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Barron's Booknotes-Beowulf-Free Chapter Summary Synopsis
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VERSES 16-17

More gift-giving is in order. Hrothgar presents armor and swords to all the Geat warriors who accompanied Beowulf on his voyage. For the Geat warrior who was eaten in his sleep by Grendel, Hrothgar gives the Geats gold, presumably to be paid over to the slain warrior's family. Hrothgar's actions are generous and compassionate.

The poet briefly interrupts the narrative to comment on God's role in the battle between Beowulf and Grendel. Both God and Beowulf's own courage are given equal importance in the poet's eyes. People, the poet says, must open themselves to God's power and be aware, whether they like it or not, that both good and evil exist in the world.

The court poet entertains the jubilant warriors with stories and tales from Danish history. He tells of how a band of Danes, under the leadership of Hnaf, are killed-for unspecified reasons-by the followers of the Frisian king, Finn, at his hall in Finnsburg. (Some readers refer to this digression as the Finnsburg Episode.) Both Hnaf and his nephew die in the battle. Hnaf's sister is Finn's wife; she feels her husband betrayed her by attacking her brother, and for starting a battle in which both her brother and her son lost their lives. (Though her identity is not mentioned in the poem, historical sources report that her name is Hildeburh.)


Hengest, Hnaf's follower, refuses to leave the hall. As a gesture of peace, Finn offers to divide the hall with the Danes. Hengest agrees, even though he hates Finn. As part of the agreement Finn promises to punish any of his men who attempt to rekindle the feud.

A funeral pyre is built for the dead warriors. Notice the vividness with which the poet describes the cremation, the way "the greedy fire-demons drank flesh and bones/From the dead of both sides, until nothing was left" (1123-24). Notice, also, the way the poet uses the image of feasting to describe the fire. Compare this funeral with Shild's in the Prologue, and-when you come to it-Beowulf's own funeral at the end of the poem.

All winter Hengest and a few of his men live in the hall at Finnsburg; the sea is too rough for them to return to Denmark. Hengest is torn between his desire for revenge against Finn, and his moral obligation to comply with the peace offering. Though he hates Finn, he still possesses a sense of honor. It's only when spring finally comes that Hengest resolves his inner conflict by killing Finn, ransacking his hall, and taking Hildeburh back to Denmark.

After the court poet finishes his story, Welthow steps forward and advises Hrothgar not to be carried away by his feelings of gratitude toward Beowulf. She's worried that he'll treat Beowulf more like a son than his own sons. She asks Hrothgar to have confidence in Hrothulf, his nephew. She tries to convince him that when he dies his sons "will be safe,/Sheltered in Hrothulf's gracious protection" (1180-81).

The Finnsburg Episode deals with treachery and revenge. Because all the historical digressions have relevance to the main narrative, the poet didn't choose to tell this particular story at this point without good reason. The main characters in the Finnsburg Episode are Hildeburh-whose fate is to be torn apart by her bonds of kinship with the Finns and the Danes-and Hengest, whose code of ethics is upset by the conflict between honor and revenge.

NOTE:

In the previous verse the poet let us know that for a rare moment-during the celebration for Beowulf-there was an absence of conspiratorial feelings. Yet treachery, conspiracy, and evil are part of life, and the poet is implying through the Finnsburg Episode that this moment of calm isn't going to last. You might read this section as you would a mystery story, where the author is supplying hints and clues about what's going to happen next.

The most mysterious character in this section is Hrothulf. He's first mentioned in line 1014, at the start of the banquet for Beowulf. Then, as Welthow makes her appearance in the hall after the Finnsburg Episode, he's described sitting "peacefully together" with Hrothgar, "their friendship and Hrothulf's good faith still unbroken" (1164-65). The poet is once again hinting that at some future date Hrothulf will be involved in a conspiracy against the king-that his good faith will be broken and he's not a person to be trusted.

At this moment the poet chooses to mention Unferth, who's sitting at Hrothgar's feet, and to remind us that although "everyone trusted him" no one forgot that "he'd spilled his relatives' blood." The poet is in the process of weaving a very complicated drama involving loyalty and kinship.

The poet intends us to compare Welthow and Hildeburh. Welthow advises Hrothgar to put his faith in Hrothulf-in much the same way Hildeburh put her faith in Finn. The poem at this point is like a tapestry, where all events and stories are interconnected.

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