Monday, January 31, 2011

Beowulf: 5 Questions for Discussion

Okay, I know I said we could hopefully get more help on the history of Beowulf this week, but that is not going to happen. It seems as if there is really nothing more we can do with that. There are whole books out there dedicated to attempting to date this epic, but still no one knows anything for sure. So I decided to post some of the questions my instructor brought up in class and discuss the answers here. One of them, and I honestly for the life of me cannot remember which one, was pointed out as the type of question commonly asked on the exam. You would think I would write something like that down, but here we are…

1. Is Grendel’s mother a monster for wishing to avenge her son? Or is she simply doing the same thing as Beowulf, which is an accepted part of his culture?

Short answer: yes with an “if.” Long answer: still yes, but with much more explanation…which I will give here.

Grendel’s mother is seeking vengeance which is appropriate for the culture, but she does not use the proper etiquette and manners when doing it. Much like the thief that steals the cup from the dragon, he doesn’t do the proper thing of challenging the dragon openly and honorably. Grendel’s mother comes in at night when everyone is asleep and kills the King’s favorite servant. Also, she is attempting to be the last word in a problem that her son, the one she is avenging, is responsible for causing. Also, Beowulf and his friends have community, while Grendel and his mother barely have each other (we don’t even see them interacting with each other as when Beowulf goes to their home, Grendel is (presumably) already dead)). They are dangerous because they are outside of the society, without community, without a sense of order, and they act alone. The other women in the story (granted, they are few) attempt to keep the peace – Grendel’s mother is achieving the exact opposite.

2. If Grendel is the objectification of our desire to kill another man, what is the dragon an objectification of?

Maybe the inevitability of the end. The end is going to come anyway (the story mentions that the dragon is “driven” to hunt out underground hoards of gold and guard it, even though it is of no use to him), but the people can make the best of it by doing what you’re supposed to.

The dragon hoards, which is bad, as these societies thrive on gift-giving and the exchange of gold. If these societies hoard their gold, their civilization will end. If the gold doesn’t move, then their story ends and the civilization passes from memory.

While we’re on the subject of inevitability, there is one line from the story that sums up this society’s view on courage and fate: “Often, for undaunted courage, / fate spares the man it has not already marked (Lines 572-573). Chew on that one for awhile…

3. Why is the fame of the Geats not enough to keep the Swedes at bay? Why can’t the gold keep passing? Why hasn’t anyone stepped up to be the new leader after Beowulf?

After Beowulf dies, the society seemingly will fall apart, and they all know it and seem to view it as an inevitable thing that can’t be helped. Wiglaf asserts that once the Swedes hear of Beowulf’s death, they will come over the hill and take over. Beowulf has no heir, and nothing is ever mentioned about him getting one, although it should be a concern. Because of their lack of an appropriate heir, the society has failed.

And a fun note about Old English – it has no future tense. Talk about fatalistic imagination…

4. What cultural work does poetry perform in the story?

The poetry of the story gives honor and veneration to the men of the day. His corroboration is more important than the actual action. The poetry is history, entertainment, bold, assertive, and it is what makes Grendel angry. It is what makes a man into a god and causes his name to be sung throughout eternity. The singer/performer grants the hero the only kind of after life these people would know of. Beowulf itself is a poem about history and a specific moment in history. It is a history, but not a history of a people. It is more about respect for the past then knowledge of it.

5. Is there an ideological battle between Christianity and Paganism being played out here?

There is definitely a tension, but the narrator is almost diplomatic about it. He does not come out and say these people are going to hell, but he seems to make the point that they aren’t necessarily bound for heaven either. He is not condescending or condemnatory. If anything, he is Christianizing a Germanic story.

The question should be rather, what does the narrator or poet think about the past? What exactly does he mean when he mentions “God?” The Christianity we know today is probably not the same Christianity the poet is holding as true. The poet was most likely a cleric, making him a believing baptized Christian of the time, and he saw what the Danes and Geats were doing as different from what he was doing, but that didn’t mean they weren’t still Christian. The poem is a window into a time of no baptism and no redemption, but a powerful realization of deity, fate, and some kind of almighty.

The words “pagan” and “Christian” have a broad spectrum of meaning throughout time. The poet would know more about the depth of his own people, but not the paganism of Beowulf’s time.

I found the discussion on these questions extremely helpful and enlightening. I have read Beowulf at least four times now and I have never felt as informed about it as I do now. Next week, I will move away from Old English and embrace Elizabethan with William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I.

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