The Poem Beowulf
The poem Beowulf closely explores what constitutes our understanding of glory through looking at all the factors the people and the material things that work together to represent this notion. In the passage from lines 67b-83a, Hrothgar orders the building of a hall, Heorot, that will stand, literally and metaphorically, as a colossal representation of his individual accomplishments and the worth of his people. In the passage, Heorot symbolizes Hrothgars fortitude and the Danes as a model for the whole world, but whose abominable destruction is foreshadowed in the last two lines of the passage.
The passages tension, which is also reflected throughout the book, lies in the fact that Hrothgars veneration and the communitys reverence of boundless glory is placed on tangible, material objects or structures in this passage, Heorot which are susceptible to total destruction. The poet of Beowulf carefully manipulates diction and alliteration to underscore how Hrothgars actions are simultaneously individualistically driven and universally impactful and foreshadowing at the end of the passage to show how Heorot acts as the representation of endless of glory while still being vulnerable to doom. These tensions complicate our understanding of glory as the concept is not always based on intrinsic worth, but rather the attachments that entire communities and people use to create its image and influence.
One important way to understand the passages central friction is to examine the poets repetition of two opposing kinds of diction, which portray the kings self-centered hunger for fame and the actual impact of his actions on the community, while juxtaposing it with language that highlights his charitable, giving nature as king. The passage opens by focusing on Hrothgars individual mind, without explicitly saying it is him, but by simply having his mind turned (Beowulf, line 67) towards the creation of a hall that stand as a wonder of the world (line 70). In the whole passage, there is an incredible amount of repetition of his individual reasons for building Heorot.
His pronouns are continuously used to express that this will be his throne room for him to use his God-given-goods (line 72) and that he alone will settle on the name of the hall. Furthermore, after Hrothgar gives Heorot its name, it immediately and definitively becomes law. This personification of Heorot highlights how Heorot becomes an extension of Hrothgar, as it has the influence to evoke virtue simply because Hrothgar was its founder. Furthermore, throughout the poem, the righteousness and worth of the kings Beowulf in particular is also attached to material things, like the sword, Hrunting, that Unferth gives Beowulf to fight Grendel.
Yet, while this repetition of his individual pronouns is a thread throughout the passage, there is also the repetition of verbs that evoke Hrothgars giving, selfless nature. The poet chooses to repeat verbs such as handed dispense sent and doled to convey a sense of the kings generosity. There is now a focus on Hrothgar serving something larger than himself by ordering the creation of a hall that warrants respect and dignity from the entire world. The hall will indiscriminately and without fail give to young and old (line 72). Suddenly, the impact of building Heorot is turned beyond his individual desires.
The contrasting insinuations of the repetition of diction create a friction towards determining whether or not the rightfulness of intentionality the extent to which a king, or person, is motivated by individual wants should matter when the consequences of their actions can be universally beneficial and also serve as a source of glory for a whole tribe.
In contrast to the use of diction, the poets treatment of alliteration serves as a tool to underscore the scope or magnitude of the kings actions. The poet alliterates the words wonder and world to suggest that this hall will be a hub of influence and community for the Danes, but also a model for the entire world to respect. Alliteration is used again in the passage as it is called the hall of halls which affirms that this is a hall not only worthy of respect from the whole world, but also the example for what a hall should be like for all those who want to build halls for their respective communities. Since there is a huge amount of focus on what the hall symbolizes rather than its actual utility, it becomes clear that glory prevails because of the construction of material things, attachments, and outward perceptions from people, rather than its real service to the people.
Additionally, the poet offers another use of alliteration by saying that this is a place for the king to dispense his God-given-goods (line 72). The use of alliteration places a huge amount of importance on the scope of power that Hrothgar possesses, but also reinforces that these are not totally his individual gifts because they were given to him by God. This brings up a tension between whether or not this glory can really be totally his own if it is actually the product of an endowment from God.
However, by the last two lines of the passage, the poet turns his attention towards the individual worth and endurance of the throne-room. The entire passage revolves around the timeless impact of the hall on the world, the personal triumph that the hall gives to Hrothgar, the merits of the hall as a place for doling out the finest rings and torques (lines 80-81). Yet the
last two lines bring a complete shift in tone, by foreshadowing an inevitable and impending barbarous burning (line 83) that will remove any kind of glory that the hall now conjures up for the community. The hall of halls which tied together all the most important concepts of the world of Beowulf the power of the king, the influence of his actions will soon be reduced to nothing. The poets choice to use barbarous to describe a burning also implies that the burning will be merciless as it will cause for a total destruction of the world of Beowulf and its ideals. This final violent, vibrant image undercuts any preceding idea of enduring glory as it foreshadows complete downfall. This foreshadowing wraps up the central tension of the passage, which is the question of whether or not it is valid to bestow the attachment of important
ideals on material goods and gifts, if these same goods cannot prevail forever and are not impervious to the blows of evil.
On the whole, the poets use of diction, alliteration, and foreshadowing compel the two central frictions of the passage: the problem of having impermanent material structures embody the eternal and transcendent idea of glory and the selfish motives behind a powerful leaders influence. However, the handling of language in this particular passage reflects a more universal dilemma about how to adequately represent and honor our most treasured communal values. While the tension of Beowulfprevails without ever being easily answered, the poem as a whole creates a timeless thread for understanding the human need to find appropriate outlets, material objects and structures, to represent our deepest beliefs. The passage begs arguably the most important question of the poem: Where should the success, the glory of the Danes, the triumph of humankind as a whole, be placed, if there exist no permanent, no definite centers to carry indefinitely these ideals of glory, power, and stability?
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