I had always figured that Seamus Heaney would be the only prominent Irish figure to take on Beowulf. But. I was wrong.
The actor Bryan Burroughs has tackled the story in his one man show Beowulf: The Blockbuster. You can check out the show’s website here.
The premise for the play is that Burroughs’ character is a terminally ill father telling his son the final bed time story that he will get to tell him. But, rather than just being a straight retelling of Beowulf, it is an improvised retelling full of elements that Burroughs’ character’s son adds in.
So, instead of Beowulf just being about a lone warrior taking on demons there are things from Jaws or Nightmare on Elm Street thrown in. Or, more specifically, as Burroughs mentioned in an interview with Shelley Marsden of The Irish World, the son suggests that Grendel sounds like Chewbacca, and so Burroughs’ character obliges.
It sounds like an awesome sight to behold. Especially because, as Burroughs plays all of these different parts, he also attempts various impressions to keep them separate. I may not be able to read Beowulf‘s dialogue without slipping into a bit of Sean Connery’s accent after reading that it’s what Burroughs uses for the Geat.
Though what makes this performance interesting to me is that it wasn’t initially going to be about Beowulf.
As he explains in that interview, Burroughs wanted to explore the question of what a parent who knew they had one hour left with their child would say to them. Beowulf only came into play because it has a tight three act structure (whether he covers the whole poem or just the Grendel bit is unclear, but either way there are three acts involved), and was a way for him to tell a story about how wonderful it is to be mortal. Plus, I think that as such an archetypal story Beowulf lends itself to having other characters and stories attached to it.
As always with performances like this, the only thing I don’t really like is that it’s not likely I’ll see the whole thing. Thankfully, though, there is this excerpt. Enjoy!
The most notable thing about this translation is that it’s in prose rather than poetry. Though this might seem to ruin the effect of the original a bit, I think that Kirtlan’s prose makes the story pop for an audience who might not be comfortable with reading line after line of alliterative verse.
At the same time, though, since it was written over 100 years ago, the language is somewhat dated as Kirtlan throws words like “byrnie” and “banesman” around without any kind of explanation. A quick internet search will reveal the meanings of these words, but that might detract from the story for some. Likewise, he’s written with a bit of an “Olde Englyshe” affectation as he changes word order and spelling to look more archaic than the English of 1913.
Luckily, however, Kirtlan keeps the story’s pace going strong and even with the quirks of the language used, manages to tell an entrancing rendition.
All in all, Kirtlan’s is a pretty balanced translation in that its prose format keeps the story moving (even through asides), while its free use of older words maintains the flavour of the original.
Here’s a link to several formats of the complete J.B. Kirtlan translation online (via project Gutenberg). You can judge for yourself, but I think this is a translation that brings Beowulf into the modern age while also retaining some of the original’s old-ness and mixing in some turn of the century philology as well.
When it comes to a story as old and foreign-seeming as Beowulf, what do you think makes an ideal translation?
I’m a big fan of a particular flavour of prog rock. It started in high school, when I got into Rush, and each song I downloaded (via Kazaa or Limewire one song at a time (yep, when downloading music was still controversial)) was a new discovery in a style of music.
And this music was unlike anything I’d ever heard. It had the hardness of everything my older brother would blast over the stereo when we were home alone but was tempered with a variety of emotions (rather than just anger or angst) and the sort of sprawling stories that I love. Thus, a taste for concept albums and story songs was born, and after Rush I started to thirst for more prog.
Throughout my teens I managed to slake that thirst with a little bit of The Who and Pink Floyd, but my wanderings largely ended with Genesis. However, a close friend of mine went deep into prog and showed me a band called Marillion. Among this band’s oeuvre is a song called “Grendel.”
Here’s a recording of the song’s live performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1983:
Now, a song about a marauding monster seems like an obvious choice for a band working in a genre heavily influenced by fantasy, D&D, and general medieval romance. But Marillion didn’t just string together a 17 minute song about a creature that rampages against a bunch of vikings. Instead they took a different tack. They made Grendel the hero of their adaptation.
If I had to place Marillion’s “Grendel” within the timeline of Beowulf, I’d put it near the beginning of Grendel’s terrorizing Heorot. Beowulf hasn’t been called yet, and the Danes are still pleading with their pagan gods for salvation. This is where the twist comes in.
