ANONYMOUS Beowulf (ca. 1000)
Beowulf is the longest and most complete surviving poem in Old English. The work probably circulated orally for centuries before being written down by scribes around the year 1000. It consists of 3,182 lines of alliterative verse. The poem’s plot, is straightforward and has the quality of a folktale, following recognizable patterns of myth: A young hero sets out on a sea journey to battle monsters. After dispatching two humanoid horrors in deadly combat, the victorious hero journeys back home to rule his own kingdom until he finally clashes with a dragon who kills him, though he wins glory and fame. But Beowulf also alludes to several battles and events in the past and future, at times digressing for several lines to narrate the action of a feud, battle, or heroic event; the poem’s allusive, interlacing quality makes it difficult and complex.
But Beowulf is worth the struggle. For generations, teachers and students have enjoyed this tale of dragon slaying and troll combat set against the background of human feuding and warfare among the Danes, Frisians, Jutes, Swedes, and Geats. Legendary heroes like Beowulf and Wiglaf stand toe to toe with figures from history such as Hygelac, Hrothgar, and Ingeld. Though the poem cannot be considered historically accurate in a modern sense, Beowulf offers an uncannily familiar window into the alliances, truces, feuds, and political intrigues taking place in the Germanic heroic world. It continues to fascinate readers also because of its expression of such prominent themes as community, religion, violence, and revenge. Tony Perrello Community in Beowulf The basic communal organization depicted in Beowulf and described by the first-century Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania (ca. 98) is the comitatus, or clan structure. Central to the function of the clan is the relationship between the lord and his retainers. Gift giving solemnizes the bond between lord and retainer, and in return for goods received, the retainer takes a solemn oath of fealty. Time and again, the poet refers to Hrothgar, Hygelac, and Beowulf—good kings—as “ring-giver,” “helmet of the Danes,” and “giver of treasure.” Hrothgar’s success is marked by the poet’s acknowledgment that he “doled out rings / and torques at the table” (ll. 80–81). This social contract solemnizes allegiance in the heroic world. The so-called Finn digression (ll. 1069–1158) shows the tragic and shameful consequences of a group of retainers who choose to follow their lord’s slayer rather than die trying to avenge him. Revenge is the most powerful bond that held Anglo-Saxon communities together. The members of a comitatus had a moral obligation to avenge the slaughter of kin. Compensation took the form of a wergild, or “man-price.” Each member of the comitatus had a precalculated worth. If someone was slain, the offending party had to pay the wergild, or life would be taken in return for life, even if the slaying was accidental. Though the onus for exacting revenge fell upon the victim’s family, it had the support of the lord and the force of law behind it (hence the modern legal term posse comitatus). Failure to gain retribution was the source of terrible grief and shame. Indeed, the most distressing aspect of Grendel’s depredations is, as the poet tells us, that “he would never / parley or make peace with any Dane / nor stop his death dealing nor pay the death-price. / No counselor could ever expect / fair reparation from those rabid hands” (ll. 154–158). On the Geatish side, King Hrethel’s son, Herebeald, is accidentally slain by his brother, Haethoyn, who fires an arrow at him. Hrethel pines away in despair because no reparation can be taken, and the king’s death results in the first Swedish/Geatish war (ll. 2,435ff., 2,472ff.). Beowulf begins with the genealogy of the Danish royal house and highlights the ways successful communities were formed. Lines 67–83 recount Hrothgar’s rise to power and the building of Heorot, the mead hall of the Danes. Heorot is a large, centrally located hall in which the Danes gather to eat, drink beer or mead, hear the songs of the scop (a combination poet, musician, and historian), boast of their exploits, and receive gifts at the hands of their lord. In building a mead hall, a lord walls in his people and offers a sense of warmth and communal belonging. He also walls out the dark, chaotic, and uncontrollable forces of nature. The lavish descriptions of treasure and gifts that occur time and again in the poem—right down to Beowulf ’s dying wish to behold the dragon’s treasure hoard—always bring readers back to this early moment when Hrothgar builds a hall and blocks out nature and his enemies. The immediate threat to this sustainable community is Grendel.
