Beowulf is set against a background of feuding and warfare amongst the Danes, Frisians, Jutes, Swedes, and the Geats. Heroes the likes of Beowulf and Wiglaf stand proudly among other figures from history such as Hygelac, Hrothgar, and Ingeld. Although, in a modern sense, the poem cannot be considered historically accurate, Beowulf offers a familiar look into the feuds, truces, alliances, and political intrigue within its heroic world. It continues fascinating readers as well because of its prominent themes such as community, revenge, violence, and, religion.
To start with, the central function of a clan is the relationship between the lord of the clan and his retainers. Upon the receiving gifts the bond between lord and retainer, and in return for goods received, the retainer makes a solemn oath of fealty to the lord of the clan. Multiple times throughout the poem, the poet refers to Hrothgar, Hygelac, and Beowulf (good kings) as “ring-giver,” “helmet of the Danes,” and even “giver of treasure.” The poet acknowledges Hrothgar’s success by acknowledging that he “doled out rings / and torques at the table” (ll. 80–81). This form of social commitment (or contract) solemnizes allegiance within the heroic world. The Finn digression (ll. 1069–1158) shows the consequences of a group of retainers, although shameful and tragic, who choose to follow the slayer of their lord rather than to die trying to avenge him. Revenge is quite possibly the most powerful bond that held the Anglo-Saxon communities together.
The members of a clan had an obligation, morally, to avenge the slaughter of their kin. The compensation was in the form of a wergild, or “man-price.” Every member of the clan had a predetermined, or rather, a pre-calculated. If someone of value were to be slain, the one responsible had to pay the wergild, or a life would be taken place of the life that had been lost. This was the case even if the death (or slaying) was an accident. The responsibility for exacting the revenge fell to the victim’s family, and with that they had the support of the lord and behind that, the force of law. A failure to gain retribution was a source of grief and shame.
The story of Beowulf begins with the genealogy of the Danish royal house. The genealogy highlights the ways that successful communities were formed. Lines 67 - 83 recount the rise of Hrothgar to power. It even tells of the building of Heorot, the mead hall of the Danes. The mead hall, Heorot, is a large hall, centrally located where the Danes gather to eat, drink mead, hear the songs of the scop (a combination poet, musician, and historian), brag about their exploits, and to receive any gifts their lord offers. The building of a mead hall, allows the lord to wall in his people and offers a sense of warmth and communal belonging. In this sense, the lord also walls out any of the chaotic, and dark forces of nature. The lavish descriptions of the treasure and the gifts that occur throughout the poem, including Beowulf ’s dying wish to behold the dragon’s treasure hoard, brings readers back to this moment early in the poem when Hrothgar builds his mead hall and walls out his enemies and nature. The most immediate threat to this community is none other than Grendel.
The monsters of Beowulf and the horror they inspire are more than just a simple threat to the community, but also represent the anxieties of a warrior culture. Grendel is a “lonewalker” who stands outside of the community. He does not use any form of weapons, pay any reparations, speak any form of language, boast, or even enjoy hall noise. Grendel, in his own way, is the dark side manifestation of what a heroic warrior and a model community member such as the likes of Beowulf, ought to be. As for the dragon, it is the very opposite of the good king that the poet goes to such pains to construct for his audience. The dragon hoards its treasure instead of freely giving it away or sharing it. The dragon is miserly and greedy, sitting all alone with its hoard of treasure in a dark and cold anti-hall. These monsters, together, are exterior threats to the community and could be considered projections of repressed evils from within the community.
The major action of the poem involves mortal combat between the hero, Beowulf, and three monsters, and also around continuous conflict between nations. The poem is interwoven with accounts of songs of past battles, monster fights, and reprisals of murder. Beowulf warns that no act of violence transpires within a vacuum, but it is the result of some violent act and will cause future violence. Peace is fleeting and can only be established by those most skillful at causing violence and spreading terror, such as the likes of Beowulf, and Hrothgar before him. For a nation to survive in Beowulf it requires a leader who can strike fear and terror in his neighbors and conquer outlying tribes.
