Beowulf is the great epic poem of the Anglo-Saxons. Written just over a thousand years ago by an unknown English poet during the Saxon Christian era, it tells the story of Beowulf of the Geats (a Swedish people). King Hrothgar of the Danes has built a wonderful hall, Heorot, where song and laughter and generosity make it famous. But an outcast in the ungardened lands hears the joyful noises coming from Heorot and hates them:
Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,The monster's name is Grendel, a descendant of the first murderer and outcast, Cain. One night when silence falls on Heorot and the warriors have all turned in, Grendel breaks in, kills thirty of them, and carries them off to his lair. For twelve years, Grendel carries on this feud, making King Hrothgar a byword for misfortune--until Beowulf, who's already distinguished himself as a long-distance swimmer and aquatic monster-slayer, arrives with a band of his men to deal with the problem.
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth's lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.
At this first battle, Beowulf is able to tear off Grendel's arm and send him howling into the darkness. But that's not the end of it: warriors grow old and weak, but monsters do not.
Beowulf is a great story, showcasing the high literary skill of the Anglo-Saxons. In some ways it should feel familiar to all of us: hero fights monsters, nothing strange in that. Elements of it have sifted into our cultural awareness too from JRR Tolkien's works: his Middle-Earth was intentionally Anglo-Saxon in style and is sprinkled with alliterative verse, dragons enraged by the theft of a cup, and sister's-sons lifted straight from the milieu of Beowulf.
In other ways Beowulf seems very alien to us. To begin with, it's a poem, and one in a strange and archaic form, a poem that doesn't even rhyme, and certainly a poem that doesn't talk about daffodils or relate a cutesy moral sentiment. It depicts a culture in which poetry is the major artform of warriors, rather than the playground of floppy aesthetes. And yet beauty, especially poetic beauty, is a major concern in the lives of these hard-working battle-scarred people. The Beowulf poet uses the word scop to describe God's creative work, but also as a name for poets. Scop (pronounced shope) is still used in the English language today--that's where our word shape comes from. In Latin, of course, the word would be forma, "form, shape, beauty." So when the Anglo-Saxons talk about scop, they're talking about the creation of beauty, whether by God or by poets.
Meanwhile the poem is like all Anglo-Saxon poetry, extremely manly (which is one of the really delightful things about Anglo-Saxon poetry). The language is strong, simple, yet ornamented with wonderful metaphors--kennings. It's full of epic battles, severed arms, cracking bones, and crushed heads. It's beautiful, but not flowery. It's strong, but not blunt. It's vigorous, youthful, but dignified. And it's completely alien to our culture, which is aged in vice and vicious in youth.
Another of the ideas that seems alien to us in Beowulf is the importance of community, especially the importance of loyalty to government. It's true that we live in a statist society, but we have nothing like this: in Beowulf, the king isn't a god; he's a brother. He isn't a saviour, a benevolent overlord, a distant bureaucracy: he's a man you have to be willing to die in battle for, and his generous gifts are oaths of fidelity, not hand-outs. Reading the poem, you begin to wonder why everyone hasn't just given up on Heorot and Hrothgar. Every night for twelve years (even allowing room for poetic licence) Grendel comes and snacks down a handful of Hrothgar's men. Can you imagine that happening at, say, 10 Downing Street? The place would be evacuated by morning. Even if another Churchill were to insist on business as usual, can you imagine anyone turning up for work in the morning? And yet it never even crosses the Danes' minds to pop off and find someone with less troublesome neighbours to work for. Hrothgar is their king, and Heorot is their community, and they understand how important it is to stick together and not give Grendel what he wants simply because he's able to eat them alive.
In Anglo-Saxon communities, one's relationship to the king and one's brother warriors was literally this important. There's a famous Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer, which tells the story of a man who has suffered literally the worst hardship a man could endure in that society: his king and the other thanes are dead, leaving him the only survivor, an outcast. The theme crops up strongly in Beowulf as well. Near the beginning, it's firmly established that Grendel is the ultimate outcast: he has no lord, no brother warriors and it's his hatred for the community of the mead-hall that drives him to persecute the Danes. As an enemy of fellowship itself, he represents the worst possible threat to Anglo-Saxon culture. Then near the sombre end of the poem, the character Wiglaf castigates his brother warriors for forsaking their king in a hopeless battle and predicts the woeful end of the people. Although by that time Grendel is long dead, he's managed to break the fellowship.