The monsters of Beowulf represent more than simply a threat to the safety of the Beowulfian community. These creatures and the horror they inspire represent the deep-seated anxieties of a warrior culture. Grendel represents, on one level, the monstrous principle of kin killing: He is the product of Cain’s murder of Abel. Fratricide runs counter to everything the comitatus stands for. Gerendel is a “lonewalker” who stands apart from the community. He does not use weapons, pay reparations, speak, boast, or enjoy hall noise. Grendel is the dark-side manifestation of everything a heroic warrior and model community member—like Beowulf—ought to be. Grendel’s mother represents a more vexing problem. Women in this community have certain limited functions: They are “peace-weavers” and “cup-bearers,” like Wealhtheow and Hygd, or mourners beside the funeral pyre, like the wailing woman at Beowulf ’s tomb. Grendel’s mother threatens the gender-specific revenge code of Anglo-Saxon society by leaving her home beneath the water to invade Heorot and avenge the death of her son. She may be a “natural” mother, but she represents the opposite of what that culture seems to have valued in women. Grendel’s mother proves a tougher challenge for Beowulf than does her son, but the dragon costs him his life. The dragon is the opposite of the good king the poet takes such pains to construct for his audience. Instead of freely giving treasure, it hoards it. It is miserly and greedy, sitting alone atop its hoard in a cold and dark anti-hall. These monsters are both exterior threats to the community and projections of repressed evils within that community. Tony Perrello Religion in Beowulf Religion is a source of mystery in the poem Beowulf and a divisive issue among its readers. Christianity plays an ambiguous role in this poem about pagan heroes and monsters, but it is ultimately responsible for the poem’s preservation. As Roy Liuzza has noted in the preface to his 2000 translation, many scholars see the hero, Beowulf, as a Christ figure, one who gives his life for his people in a struggle with a serpent hostile to mankind. Others have argued that the poem—with its ultimate vision of doom and futility in the face of human greed and ongoing violence—is a condemnation of a pagan world that thrived on domination and conquest. Beowulf certainly offers a portrait of a world before Christ. In lines 175–188, the poet condemns the heathenish Danes, who turn to idol worship when plagued with Grendel. The burial rites depicted in the poem, usually involving a burning pyre, are markedly pagan. Christ is never mentioned. Fate is stern and implacable, and worldly glory seems to be the only lasting virtue, leaving the final words of the poem ambiguous—was Beowulf a humble Christ figure or one eager for earthly fame? There is only one historically datable event in the poem: the death of Hygelac, lord of the Geats, sometime between 521 and 526 (the Frankish historian Gregory of Tours recorded the death of “Chlochilaichus”—the Latin form of “Hygelac”—in 521). Although the Roman emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity in the fourth century, it was not until the year 597 that Saint Augustine of Canterbury undertook his mission of conversion in the southern reaches of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Northern Anglo-Saxons had previously received the word of God from Irish missionaries, and within less than a century after Saint Augustine set out, the entire island had been converted. The scribes who wrote down Beowulf sometime around the year 1000 were Christian. At the time of the poem’s composition, “writing” was done exclusively by monks working in monasteries. Since parchment (sheepskin) was expensive, only works deemed valuable were copied and preserved. The manuscript that contains Beowulf also contains a saint’s life (The Passion of Saint Christopher) and a versified story from the Bible (The book of Judith). Although references to the Bible are exclusively from the Old Testament, the “poet” (or is it the scribe?) expects his audience to be familiar with biblical stories, such as that of Cain in Genesis, whose fratricide gave rise to Grendel and thus makes Unferth sinister through association. When Hrothgar examines the sword hilt taken from the lair of Grendel’s mother, the poet alludes to the apocryphal Old Testament story of God’s destruction of the race of giants by flood (ll. 1,688ff.). For centuries Beowulf was sung, by memory, to the accompaniment of a harp.
