(I originally wrote this post on August 8th 2008)
English literature begins with Beowulf, the famous epic that reflects England’s Germanic roots. The monster Grendel awakens from the loud partying of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, in his hall, Heorot. The monster invades the hall in anger and violently kills Hrothgar’s men, and returns every night to terrorize the Danes. After hearing about the monster, Beowulf, the Geat, arrives from over seas to help is friend, Hrothgar and defeat Grendel. He wrestles with the beast and literally bursts his bones. A celebration follows Grendel’s defeat, but is short lived as Grendel’s mother comes to take revenge. They follow her to a murky lake filled with monsters and Beowulf defeats her. Beowulf goes home to the land of the Geats with honor and glory; he serves in his king’s military as they feud against other Germanic tribes, the Swedes and Frisians, until he himself ascends to the kingship of the Geats when both his liege lord and son die.
Fifty years of peace occur under Beowulf’s kingship, until a dragon shows up on the countryside after someone disturbs its treasure. Like a true hero, Beowulf goes to fight the monster, despite his old age. He is seriously injured in the process. All the men he brought with him cower and hide in the woods, except for Wiglaf who helps his lord defeat the dragon. Beowulf dies; they construct a funeral memorial to honor him, but they also worry about their future. Without Beowulf who brought about fifty years of peace, they fear the other nations will attack them. So the poem ends.
The society of Beowulf might seem archaic to a modern reader. What could we possibly have in common with Beowulf’s world where clans feud constantly, death at a young age is almost certain, and monsters roam the countryside? Beowulf, however, is centrally a story about heroism. In a post 9/11 world Beowulf reminds us that to fight monsters, to live another day, we need extraordinary heroes, we need people who are brave, who will stand up to those who would terrorize the innocent. It reminds us that we should idolize our heroes, honor them, and worry for our own lives when the heroes disappear from this earth.
Like the Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf is painfully aware how fleeting, transitory, and momentary life can be. Death always looms for mortal men, hero or not, throughout the poem; the verses refrain endlessly that all human beings must die, that it is a fate that cannot be avoided. It is only fitting that the story ends with Beowulf’s death. Beowulf’s death shows that peace too is merely transitory. In this world of feuds and monsters only heroes can keep them at bay, and heroes don’t live forever. Peace and war, grief and mirth are a cycle. One can be drinking mead with their friend one day, and mourning them the next.
In my undergrad years, I did a research paper on Beowulf and remember reading some criticism that suggested the monsters symbolize the violence of nature. Nature is a scary and violent force and only the fragile existence of civilization (which itself can fall apart at anytime due to feuding and infighting) offers any protection from it. However, it is worth noting that monsters basically leave humans alone unless you do something to disturb them; Grendel attacks because the music from the party annoys him, his mother attacks because they killed her son, the dragon attacks humans because someone disturbs his treasure. What does this mean? I’m not positive, but I’ll venture a guess.
The monsters and what brings them to interfere in the affairs of humans reveals the paradoxical nature of pleasure. The pleasures human beings seek lead to war and violence; the events leading to the awakening of the monsters can be broken down thusly: the desire to party and revel with friends awakens Grendel, the desire to survive and restore their previous pleasure before Grendel started massacring them all leads them to kill Grendel only to awaken Grendel’s mother, while the material desire for jewels and gold leads to conflict with the dragon. Human material pleasures lead to death, violence, and conflict. The poet seems to be suggesting that the pursuit of pleasure also inevitably brings war and destruction; this reflects a more pressing conflict of this ancient society in that the monsters also parallel the human tribes endlessly feuding with each other.
Evidence within the poem suggests the author to be a Christian. One wonders if he shared the values of his characters or if he found some of their behavior repugnant in relation to his own values. At one point he criticizes the characters of his world quite directly:
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid and save the people. That was their way, their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord G-d, head of the Heavens and High King of the world, was unknown to them. Oh, cursed is he who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he who after death can approach the Lord and find friendship in the Father’s embrace.
Beowulf, of course, is good as he believes in One G-d, and the poem makes quite clear that he is headed to heaven. This is my third time reading Beowulf, and it has only convinced me more that this is a great poem that improves each time I re-read.