Beowulf the monstrous individual

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells more of his time partying in Heorot.


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The Original Old English

“‘Weorod wæs on wynne; ne seah ic widan feorh
under heofones hwealf healsittendra
medudream maran. Hwilum mæru cwen,
friðusibb folca, flet eall geondhwearf,
bædde byre geonge; oft hio beahwriðan
secge sealde, ær hie to setle geong.
Hwilum for duguðe dohtor Hroðgares
eorlum on ende ealuwæge bær;
þa ic Freaware fletsittende
nemnan hyrde, þær hio nægled sinc
hæleðum sealde. Sio gehaten is,
geong, goldhroden, gladum suna Frodan;
hafað þæs geworden wine Scyldinga,
rices hyrde, ond þæt ræd talað,
þæt he mid ðy wife wælfæhða dæl,
sæcca gesette. Oft seldan hwær
æfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeð, þeah seo bryd duge!'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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My Translation

“‘The company was wrapt in joy; never have I ever seen
such celebration over mead as was amongst those in that hall
in all my life. All the while that renowned queen,
a pledge of peace for her people, went all about the hall,
urging the youths there on. Often, on her rounds, she gave
circlets to the drinkers, until, at the last, she took her seat.
Also, but only at times, before that body of retainers
Hrothgar’s daughter bore the ale cup to the men in turn.
From those sitting in the hall I learned
that this maiden’s name is Freawearu, she who there gave
those warriors studded and precious vessels. She is promised,
young and gold-adorned, to the gracious son of Froda.
The friend of the Scyldings has settled on this,
the protector of the kingdom, and he considers it wise policy
that this woman will settle a great many deadly feuds,
that she will ease the many conflicts. But too often,
when so short a time has passed after a man’s fall,
it is rare for the deadly spear to rest, even though the bride be good.'”
(Beowulf ll.2014-2031)


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A Quick Interpretation

It feels a bit like every scene that involves a leader’s hall in this poem features a young maiden. In particular, a young maiden who has been or is planned to be married off for the sake of peace. In a way, this definitely reinforces the idea that women’s primary strength in the world of Beowulf is through political marriages.

However, what I find interesting about this isn’t so much that these women don’t seem to have agency to do anything else, but that it underscores the importance of the group in early medieval European societies.

Of course, groups continue to be important today, as well. Whether you working in retail, a restaurant, a corner office in a swanky business building, or from your home office you probably have a group (of varying size) of people with whom you work. For the most part, at least on holidays, people get together in the groups we all call families. And, of course, in your day to day life you’re probably in contact with a group of people whom you consider friends.

But the kind of group that Beowulf leaves an impression of in my mind is closer to the sort of collectivist society of some Asian countries. The kinds of societies where individual success doesn’t just feed into the society’s success but comes from filling a proscribed role in the larger society.

And this is why I think Beowulf makes me think of that sort of collectivist society: There don’t seem to be very many individuals in either Daneland or Geatland. Every one of Hrothgar or Hygelac’s retainers may or may not have his own motives, but as far as we know they are simply loyal warriors in the service of their lords.

Now, the version of Beowulf that we have comes from a rather curious book. It is known as the Nowell Codex.

This book is a collection of writings about oddities. There were stories of the then mysterious east, letters between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, a bit of a life of Saint Christopher, and a poetic version of the Biblical story of Judith along with Beowulf. Each of these stories contains something monstrous or strange.

Thus, when modern critics and scholars have puzzle through why these texts were grouped together, they’ve usually concluded that Beowulf is in this collection because there are monsters (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon).

Some have supposed that Beowulf himself, being this sword-breaking, monster-slaying superman, is the monstrous reason for its inclusion in this collection. I think these scholars are a bit closer to the mark.

But I don’t think that Beowulf is monstrous because of his strength. I think that what makes Beowulf the character monstrous is his individuality.

There are other stories of great heroes and warriors from around the same time and later in the medieval period, sure. There’s at least one epic about Alexander the Great, there are the stories of Roland and Charlemagne, there’s the story of El Cid. But what sets Beowulf apart from all of these characters is that he’s not a knight or in the service of any lord.

Beowulf doesn’t go to Daneland because Hygelac commands it. As we found out two weeks ago, Hygelac was against Beowulf’s journey. And yet he set out on his own. And Beowulf is no knight, trying to right the wrongs of the world in some quest for the service of a lady.

In fact, when we first meet him, Beowulf is basically just an arrogant (probably) teenager who thinks that he’s invincible, tells stories to back that up, and actually turns out to be as strong as all the rumours say. But until he becomes the king of the Geats, he doesn’t act in the service of anyone but himself, really. Sure, helping the Danes cements a Geat/Dane alliance, but Beowulf didn’t set out to do that. He just wanted to increase his own fame and glory.

In short, he may have wanted to help others, but he does that by helping himself first. Which sounds a lot like an altruistic individual or entrepreneur. Which, in a time like the early middle ages, with its uncertain politics and fragmented states struggling to join together into nations, would be the last thing that any major authority like the Roman Catholic Church (the organization we can probably thank for keeping Beowulf safe for us) would want. Therefore they would label it as monstrous.

But that’s just my take. What are your thoughts and feelings on how individualism fits into Beowulf? Why do you think Beowulf was included in a collection of strange stories? Let me know in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf imagines what will happen at the wedding party of Freawearu and Froda’s son.

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