As Marillion spins it, Grendel isn’t some hell creature that can be swept away by pagan gods.
As Grendel himself says “God’s on my side sure as hell, I’m gonna take no blame.” In other words, Marillion’s Grendel, though still an outsider, is not a tool of Satan or of the forces that fight God after Creation, but of God itself. After this point in the song, Grendel is described as some sort of avenger of God who is attacking the Danes because of their heathenish worship of pagan gods and their indifferent killing of each other, which, according to Grendel, makes them the true monsters.
As an English major, it’s my instinct to tear into this wildly different interpretation of a poem so thoroughly established as good (Beowulf) versus evil (the monsters). So, let’s go!
Since they’re a prog rock band, a genre that’s pretty under-represented and I think safe to say associated with the kind of teenage nerds who follow fantasy and sci fi and spend their weekends playing video games or D&D in friends’ basements, it’s not too surprising that they’d make Grendel the hero of the song.
After all, Grendel is the epitome of an outsider. He’s not apparently human though bipedal. He’s living in what is basically an inversion of Heorot, a dank and cold hall with only his immediate family rather than a crowd of broader society. Grendel is as strange as can be, relative to the Danes.
Because of this outsider quality and the outsider quality of a lot of their listeners, I think it makes sense that Marillion would come up with a song that has this take.
What’s really odd to me, though, is that Grendel isn’t just some lone wolf fighting against the “normals” but is, instead, an instrument of God. This sends my English major senses reeling since I see this pairing representing the perspective that many outsiders take on those who are so deeply embedded in the mainstream system that they can’t see where they’re going wrong.
Putting Grendel on God’s side despite his outsider status and utter strangeness also ties nicely to the lives of so many mystics throughout history. For mystics of all faiths, people of incredible religious devotion, are generally kept at arms length by the official body of their declared religion. Why keep such thoroughly devoted people out of the spotlight? Because mystics’ ideas and practices tend to be more or less aligned with doctrine in theory but take a meandering and unorthodox path to reach that alignment, sometimes coming up with radical ideas along the way. Despite this difference, they often receive some form of recognition after their deaths. Many Christian mystics, for example, were made saints (like Saint Catherine of Siena) after the Church heard enough examples of their remains causing miracles.
But even with all of that information about how organizations like the Catholic Church treat such outsiders, that anyone would give such a role to Grendel is incredible.
Even more incredible is how the band presented the song during their stage shows.
Fish (a.k.a. Derek Williams Dick), Marillion’s lead singer when the song was played live, would wear a tattered cloak and the Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask that’s most evocative of Beowulf himself. Crossing Grendel with the usual hero of the story like this forces you to think about a lot of parallels between the two that I think are definitely valid.
In particular, though, I think that Marillion’s Grendel has a lot to say about religion.
If Grendel is God’s wrath, and Beowulf is also a tool of God’s will, then Beowulf’s saving the Danes from Grendel says a lot about Christianity, and maybe even about organized religions in general.
I mean, if God controls all the pieces, it’s as if there is no devil and God is simply using the classic sales tactic of distressing his target audience and then presenting them with a solution of his own making. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much how it goes if the Christian God has a monopoly on creation, even if you lay bad things happening at Satan’s feet. After all, Satan was an angel who was cast out of heaven for pride and arrogance. Who made the angels? Who could decide to cast them out or keep them in?
Wow. I admit I’m a pretty big fan of Marillion’s brand of prog rock but never thought it would say so much with a simple twist on who’s really the hero in a classic story.
But that’s the power of adaptation. Artists can take old stories and old ideas — things that seem to anchor the world into the status quo — make a few changes, and thereby force people to see that status quo in a totally different way.
What do you think of Marillion’s adaptation of Grendel?
This week, an article by Tom Holland’s from January 3, 2015 proves to be as philosophical as I expected from the title: “Why Buried Treasure Never Loses its Lustre.” The nice thing about this piece is that despite its timing and mention of Christmas, it isn’t overbearing or syrupy in any way.
In the article, Holland uses the then recent discovery of a hoard of coins in a Buckinghamshire field to illustrate that the English (and humanity as a whole, really) have gone through tough times before and pulled through. In particular, since the coins date back to the early 11th century, Holland focuses on the transition from the reign of Aethelred II (famously “The Unready”), and Cnut, the Viking turned Christian king.