One final element of Beowulf is most likely to confuse and interest my readers: its worldview. The poet himself was clearly a Christian writing for a Christian audience, using plenteous Christian imagery, but depicting a people who were pagans. These lines follow almost immediately after the lines quoted above, and speak about the same people:
Sometimes at pagan shrones they vowedDouglas Wilson argues that this juxtaposition of Christian and pagan elements within the poem is intentional: the poet depicts the heroic, noble paganism of Hrothgar, Beowulf, and the others as way to make a powerful point about that paganism:
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 God.
Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them.
He acknowledges the high nobility that could be present in that culture, but then bluntly shows us that same nobility at the point of profound despair.The Beowulf poet accomplishes this in various ways. To begin with, he faces a problem: he has to honour his fathers--he may even be a first or second-generation Christian--and he wants to pay tribute to the good things he has inherited from them, but he also believes that they were wrong in their paganism. So, to begin with, the world of Beowulf is a Christian world, inhabited by pagans who seem, in unguarded moments, to be aware of God's sovereignty. And this is, when you think about it, quite a sober and logical way for a Christian to think of the unconverted.
The effect is extremely potent. Instead of saying that nobility is possible without Christ, the poet shows that such nobility does not keep a people from being utterly and completely lost.
Beowulf is a picture of the best of that pagan culture with its bravery, its loyalty, and its heroism had to offer. Yet it depicts a world racked by an evil the characters don't know how to escape. Tribes war against each other, often with disastrous result: Beowulf's uncle Hygelac dies in a raid on the Frisians. Traitors and kin-slayers lurk even under the roof of Heorot. And the two "peace-weavers" we hear about--women given in marriage to an enemy tribe in order to cement a truce--both come to unhappy ends when the feuds flare up again.
But what good is fierce loyalty within tribes (marred by occasional treachery) when there's so much treachery betwen tribes? Grendel, the kin-slayer, is the worst enemy of this society, but he's not exactly an enemy on the outskirts. He represents not only the worst threat, but also the whole way of life of these people. At the end of the poem, the dragon that attacks the Geats does so because something has been stolen from him. Wilson says,
And what happens next is what always happens next. The dragon flies out in a rage—as every robbed tribe would do—and seeks his revenge. The dragon represents the fact that when another tribe sets sail to come against yours, there is no reasoning with it. This is just the way it is.And so the Geats are left with a dead king, a heap of treasure, dishonoured warriors, and the Swedes coming to kill them all. And that's the depressing end of the poem.
But not the end of the story.
You see, we can date the action of the poem--owing to one character, Hygelac, and the raid against the Frisians being dated by Gregory of Tours to the year 520 AD. The poem ends sometime around 570, fifty years later. Just twenty years after this, starting in the 590s, the gospel is brought to the Anglo-Saxons and wide-scale conversion begins. Beowulf depicts a paganism that has done its best, and given up in despair; a paganism ready for some good news, and a warrior-king who can save.
Beowulf is a great poem, especially for reading aloud.
Gutenberg etext, trans. Francis Barton Grummere
The Anglo-Saxon Evangel, article by Douglas Wilson
Seamus Heaney's translation of the poem is a modern classic, but we also have a translation by Frederick Rebsamen. I haven't read it right through, but I quite like what I've seen of it.
I'm indebted for this article to Ben Merkle's study guide on Beowulf contained in Veritas Press's Omnibus II book. I highly recommend it to students or parents wanting to study the poem in more depth.
A motion-capture movie allegedly based on Beowulf was made in 2007. I say "allegedly" because from what I hear, it's typical postmodernism: make everything admirable about a character simply lies invented to whitewash the less-than-inspiring truth. No thanks.