Sunday, January 23, 2011

Required Work: Beowulf

I am fortunate enough (or stupid enough, depending on how you want to look at it) to be taking Medieval Literature semester. This class will be covering both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For this blog, I will cover Beowulf both this week and next, while Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be covered on February 17th and 24th. I will take the time between these two works and afterwards to cover both the required plays of Shakespeare and the optional plays I chose for my personal M.A. exam list, making it six plays in all. Now, I realize this will only account for 10 of the 16 weeks in the semester, but I am sure I will find other works to fill in the time…it is not like I have a shortage of works to cover.

FYI: The edition of Beowulf pictured at the right is the Norton Critical Edition. It is a modern verse translation by the poet Seamus Heaney, and is the version that is used to the questions on the M.A. exam. I found it incredibly helpful and easy to understand, and it includes plenty of support material that will help with the history of the poem.


Clearly Beowulf is one long poem…an epic poem if you will, so let’s move on…

The story is not structured the way we are used to stories being formatted. The storyline is linear for the most part, but it contains many digressions (for lack of a better word) that move the reader back in time. If anything, the digressions show that this is a retelling of a story that the narrator was not around to witness first-hand (think The Scarlet Letter). The narrator clearly admires the story and the heroic ethos of the culture, but he is also clearly distant from it. The narrator also appears to be a Christian, while the people he is discussing are pagans. In lines 175-183 he discusses the pagan rituals of sacrificing to idols by saying “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.” It is also important to note that narrator is not necessarily the same as the poet (think Huck Finn with Mark Twain).

The story reads like a narrative that is supposed to be written while still being unlike a narrative that is supposed to be written. Since the culture of Beowulf the character was one in which stories were passed along orally, it makes sense that there would be this disconnect.

In actuality, this poem is sui generis – it is of its own genre. No other narrative in English is quite like it. It is often labeled as an epic, which is more of a classic and Greek notion. It is also often put into the subset of a folk epic – the setting is vast and covers great nations. But while Beowulf seems like an epic, it does not play by all of the rules. It is not necessarily an epic, but it has characteristics of an epic. It does, however, participate in the epic or heroic mode.


Beowulf joins the ranks (or rather these works join it) of Pale Fire and Song of Solomon in that it is cyclical: it opens and closes with a funeral. There is a lot of death and killing in this story. There is also a lot of talking, memory work and recollection, although mostly about death and killing. In fact, the corroboration of the death of (spoiler alert!) Grendel appears to be more important than his actual death. There is more talking and remembering than actual death and killing. If this story was all about action, it would be a lot shorter.

This is also a poem concerned with social etiquette. Great anxiety is expressed on the part of the poet about accepted social norms when it comes to the “other.” When Beowulf first arrives, he comes ready with ritualized performances to show that he comes in peace, and it is these rituals that make Beowulf a better outsider than Grendel (of course, Grendel is also killing people, which is generally frowned upon). It is Beowulf’s strength and etiquette that makes him so easily accepted in a strange land, and it is also what is holding his own people together. It is commonly known in Beowulf’s home land that after he is dead, it is only a matter of time before another culture comes in and takes over.

Gift-giving and story telling is part of this societies etiquette, and not only does Grendel not share in any of that, but his appearance disrupts this process and keeps others from participating in an effective community. Gifts are rewards for loyalties and acts of great courage. Songs are also rewards for such things as they will survive after a hero’s death and be sung in perpetuity throughout the universe. It is clear to the guard that Beowulf is the leader because he wears the most gifts (rings and such made of gold) that prove his loyalty and accomplishments. The gift as a reward is the opposite of vengeance as a punishment...which can actually be warded off by giving gold.

Another issue that is brought about in this feeling of anxiety about social norms is the issue of the other. The thief is an other because he is an outcast who attempts to buy his way back into society by stealing a cup from the dragon’s gold instead of challenging the dragon properly, and that is a social no-no as it is the opposite of a courageous act. Grendel is an other because he is a loner who is not (and does not appear to want to be) part of a larger community and interrupts other communities. He is similar to human, but also different from human. And then there is the dragon, which is brought into the story as he responds to what he sees as a wrongdoing done to him when someone steals a gold cup, even though the gold is not really his to begin with. All three of these others are guilty of interrupting the gift-giving and story-telling of another community.

The general sense of anxiety seems ever-present as major heroic events are connected by remembering, but interwoven with regret, anxiety, and the constant state of being under a threat.

There is an interesting tone of regret on the part of the narrator throughout the story. There is something deeply sad about the poem that seems to come from the narrator knowing Christ and the fact that the people he is talking about do not. This makes the story of Beowulf both a great success and a great failure, as he and his entire nation dies without knowing Christ.

And finally, the story deals with the issue of fate. Is it inevitable, or is it all random? In Beowulf, it appears that fate can be forestalled by courage as opposed to knowledge and trying to anticipate events. It is the difference between a decider and a knower. The end may be inevitable, but until it comes, you can decide how you want to live, and maybe even delay it.


It is generally believed that Beowulf was composed between 735 and 1000 A.D. But what can we do with a poem that is hard to date? Anglo-Saxons still had halls and gave gifts, but beyond that, there isn’t much we can do to give this story a more specific timeline.

And I, for one, am completely okay with that. Maybe someday in the future we will know more about when exactly the story of Beowulf was first written down, but until then, I am cool with this being a literary mystery.

Next week will be spent once again on Beowulf, and hopefully we can get more help on the history of this staple of English literature programs.

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