Beowulf and History

The only good thing to be said about really rotten times is that they are clarifying. The shock of rising floodwaters returns us to the first, most fundamental things. Set spinning in strong currents, we feel for a foothold and scan the sky for stars to steer by. Luckily, we human beings—uniquely privileged and vulnerable hominids—have long experience with catastrophe. Some old and durable writings may help us to reckon with the ruinous tide.

The only good thing to be said about really rotten times is that they are clarifying. The shock of rising floodwaters returns us to the first, most fundamental things. Set spinning in strong currents, we feel for a foothold and scan the sky for stars to steer by. Luckily, we human beings—uniquely privileged and vulnerable hominids—have long experience with catastrophe. Some old and durable writings may help us to reckon with the ruinous tide.

Take Beowulf, than which few books could be more timely. As J. R. R. Tolkien observed in his landmark essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” written in 1936 when rough beasts were on the prowl, the poem is an elegy more than an epic. Its ancient theme, Tolkien writes, is the general tragedy of human existence: “that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die.” Its mood is antiquarian: pious respect and intense regret for a buried world. Its narrative, hewn and fitted into well-joined Anglo-Saxon verse, is an A-frame, rising and falling with the power and fortune of the eponymous hero and his people, the Geats. Beowulf tells of noble pagan Northmen: great ruling houses and clans of sturdy fighters, all now swept away, with all their spears and shields. Yet that dead way of life, deposited in the flow of ages and sedimented in memory, forms the packed ground—newly covered in his time with green sprouts of Christian hope—on which the poet stands, and into which he casts his spade. Beowulf is positively geologic.

Especially in Seamus Heaney’s fresh and powerful translation (W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, from which I quote), Beowulf conveys an overwhelming impression of weight and density, of compactness. This is the effect of a great accumulation of essential human experience, shaped into poetry that is as much law as song. (The Greek word nomos means both.) It’s as though centuries of struggle and suffering to defend an ordered common life against surges of chaos and violence have solidified into concrete words replete with unfathomed meanings. The poet’s muse—the Muse, queen of them all, and older by far than the Christian God—is Mnemosyne: Memory. He repays his debts with dug-up treasure: the hard currency of the past, deeply felt and imagined.

And hard it is. Beowulf sounds gloom and doom with the eagerness of wrought iron plunging into heaving surf. Heorot, the great mead hall built by Hrothgar, king of the Shieldings, is a place of light, warmth, fellowship, and cheery decorum: libation-pouring and gift-giving. A splendid microcosm of civilized existence, Heorot “stands at the horizon, on its high ground,” a Nordic city on the hill “meant to be a wonder of the world forever.” But outside the wallstead is nasty weather: gray seas and sucking bogs, slouching monsters and keening women—the world of Cain, as the poet sees it. Disaster is a foregone conclusion. We are told barely eighty lines in that Heorot awaits “a barbarous burning . . . the killer instinct/ unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.” And at poem’s end, after Beowulf, abandoned by the Geats and poisoned by a dragon, has died, a grieving woman unleashes “a wild litany/ of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,/ enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,/ slavery and abasement.”

 

 
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