“Whoever lives long on earth, endures the unrest of these times, will be involved in much good and much evil.” — Beowulf
What can I tell you about my recent—no, current— obsession with Beowulf, except that it’s caught me like a healthy virus, drawing me through a fiery portal into Denmark in the 9th century? In one of those serendipitous grazings through my library that I’ve come to see as a deja vu in the making, I pulled down The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, Including the complete Beowulf—the full title—and began to read the main feature. It had been years since I had first ventured into the story, probably through an assignment, and as these things go it had gone poorly. I read as much as was required, did the assignment, and placed it on a mental shelf of books that I resolved to get back to in due time. Apparently the time had come because I read through it in two days and came back for more.
By now Beowulf has been translated many times, edited, commented upon, anthologized, stretched upon the rack of many a Ph.D. dissertation, and even filmed, but its power to enthrall has not diminished. Seamus Heaney, one of the finest poets in the English-speaking world, comments in his translation of Beowulf, that “It is impossible to attain a full understanding and estimate of Beowulf without recourse to this immense body of commentary and elucidation,” but first-time readers, he notes, will be as delighted as they are discomfited by the strangeness of that world.
The strangeness derives from the names (Hrothgar, Hnaef, Hilderburh, Ecglaf, and Ecgtheow), the places (‘the land of the Scyldings’), and the style, but most of all from what counts the most—the virtues they honored and strove to live by.
The story was written by someone in England who wrote about the Swedes, the Danes, and the Geats, the forebears of many who called themselves English in the centuries after the Romans left. Christianity shaped their world but the old gods lingered in stories and songs. The poet lives and breathes a robust Christianity and ascribes belief to Beowulf and his companions. He pities those whose gods are idols and who cannot count on them for deliverance.
Midway through the poem, jacked up on various translators notes, it dawned on me that the author and I have something in common: we both look back in wonder on those times. For him they are the exploits of his distant ancestors; for me they walk in the realm between myth and history. For both of us the poem reveals the epic conflicts of life and death, good and evil, chaos and harmony, light and darkness. In other words, like all great literature Beowulf illumines human experience.
The hero faces three consuming tests of strength and character: he battles Grendel and defeats him, he battles Grendel’s demon mother and defeats her, and late in life he battles the dragon that threatens his people. He battles the first two monsters alone because he is determined to win renown and glory, to be known throughout the world for his strength and prowess. Fifty years later, facing the dragon that is terrorizing his people, he stands alone again. But this time, when he needs them most, his warrior band melts back into the forest, sorrowful in their cowardice. Only one stands with him—Wiglaf—a young man whose loyalty to his king overrides his terror. When Beowulf finally falls it is Wiglaf who buys time, driving his sword into the belly of the beast. The king, his life ebbing away, draws his sword and kills the dragon. “That,” says the author, “was the last of all the king’s achievements, his last exploit in the world.”
As the poem draws to a close, Beowulf’s body is burned on the pyre, a massive barrow is raised in his memory, and his deeds are recounted in song. His people, now defenseless, await with dread the attack of their enemies.
The values of honor, loyalty, and courage came to mind as I watched The Hobbit this week. Tolkien, whose epic story of the battle for Middle-earth drew on his deep knowledge of Beowulf, had given the twentieth-century its own ‘ring-cycle’ in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It was Tolkien’s seminal essay, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, published in 1936, that changed perspectives on the poem because he assumed, and proceeded to show, the artistic integrity of the piece. It was Tolkien’s view that the author had melded the traditional stories of a heroic past together with the mythic qualities, and through his own oracular artistry had created a masterpiece for the ages.
It does us well to ask why our children are so drawn to heroes such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and the myriad creatures that sweep across their gaming devices. Could it be that this hunger for the heroic is a necessary element in their own character formation? The heroic age of the earth is over, but our fascination with them continues.
Coursing through Beowulf, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and many other epics is the loyalty to family and clan. Loyalties are put to the test time and time again, and as Michael Alexander, translator of one of the most well-known versions of Beowulf puts it: “Northern heroic tales involve a conflict between the obligation to lord or kinsman and obligations to an ally, a spouse, a host or a guest.” Later in his introduction to BeowulfI Alexander remarks that, “an ethos of retribution for slighted honor or slain kindred governs most of the stories behind the central action.”
It is striking that we do not condone this way any longer. The Enlightenment emphasis on individuality, personal autonomy, and an ethic of responsibility helped to erode the ties to clan and family. In Western societies the individual’s rights are claimed above all else, often times to the detriment of the community or the family. When we do hear of such things it’s usually in the context of ‘warlords’ in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and it’s anything but heroic.
So I read it in Beowulf and I’m drawn to the courage and the honor exemplified; the idea of following a leader worth following stirs up something deep inside me. Yet, blood feuds sicken me as does any war that purports to defend God’s name. Can we aspire to such virtues without bloody conflict? Can we hold to a view of life that rules out any war on evil? Gandalf, the formidable wizard of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, didn’t think so. Evil is always looking to break, corrupt, and destroy, he said.
Is our natural state of existence one of constant conflict, like Hobbes believed? Are we doomed to be cannon fodder for the powers that be? The evil that arises in Beowulf and in Lord of the Rings comes from greed and aggression that is unrelenting and remorseless, serving no end but destruction and chaos. The tragedy for the valiant and the brave is that their nobility is seen only in war and destruction.
Why does it seem that the choices back then, though hard, were at least clear? Either you fought for the right or you capitulated to evil. It was never that easy then and it still isn’t easy today. One enduring lesson of Beowulf is that evil is never just Out There in the darkness of the night; it runs right through us, all of us. In the moment of our greatest triumph we can succumb to the lure of power, fame, and wealth. Our true heroism lies in understanding that we are all ‘poor, blind, and naked’—and fighting bravely anyway.