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Critics have paid considerable attention over the years to the "dance of honor" Beowulf performs in his approach to Heorot. The hero has to undergo a series of verbal tests with the coastguard, Wulfgar, and Unferth before he is given the opportunity to engage Grendel in battle, and critics have interpreted this rhetorical sparring in various ways.(1) But so far as I am able to tell, virtually no attention has been devoted to the question of precisely what it is that Beowulf secures once he passes these tests. A simple answer is of course permission to guard Heorot on the fateful night; but a close analysis of the passages in which Hrothgar confers his charge on Beowulf indicates something more complex and interesting. When one looks carefully at the vocabulary of these lines and considers them in the context of the well-developed Germanic laws of guardianship over persons and places, it looks very much as if Hrothgar is conferring on Beowulf some sort of formal legal control over the hall, and such a demonstration is significant for a convincing interpretation of this section of the poem. In the first place, it shows that Beowulf enjoys a juridical reinforcement to his undertaking as monster slayer--he is more than simply a vainglorious hired gun.(2) Secondly, it gives a punning quality to Beowulf's wrestling match with Grendel, adding to the obvious physical combat significance as a battle for legal control over the physical space of Heorot--so further demonstrating the Beowulf poet's tendency to wordplay and grim humor.
Hrothgar actually gives Beowulf guardianship over Heorot at the conclusion of the feast that follows the hero's verbal disposal of Unferth:
[Ge]grette pa guma operne, Hrodgar Beowulf, ond him hael abead, winaernes geweald, ond paet word acwaed: `Naefre ic aenegum men aer alyfde, sipdan ic hond ond rond hebban mihte, drydaern Dena buton pe nu da. Hafa nu ond geheald husa selest, gemyne maerpo, maegenellen cyd, waca wid wrapum! Ne bid pe wilna gad, gif pu paet ellenweorc aldre gedigest.' Da him Hrodgar gewat mid his haelepa gedryht, eodur Scyldinga ut of healle; wolde wigfruma Wealhpeo secan, cwen to gebeddan. Haefde Kyningwuldor Grendle togeanes, swa guman gefrungon, seleweard aseted; sundornytte beheold ymb aldor Dena, eotonweard' abead. (ll. 652-68, emphasis added) (One man then spoke to the other, Hrothgar to Beowulf, and wished him well, control of the wine-hall, and said these words: "Never before, since I might lift hand and shield, have I to any man entrusted the splendid hall of the Danes, but to you now. Have now and hold the best of houses, think on fame, show mighty valor, watch for the foe! There will be for you no lack of good things, if you survive this valorous undertaking alive." Then Hrothgar departed out of the hall with his band of warriors, the Scylding king; the great man wished to seek Wealhtheow, to sleep with his queen. The most glorious of kings had set a hall guardian against Grendel, so men might know; he held sole use for the lord of the Danes, offered to act as a guard against trolls.)(3)
The vocabulary here emphasizes two concepts. One is the notion of legal guardianship. Hrothgar gives wincernes geweald, `control (or power or jurisdiction) of the wine-hall' to a seleweard, `hall-guardian,' possessing sundornytt, `sole use' or `sole possession' of the hall.(4) He also uses the term alyfde to refer to the trust he establishes over the hall, which means not simply `left' but `granted' or `lawfully permitted'.(5) The second is the symbolic association of this right with the physical extremity that both holds it and can transfer it to another--the hand. Hrothgar confers on Beowulf the right to "have and hold" the hall, something he has never given up to any man since he could lift "hand and shield." The two concepts of guardianship and hand are symbolically associated, both generally in Germanic law and more specifically in the poem. The idea of guardianship is identical to the Germanic legal concept of control or guardianship over persons and places, usually referred to as mund, and in addition to its specialized legal meaning, mund has the primary meaning of `hand.'
Mund was an ancient concept in Germanic law and referred essentially to a house-holder's power of possession and protection over both the persons of his household and its physical space, a right expressed metaphorically in the meaning of the word itself. As Rudolph Huebner explains it:
During the dominance of the patriarchal system the family constituted a circle of persons all of whom were absolutely subjected to the power of the house-lord, the patriarch, and were united by this common bond of subjection into a social group. They participated in legal life solely through the mediacy of the "house-father"; he was their representative outside the group. The Germanic languages and the Latin both took the name for this power of the house-lord from the most striking symbol of power, the hand, and named it therefore "Munt" (Old High G. "munt"; North Germanic and Old Norse "mund," Latinized "mundium").(6)
This right is extremely well attested, not only in the Anglo-Saxon laws but also in the other leges barbarorum and in later medieval Scandinavian codes; it is virtually inescapable in even a casual perusal of these documents. Mund was accorded to each and every householder in the kingdom, both noble and commoner, and it guaranteed his right of undisturbed protection and control over the space of his home. Thus, disturbances within the precinct of the house required compensation not only to the party directly injured but to the householder as well; AElfred 39 provides that "gif hwa on cierlisces monnes flette gefeohte, mid syx scill, gebete dam ceorle" ("if anyone fights in the house of a commoner, he shall pay the commoner six shillings compensation").(7) Breaking into the precinct of the mund-holder also required compensation; AEdelbirht 27 imposes a six-shilling fine for breaking the fences of another, and Chapter 32 also requires payment of compensation for the actual value of damage to the enclosure; ordinary trespass without breaking enclosures brought a charge of only four shillings (29), indicating the conceptual …