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The Theme of Father/Son Relationships in Beowulf & The Song of Roland

The Theme of Father/Son Relationships in Beowulf & The Song of Roland

Thomas Lazzaro
Professor Fisher
Literary Patterns of European Development Paper
#1 2/6/97

The representation of father-son type relationships in early Medieval
literary works is a key theme early authors used to give their works more depth
and meaning.  Two works that use the theme of father-son relationships are
Beowulf and The Song of Roland.  In Beowulf, the relationship between Hrothgar
and Beowulf is one in which there is no actual blood father-son tie, but the two
characters take on all the characteristics of a real father son relationship.
Hrothgar, although Beowulf’s senior, has to rely on this new warrior who comes
to Heorot  to help him rid his kingdom of a great danger which he can not get
rid of by himself, and Hrothgar treats him as if he were his own son.

In  The Song of Roland, Charles’ relationship with his nephew Roland also takes on the
characteristics of a father-son type relationship.  In this work, although
Charles is the better warrior than Roland, he relies on Roland to watch the rear
guard of his army and Roland loses his life while serving his King.  The
significance of these inter-generational relationships will be looked at in this
paper, as well as what the authors through the guise of these father-son
relationships were trying to say about various different aspects of life during
their time.

In Beowulf, the function of the relationship between Hrothgar and
Beowulf helps to further the plot in several ways.  Whenever there is a reliance
on family in any literary work, it gives any story more meaning and significance.
When Beowulf first arrives in Hrothgars’ hall, we get a sense of the old and
incapable state Hrothgar is in  “old and gray-haired among the guard of earls”
(Beowulf, pg. 62)  is how he is first described.  When hearing who Beowulf’s
father is he states in a joyous tone “I knew him when he was a child!..Well does
the son now pay this call on a proven ally!” (Beowulf, pg. 62-63) Immediately
there is a fond relationship here which  will develop even further.

When Beowulf claims that he is in Heorot to cleanse the people of the monster named
Grendel who is plaguing them, Hrothgar is very grateful and he states “So it is
to fight in our defence, my friend Beowulf, and as an act of kindness that you
have come to us here!” (Beowulf, pg. 65)  We see here that Hrothgar is indeed
grateful to have the services of so brave a warrior.  When Beowulf slays Grendel,
the pride that the old Hrothgar feels towards Beowulf can almost be equated to
the pride a father will feel towards his son when he accomplishes a great deed.

He even claims Beowulf as his son when he holds up the slain Grendel’s hand and
states “Beowulf, I now take you to my bosom as a son, O best of men, and cherish
you in my heart. Hold yourself well in this new relation!” (Beowulf, pg. 80)
This claiming of Beowulf as his son and his later bestowing to him gifts
customary to their society shows how strong their bond is.  After the slaying of
Grendel’s mother, the relationship grows even stronger, and Hrothgar from this
point on will be ever grateful to his new son who saved his kingdom from so
great a peril.

In The Song of Roland, the relationship that exists between Charles and
Roland is just as significant as in Beowulf, but is somewhat different.  Roland
is recognized as a prized knight and the King’s nephew before he is assigned to
the rearguard, (as can be seen as through the protests of the thought of him
going to negotiate with the treacherous Saracens)  but not until after Roland’s
betrayal and death is he esteemed so high in Charles’ mind and all the others
involved. When hearing of the betrayal Roland states “Where are you, fair
nephew? God!” , Says the King, “how bitter my reproach, that I was absent when
they struck the first blow” (The Song of Roland, sect. 177)  in utter

When later Charles finds out Roland has definitely been slain by
the Paynims, while lying down to sleep he thinks of his nephew who he thought of
as a son. “Charles lies awake and weeps for Roland’s plightThe King is weary,
for grief weighs on his eyes; ” (The Song of Roland, sect. 184) The deep pain in
Charles heart is different than in Beowulf, because Charles is in mourning,
while Hrothgar was joyous, and while Hrothgar could be proud of his son Beowulf,
Charles feels as if he has let his son down bye letting this whole situation
happen when he trusted the evil Ganelon.

