L’évolution des idées en physique

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Albert Einstein

These lines represent the introductory section of the poem, providing background information necessary to judge the future action in the poem, as well as introducing some of the major characters of the poem.  The poem’s narrator takes on the role of bard or scop, recounting the tale in much the same fashion as it would have been told following the oral tradition, which means that it begins with a description of the genealogy of the poem’s characters.  He begins by introducing the Danish people or Scyldings, who have descended from Shield Sheafson (Scyld Scefing).  Shield Sheafson came to the shores of Denmark as an orphan baby, floating in a ship full of treasure, origins unknown.  One of the interesting things about Shield is that his end, which is described in detail in the poem, is very much like his beginning.  He is said to have arrived as an orphan in a treasure-laden ship.  The poet also describes his funeral, in which he is placed in a ship with a significant treasure and sent sailing into the unknown.  This beginning story helps serve as a reminder of the cyclical nature of life, and also of the inevitability of death.  This will serve as a timely reminder when the poem’s hero is called upon to determine whether or not he will fight the Dragon. 

Through hard work and honor, Shield became the first king of Scyldings.  His son was Beow.  To make things more confusing, Beow is sometimes referred to as Beowulf, but is not the titular Beowulf of the poem.  Like his father, Beow was a respected king.  Beow fathered Healfdane, who had four sons, including Hrothgar, who is the Danish king at the beginning of the story.  Hrothgar has followed in his ancestors’ footsteps to become a successful and well-respected king.  He was tremendously successful and built a mead hall, Heorot, as a place for his people to gather and celebrate their prosperity and peace. 

Heorot actually plays a significant role in the poem.  It is the primary setting of the first part of the poem’s action.  However, it is also highly symbolic.  During that time period, the Danes were constantly worried about invasion from neighbors, and were also concerned about incursions from the wild.  To have a place that was established as safe and secure was vitally important for the men; it was a symbol of all that Hrothgar had achieved as king and indicated that his reputation was sufficient to keep them safe.  It helped stand for the relationship between Hrothgar and his warriors; he was to protect them, and they were to fight for him. 

However, not everyone is happy that the Danes have seen such success.  Grendel, who is described in various ways as a monster or an ogre but seems to have a human-like appearance, is disturbed by the revelry that occurs at the mead hall.  Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain, who was cast away from human society because of his crime against his brother Abel.  Cain’s descendants are also said to be somehow marked, and it was common during the Middle Ages to assume that people who were disfigured or deformed were literal monsters with the mark of Cain.  Grendel was one of these monsters, and, like his forefather Cain, was cast out from human society.  Even before Heorot was built, Grendel did not live among men, but lived alone in the swamp.  However, the sound of the men laughing and enjoying one another’s company enrages Grendel.  One night, enraged by the sound of their laughter, he attacks Heorot.  He kills 30 men in his first attack.  However, that slaughter is only the beginning of Grendel’s havoc at Heorot; he returns each night.  The Danes flee from the hall but return afterward, and Grendel terrorizes them every night for 12 years. 

It might be tempting to dismiss Grendel as simply a villain, but it should be understood that he is more than just a one-dimensional evildoer.  Grendel’s unique heritage places him in an outsider position, so that even if he were to attempt to join the men, it is unlikely that he would be welcome among their ranks.  Moreover, the poem attempts to reconcile early Christianity with the older pagan Germanic tradition, and features the scop singing a Song of Creation, which details God’s creation of the world.  This is particularly upsetting to Grendel because, through no personal wrongdoing, he has been excluded from the glory of God’s creation.  However, while Grendel may not have contributed to the wrongs that led to his exclusion from Heaven, he is also not an innocent victim.  Grendel has, in many ways, chosen to behave in monstrous ways.  He kills men, and does so without remorse.  He takes refuge in anger and revenge.  Therefore, while he is not a one-dimensional monster, he is also not some innocent victim; by the time Beowulf comes to Denmark, Grendel has killed countless men and shows no compunction for what he has done.

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