By Holland’s brief account this period was a terrible transition, as Aethelred II’s death brought a crumby reign to an end only to see a greedy despot take his place: in the first year of his reign, Cnut basically demanded a 100% tax. Holland doesn’t go into the details, but at some point Cnut had a change of heart and took up the idea that the greater and more powerful the person, the more penitent they must be.
What ties this story so neatly to the time when it was written though, is that the metal detectorist who found the hoard of coins (valued at a cool £1 million) was unemployed and nearly broke at the time. A strange confluence of circumstances that reinforces the lesson that Holland takes from the history contained in the coins that come from a transitional period in English history.
Like these coins and the lesson of perseverance they teach, I think that the same can be said of Beowulf.
Though, just as if you found coins with an unfamiliar face or language on them, they’d be meaningless to you (except maybe for the money they could sell for). After all, as is the case with those coins, so much of what makes Beowulf relevant to modern times is hidden behind historical and cultural differences.
Which raises the question of “why bother?”
After all, we live in a time when several answers to just about any one question are always at our finger tips. So why bother learning about the history lived or literature written and read by people who are now long dead?
Which is a valid question.
At least until you realize that because the culture and the history from which Beowulf (or those coins) came no longer exists, we can find an alternate perspective on modern issues (PTSD, distribution of wealth, heroism). These alternatives might not always be the quick solution that we’re looking for (letting all wealth flow to one person who is then trusted to redistribute it evenly would definitely not work today), but they can offer insight into how another person from another time would deal with a similar problem.
Which makes things like those coins or Beowulf into a kind of mirror in which we can see ourselves and our problems. Looking into such a mirror we stand a better chance of finding something even more meaningful or helpful, since the mind doesn’t always work in a straight, logical line. Instead, it sometimes needs the shock of an idea that is utterly radical or strange to come to reach the desired conclusion.
How do you think that Beowulf is useful to modern people? Do you think it’s still useful beyond just being a really cool story?
Last week I dug up an article by David Keys that explained how the work of Dr Sam Newton showed that Beowulf was indeed an English story. Being more familiar with the literary side of the issue than the archaeological one, I was intrigued when simonjkyte posted a comment explaining that he didn’t believe that Beowulf was an English story.
Simonjkyte based his position on the idea that the alleged early Anglo-Saxon site Spong Hill (in North Elmham, Norfolk, England) was actually a Scandinavian site. This difference of settlers could be momentously important to the origin of Beowulf. If Spong Hill was in fact a Scandinavian settlement, then there would be a permanent Scandinavian presence in Anglo-Saxon England which could be the way in which Beowulf went from being a Scandinavian story to one told, and ultimately written down, by Old English speakers.
This week, I found another David Keys piece that sheds a bit more light on the subject. Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time as I’d like for these posts, so it’s not directly about Spong Hill and who the archaeological evidence suggests its early settlers were. Instead this article is about the discovery of a hall that could have been the basis for Heorot. This hall, unsurprisingly, is in Lejre (23 miles west of modern day Copenhagen), Denmark. Here’s the link.
To sum it up, Keys’ article explains how an archaeological expedition led by Tom Christensen uncovered a handful of royal halls near Lejre. Why a handful? Apparently, the Danes of the day dismantled the halls and moved them every few generations.
What Christensen and his team found in these halls suggests trade with England and the Rhineland, and their arrangement suggests that there was indeed something that drove the Danes of the day away from one of the halls; most of them are close together, but there is one that is 500 metres to the north of the rest.
Where this article starts to clarify the true origin of the Beowulf story and how it got to England is when Keys notes that Beowulf was likely brought to England when Scandinavian settlers came in the 6th or 7th centuries AD. So, somewhat confusingly, this three year old article admits that Beowulf is of Scandinavian origin, but was then made English by being written down.
This transmission and acquisition of stories happens all the time. If something strikes a people as being particularly important, then surely they’ll write it down. Even if it winds up turning into a poem of over 3000 alliterative lines.
So I guess the thinking behind announcing Beowulf as an English story is though Beowulf‘s origin is Scandinavian, the English made it their own when they wrote it down, giving the characters characteristic English wit, highlighting (or adding?) themes of storytelling and how greatness grates to a halt in the face of death.
