The Balance of Joy and Sorrow in Beowulf
The poet Richard Wilbur expresses in his poem Beowulf one of many sorrows expressed by the original Beowulf poem:
“Such gifts as are the hero’s hard reward …
These things he stowed beneath his parting sail,
And wept that he could share them with no son” (Wilbur 67).
The hero’s lament of not having an heir is but one of many dozens of sorrows in this poetic classic, which balance with numerous joys expressed on alternate pages. This essay expresses but a selection of joys and sorrows from among the almost countless number existing in the poem.
Beowulf both begins and ends on the sorrowful occasion of a death, Danish king Scyld Scefing’s in the opening lines, and our hero’s in the closing lines. This fact is important in some critics’ classification of the poem as an elegy rather than an epic: “It is an heroic-elegaic poem; and in a sense all its first 3136 lines are the prelude to a dirge: [Then the Geatish people made ready no mean pyre on the earth]: one of the most moving ever written” (Tolkien 38).
Hrothgar, Scyld’s great grandson, introduces the first full measure of joy into the poem by (1) being a king “beloved by his people; and (2) with his construction of a huge and splendid hall called Heorot, where he can “share out among young and old all God Had given him…” In the hall “each new day” there was “heard happy laughter loud in the hall, the thrum of the harp, melodious chant, clear song of the scop.” And even a deeper, spiritual joy was available in the hall as listeners learned “how the Almighty had made the earth, this bright shining plain which the waters surround.” As a result of the hall, “the brave warriors lived in hall-joys, blissfully prospering” – a new high in joy.
This feeling continued and thrived “until a certain one began to do evil, an enemy from Hell.” Grendel makes her appearance, after dark among warriors who “knew no sorrow,” and “snatched up thirty of the sleeping thanes.” Thus overnight the greatest joy was replaced by deep sorrow among the Danes. This endured for twelve years and even turned into despair, a “breaking of spirit.” The king himself was deeply depressed: “So Healfdene’s son brooded continually over his sorrows.”
Coming to restore joy to the Danish people was Beowulf’s party of Geat warriors; upon landing the first action they took was: “They gave thanks to God,” the source of all joy ultimately. Soon Hrothgar is happily welcoming the son of Ecgtheow, whom the king had befriended years before. This high note is balanced with the low note of Unferth’s taunt of the hero for having failed in a swimming contest. Then another high note after Wealhtheow fills Beowulf’s cup: he promises to conquer the monster or die trying. Then a low note, as Grendel that evening “seized a warrior, gutted him sleeping – ripped him apart.” Then almost immediately thereafter, the reader experiences the...