Beowulf, suffering servant

“Thus Beowulf showed himself brave, a man known in battles, of good deeds, bore himself according to discretion. Drunk, he slew no hearth-companions.”

I re-read Beowulf over the weekend, in response to our discussion about the movie trailer for the upcoming film.

My conclusion is that I enjoyed it, and I’m reasonably certain that no movie based on the poem (I believe yet another is in the works after this one) will get to the heart of the thing.

Beowulf is often described as a heathen tale overlaid with a thin veneer of Christianity (it’s a Dark Age story, probably based on events that happened [if they happened] in Denmark and Sweden sometime around 500 AD. But the poem as we have it was clearly re-worked by Christian scribes, based on an oral original). And that’s essentially true.

Nevertheless, I think I may understand why monks would have considered it worth preserving. Because they understood the poem in a way that moviemakers today never will. They understood that Beowulf’s actions are not based only on personal pride, on showing off, on “macho.” They are based, at bottom, on sacrifice.

It has often been noted how boastful Beowulf is, and how there is no hint of humility or reserve in his account of his great deeds at Hrothgar’s feast.

But the editor of the edition I read (an adaptation of F. Klaeber’s translation, in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature) notes, “…his boast becomes a vow; the hero has put himself in a position from which he cannot withdraw.”

When you’re living in terror, when you’re afraid that not only your prosperity but your very life and the lives of your children will soon be lost, there’s nothing you want more than somebody big and strong and competent who’ll swagger in and say, “Trolls? I eat trolls for breakfast! I’ll moider da bum.”

You can sense Hrothgar’s blood pressure dropping as he listens to Beowulf’s self-promotion.

For all his braggadocio, there really isn’t much in the whole business for Beowulf personally. He risks his life with Grendel, then has to repeat the performance with Grendel’s mother. He receives honor and gifts, which are nice, but he almost always fights alone. His is essentially a lonely fate.

There’s an elegiac quality to the poem, too. If Beowulf ever married or had children, we aren’t told of it. After he becomes the king of his own people, the Geats, he rules successfully, but essentially leaves nothing behind, not even an heir. It’s hinted plainly that his people will be conquered and driven from their homes after his death. This, I suspect, is why the poem ended up in England. It probably crossed the sea with the refugees.

So Beowulf is essentially the story of a warrior who gives up his own life for his people, and for his allies. His is the story of every soldier, even in our own time, to a lesser or greater degree. In return for the sense of duty fulfilled, and fleeting glory, they give up their very lives. They become servants, and their pay is never enough.

9 thoughts on “Beowulf, suffering servant”

  1. According to Tolkien (and I’ll probably get murdered for this horribly abridged summary) Beowulf is essentailly an allegory of the struggle of a pagan man against evil; a struggle that is essentially human, essentially good, and essentially doomed. (Although one could argue that the focus on the Old Testament in Beowulf presents him more as a David waiting for Christ’s sacrifice than a barbarian separate forever from Christianity.)

    One of the early kings to convert to Christianity in England described his previous pagan philosophy: Life is like a sparrow who flies from darkness and despair into a bright mead-hall, and then with his death flies out the other side and once again is in the darkness.

    But Beowulf is long, and means many things. That’s why we read it.

  2. I like that.

    By the way, the wonderful image of the sparrow is related to what we believe was standard Dark Age architecture. Living history archaeologists have discovered that the best way to keep a hall with an open hearth from completely filling with smoke is to leave a triangular opening at the top of each end-gable. This permits a cross-draft to carry the smoke away. Birds were always flying in and out.

  3. You're welcome. I posted my message because I was struck by your reference to "Beowulf . . . as a David waiting for Christ's sacrifice," a point coherent with my own argument.

    By the way, I came here by following a link from Unlocked Wordhoard.

    Jeffery Hodges

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