Priority of Family in the

Viking Culture

By Christina Smith

Family represents much more than respect and honor. Family values have been expressed in a variety of ways through every culture which has existed in the world. Reverence for strength and loyalty in the Viking culture is reflected through their warfare and interaction; the Vikings also emphasized the importance of the family from which a warrior develops. Family in all aspects of gender roles and relationships is revealed through the scenes of the film Beowulf and Grendel (2005). The story plot of this film does not exactly follow the events, characters, and symbolic meaning of the epic poem Beowulf, yet it is a decent example of the immense symbolism and the devotion to family existing within the Viking culture. This film focuses on the grim fact that Grendel witnesses King Hrothgar and the Danes mercilessly kill his father upon a hillside of the outskirts of Daneland while Grendel and his father are joyously frolicking.

Anguished by the death of his father, Grendel seeks vengeance on the Danes and particularly King Hrothgar. King Hrothgar realizes at the same moment he sees Grendel hanging to the side of the cliff, that he has killed a child’s father. The expression on King Hrothgar’s face presents this realization because in the customs of the Vikings, it is disgraceful to look upon the face of a child whose father you had just killed. As Arild Hauge explains in Arild Hauge’s Runes, “revenge was a mechanism employed by individuals or families to maintain a positive balance in their own lives”. The Vikings were very proactive about family honor. This entire scene is a great example of the importance of family for it sets the tone of the film and shows what motivated Grendel to walk all the way down to where his father’s corpse lay below the cliff; he cut off his head, and carried around his skull until adulthood. Arild Hauge considers that, “this is the background for the many bloody fights written about in the family-sagas and history books”. For Grendel, keeping the skull of his father provided the motivation for him to avenge his father’s death.

Later, in Grendel’s life and in the film, King Hrothgar and his people experience a long period of peace and prosperity. King Hrothgar decides to open a mead hall in honor of his brave warriors. The importance of family in the Viking culture is such that, as much as they welcomed public gatherings, they welcomed great warriors such as Beowulf and his band of warriors. In some respect, all the people in the village while they were opening the new mead hall might have shared a similar lineage as they believed they were all related to the father god Odin but they also shared bonds of community when witnessing the opening, since being a great and brave warrior meant the security, safety, and survival of their families. This sense of community reminds Beowulf of his home of Geatland. His uncle, King Hygelac, had a huge campfire dinner to celebrate and wish Beowulf and his men a safe voyage the night before they set sail from Geatland to help King Hrothgar. Beowulf, his warriors and the Danes happily celebrated together and got to know each other through sharing food, mead, and time. In addition to the significance of buildings and feasts, the reverence of family added to the sanctity of strength and composure of a Viking man or woman.

The mead hall is a great example of the foundation of community and family. In the film, one of the most pivotal scenes is when Hrothgar opens Heorot, a new mead hall dedicated mostly for his warriors. In Viking culture and history, the mead hall, built as a hall-like structure, often was the place that Scandinavian kings and their warriors gather together and celebrate a glorious victory or even just to celebrate their great society. As Arild Hauge details, “…the mead-hall was also a place of community, where traditions were preserved, loyalty was rewarded, and, perhaps most important, stories were told and reputations were spread.” In a scene from the film, Beowulf observes the entire village assembled around king Hrothgar and is delighted about the opening of the mead hall.

It is the tradition of having huge gatherings of families and royalty at significant times such as when a community attraction is happening, a sacrifice offered, or one ship or more are leaving the next day. This gathering of the entire village of Daneland for the opening of Heorot signifies everything family represents in the scenes filmed inside the mead hall. As Sparknotes suggests, “the mead-hall represented a safe haven for warriors returning from battle, a small zone of refuge within a dangerous and precarious external world that continuously offered the threat of attack by neighboring peoples”. Ironically, this becomes the location of the attacks by Grendel. Since the mead hall leaves the king and his people vulnerable, Grendel decides to initiate attacks on the mead hall, shattering the protection of the village.

