The Saxon society, one person did not
The story of Beowulf has been the center of controversial debate since its composition in ca 1000. While there is debate about if the overall content of the poem is either mythical or religious, some may want to look how the poem is structured. Although the beasts in Beowulf are important in the poem’s plot, it is through the kings and warriors that critics get their theories.
Throughout the poem, several figures come into play when trying to examine how the aspects of money, power, and respect are used. In regular Anglo Saxon society, one person did not rule Britain and the Anglo-Saxons did not express interrelationships. Among the Anglo Saxon people, five classes represented inequality; these classes had different roles as well as rights. The class structure of the Anglo- Saxons went from Kings, thanes, creoles, and lastly slaves. In the poem, we do not see slaves present in this society but we do see the role of kings, thanes, and creoles in a sense.
Hrothgar is the king of the Danes; though this is Anglo Saxon Literature Hrothgar does not just fall under the characteristics of a king who fell out with others and who flaunted his wealth. He was a provider for his people and once Grendel took over, he realized he needed the help of a warrior to keep others safe. Beowulf is the warrior/ thane summoned to defeat the horrendous monster and restore safety back to the hall of Heorot. I take the position that the Marxist theory is discussed in Beowulf and the elements of money, power, respect, and class are the cause of Beowulf’s end fate.
The class struggle in Beowulf is representation of effect and not cause. People in Beowulf received their class status not based on their money but really based on their inheritance. In this poem, the kings are like capitalist and the warriors and the common people are the workers. Beowulf would represent the lower class while Hrothgar would be above him. In the sea world, the sea monsters are the workers while Grendel and his mother are above them. Their society relates to one of Marxism because Beowulf rises through the ranks to overpower outside forces.
Inheritance by blood is a familiar idea; under this system, power and identity passes along the line of genetic descent, from father to son. Beowulf’s rise to power comes not only from blood but also from deed. In Marxist economy, power goes to whoever is willing to take it. In Beowulf with Hrothgar proves this true.
Hrothgar’s replacement of his brother (the eldest son) in the kingship explains his failure to prepare the ground for the successful continuation of the Danish dynasty. That is, Hrothgar, while legitimately king in every sense, is not equipped enough to be king by blood (or, as we learn after Grendel’s attacks, by deeds). However, no one overrules Hrothgar even though he surpassed his brother in the succession of the kingdom. He is the king who acquires majority of the wealth.
Either way this is how Hrothgar comes into power. Because he is king is acquires majority of the wealth. From a Marxist perspective, the one with the wealth is the one with power, similar to what we see in Beowulf.
Also from a Marxist perspective, we see an unequal distribution of wealth between the workers and the capitalists. In Beowulf, Hrothgar gives Beowulf a battle standard, a helm, a corslet, a sword, eight horses, and a saddle. Because Beowulf is the worker producing the labor, the kingdom should be Beowulf’s but instead Hrothgar remained in power even though he was not able to defeat the beasts attacking his kingdom himself. This shows that in a Marxist believe that capitalists (or kings) can control their laborers.The use of power is seen from multiple angles in Beowulf. While Hrothgar uses orality and object literacy, Grendel’s mother uses content literacy.
These three stages of kingship, used in the early medieval north, are the stages of development. In Beowulf Hrothgar creates Heorot with words, plays the harp, 4 and seems to recite. As Beowulf fights Grendel and succeeds Hrothgar seems to get more powerful as king because he had the brilliant idea of bringing this young Geat to come fight for the Danes when no one else was able to. This shows in Beowulf, just after contemplating the inscribed object that indicates the coming of object literacy to his society, Hrothgar, with a lengthy speech, silences the crowd in the hall (1699b), including the matchless hero, Beowulf, who does not reply to the sermon’s warning (Hill 100). From this point in the poem, the court poet is conspicuous by his absence (Beowulf 2458b, 3023b), and Unferth, the king’s official spokesman, speaks no more (Klaeber 149).
Further, there are slight hints in the poem that Hrothgar does not allow complete freedom to scops in the Danish realm. Jeff Opland notices that “harpers are confined to Heorot” under the king’s eye, while “the performances in the hall differ from those outside in that they refer to the individual experience of one member of the community or to events that neither performer nor audience witnessed; outside the hall every performance refers to an event that both performer and audience shared in” (“Beowulf’ 461). Spontaneous poetry, including praise of Beowulf, occurs outside of Hrothgar’s court. The apparent lack of muttering against the Danish king, despite the ravages of Grendel, may indicate that his control over scops is generally successful. Here, Hrothgar demonstrates his overall power over society. Grendel’s mother also demonstrates her power over society by having all creatures of her world respond to her during her battle with Beowulf.
In the story, she drags Beowulf to her court, while a mass of sea-monsters claws and bites at him. He tries to use Hrunting to pierce her skin but his attempt is unsuccessful for she is too powerful. As power becomes associated with objects, especially inscribed ones, the sense of sight becomes more valuable to kings and to others. The composer of Beowulf frequently uses the verb sceawian (“to look at”) to indicate the Danes’, and particularly Hrothgar’s growing knowledge of the monsters (132b, 840b, 843b, 983b, 1391b, 1413b, 1440b, 1687b). Part of Grendel’s terror comes from the baleful light in his eyes (726b-7). The poet uses the word eage (“eye”) on only three occasions besides line 726b, each a description of royal power: the eyes that may not light upon Modthrith unless they belong to a masterful husband (1935b), Hrothgar’s gratitude for the sight of Grendel’s severed head (1781b), and this king’s description of the onset of death.
Revealingly, he interprets life’s end as brightness fading from the eyes (1766b-7a). This is why when Grendel’s mother is defeated Beowulf finds that there is no more infestation or darkness and there is now light under the sea. This shows that power is temporary as it is in regular Marxist economy. In Beowulf, there are many examples of respect here. There are continuous references to the Lord or God. Because Hrothgar is the king, he gains respect from everyone who follows under his rule. Hrothgar has a great respect for Beowulf because he has come a great journey to help him defeat Grendel.
Hrothgar also has respect for Beowulf’s father for they use to be childhood friends. Beowulf has respect for Hrothgar and the way he leads his people and looks us to him as if he were a mentor. There is also the respect that Unferth ends up gaining for Beowulf despite his jealousy at the beginning of the poem. Wiglaf also has respect for Beowulf for his loyal to his friend. Upon his funeral, Wiglaf buries Beowulf the way he asked of him. From a Marxist view, the evils of capitalism or the reason for its fall has to do with alienation. This means there is alienation from the worker and his human beings.
While Anglo Saxon people had creoles and slaves, the poem does not mention these figures. It only really focuses on the kings and the thanes. If we look at it from a Marxist perspective, the thanes or the warriors are the workers. Beowulf did work by keeping Hrothgar’s kingdom safe from the dangers of Grendel and his mother. Beowulf became alienated from the people who he was supposed to protect when he died.
He could no longer produce his labor or his service to the people of Hrothgar’s kingdom or his own. Beowulf could have done anything differently to have saved his people (if not the dragon, then old age or some other foe would have ended his reign). In addition, the tragedy is not only that he died without an heir. Rather, the tragedy of the cultural world of Beowulf is that it inevitably will end through the failure of inheritance.
No system can be eternal. Blood-only replication leads to extinction. Deeds-only replication leads to uncontrollable violence.
Hybrid inheritance is better, but in the end, it fails also. There is no escape from the social system because the system defines individual identity. Yet the constitution of the system leads inexorably to its own destruction.
The silent barrow evinces the failure of life and lineage that haunts the poem, the poet, and the culture.