Of course, given the settings of Daneland and Geatland, it seems that Beowulf definitely started out as a Scandinavian story, but it was transformed by the English into something different. Something different enough to make it English.
Though that transformation through writing doesn’t make it any less problematic that writing something down in your language gives you claim to it (much like the idea that sticking your flag in a chunk of land makes it yours). For me, this underlines even more how mixed and mingled the world’s cultures are. Just as individuals are the sum of their multifarious experience, so too are countries, it seems, which makes certain politicians’ ideas of border walls and exclusion utterly ridiculous.
Who do you think owns a story when it starts out as an oral performance only and is later written down? The originator? The writer? Or by the time that the split between performed and written happens are they two different stories regardless of their shared origin?
In an effort to look at something other than an adaptation of Beowulf, this week, I’m looking back through time. Just a mere 23 years, though, peering back at 1993. Why? Because this was the year when Beowulf‘s English-ness was confirmed.
Here’s the summary: From the mid 1970s onwards, the accepted academic opinion was that Beowulf, with all of its ship burials and stories of heroics in Daneland and Geatland, was a story from the viking Danes. In other words, Beowulf was not an English story.
But, thanks to the seven years work of Dr Sam Newton, the Anglo-Saxon literature specialist, it was confirmed that Beowulf is indeed an English story about the English. Newton’s reasoning for this claim was based on his findings that there are no Scandinavian loanwords in Beowulf, that the names of the characters come from Old English templates, and that the major characters in Beowulf are revered by the early English, not the 10th century Vikings.
Newton even went so far as to say that the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings came from the same geographic area, save that the Anglo-Saxons came over to Britain about 500 years earlier, making this poem about the very early English. And so the oldest poetry from old English was confirmed to be English.
But so what?
Well, I think that this story was newsworthy at the time (and would be today as well) because national stories are important. And that’s not something that the Americas grew out of after they were colonized within the last five centuries.
The American stories of nationhood are inescapable the world over — ideas of manifest destiny and their country being the swinging bachelor pad of democracy where anyone can be anything if they only work at it. As a Canadian, although it often seems like we’re just America’s hat up here, I know that even we have a story, albeit one that’s much more quietly told.
The Canadian story is one of resilience in nature, of diversity and acceptance in society, and of striving to be globally minded in thought.
Whenever a group of people gets together anywhere in the world they’ll eventually tell the story of how or why they got there (even when there are already people where they got to who have their own story). Why? Because stories have a great deal of power to define and celebrate in-groups. Though that’s not to say that outsiders can find a place in an already established national story.
Along with the importance of confirming that it was their own original story, Dr Newton’s work ensured that the UK had Beowulf as the basis for its story. But I think that there’s another element to the importance of claiming Beowulf as an English story. Particularly if it’s a story of the early peoples who would eventually come to Britain and form the basis of the English.
And this is it: The Anglo-Saxons, who, after centuries of mingling with other cultures and peoples, became the modern English, are not native to Britain.
Though, after centuries of living somewhere it’s all too easy to get comfortable and forget that you haven’t always been there.
What do you think the purpose of a national story or epic is?
Thanks to a Google alert I have set up for “Beowulf poem” (leaving off “poem” would net me nothing but updates about a company with the same name), I came across a puppet version of Beowulf that’s currently in the works.
As you can read here, this version of the poem has been in the works for more than a year.
The Hawk Rock Theatre of Putnam County, NY is putting the show on, and judging from the pictures of the puppets and the props, it looks like everything in the show has been carefully crafted. In fact, even the script was adapted with care. Apparently local English scholar Kate Mackie did the adaptation. And it sounds like they couldn’t have had a better writer on the project, since Mackie first read Beowulf in Old English when she was 19. I don’t even think I knew what Old English was when I was 19 (aside from the common idea that what Shakespeare wrote is “ye Olde Englishe”).
But, as is the case with that musical take on the poem and this puppet performance, their reach is, sadly, severely limited.
Brewster, the town whose HamletHub news page reported on the upcoming puppet performance is a village in New York.
Nonetheless, these very local performances just remind me that even though people can and will record whatever their phones can hold only to later upload them somewhere online, being present for a live performance still matters. Performance can still be intimate and immediate.