The climax of the film reaches to its point as Grendel finally acts on his anger and vengeance by attacking the mead hall late at night. Grendel is successful in savagely killing the warriors and leaving devastation all around the village. These attacks and instances of Grendel “marking his territory” by acts of vandalism and taunting of the village people ultimately shake King Hrothgar to his core. He realizes that it is Grendel that has been terrorizing his village and it is actually Hrothgar that Grendel is looking to kill in order to avenge his father. Later in the film, when Grendel continues his campaigns of terror, Hrothgar finally explains to Beowulf the error of killing Grendel’s father and how he did not kill Grendel when it might have been best to kill him. He confides to Beowulf that he immediately regretted his passions of hate in the past which motivated him and his warriors to hunt down the different beings which exist in the world. Vikings were protective because they thrived upon instinct in order to defend constantly their families and homes in a precarious world. Arild Hauge clarifies thus: “…the basis was provided by the tension of living in a society which placed a premium upon maintaining personal honor.” With Grendel constantly attacking their village, King Hrothgar’s men and Beowulf’s men decide to raid Grendel’s lair in order to finally kill him, but it is empty. These men decide then to hunt and destroy Grendel. Beowulf commiserates and analyzes the evidence left behind by Grendel.

When Grendel returns to his lair, he is enraged to find that it is basically reduced to rubble. It aggravates him further to find that Hrothgar’s men pulverized his father’s skull. Later that night, Grendel attacks the Heorot; he surprises the men and they all seem to put up a good fight until Grendel and Beowulf have a confrontation which results in Grendel tied by his left arm to a piece of wood, hanging outside the top window of the mead hall. In order to escape Beowulf and the Danes, Grendel hastily cuts off his arm and quickly flees.

After this incident occurs and cleanup of the mead hall begins, Hrothgar dramatically feels the weight of the situation and how it has affected his village; he breaks down and sobs in front of Beowulf. As this scene progresses, his wife quickly expresses with a stern tone that he needs to forget the mistakes of his past and help save the village which is close to collapse. Hrothgar’s wife is symbolic of how supportive family is even in a situation of crisis because her actions remind Hrothgar of the Viking attitude of courage through times of crisis. Hrothgar did show weakness, yet his wife, as a loyal Viking woman, portrayed respect and devotion to him and her village by actively getting her husband to lead their village valiantly as a courageous leader. She helped to motivate Hrothgar to continue defending the village to pursue Grendel and avenge the destruction of Heorot. However, Beowulf and the entire village did not expect the attacks on the village to continue after Grendel’s death. King Hrothgar learns that the village needs to be protected, as does the institution of family. The film exposes further that Grendel and his extended family also truly display the themes of Viking family expectations when threatened.

Another example of family’s protective nature is when the Danes celebrate Grendel’s death. Grendel’s mother quickly comes and crashes their jubilant parties. Grendel’s mother is called the “seahag” and she is seen several times in the film as a creature that tries to pull men from their ships into the sea. When she finally confronts the warriors in the mead hall, she proves to be a tougher opponent than her son. She is livid upon finding her son’s arm nailed to one of the wooden poles in the mead hall. The most important reason for her return to the mead hall provides an example of the type of vengeance similar to the vengeance that Grendel was pursuing for his father.

Later, when Grendel’s mother fights Beowulf in Grendel’s lair, Beowulf kills her, but Grendel’s young son gallantly stands in front of his father’s corpse to defend his honor. While this happens, Beowulf reflects back to the night he spent with Selma, the village witch and the information she revealed to him. Days after Grendel made his final appearance in the village, Beowulf learns the fact that Grendel had slept with Selma once and had never harmed her. Selma, the village witch, develops a strange and mystical relationship with Beowulf in which she later reveals and teaches Beowulf that Grendel is a harmless creature motivated by vengeance to be protective of his family and to remember those members that have been slain. William R. Short explains in Hurstwic: Families and Daily Life that, “bold, independent behavior was prized in children, and they were expected to take charge…” Grendel’s son displayed this in the way defending the honor of his father. Selma is protective of Grendel because the time they slept together was not in any way a violation. The protection of Grendel and Selma’s son from the village was essential to prevent what happened to Grendel’s father from happening to him. Beowulf honors Grendel’s memory and his family by leaving the lair and silently expressing to Grendel’s son all his condolences.

