When Hrothgar’s brother, Halga, is murdered, Halga’s fourteen-year-old son, Hrothulf, comes to live at Hart. By this time, Hrothgar and Wealtheow have two sons of their own. Hrothulf, though polite, is sullen and withdrawn. Hrothgar tries to attribute the boy’s malaise to the trauma of losing his father, but he also suspects that the boy may be plotting against him.
In a soliloquy in the yard, Hrothulf describes the unfair socioeconomic situation he sees in the Scylding community. The peasants labor stupidly for the smug, self-satisfied thanes. Hrothulf wishes the laboring class could view the aristocrats critically and see that the thanes’ riches depend on the peasants’ labor. Hrothulf describes the system that keeps the two classes apart as a violent one, no more legitimate or just than the violence of savage animals.
In a second soliloquy in the woods, Hrothulf contemplates a large nut tree that provides a home for squirrels and birds, but kills any plants that sprout in its shade. Hrothulf wonders if he should call the tree tyrannical, as only it and its “high-borne guests” survive in its presence. He goes on to compare the tree and the birds to Hrothgar and his thanes. Though Hrothulf has nicer things to say about the kind and loving Wealtheow, simple love is not enough for him to justify the divide between the rich and the poor.
In a soliloquy immediately following, Wealtheow stands above the sleeping Hrothulf and marvels that such sadness can exist in one so young. Wealtheow knows that Hrothulf, though he shows kindness to her sons now, will come to resent them when they ascend to Hrothgar’s throne.
A year passes, and Hrothulf becomes even more taciturn and remote. The only times he speaks are on his walks with Red Horse, a deaf and cranky old peasant who acts as his counselor and mentor. One day, as the two are walking in the woods, Red Horse gives the prince advice on the revolution he is planning. First, Red Horse tells Hrothulf that it will be necessary for him to discover ways to frame his revolution—which will necessarily be brutal and violent—as a heroic, meritorious undertaking. Red Horse then goes on to claim, cynically, that the purpose of government is to protect the interests of those who already have power and to deny protection to everyone else. Red Horse also jibes Hrothulf for his revolutionary ideas, claiming that a revolution merely exchanges one tyrannical government for another. All governments, Red Horse claims, are essentially evil.
At a dinner back in Hart, Hrothgar watches Hrothulf sit between his young sons. Hrothgar marvels at the fact that there will come a time when Hrothulf, despite his current outward kindness and lonely awkwardness, will rise against him. Hrothgar scans the crowd before him and sees a series of traps. In addition to the threat that the resentful Hrothulf presents, there is the problem of Wealtheow’s brother, Hygmod. Furthermore, Ingeld, the increasingly powerful king of the Heathobards, also poses a threat to Hrothgar’s kingdom; Hrothgar plans to marry his elder daughter, Freawaru, off to Ingeld, but he has no guarantee that this measure will stave off an attack. Hrothgar sees Wealtheow as the worst trap of all: the youth she has wasted on an elderly husband reminds him of all the pain and potentially meaningless suffering they have endured together.
Grendel figures that the reader, after seeing Hrothgar in such a pitiful state, must be wondering how Grendel can stand to torment the Danes any further. Grendel responds by claiming that his attacks give men dignity and nobility: he made men what they are and, as their creator, has a right to test them. Grendel grows angry with the reader for pestering him with questions, saying that all this grief and energy must eventually lead to something important. Grendel then comes up with a dream that he will “impute” to Hrothgar, about a tree with two joined trunks that gets split by an ax.
With the arrival of Hrothulf and his revolutionary ideas, the Scylding community moves into yet another stage of development, with Hrothulf embodying the new era’s rising political consciousness. Hrothulf, though young, is perceptive enough to notice the economic and political divide between the haves and the have-nots, and he becomes determined to rectify this imbalance of power. His ideas about the tyranny of the ruling class and the disenfranchisement of the working class are akin to concerns expressed by twentieth-century socialists, who advocated political and economic systems that benefited all of society, not merely aristocrats. In Hrothulf’s eyes, the Scylding government has been built on violence and continues to be violent. In the original Beowulf epic, Hrothulf actually does usurp Hrothgar’s throne; this chapter in Grendel gives us the history and psychology behind that revolution.
Hrothulf’s development in many ways parallels Grendel’s own. Grendel, like Hrothulf, is sad, lonely, and frustrated with the state of the world around him. Isolated and bitter, both characters try to find theories and systems that will fix or explain what they see as the essential problem in their respective worlds. Furthermore, Red Horse’s relationship with Hrothulf mirrors the dragon’s relationship with Grendel. Both mentors share certain characteristics, such a mocking tone and a superior air. Always a few steps ahead of their students, both Red Horse and the dragon enjoy disabusing their pupils of their idealistic notions. Both teachers take their students’ nascent philosophical or political ideas and push them toward the extremes of thought. Grendel, for example, has a general feeling that the world is meaningless; the dragon responds that, yes, the world is meaningless and therefore there is no point in anything. Hrothulf feels that the government is unjust and violent; Red Horse responds that, yes, the government is unjust, but then again, all governments are unjust, so there is no point in government at all. Just as the dragon opposes the senselessness of philosophical systems, Red Horse opposes the senselessness of political systems. Red Horse is an anarchist, a person who believes that all governments are violent and are therefore inherently wrong and futile.
Among the Danes, Hrothulf is probably the one who most closely resembles Grendel, which may be why he is the first human in the novel to make an extended speech. Up until this point, Grendel’s narrative has mainly been an observation of humans and a record of their interactions. In the last chapter we have seen Grendel become more inventive with his style and form, and in this chapter we see him make another authorial leap. In Chapter 8, Grendel gives us the first glimpse of the other characters’ inner thoughts, which up to this point we have likely presumed he has no means of accessing. Whereas in the earlier chapters Grendel watches the other characters as one would watch a pack of animals, now he understands their psychology as well. In fact, there is much evidence to support the claim that all the human dialogue in this chapter is actually created by Grendel himself. Hrothulf’s soliloquies in the yard and in the woods, for example, are written in verse. As we may assume that Hrothulf does not naturally burst into poetry, we may infer that Grendel has shaped Hrothulf’s thoughts into verse when writing this chapter. Grendel supports this inference by framing a large part of the chapter as a script with scene titles, as if he is writing a play in which Hrothulf, Wealtheow, and Red Horse are merely characters. This is not to say, however, that Grendel is making the entire story of the novel up in his head. Rather, he is learning to structure his story imaginatively, turning his tale into a work of art rather than simply recording events. As Grendel is learning more and more about the power of language, he is becoming more and more like the Shaper.
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
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