During the genealogy of the Danish royal house, we learn that Hrothgar, like Scyld before him, enjoyed “the fortunes of war,” finally amassing a “mighty army” (ll. 65–67). Only then could he build his mead hall where he could dole out treasure and enjoy a break from the devastation of warfare and slaughter. As a successful, violent warrior like his ancestors before him, Hrothgar has inspired fear in those around him and so is able to enjoy temporary peace. In this case, the benefit of war, is the building of Heorot, the mead hall of the Danes.
“And the mere bottom has never been sounded by the sons of men. On its bank, the heather-stepper halts: the hart in flight from pursuing hounds will turn to face them with firm-set horns and die in the wood rather than dive beneath its surface. That is no good place.” (ll. 1,366–1,372) This passage shares one of the many descriptions of a hostile and brutal nature, a nature that is “red in tooth and claw,” the kind of world the construction of Heorot was meant to keep walled out. We also see the symbol of the Danish nation, the hart, besieged by ravenous forces and driven to self-destruction.
We are also told that Heorot is ill fated to suffer a “barbarous burning” in the Heathobard feud, despite the marriage between Freawaru and Ingeld. This is one such was the fate of a kingdom ruled by a king who does not use violence and fear as tools. In Beowulfian society, one way to gain political advantage is to use women as pawns to stockbroker peace, but this type of approach is consistently doomed to failure, as Beowulf indicates after his return to Geatland: “But generally the spear / Is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed / No matter how admirable the bride may be” (ll. 2,029–2,031).
Wergild, literally “man-price,” was another way Anglo-Saxons capitalized on violence, replacing gold in its stead. The very threat of revenge offered some safety in Anglo-Saxon culture, where each member of a tribe or clan had a pre-calculated worth. If a clan member were to be killed, his particular Wergild, or man-price, must be paid, or a blood feud would occur. The twelve winters of Grendel’s anarchistic violence, of hall floors “slick with slaughter,” is terrible because the monster does not pay reparations (or Wergild) for those he kills. Grendel’s acts of violence erase any distinctions and individuality and threatens a system that had come forth from violence to start with.
Beowulf is very much like Grendel: He, too, has the strength of 30 in his handgrip; he fights Grendel (and Dayraven) without the aid of weapons, and in the death match between himself and Grendel, he breaks bone lappings and dismembers his opponent. In this act, Beowulf is heroic because he out monsters Grendel, outdoes him in doing violence. And just like Grendel, the dragon is a force of almost seemingly overwhelming chaos that reduces great halls and human accomplishments down to indistinguishable rubble and ash.
However perverse this night-flying “wyrm” may be, though, it is not completely unlike the hero of the poem. It guards its treasure in a hall, peaceably, until a cup is stolen, and it is at this time that it ventures out for revenge. Destroying outlying villages and instilling fear through terrorism. After Beowulf kills the dragon, this time with the help of Wiglaf, the dying hero predicts a new series of violent invasions from the Swedes. Beowulf ’s ability to make violence is no longer able to help his nation. Like Hrothgar 50 years earlier, Beowulf ’s strength is no longer a match for the viciousness of the Anglo-Saxon world. It is here that the audience of Beowulf is treated to particularly graphic battle imagery, such as Beowulf ’s very own description of the death of Ongentheow at the hands of Wulf and Eofor during the battle of Ravenswood (ll. 2,946–2,984). In fact, the human versus human violence within the poem is as disturbing as that created by the monsters: We are also told of Heremod’s and Unferth’s Cain-like kin killing and the future strife to be visited upon Hrothgar’s children by his own nephew, Hrothulf, and so on.
The violent attack that comes from the Swedes makes for a dismal ending to the poem. We are made painfully aware that humans are the worst of monsters, that hardship and war are a way of life, that revenge can hold a group together, and the only good king is a strong king that is willing to devistate his neighbors. The Old English word for fate, wyrd, overshadows Beowulf. Anglo-Saxon wyrd is stern and unyielding: Life is fleeting, and only the glory that comes from violence and battle can outlast the human bone-house.