her world: she is a “servant of common good.” Grendel finds this idealized image of women just as seductive as the Danes do, but he breaks that illusion when he storms the hall and exposes Wealtheow’s sex organs. To the misogynistic Grendel, Wealtheow’s genitals are proof of the ugliness that resides within all women. By concentrating on this terrible image, then, Grendel finds he can resist Wealtheow’s temptations.
by beowulfgeek, December 19, 2012
Spent a lot of years working on 'Beowulf' and I reckon that the monsters represent human characters. In my view: Grendel represents Agnar, son of Ingeld; Grendel's Mum represents the daughter of Earl Swerting of Sweden (and the first wife of Ingeld); and the Dragon represents Onela, king of the Swedes. I think that there has been a scribal error right at the beginning of the poem, which has made Scyld's 'bearn' (Modern English, 'bairn') into Beowulf the First. Thus the real parallels of the poem have been lost.
As far as the first tw
2 out of 3 people found this helpful0