Grendel is given a proper burial, which is similar to the burials of family members in Viking society. William R. Short also speculates that, “…some graves were marked with stones or formations of stones …” in order to identify and honor a family member. Mostly, these graves were at least significant to the family and did provide a decent memorial for the loved ones that had died. Beowulf kneels and plunges his sword into the ground in front of Grendel’s grave. He sympathizes that Grendel had been ostracized by the Danes because of the vengeance he felt for avenging his father. Consequently, the whole experience of trying to defeat a monster that was terrorizing a village actually changed Beowulf’s perspective on life and the meaning of honor and family.

Gerard Butler stars as the main character, Beowulf, and co-stars Stellan Skarsgard as Hrothgar in Beowulf and Grendel. What did give the film an authentic feel and cohesion was that it was written by Andrew Rai Berzins and directed by Sturla Gunnarsson. Born in Iceland and then raised in Vancouver, Canada, Strula Gunnarsson has been a filmmaker for the past thirty years and has earned a great reputation creating films, miniseries, and several popular television series such as Degrassi and DiVinci’s Inquest. Sturla Gunnarsson has been nominated for an Oscar for the film After the Axe and several film festival awards, including Gemini and Genie awards. Sturla Gunnarsson is well known for making short, independent films about the countryside of Scandanavia, since her family can trace their heritage all the way to Scandinavia. Andrew Rai Berzins is known primarily for writing the screenplay Beowulf and other screenplays for television series such as Cold Squad. Moreover, he has also won two awards from the Writers’ Guild of Canada and been nominated for Gemini and Genie awards.

For the film, there are a myriad of mixed reviews about the plot and performances of the film. On the website Rotten Tomatoes, well- known critics from the most popular magazines and newspapers post their comments about movies that arrive in theaters and Beowulf and Grendel is variously acclaimed. From the Hollywood Reporter, top film reporter Frank Scheck states, “Sturla Gunnarsson's film ultimately lacks the grandeur and wit necessary to make the legend fully come alive.” In an issue of Flick Filosopher, critic MaryAnn Johanson states an opposing view for the film that, “the thrilling beauty of this reading of Beowulf is that it makes [the characters] feel modern... These people live in the real world, not in a fable and not in a history book.” Several other critics have had provided their feedback about the film in essence to credit the hard work of the writer and director. These reviews at least give value to the basis of the film from the epic poem Beowulf. It is clear that this film is not a factual version of the epic poem, but a developed plot of vengeance to teach viewers about the aspect of honor and duty that exists in Viking family culture. The characters in the film learn valuable lessons about family and heritage, which is the point that Sturla Gurrasson and Andrew Berzins were trying to express. They also display creative story-telling elements through the script, characters, and the scenery.

Through the magnificent landscape of Iceland and chemistry between the characters, this film was a great pleasure to view. All the significant characters in the film gave believable performances which added more of an emotional element to the drama of Grendel seeking revenge upon Hrothgar and the Svears. In the film, Beowulf was a realistic portrayal of a brave warrior. Beowulf’s interaction with Hrothgar, his personal entourage, the villagers, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother display him as unresponsive and yet vulnerable to the animosity in their environment. This performance and the supporting performances of the other characters enriched the film. Finally, since this film was made in Iceland, the scenery, animals, and accents of the people are genuine, but the curse words included in the dialogue of the characters, while inappropriate toward the audience, was realistic for the intensity of the situation. Beowulf and Grendel includes many scenes in which the camera pans around the various mountainsides, the farm lands, sea images with Norse ships, and horses which develop the tranquility that the Svears and Grendel clash against one another. The ships and weapons of the Geats and Svears are the most appealing aspect of the film. The ships had marvelous sails which had to be held by ropes and by hand in order to sail a ship into a good direction. The weapons and armor of the warriors were similar to what is described in great Viking sagas and in other sources of history. The swords were a great example of the primitive metal and other specialized talents of the Norsemen. Also, scenes depicting the interaction of people through community events and campfire stories suggest the sense of solidarity through family. Through the efforts of Beowulf and Grendel, the film definitely presents realistic qualities and expectations of family loyalty in the Viking culture.

The parallels portrayed within the film as a creative adaptation of the epic poem provide support for the significance that family has in the Viking culture. The instances of reaction between Grendel and the sad fates that befall each member of his family demonstrate that, though he was not considered human, he had human characteristics and had the same idea of family that the Danes had but sometimes neglected. Grendel is the most significant and educational example in the film demonstrating love and honor in humanity through the cohesiveness of family.