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Theme Of Hospitality In Beowulf

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By demonstrating how the benign exchange of hospitality changes into a vicious cycle of assault and retaliation and how it ultimately leads to tragedy, Beowulf makes a point about the limits of hospitality, whereby nothing short of death can end the cycle of obligation. The world of Beowulf is constructed upon the rules of hospitality and requisites of reciprocity. As Marcel Mauss asserts, there are no free gifts. Regardless of time and place, a gift of any sort “obliges a person to reciprocate the present that has been received” (Mauss 9). While it might appear so, Beowulf’s arrival at the shores of Denmark to proffer his help to Hrothgar to kill the monsters is not a simple act of selflessness. He partakes in a system of exchange that underlies…show more content…
As Beowulf descends to the lair where Grendel’s mother resides, he becomes a guest of hers, though ironically one who strives to kill his hostess. His sword is described as being unable to “bite” (Beowulf 1524) through her body, a term which echoes Grendel’s feasting earlier in the poem. The act of making his sword bite into a creature that is indirectly cast as his hostess breaches the rules of hospitality, and this illustrates how the rules of hospitality have been sabotaged by the monsters in the poem. Even the rhythm of the fight scene between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother is reciprocal: Beowulf flings his sword away, grips her shoulder and throws her to the ground. In retaliation, she clutches him tightly in her embrace, makes him fall, and pounces on him. She draws a knife but fails to cut through his chain-mail, and in return, he swings a sword and slashes through her neck, killing her (1535-68). Once again, reciprocity ends in death. While this dispatching of the second monster seems cause for rejoicing, it also reinforces the notion that there is no way to end the cycle of hospitality and reciprocity without…show more content…
Heardred’s mistake in offering hospitality to the sons of Ohthere results in him being “mortally rewarded with wounds from a sword” (2386). Onela’s treatment of Heardred’s hospitality as treachery results in a cruel parody of hospitable exchange: a fatal sequence of assault and revenge. The fate of Heardred also serves to reaffirm that hospitality in this poem can never wholly seal itself from treachery and peril. Later on, in his report to King Hygelac after returning to Geatland, Beowulf speaks of how Hrothgar attempts to make peace between the Danes and Heathobards by marrying his daughter Freawaru to Ingel. In spite of the feud between the two sides, the Heathobards are obliged to host and entertain the Danes since a Danish princess is marrying the Heathobard king. But as Beowulf mentions, “the spear / is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed” (2029-30). Paradoxically, the system of reciprocity here becomes a source of both Heathobards’ hospitality (as host) as much as their desire to retaliate against the Danes. Ultimately, the force of grievances outweighs the bond established through the offering of the bride as a gift: a guest who wears the heirloom snatched from the host’s father has betrayed hospitality, which invites retaliation from the host. This suggests the limitations of hospitality as a principle of socio-economic
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