It’s kind of strange, but thinking about Beowulf and this puppet show adaptation makes it seem to me that as access to content increases, there’s a lot more power and importance put back into smaller venues.
It’s been a while since I’ve been out to a concert, but I can’t help but think that going to a larger venue only to watch the show through a monitor that’s closer to you than the stage is kind of ridiculous. Sure, the sound is still crisp and energized and live, but the visuals are just an image on a screen. I think it’s much better if you can see the person you’ve come to see, and (glaring stage lights aside) they can see you.
Of course, packed stadiums can bring an artist way more income than a packed small town theatre. But there’s something lost when artistic energy is dispersed so far and wide through a monstrous crowd. Although truly gifted performers can still make everyone who’s come out for them feel like they were singled out. It’s an incredible property of going to see a live show, feeling as though, big venue or small, you’re a member of something bigger than you, of an entity called an audience that the performer can electrify with just a few notes.
And, though, I won’t be catching Hawk Rock Theatre’s Beowulf performance (unless it finds its way to Youtube after the fact), after more than a year of preparations, I’m sure it’ll be a show brimming with artistic energy and presence.
If you’re going to be in the Brewster/Southeast area of New York state between November 4 and November 6, you should definitely go and see how this take on Beowulf plays out.
When it comes to performances which do you prefer: A live show or something recorded? Why?
Once again turning to the blog of the website First Things, I found a post by Peter J. Leithart. In this post, entitled “Beowulfian Chiasms,” he briefly explains the idea that as a whole, Beowulf is structured like many concentric rings.
To clarify just what a chiasm is (something I know I needed): a “chiasm” is a literary device in which ideas are presented alongside complements in a concentric pattern. So if you took a work that used chiasm in its structure you could represent that as A,B,A’,B’ (much like how rhyme scheme gets mapped out with letters of the alphabet).
Getting back to Beowulf, there are actions in the poem that are more or less symmetrically opposite one another and that are closely related enough that they form a set of concentric rings (the ring visual makes the most sense if you understand both references to be opposite points on the same ring). Among the examples that Leithart gives are Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, in which Grendel rejoices to start the fight off and Beowulf rejoices at its end, and the Danes hearing an uproar in Heorot and being terrified and then their hearing more uproar and being terrified again (after Bewoulf manages to get a good grip on Grendel). Since it’s such a quick and enlightening read, I highly recommend that you go over and visit this post.
Reading what else Leithart had to say about Bewoulf as a poem with a chiastic structure deeply intrigued me. In particular, after explaining how the structure works in Beowulf, Leithart points out that the fight with Grendel’s mother is at the center of everything since that’s where Beowulf comes closest to dying.
I definitely think that the fight with Grendel’s mother is of great importance to the poem and the story of Bewoulf, even setting aside the possible reference to Christ’s harrowing hell after dying on the cross that Leithart points to as the major significance of the event. I find extreme meaning in this passage outside of the potential religious reference because, for me, the fight with Grendel’s mother is the only fight in the whole poem that pits Beowulf against something that is the most opposed to him and what he represents.
Yeah, a lot of this opposition does come down to Grendel’s mother being a woman, but I think that Leithart’s point about Grendel’s mother representing a society that’s more matriarchal and family-centric than the Danes’ patriarchal and hall society-centric one is very strong (from this post). As such, Beowulf isn’t just fighting some monster that might be stronger than him, he’s fighting something that’s just about entirely opposed to him in every way possible.
Because of the seriousness of this fight, his being near death as Grendel’s mother tries to stab him isn’t just Beowulf’s closest scrape with death, but the moment in the poem where the old school matriarchy (monstrous in the eyes of the patriarchal church and society of the time) directly butts up against the newly reinvigorated patriarchy (of course represented by a place like Heorot where rulers are generous, food and drink are plentiful, and people revel in Christianized stories of the past).
I also felt my heart flutter when Leithart drew comparisons between Beowulf and the Aeneid and the Odyssey, two epic poems that also have a visit to the underworld at their centres. The thought that the poet behind Beowulf could have known these stories (the Aeneid would have been around in Latin, and it’s possible, as far as I know, that a Latin translation of the Odyssey could also have been accessible) and yet they resisted building off of them is astounding. Especially since they’re both stories that involve a lot of sea-faring adventure, of which Beowulf has a bit. But that adventuring on the open sea is kept to the background in favour of creating a story that’s more focussed on battle, storytelling, and remembering (and retelling) the past.
