Beowulf

Grendel is dead, Grendel’s mother is dead, and so we come to the end of September, when Beowulf must once again die as well. In his remarkable dotage, easily over seventy years old, he takes on the dragon, “old harrower of the dark” (2270), that has laid waste to the lands of his people, to his own throne room. The great hero, with his strength of thirty men in each hand, successfully kills the dragon. He wins that fight but loses it too, for pierced in the neck by the dragon’s fang, Beowulf “discovered/ deadly poison suppurating inside him” (2713-4), and thus he “well knew his days in the world/ had been lived out to the end” (2726-8).

Beowulf, author–anonymous, translator–the incomparable Seamus Heaney, moves me every single year with greater and greater force. Perhaps one of my greatest privileges as a teacher is getting to reread such powerful literature again and again. That, and learning even more with each reading and with each year’s crop of student essays. Someone always comes through with some shining diamond of a topic I had never considered before: the notion that God and Fate seem like some strange hybrid deity by poem’s end or that the women reviled by the scop in the poem earn disapprobation because they appropriate male power–fighting, killing like the men do.

Recently, Rachel’s essay about sanctuary blew the poem wide open for me again. She noticed that the poem affords no sanctuary. Every haven is invaded–Hrothgar’s magnificent mead-hall, Beowulf’s throne room. Not even the monsters are safe–Beowulf attacks Grendel’s mother in her lair at the bottom of the mere, and the Geats plunder the dragon’s hoard of ancient gold. Rachel concluded that this ultimate insecurity in the world epitomizes like nothing else the worldview of the Anglo-Saxons. That haunting tone of doom, Wyrd, you can hear it humming at a low pitch just below the daring exploits of hero in hall, monster in mere, dragon in den.

The first time I read Beowulf, I had to immediately start over again from the beginning. It would not stick. I could not penetrate its otherness. It seemed so alien, what with armor-clad warriors swimming for five days in the freezing Baltic sea while holding swords or a monster noshing on thirty Spear-Dane at one go. (What does Grendel like to have for breakfast. . . a few Danish.) I went through three readings in a row just to catch the poem by the tail.

But now, it encompasses the world. Beowulf and I have traveled a hard road together. The first year I taught it, indeed, the very first day I taught it, 9/11 occurred. Planes flying into the twin towers, Grendel attacking the largest mead-hall, “a hard grievance” born of “the din” (87-8). The next year, sniper attacks petrified the D.C. area, causing school closings, making fraught the events of daily life–getting gas, buying groceries–as we constantly looked over our shoulder or darted across parking lots. On Back to School Night, I described the poem’s power to speak to us these 1,000 or more years later of the inexplicable evil that comes in the night, the darkness that consumes, defying reason, defying escape. Indeed, John Gardner, writing about his novel Grendel, describes the monster as “irrationality.” Beowulf still speaks the truth to us.

This year, I am struck once again by the great irony of the poem. Beowulf, the apotheosis of warrior culture, brings about its downfall. Mid-poem, he articulates the central value of warrior ethos:

It is always better

to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.

For every one of us, living in this world

means waiting for our end. Let whoever can

win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,

that will be his best and only bulwark. (1384-9).

Beowulf adheres to this philosophy. Indeed, this year, I noticed the poem’s praise for him and others who specifically adhere to the traditions of warrior culture–renown, ring-giving, and the rest. But it becomes clear by the end that tradition has ossified into a perilous stasis. Beowulf follows tradition. He does all that warrior culture demands of him, and doing so kills him. He earns great renown, bulwark against his death, but pride in his renown leads him to his death. The greatest hero protects his people, the Geats, for fifty years, but when the dragon comes, he insists the fight must be his alone, his alone the glory. And so, he dies.

Worse, at his death, he praises God for letting him see the great hoard of dragon’s gold he has won for his people. Gold measures out a warrior’s renown–the greater the gold, the greater the hero. Until this very moment. Beowulf at the pinnacle wins the greatest amount of gold, but his death leaves his people unprotected, and the gold becomes not wealth but temptation. The hordes will soon descend. Beowulf’s overweening pride, his desire for renown–both central values of warrior culture–undo him and undo his people. The great warrior gone, no successor great enough to replace him.  The poem ends as it began, with the solemn funeral of a great king, but this funeral is marked by the haunting cries of a Geat woman: “with hair bound up, she unburdened herself/ of her worst fears, a wild litany/ of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,/ enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,/ slavery and abasement” (3151-5). She sings of the end of the world. The very values that created warrior culture now destroy it. Tradition without change binds one to rocky Fate, the doom of Wyrd.

Beowulf speaks to us of our yearnings: the hero who will come to save us, the renown that will live after us. But it warns us too of the dangers of tradition and the destructive power of heroes caught in tradition.

A masterpiece. And, sadly, time once again to put it away until next year.

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