In my wanderings to find something to write about for this week’s news post, I came across this article from A Tolkienist Perspective: Northern Courage, Ofermōde and Thorin Oakenshield’s last stand.
In this article, James (the author) offers a fairly in depth look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of “Northern courage,” and his interpretation of the tricky Old English word “ofermōde.” The former of these is a sort of boldness that Tolkien explained as maintaining a persistent spirit despite terrible odds. And, according to this article, Tolkien understood “ofermōde” as that Northern courage going too far. In a sense, Northern courage is the kind of spirit that buoys you towards your goal through stormy waters, where ofermōde catapults you across those waters and clear past your goal.
Stepping outside of the realm of Beowulf and into one of the most popular creative worlds that it inspired, gives me a bit of perspective on the original poem. As such, reading James’ article got me thinking that one of the things that I really appreciate about Beowulf is that it is indeed a story with consequences. Unlike other poems that might be described as “epic,” though, those consequences aren’t national rivalries or divine wrath. Instead they are the end of the hero and his people. Thus, Beowulf is really more of an elegiac epic (or an epic elegy).
But what does that have to do with this article about J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideas of Northern courage and foolhardiness?
Well, something that’s always fascinated me is people’s comparing themselves to the characters of the great stories of their times.
Throughout the classical period and the Renaissance (unfortunately, the stars of a lot of medieval epics were saints or Christ himself, so comparisons weren’t quite so welcome), people would make these comparisons to famed heroes for rhetorical purposes. But these heroes always have some fatal flaw, and it often seemed to me that saying “I’m just like Hercules!” was foolish because of Hercules’ sufferings (killing his own family in a fit of divine rage, dying when he dons a coat that burned away all of his skin).
Sure, it’s easy to compare yourself to a hero in their prime, and maybe that’s all that was intended with these comparisons. But to my mind there was a kind of hubris, a kind of overstepping of the speakers’ bounds just in the comparison alone. These heroes are something beyond human already. I mean, with my above example, Hercules is the son of Zeus and, after his agonizing death he rises to Olympus.
Nonetheless, the superstitious part of me winces when these kinds of comparisons are made since they’re like the point in so many cartoons where one character says “things are better than ever!” and the situation quickly turns around.
But, although the idea of hubris is pretty widespread, Tolkien’s understanding of Northern courage and ofermōde as counterparts (as James explains) goes a long way into expressing why Beowulf stands out for me.
Beowulf isn’t a form like a Greek drama or a Homeric epic with strict rules for dramatists and poets to follow. Instead, it’s a single story that embodies its culture’s greatest attribute (the courage to stand and defend your community against all others and the harsh Northern European elements) and its greatest downfall (the extreme of courage, where actions quickly become more and more foolish) in a single story and a single character.
After all, Beowulf himself oversteps his courage and exhibits too much spiritedness when he insists on fighting the dragon on his own despite his age and despite the danger. This closing of the loop of action and consequence in a single story and in a very human way just seems utterly unique to me, like it’s something that no other story of Beowulf‘s scope manages to do. Beowulf lives, fights monsters, displaying more and more courage each time, until finally that courage becomes too much and he (and his people) die. It’s a sorrowful story, for sure. But it’s complete in a way that nothing else I’ve come across is.
James’ article helped to clarify that for me. Maybe it’ll do something similar for you, so go give it a read.
What do you think of the idea of separating courage into something to be celebrated (Tolkien’s Northern courage) and something that’s just stupid (“ofermōde”, or “foolhardiness,” as it could be translated)? Is all courage stupidity or is there necessary courage that’s actually kind of wise?
Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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