To be honest, though, just having the Beowulf poet in the same group as Virgil and Homer respectively makes Beowulf all the more amazing to me.
Which fight in Beowulf do you think is the most important? Why?
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?
In the blog post “Hrothgar, Heorot, and Threats to Heroism” Peter J. Leithart makes some interesting points about heroism in Beowulf.
Basically, he takes an in depth look at what each of the monsters that Beowulf faces represent. In doing so he makes it clear that each creature stands in opposition to some element of human society, whether that’s general order and custom, the importance of social order in the hall setting, or the wealth sharing function of kings.
Over all, I think that this post makes for a quick, interesting read. It even offers some true, if melancholy, insights into how heroism perpetuates itself.
As Leithart explains, heroes are indeed special people, but anyone can memorialize them and carry their memory and example to future generations.
Now, being on a fairly religious blog, Leithart makes ample mention of Christian interpretations in his post. And I think that he’s more than right in a lot of his analysis. After all, when the poem was finally written down, it was written down by Christian monks. And I’m sure that those monks wanted to ensure that their work was circulated and preserved (monks were the medieval period’s copy machines, after all), so adding some Christian embellishments or details makes sense.
Plus, spinning the poem (however much it needed to be spun in this direction) as a Christian epic would have helped to make it relevant to a wider Christian audience.
So references to Christian ideas and images are easy to find in Beowulf. The Christian creation story and all of the talk of Cain are prime examples of these.
However, I think that Leithart goes a little too far saying that the writer of the poem would have seen the dragon as satanic. Something as generic as a dragon is definitely open to interpretation. Though, because of the popularity of imagery like the archangel Michael binding Satan while he’s in the form of a dragon, I’m sure dragons to many Christians were incarnations of Satan. But people were still individuals, and so where some people saw Satan others may have seen an embodiment of greed and gluttony or of pride.
I also don’t entirely agree with Leithart’s setting up a dichotomy between the family that the Grendels have and the life of the hall that Grendel and Grendel’s mother attack. I mean, sure, if you live a sheltered life, shielded from the outside world by your parents, then you’re going to have a hard time adjusting to it. A family so tightly knit that there’s wool constantly over your eyes sounds to me less like a family and more like a cult.
But, being outcast, going your own way, and thumbing your nose at climbing up some sort of social ladder is something you can try to do. I think that such an individual path is what true entrepreneurs seek out. And what’s more heroic than that?
Anyway, Leithart’s article is neither news nor an interview with someone doing something with Beowulf. So why did I decide to post it in this week’s showcase?
Well, it’s because I really like Leithart’s analysis but don’t think the religious overtones (which the medieval audience of the poem would have been very aware of and sensitive to) are necessary to reach his conclusions. Despite its religious trappings (be they Christian or Nordic paganism), Beowulf is about heroism.
And, as Tolkien pointed out, Beowulf is an elegy. Which means that it does not have a happy ending.
Instead, Beowulf ends with the death of its hero which leaves his people doomed to destruction. But what Beowulf does is provide an example for people as one who upholds order, the way of the hall, and generosity. That he does this through violence and action and other exciting things might not seem very novel, but I find it fascinating.
Why? Because so much of our entertainment has moved away from such a complicated display of violence.
Beowulf is a hero who gets to his goals through fighting, but he is also ultimately taken out in a fight with the greatest monster he faces. Aside from Terminator 2, or Batman vs. Superman (setting aside all the problems I had with that movie), I can’t think of any other pop culture touchstones where the hero isn’t allowed to live happily ever after in the greater future that their fighting has created. And I think that this version of violence needs to be featured more more widely. Right alongside calculating the trajectory of blood splatter from an exit wound, the consequences of violence would add an element of realism to our stories.
A lot of Beowulf might just be a bunch of people bashing each other with swords, but all that fighting has consequences and those consequences carry on into the future (as Alexis Fajardo pointed out in last week’s news post). And that’s one of the things what makes Beowulf so memorable to me.
What do you think about Beowulf’s commentary on heroism? Is it still relevant today? Leave your thoughts in the comments!