Beowulf and Gnomes

Beowulf is full of Gnomes...and no, not adorable garden gnomes who’re just trying to save you money on vacations. Find out more about what a Gnome is by checking out this video.

LiteratureBeowulf
ThemesIdentity
Morality and Ethics
Religion
The Supernatural
Tradition and Customs
Violence
Wealth

Transcript

00:14

his mother makes her way to town

00:15

the night after his death, no less.

00:18

And, as you might imagine, she wants revenge.

00:20

Revenge a big theme in this era.

00:22

So, luckily, Beowulf comes to the rescue again

00:25

and tracks her down beneath her leg,

00:27

ending her life and taking Grendel's head as a trophy.

00:30

When he returns victorious,

00:31

Hrothgar has more than just material gifts to give him.

00:35

Although he does have plenty of those, as well.

00:37

So, tell us about the wise gifts of Hrothgar.

00:41

Gift-giving and revenge and the whole notion of

00:44

paying for your sins financially

00:48

seems to be a meaningful theme here.

00:50

So run us through that whole structure.

00:53

Economy, I guess.

00:54

Right. We'll talk a lot about - in an upcoming lesson -

00:57

about the material gifts, right?

00:59

So, right now we're gonna talk about

01:00

the gifts of wisdom that Hrothgar gives Beowulf.

01:03

And these have a name to them.

01:06

We call them "gnomes,"

01:08

- like little garden gnomes. - Yeah, those little...

01:10

Yeah, but not.

01:11

And they're basically like little pithy

01:15

phrases of wisdom.

01:17

So these are pieces of wisdom that are given

01:20

from one character to another.

01:21

But we're also supposed to take them to heart

01:23

as readers.

01:23

So it kind of has a double meaning.

01:27

An example of a gnome from today

01:29

would be something like, "don't bite the hand that feeds you."

01:31

These are just like little things that people say to each other.

01:34

And it means something when Hrothgar says it

01:37

to Beowulf and it also means something when

01:39

we, as readers, look at it.

01:40

So, Hrothgar tells Beowulf

01:43

not to boastfully give gifts.

01:46

If you're gonna give gifts, it shouldn't be boastfully.

01:47

He tells him not to be arrogant.

01:49

And he also warns him about the fleetingness of life.

01:53

He says, "But a little-while lasts thy life-vigor's fulness.

01:57

'Twill after hap early,

01:59

that illness or sword-edge shall part thee from strength."

02:02

So, it's basically saying, like,

02:04

"Yeah, you're great and all now, but life's short."

02:06

When we hear these words of wisdom,

02:08

again, we can't just take them at face value and move on.

02:11

We have to think about what they represent

02:12

about the culture's values at the time.

02:15

"Don't bite the hand that feeds you"

02:17

is something we say today.

02:19

That is something that represents

02:21

a cultural belief that we have,

02:22

that you should respect, kind of, the people who are

02:25

giving you what you have.

02:26

These gnomes are a pretty good way of figuring out

02:28

what was important to a society.

02:30

After Grendel's mom comes

02:33

and kills a bunch of people,

02:35

Hrothgar is like all "woe is me."

02:37

He's really sad, and one of his

02:39

you know, closest associates has been killed

02:42

and he's mourning.

02:43

And Beowulf comes up to him and is like,

02:45

"Dude, suck it up.

02:46

We need to get revenge.

02:48

Stop mourning, stop wallowing.

02:50

We're gonna get revenge."

02:51

And he does it through a little gnome.

02:53

And it shows us that that's what important in this society,

02:57

is revenge.

02:59

And that's not a bad thing.

03:01

That's just how they worked back then.

03:04

So when we hear these gnomes,

03:06

we can say, "Oh, okay.

03:08

Check. Revenge was important back then. Not mourning."

03:10

So what was -- Revenge is almost a moral compass, then.

03:14

It's a balancing act that, you know,

03:16

for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.

03:19

So you kill my cousin, I'm gonna kill yours.

03:21

Or you, or whatever, right?

03:22

Exactly, and that's where that death price comes into play.

03:24

Because, either "you kill my cousin, I kill yours,"

03:28

or "you kill my cousin,

03:30

and now you pay me a ton of money." Exactly.

03:32

Exactly. So, but it is, it's a really -- It's a balancing act.

03:35

And it -- Life is worth some finite amount, right?

03:39

Again, if we can -- Someone gets killed and then

03:41

you pay some amount of money

03:43

or gifts to make up for it.

03:45

Life has a specific value

03:47

and the only way to get, you know,

03:49

precise equal value is by taking another life.

03:51

Got it. And, I mean, it applies in today's legal courtrooms.

03:54

You know, when people are guilty of a product liability

03:58

and the air bag didn't deploy, you know,

04:00

GM does a discounted cash flow analysis

04:03

of what the person's profits would have been

04:04

the remaining part of their life,

04:06

does some adjustments to it, and says,

04:07

"Well, this life was worth 842,000 dollars."

04:10

Exactly. And to us, that seems kind of, like,

04:13

vulgar, right? A lot of people are like,

04:14

"How can you say this person's life was worth,

04:16

you know, 800,000 dollars?"

04:17

But, back then, that's just what it was.

04:20

It was not vulgar; it was not looked down upon.

04:22

That just was how culture worked.

04:26

What is a gnome

04:27

and why would Hrothgar want to give gnomes to Beowulf?

04:31

What are some gnomes from our own culture?

04:34

What can we tell about the culture of the time from gnomes in Beowulf?

04:38

Are there similarities we can draw between our culture and Beowulf's?

04:43

How was revenge viewed

04:45

and dealt with in Beowulf's time?

04:48

What about now?

04:52

To us that seems, kind of, like, vulgar.