Among the themes we want to explore in Beowulf is the concept of the Other. Now in cultural theory, particularly in that branch of it called postcolonial theory, the way that the outsider is viewed by a member of another culture has come in for analysis. Basically it works like this: Your culture prizes certain traits—let’s say intelligence, wisdom, fair play, and son on. Now you encounter another culture—what do you expect they are like? If you are planning to colonize them, take advantage of them, you’d better assume that they are very unlike you. They are characterized as unintelligent, unwise, unfair, and so on. This is a “constructed” image of the “Other.” Now you examine the other culture and try to find examples of how they fit your mold. Usually it’s pretty easy. So you treat them that way—and before long they may even believe your construction themselves. And thus colonization continues.
But it gets better. Deep down you may recognize that you are doing wrong to this culture. And because the other culture is very different from yours, they are somewhat frightening. What if they want to do unto you what you are doing unto them? The Other can then become an object of fear, as the possibility of “reverse colonization” comes to be realized. The paradigmatic example would be Bram Stoker’s Dracula; here the vampire, the Other, comes from the colonized Eastern Europe to the west, threatening to spread his own colonies of dark beings throughout England. It’s like the sins of the colonizers are revisited on them by the colonized.
Be that as it may, Grendel certainly seems like an “Other” to the Danes (and then to the Geats) who find themselves with this monster in their midst, a “powerful demon” with a “hard grievance.” What is he mad about? Well, he hates the cultured and very social life of the Danes. He hates the banquets, the harps, the poets. And he is really an outsider—an outsider from the “banished monsters” of Cain. He doesn’t even have any monster friends, except of course his mother. So in one way, Beowulf is the story of an outsider trying to get in.
It’s also a story of clans and social relations. You’d think everything was fairly fixed, but the world of Beowulf shows a lot of fluidity. Shield Shafson, the founder of the Spear-dane clan, was a foundling, an orphan. Now after that his son, Beow, was a “prudent” young prince (l. 20), who tried to get away from violence. Does this sound like the Godfather? Then Halfdane, Beow’s son, and finally Hrothgar, the son of Halfdane. While the earlier princes were intent on pillaging and then on princely ruling, Hrothgar was into hall building—Heorot, good friends, good times, and a young wife (Wealtheow). His best work was in giving out rings. He scarcely resembled his great-grandfather. No wonder when Grendel attacked Heorot, Hrothgar had to wait for Beowulf to come to his aid.
[I suppose we might think in post-9/11 times of the impact on a culture of the destruction of one of their key buildings. Or think of the opening of Citizen Kane. Or any of a number of disaster movies. Grendel at the gates of Heorot, the Union army at the gates of Tara.]
Why does Beowulf come to save Heorot? It’s funny, in a way you don’t ask that, because that’s what heroes do. Hrothgar makes the mistake of asking that on line 375 and following. He assumes Beowulf is there because of an “old friendship” (l. 376) between Hrothgar and Beowulf’s dad, Ecgtheow. But no, Beowulf says, in no uncertain terms, he is there to test his “awesome strength” (l. 418) and he will do it “with my own men to help me, and nobody else” (l. 432), thank you very much. Every once in a while someone asks Harry Callahan why he does what he does, but he never gives them a straight answer. And do you remember the scene in Rambo when the colonel asks Rambo what he thinks he’s doing? Anyway, Hrothgar returns to the issue on lines 456 ff., when he tells Beowulf that he healed a feud started by Beowulf’s father. Hrothgar really insists that Beowulf is doing a kind of duty here, whereas Beowulf insists it’s of his free will. I think Hrothgar does not want to feel indebted to Beowulf. Then he can give Beowulf gifts of his own free will, not just as like a salary.
Anyway, the gift giver is Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s wife and queen. She comes in and passes around a cup. You can tell who wears the pants in this house. And I think she’s attracted to Beowulf. After Beowulf makes a cool boast about how he will do this manly deed to save them, she goes to sit next to Hrothgar, “regal and arrayed with gold” (l. 641) A manly man or a fancy suit? And after the battle, where does the king emerge from to greet Beowulf? From the “women’s quarters / with a numerous train, attended by his queen / and her crowd of maidens” (ll. 921-923). The contrast could not be any starker. No wonder that later at the meal, when Hrothgar suggests adopting Beowulf as his son (l 1175), Wealtheow says, no, why don’t we instead have Beowulf act as a kind of father to their two kids should Hrothgar die. Now partly that keeps the throne safe for her kids, but also it puts her in place to pick up Beowulf when her old man croaks.
All of this is to say that if you look closely at Beowulf, women play a pretty important role in the epic. The woman’s role is not quite that of Guinevere in the Arthurian materials, but it comes pretty close.