Significance of the Number Three in Beowulf

Grendel, as portrayed by Crispin Glover in the...

Grendel, as portrayed by Crispin Glover in the 2007 film Beowulf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beowulf’s career is divided into three stages, and he fights three major battles in the poem (against Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon). The number three also figures in other important (often very subtle) ways in the poem.  What is the significance of this?  Keep in mind that the number three is also important in Christianity.  The prime example of this is the conception of the Holy TrinityChrist’s career also falls into three stages–childhood and youth, a period of “lost years,” and his return to take up his ministry; he is also supposed to have died at the age of 33.  Christ’s final days also consist of three stages: his betrayal by Judas and his trial before Pontius Pilate; the Passion and the Crucifixion; and his Resurrection on the third day after the Crucifixion.  Thus the significance of the number three in Beowulf  makes for a good discussion topic.

Three is a very important number is western culture. Its significance is partly attributed to the fact that it is the first uneven number that contains an even one (The Number Three). This number is emblematic of the Trinity, has been considered significant long before the Christian God was worshiped as a triple Deity (The Number Three). In particular, the number three was considered sacred by the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, the ancient Scandinavians and the Druids, and the Chinese and Japanese (The Number Three). For example, many ancient Welsh laws contain codes called triads, and many ancient Irish stories contain “three royal jugglers, three jesters, three head charioteers, three equerries, three swineherds, three janitors, and three drink-bearers” (The Number Three). The earliest versions of Beowulf go back a time before Christianity had arrived in Scandinavia and these versions were pagan and non-religious oral narratives handed down from generation to generation by bards. Given these influences, the number three naturally plays an important role in the poem. Beowulf’s career is divided into three stages. He fights three major battles: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon; the poem consists of three funerals. Furthermore, a more subtle influence and significance of the number three is found in the way that items are often listed in collections of three. For example, “Beowulf, I heard, gave Hygd the neck-ring, the wonderful treasure work Wealhtheow had given him – high was breeding – and three horses also, graceful in their gate, and with gay saddles” (2171 – 2174). Beowulf gave Hygd three items: the neck ring, three horses, and gay saddles. One of those items, the horses, were in themselves in a collection of three.

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

“The Number Three.” http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/mhs/mhs67.htm

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Grendel and Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf

An illustration of Grendel's mother by J.R. Sk...

An illustration of Grendel’s mother by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf (1908) described as a “water witch” trying to stab Beowulf. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the characters of Grendel and his mother.  Neither one of them are simply “monsters” and nothing more.  Grendel’s postion as an outcast and his feelings of loneliness, isolation and resentment make him very human indeed.  (If you’ve ever read Frankenstein, you will immediately see a strong resemblance between Grendel and the creature in Mary Shelley’s great novel.  Grendel and the creature also share in common the fact that they are the only ones of their kind.)  Grendel’s mother reacts in exactly the same way that any human mother would react when her children are threatened or harmed.  All of this makes for a good discussion topic.

As the main antagonists in the story, Grendel and his mother embody evil. Their demonization is attributed to Christianity and their old ancestor Cain. God “took vengeance” on Cain by casting him out of his kingdom for killing Abel (108). “Far from mankind God drove him [Grendel] out for his deed shame! From Cain came down all kinds misbegotten – orges and elves and evil shades – as also the Giants, who joined in long wars with God. He gave them their reward” (109 – 113). As descendants of Cain, Grendel and his mother are portrayed as formidable monsters and antagonists. Even though Grendel’s mother is a woman, she is presented as a “mortal foe” who Beawulf “was not sorry to be fighting” (1537-1538), and therefore an equal to a man. Unlike Grendel, Grendel’s mother is more humanized as an antagonist. Her anger is attributed to what Beowulf has done to her son. “She was down on this guest of hers and had drawn her knife, broad, burnished of edge; for her boy was to be avenged, her only son” (1545 –1546). Therefore, Grendel’s mother is presented as an antagonist who reacts in exactly the same way that any human mother would react when her child is threatened or harmed.

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

The Role of Women in Beowulf

English: An illustration of Beowulf fighting t...

English: An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the role played by women in the poem.  Although Beowulf–like all other heroic epics–is clearly dominated by male characters, the female characters have an important function in the poem.  How important are the female characters in Beowulf?  What is the attitude of the narrator and of the hero-warriors towards women?

Grendel’s mother is one of the main antagonists in the story. She embodies evil just like Grendel and their demonization is attributed to their lineage and relationships to Cain. She is a formidable monster who is on par with the other antagonists in the story. In that respect, this woman is presented as an equal to a man. She is a “mortal foe” who Beawulf “was not sorry to be fighting” (1537-1538). Unlike Grendel, his mother is humanized to certain degree in that her anger is attributed to what this man has done to her son. “She was down on this guest of hers and had drawn her knife, broad, burnished of edge; for her boy was to be avenged, her only son” (1545 –1546). Besides Grendel’s mother, the poem is dominated by male heroes. The role that women play is similar to material possessions. In other words, women are cherished and loved, but only as prizes that are won in battles. Just like material possessions, women are object that represent success in heroic feats.

