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!