This oral formulaic poem of the sixth through 10th centuries, then, received its Christian coloration when recorded by monastic scribes around the year 1000. Sometime in the late seventh century, a monk known as the Venerable Bede recorded what is perhaps the first English poem—“Caedmon’s Hymn.” Caedmon, an illiterate cowherd who worked in a monastery in Whitby (northeast England), was, legend has it, visited by an angel in a dream and given the power of song, spontaneously singing a song of creation— “Caedmon’s Hymn.” Caedmon refers to God by such epithets as “Master Almighty,” “Mankind’s Guardian,” “Eternal Lord,” and “Measurer”—hardly the meek lamb of the New Testament. For the first time in history, heroic language and the meter of heroic battle poetry were applied to a religious text, a literary moment known as the Caedmonian Revolution. The Beowulf poet applies this strategy time and again, referring obliquely to God with heroic terms such as “Wielder of All” or “Father Almighty.” And for some readers of the poem, Beowulf is a type of Christ, and his actions sometimes parallel biblical or apocryphal events. For instance, Beowulf “harrows hell” to confront Grendel’s mother in a lair described with language recalling hell in Old English homilies. More obvious is Beowulf ’s journey to seek out the dragon, an adversary of mankind who lives underground, smells of brimstone and fire, and exemplifies greed and hatred. Wyrm, the Old English word for dragon, also meant “snake,” so it is clear whom this king of men is fighting. Beowulf took 11 comrades on his journey, plus “the one who had started all this strife” (a thief who had awoken the dragon by stealing a cup from its hoard), which parallels Christ’s 12 apostles. Beowulf suffers before the battle, “sensing his death” (l. 2,420), and indeed, his men abandon him in his hour of need. He dies, sacrificially, for his people.
The language of Beowulf is often the language of a distant past, “in days gone by” (l. 1). Perhaps the poem’s religious language and impressionism is meant to link its legends, and its great hero, to the Christian “present,” the world of the scribes who recorded it. Tony Perrello Violence in Beowulf The modern reader of Beowulf may be excused for mistranslating line 18b of the poem—blæd wide sprang—as “blood spread wide.” The correct translation is “glory spread wide,” but in this poem, both blood and glory spring from bodies. And Beowulf is a poem about bodies—crushed, cut, torn, dismembered, beheaded, burned, gulped down in gobbets, and tossed about on frosty seas, prey to voracious sea monsters. The main action of the poem circles around mortal and bloody combat between the hero, Beowulf, and three formidable monsters, and also around ongoing bloody conflict between nations. The poet interlaces these narratives with songs of past battles, monster fights, and reprisals of the primal murder. Beowulf warns that no act of violence occurs in a vacuum, but it is the consequence of some violent act and will cause future bloodshed. Peace is transitory and can only be established by those most adept at causing violence and spreading terror—like Beowulf, and Hrothgar before him. A nation’s survival in Beowulf requires a leader who can strike terror in his neighbors and subjugate outlying tribes. The poem begins with the genealogy of the Danish royal house, and we quickly learn that Hrothgar, like Scyld before him, enjoyed “the fortunes of war,” finally assembling a “mighty army” (ll. 65–67). Only then could he construct a mead hall where he could dole out treasure and enjoy a respite from the ravages of warfare and slaughter. As a successful, violent warrior like his ancestors before him (Scyld was a “scourge of many tribes” and “a wrecker of mead benches”), Hrothgar has inspired fear in those around him and so is able to enjoy temporary peace. Hrothgar’s very name points to the lust and glory promised by battle (hroth = joy, benefit, glory; gar = spear). The benefit of war, in this case, is the building of Heorot, the mead hall of the Danes. Heorot means “hart,” or stag, probably a reference to the horns that adorned the doorway of the building. However, there is a haunting reference to the name after the attack by Grendel’s mother: the water burns. The mere bottom has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts: the hart in flight from pursuing hounds will turn to face them with firm-set horns and die in the wood rather than dive beneath its surface. That is no good place. (ll. 1,366–1,372) This passage offers one of the many descriptions of a hostile, brutal nature—a nature “red in tooth and claw”—precisely the kind of world walled-out by the construction of Heorot. But we also see the hart—symbol of the Danish nation—beleaguered by ravenous forces and driven to self-destruction. We are told that Heorot is doomed to suffer a “barbarous burning” in the Heathobard feud, despite the marriage of Freawaru and Ingeld. Such is the fate of a kingdom ruled by a king who does not use violence and terrorism as tools. One way to turn violence to political advantage in Beowulfian society is to use women as pawns to broker peace, but such an approach is invariably doomed to failure, as Beowulf indicates after his return to Geatland: “But generally the spear / Is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed / No matter how admirable the bride may be” (ll. 2,029–2,031). Wergild—literally “man-price”—was another way the Anglo-Saxons capitalized on violence, substituting gold in its stead. The threat of revenge afforded some safety in Anglo-Saxon culture, a world where each member of a tribe had a precalibrated worth. If a clan member was killed, his particular man-price must be paid, or a blood feud would go into effect. The 12 winters of Grendel’s anarchic violence, of hall floors “slick with slaughter,” is terrible precisely because the monster does not pay reparations for those he kills. He is violence itself, all claw and mouth, and destroys the order represented by Heorot, grinding and consuming and reducing the human element to gore: “he grabbed a man and mauled him on his bench, / bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood / and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body / utterly lifeless, eaten up / hand and foot” (ll. 740–744). Grendel’s violence erases distinctions and individuality and threatens a system that sprung from violence in the first place. And Beowulf is strikingly like Grendel: He, too, has the strength of 30 in his handgrip; he fights Grendel (and Dayraven) without weapons, and in the death match with Grendel, he breaks bone lappings and dismembers his opponent. He is heroic because he out-monsters Grendel—outdoes him in doing violence. Like Grendel, the dragon is a force of seemingly unstoppable chaos that reduces great halls and human achievement to indistinguishable rubble and ash.
However perverse this night-flying “wyrm” may be, though, it is not unlike the hero of the poem. It guards its treasure in a hall, peacefully, until a cup is stolen, at which time it ventures out for revenge, destroying outlying villages and deterring through terrorism. After Beowulf kills the dragon—this time with the help of Wiglaf—the dying hero predicts a new bout of violent incursions from the Swedes. Beowulf ’s ability to make violence is no longer at hand to help his nation. Like Hrothgar 50 years earlier, Beowulf ’s strength is no longer a match for the brutality of the Anglo-Saxon world. The audience of Beowulf is treated to particularly graphic battle scenes, such as Beowulf ’s description of the death of Ongentheow at the hands of Wulf and Eofor during the battle of Ravenswood (ll. 2,946–2,984). In fact, the human-on-human violence in the poem is as devastating as that wrought by monsters: We are told of Heremod’s and Unferth’s Cain-like kin killing; the perverse Finn episode, where retainers are forced to join with their lord’s slayer, only to have violence reawakened by the laying of a famous sword in Hengest’s lap; the future strife to be visited upon Hrothgar’s children by his nephew, Hrothulf, and so on, on and on.
The violent attack that inevitably comes from the Swedes makes for a somber ending to the poem. Humans are the worst monsters, war and hardship are a way of life, revenge holds groups together, and the only good king is a strong one willing to decimate his neighbors. The specter of wyrd, the Old English word for fate, overshadows Beowulf. Anglo-Saxon wyrd is stern and implacable: Life is transitory, and only the glory that springs from violence and battle can outlast the human bone-house. Tony Perrello