Hierarchy in Beowulf

Consider the nature of hierarchy in the poem.  What are the forms and customs that govern interactions between kings and warriors, and between the great warriors and the less-great?

Hierarchy is very important within the society presented in the poem. In fact, the world is presented and described in terms of its hierarchy. Everyone is positioned within the hierarchy including the Lord who formed Earth (91), Grendel, a descendent of Cain, who was cast out by the creator for killing Abel (105-107), and the council lords who “sat there daily to devise some plan, what might be best for brave hearted Danes to contrive against these terror-raids” (170 – 173). We are constantly told of the lineages because hierarchy also rules family structures. For example, when Beowulf and his crew sail and arrive in Denmark, they are told to give their names and the names of their fathers. Otherwise, they would not be allowed to go any further because they would be considered “undeclared spies in the Danish land” (252 – 254). The captain explains, “we here are come from the country of the Geats and are King Hygelac’s hearth-companions. My noble father was known as Edgetheow…” (260 – 262). Later on, hierarchy is used to identify likeness and familiarity. For example, the Guardian of Scyldings announces, “I knew him when I was a child! It was to his father, Edgetheow, that Hrethel the Great gave in marriage his one daughter. Well does the son now pay his call on a proven ally!” (371 – 376). Finally, the forms and customs that govern interactions between kings and warriors, and between the great warriors and the less great are based on respect. Once ancestry and hierarchy of a stranger is known, then he is accepted into his proper place in society. For example, Wulfgar is instructed by the Master of Battles to relay the message: “He [the Master of Battles] knows your ancestry; I am to tell you all, determined venturers over the seas, that you are sure of welcome” (389 – 394). The respect is not limited to words. Once the warriors are escorted out, a group remains to guard the weapons (399-401). This action shows further respect for the venturers.

Anonymous.  Beowulf: A Verse Translation.  Translated by Michael Alexander.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  Print.

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