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
desperation. 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 plight…The 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