He then goes on with a new vigor to
destroy those who killed Roland and the Franks, and the resulting battle can be
seen as a revenge mission for Charles, which further helps to give the story
more depth.  Although the result of the two father-son relationships is
different in some of the respects that are stated above, both relationships are
essential in establishing the plot of the two works and giving the reader a
sense of all the intricate forces that were at work in the two societies.

The person who wields the power in the two stories also varies in each
work.  In Beowulf, Hrothgar is seen as old and unable to challenge the forces of
evil that have befallen his kingdom, and Beowulf is seen as the young powerful
warrior who will bring a new energy to the fight against evil.  Beowulf’s
arrival marks a time when the son is taking over from the father the
responsibilities of a great threat, and further help to give the character of
Beowulf more stature and prestige.

In The Song of Roland the situation is almost the complete opposite.  In
this work, Charles will be the one who ultimately triumphs over the evil, and
therefore it is essential to build his stature up.  Although Roland is regarded
as a great warrior, Charles is seen as the Christian conqueror of the enemies of
Christ.  In Charles’ case, his old age is to his advantage, and his long white
beard and hair are stressed by the author to help paint him as very old. The
fight scene between Baligant and Charles further goes to shed light on the
experience, leadership and general legend of the old King Charles.  So who has
the power in a father-son type relationship clearly depends on the individual
work itself. Whoever the main and essential character is of the particular work
is going to be granted the superior power and prestige.

The strong father-son relationship in Beowulf is a way of stressing how
the people of the time felt.  The comitatus of the Scandinavian kingdoms of the
time Beowulf was written emphasized family and clan above all else, and by
having the Hrothgar-Beowulf relationship act out in a certain way, you can get a
great sense of what the comitatus system was like.  The political and economic
ideas of the time are also commented on through this relationship.  The gift
giving of Hrothgar and Beowulf in turn for deeds done shows what the essence of
the comitatus was, how services were rewarded and great deeds applauded.  The
entire relationship between Hrothgar and Beowulf is the prime example of the
comitatus, and the author was clearly trying to stress that when writing Beowulf.

The author of The Song of Roland also clearly had the idea also of
commenting on the society of the time by using the father-son relationship as a
model.  Roland’s complete faith to his lord and King Charles gives the
impression of how all loyal subjects should be to their lord.  When deciding if
they should trust the Saracens and talk with them Roland warns “Nevermore trust
Marsile!”  (The Song of Roland, sect. 14) Later on we see the paternal instincts
and wisdom of Charles when Roland and other members of the twelve offers to
speak to the Saracen Marsile. Roland states “That shall you not!”  (The Song of
Roland, sect. 18) , showing how much he valued his closest warriors, almost like
it was a family, again showing how the feudal system was a two way relationship.

Roland’s willingness to face anything that his King wishes also goes to comment
on the social characteristics of the day and what was expected from the code of
chivalry.  The final revenge theory is also something that is interesting to
look at.  Charles’ sadness and anger at the death of Roland sparks his energy,
and makes him take the war up as a revenge for Roland and the others.  The
emphasis on revenging Roland  is also representational of Medieval society, and
how if a family member was killed it was expected that a fellow family member
would revenge them.  The father-son relationships portrayed here clearly help
give an emphasis on the values of the society in which the two writers are
writing in.

The significance of the father-son relationship in these two works are
essential in both works development.  Just as one could argue the good-evil, or
Christian-pagan conflicts are essential to them both, the father-son
relationship is just as important.  Through the relationship we can get a window
on the past that lets us see the societies that are written about, we can get a
sense of their social, political, and economic customs.  Clearly both authors
use this great technique to give their stories more depth and meaning, and by
doing so Beowulf and The Song of Roland are not only considered great literary
works of their respective periods because of the stories they tell, but also
because of the valuable information they give the reader on the society in which
they take place.

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