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

Christian and Pagan Influences in Beowulf

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The earliest versions of Beowulf–originally an oral narrative handed down from generation to generation by storytellers or bards–were certainly pagan; that is, religion did not play a role in the poem, since its origins go back a time before Christianity had arrived in Scandinavia.  Nothing is known of these earlier versions of the story because Beowulf was first transcribed by a Medieval monk who inserted Christian themes into the poem (see the Introduction).  Some scholars argue that there is an unresolved tension between the pagan and Christian elements in the poem which detracts from its sense of unity.  Other scholars argue that the pagan and Christian elements in the poem are seamlessly combined and that the “blended” nature of the poem does not detract from its sense of unity (again, see the Introduction).  What is your take on this matter?

According to scholars, the written version of Beowulf was first created somewhere north of the Thames between 750 and 950 (xv-xvi). The influence of Christianity is clearly visible in the embodiment of evil. For example, when Grendel is introduced, he is introduced in opposition to God and goodness. “Grendel they called this cruel spirit, the fell and fen his fastness was, the march his haunt. This unhappy being had long lived in the land of monsters since the Creator cast them out as kindred of Cain. For the killing of Abel the eternal Lord took vengeance. There was no joy of that feud: far from mankind God drove him out for his deed shame! From Cain came down all kinds misbegotten – orges and elves and evil shades – as also the Giants, who joined in long wars with God. He gave them their reward” (101 – 113). Grendel’s evilness is explained using his lineage and his relationship to Cain. Similarly, Grendel’s mother’s evilness is likewise attributed to her family line. She is “the descendants of Cain, the first born human being, a fratricide” (xxix). By using God in crucial points in the action (xxix), the poem uses God as a tool to make antagonists more antagonistic. To me, the poem’s Christian elements tend to take away from the poem’s sense of unity, but that is likely due to a personal bias against Christianity as a whole. What I mean is that the modern world still does not consider Christian beliefs/ elements mythical, and as a result I have a hard time reconciling elements that many people take so seriously with elements like dragons which are largely considered mythical.

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

Digressions in Beowulf

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the many digressions in the poem–places where the narrator or the characters relate events that happened in the past.  Some scholars regard these digressions as weaknesses in the narrative structure of the poem; other scholars regard them as essential parts of the poem that do not detract from it in any way whatsoever.  What is your take on all of this?  Are the digressions distractions from the main narrative, or are they integral parts of the poem?

The digressions in Beowulf do not take away from the narrative structure of the poem. Instead, they add to its richness by presenting additional information about the history and lives of the characters. For example, Hrothgar introduces Beowulf with a story: “Great was the feud that your father set off when his hand struck down Heatholaf in death among the Wylfings. The Weather-Geats did not dare to keep him then for the dread of work, and he left them to seek out the South – Danish folk, the glorious Scyldings, across the shock of waters… I then settled feud with fitting payment, sent to the Wylfings over the water’s back old things of beauty; against which I’d the oath of your father” (459 – 473). This digression adds to the richness of the poem by telling us the story of how he had settled feud. Another example is the story “of the Waels’ great son, Sigemund” (875 – 876). Here we learn about the hero’s “fights, strange feats, far wanderings, the fuse and the blood spilt” (877-879). Many of the digressions may seem unnecessary, but they add to the complexity and completeness of the tale, complementing the story of the whole.

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

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.

Hospitality in Beowulf

Consider the importance of hospitality and reciprocity in Beowulf.  What exactly does it mean to be a good host and a good guest in the world of Beowulf?

The poem works with oppositions. On one hand, social unity is celebrated and, on the other hand, the lack of social unity is denounced. Social unity is celebrated with public celebrations where food, drinks, and words are shared and exchanged (xliii). Hospitality and reciprocity are so important that in the beginning of the poem, Hrothgar dreams of sharing: “it came into his mind that he would command the construction of a huge mead-call, a house greater than men on earth ever have heard of, and share the gifts God had bestowed on him upon its floor with folk young and old – apart from public land and the persons of slaves” (66-71). Hrothgar wants to celebrate and share his glory with his men. However, it is unclear whether his hospitality is also extended to his slaves. As a good host, he gives his visitors “rings, arm bands at the banquet” (79-80) and shares with them drinks and food. In contrast to this kind of hospitality, Grendel’s lack of hospitality and reciprocity is denounced. Grendel does not share food and drink and instead swallows his enemies, uncooked, alone and in silence (xliii). This characterization illustrates Grendel’s barbarism. It positions him as the unknown Other, the antagonist who is the embodiment of evil.

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