BEOWULF – THE GEAT HERO, HUMAN MONSTERS, & GENEROSITY

Before I (finally!) embark on my discussion of Beowulf,  I should mention that my translation is not the Seamus Heaney one (which is the most academic one, I believe) but the Michael Alexander one, published by Penguin. I purchased the book because of its beautiful cover.

I really don’t know what I expected to find in its pages. I’ve read The Odyssey and The Aeneid, and while I am not particularly drawn to epic poems, I do enjoy reading them and deducing things about their respective cultures. I also think they are very important for the history of literature & poetic expression & are a worthy read for any lit student or amateur. So part of my excitement about Beowulf was the fact that I had never read an Anglo-Saxon epic poem.

Now I’m just going to jump into some of my notes, so if you are looking for an introduction to the poem or the history behind it – sorry, you’ll have to rely on Wikipedia or something. 🙂 I don’t feel authoritative enough to provide that, considering little is known about the actual authorship of the poem, and I also made claims in the past which proved to be wrong. Never again.
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Beowulf is a written poem, however it borrows a lot from oral tradition. The first line and word proclaim: “Attend!”. This call to attention identifies an audience and is suggestive of other epic poems rooted in the tradition of oral storytelling, such as those of Homer. At several points throughout the poem the narrator makes his presence apparent by dropping phrases such as “I have heard”, etc. I think this is also common to the composition of epic poetry.

The next two themes that stand out on the first page are glory and generosity. The idea that men of royalty have to earn glory is emphasized, stressing strength and prosperity; a king is nominated as being a “good king” if he fits the criteria. There is ample discussion of community & good leadership. A ruler who earns glory in battle earns his men’s obedience & his company increases. Winning glory corresponds to a certain status in society.

Then there is generosity. A good king must “give with a free hand”, be a “ring-giver”. This idea is perpetuated throughout the entire poem, especially when it later contrasts with the greediness of the dragon as one of his inherent vices. (Interestingly, the introduction mentioned that dragons could be associated with Vikings or interpreted as symbolic of the destructive raiding of the Viking tribes whose ships resembled dragons…)

I should also mention that the Scandinavian society functions on two arbitrating, I guess you could call them, principles of wergild & blood vengeance. The former is a kind of price which must be paid for any stolen property (or lives); the latter incorporates the wergild man-price and states than any murder/killing needs to be avenged. The result is constant blood feuds between different groups of people. Finally, the worst kind of killing you could commit is slay your own kin (Unferth is a character who is disgraced for being a kin-slayer, however he also boasts pretty good social standing so I was confused about that).

This brings us to the first monster in the poem: Grendel. Several things struck me as significant about Grendel’s introductory passage:

“So the company of men led a careless life,/ all was well with them: until One began / to encompass evil, an enemy from hell. / Grendel they called this cruel spirit, / the fell and fen his fastness was, / the march his haunt. This unhappy being / had long lived in the land of monsters / since the Creator cast them out / as kindred of Cain. For that killing of Abel / the eternal Lord took vengeance.” (98-107).

Grendel is essentially human in origin!! This seems very important considering he encompasses all evil. The text even mentions that all evil came from Cain, so in this way the poem almost provides an answer for the problem of evil: it originated in the human action of killing another human, a brother (fratricide is also a motif in the poem). I feel like this needs to be appreciated. A monster, yes, Grendel is nonetheless a descendant of Cain (biblical reference, obviously – although the people in the poem are pagans…) who was expelled from the ranks of God’s creatures for – lo and behold! – slaying his kin. God thus avenged the killing of Abel.

The poem is very cyclical in this way. The reason why Beowulf decides to help out the Danes and kill Grendel is because he has to repay a wergild for Hrothgar’s previous generosity towards the Geats. The cycle continues as the slaying of Grendel starts a blood feud between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, so he has to kill her too.

The reciprocity of the blood feuds is astonishing and to me suggests that this model should not work in society. Although some feuds would be settled after both parties believe themselves to be avenged, what if they do not? What if each killing begins a new feud, a new need for vengeance, a new killing, thus beginning the cycle anew…

The poem also drives home the message that intermarriage cannot heal a feud. There are few women in Beowulf & they are presented as peacemakers, cup-bearers who are supposed to mediate the violence of men. However, several external stories inserted within the text of Beowulf’s story strongly suggest that intermarriage between offended clans will not heal the wound – blood must be spilled & the cycle of the blood feud be completed. The imbedded narratives serve as models for Beowulf but also as models for understanding the events of the poem.

Finally, a note on the Geat hero. Beowulf, like any epic hero, is endowed with special strength. His super strength stems from magical, supernatural means. As Achilles could not be defeated without interference from the gods, Beowulf possesses the strength of thirty men in his arms. This means that he fights with his bare hands, frequently without armour, and almost always without a sword. In fact, almost all swords, even those lauded as unfailing, prove useless to Beowulf which creates an interesting dynamic. Although swords are super-important as weapons & badges of glory in a warrior society, they are of no use to Beowulf. I am puzzled as to what this might mean. Undoubtedly, it emphasizes Beowulf’s strength, but I wonder if there is another underlying purpose for stressing the importance of weaponry & then subverting it…

I have so many notes left, but I think I must stop here. 🙂 Overall, reading the poem was enjoyable, albeit difficult & frustrating at times. There were boring moments, too, because I could not be bothered to try & understand the lineage and history of the Danes, Geats, etc. However, the more you get into it & try to engage with the poem, analyse it, or read criticism, the more interesting it becomes.

If you’re familiar with Beowulf, share your thoughts & opinions! What was the most interesting part of the poem? Could you trace its influence on Tolkien? What other works did it remind you of? For the last question: I was reminded of Macbeth (setting, especially when the thirteen men set off to find Grendel’s mother), The Odyssey (heroic restlessness, thematic overlap, form), and Erec and Enide (the theme of generosity, gift-giving, and lord-thane relations). 😀

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5 responses to “BEOWULF – THE GEAT HERO, HUMAN MONSTERS, & GENEROSITY

  1. *sigh!* This is somewhere lost in TBR. I must get to this one day. I’ll probably go with Tolkien’s translation. Nice review.

  2. What really annoyed me about Finnish translation of Beowulf was that every sentence was
    written; like
    this; and
    it; made
    my eyes
    hurt….seriously.I can see how it influenced Tolkien, kind of the mythology of the book. Haha, first I thought Beowulf was boring but it got lots better towards the end.

    • Hmm, that edition might have been trying to preserve the rhythmic structure of the poem? Certainly, there are lots of traces of Beowulf in Tolkien, and yes it did get better towards the end! I disliked the genealogies the most (hah!) so that might be why…

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