14 December 2014
The Role of Alcohol and Drinking In Beowulf
The drink and the feast were dynamic to the life of the warriors of Beowulf’s realm. The have-at-it of food and drink as they were prescribed surely played key roles in that of social relationships throughout the story. Beverages of the adult persuasion played key roles in both establishing and maintaining social adequacies. Alcohol worked as the social lubricant, so to speak, but also served as a barrier. Alcohol in medieval literature was both the catalyst for mass discourse, as well as the poison for the poignant hero or the annoying antagonist. In yonder day poetry, the feast was the call-to-all community beckon; and in Beowulf, it was the binding of soldiers from either side of a particular interest. In one instance we find Unferth appearing to act upon his better judgment, treating himself to what he thinks is the fondness of the king, more or less showing off for the Geats and challenging the great Beowulf, who obliges. The rest of the men in the hall seem to expect this because no one interferes. In the time of Beowulf, a soldier’s assertions or boast, known then as a “gylp” or “gielp” (Earl 82), was often belted out at feasts. The day’s master of ceremonies would have been known as a “scop” (Earl 81). His job would have been to tell folktales, recite poetry, and sing songs. And the drinks of the day were served by either women of the house (wives and daughters), stewards, or brewers known as “ealu boras” or “ale bearers,” with the first round of beverages often served by the wife of the lord of the house. In Beowulf, we are given visions of hundreds of warriors engaging in loud gamboling, the eating of fresh catches, drinking of mead and ale, and discussing their latest kills and the introduction of Christianity: The fortunes of war favored Hrothgar. / Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks, / young followers, a force that grew / to be a mighty army. So his mind turned / to hall-building: he handed down orders / for men to work on a great mead-hall / meant to be a wonder of the world forever; / it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense / his God-given goods to young and old. (64-72)
When the author of Beowulf first makes references to drinking, or the word “drincan,” it indicates the geniality of sharing alcohol with other likeminded warriors in the great hall. However, it is also used when Grendel devours one of Beowulf’s men and drinks his blood. But again when Grendel is killed and the Geat men are sitting around, relaxing, passing around horns of wine: “There was the best of feasts; / the warriors drank wine” (1233). To be sure, though, we should not be given to believe that drinking was vital to everyday life; however, it did seem essential to the celebrations of the community after something great happened, such as the death of an enemy, or a holiday. This may be why, to this day, drinking at festivities like birthday parties and around the holidays or during a at football game is seen as an acceptable form of celebration, while drinking just to drink can label a person an alcoholic and is frowned upon. In Germanic lore, though, celebration with drink is valued. Sharing drinks with comrades meant a great accomplishment had been met. The companionableness of drinking together after celebrating victories, establishing confirmed allegiances, or during gatherings by a king or lord to show his appreciation for his people, was an important part of life and the reciprocity of leaders and men. In lines 1168 to 1171, Hrothgar’s wife, Wealhtheow, encourages both her king and the men in the hall to imbibe in celebration after the death of Grendel: “Enjoy this drink, my most generous lord; / raise up your goblet, entertain the Geats / duly and gently, discourse with them, / be open-handed, happy and fond.” In Anglo-Saxon Appetites: Food and Drink and their Consumption in Old English and Related...
Cited: Earl, James. “The Necessity of Evil in Beowulf.” South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 44, No. 1 (January 1979), pp. 81-98. Web. 10 December 2014.
Ferguson, Margaret, et al. “Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. Print.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A Translation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.
Magennis, Hugh. Anglo-Saxon Appetites: Food and Drink and their Consumption in Old English and Related Literature. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999. Print.
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