Part 1 of 3.
I’m not alone in the belief that the epic poem “Beowulf” is among the greatest legends ever written in the English language. Many are the giants of English literature who have dissected it to unravel its secrets, not least among them being J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works of fiction were heavily inspired by the Beowulf saga. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and an expert on the topic of epic literature, and he’s largely credited with popularizing the legend of Beowulf, which many scholars previously regarded as being little more than a childish monster story.
This section is the first of a three-part series that gives an overview of the narrative, some critical background information, and an analysis of the lessons we can learn by studying Beowulf through the lens of masculine psychology. In the third part of this series, I delve deeper into the intimidating mere of the myth that many consider to be England’s National Epic by interpreting the themes and devices that make this thousand-year-old myth relevant to the modern man.
But before we dig into the myth itself, we must do our homework and learn a bit of history. The story’s set in approximately the 5th to 8th century C.E. All the events in the tale occur in Scandinavia, but it’s not a Scandinavian myth. It was passed down orally by skalds (storytellers) until it was finally committed to parchment by two different Christian monks around 1000 C.E in the Anglo-Saxon lands of what is now known as England. The Anglo-Saxons were a diverse collective of several Germanic tribes who had migrated to Britain from their homelands in Northern Europe due to overpopulation and a changing climate which rendered the lands of their ancestors inhospitable. Beowulf’s story is thus the product of immigrants looking back into their past to reminisce about their ancestral homelands. It’s not hard to imagine such a people’s mindset and understand how their nostalgic fondness for history was reflected in their songs and stories. As far as we know, there was only ever one single version of the tale which had ever been written down. This parchment eventually found itself in the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton at the ironically named Ashburnham House, which caught fire and burned down in 1731. During that event, the Beowulf manuscript was damaged, and much of its contents were lost or rendered unreadable. But luckily for us, it survived in sufficiently good condition for us to study and interpret the poem.
There are many ways to interpret the poem:
As a purely pagan legend, passed down through word of mouth by illiterate storytellers until a Christian scribe later wrote it down. This scribe was probably a monk who added some Christian references to promote the Christian faith, which had become predominant throughout Europe and displaced native European religions.
As the work of a Christian scribe, probably a monk, who inserted some Germanic pagan references into the tale to establish its setting as sometime in the heroic past, and also to bridge or perhaps contrast the new Christian faith with the old Germanic Pagan beliefs.
As the work of a scribe who was neither entirely pagan nor Christian, but rather a man who bridged the divide between the two worldviews. Perhaps he was a convert to Christianity or someone whose forebears had been Pagan and who traced the line of his people back into the days of Germanic tribes.
I think that the author was a probably Christian man who deliberately set the story against the backdrop of the Germanic Heroic Age to make it more authentic and appealing. It’s clear from the text that the author was, in fact, sympathetic to the pagan characters in the tale, especially Beowulf, even though many of his fellow Christians at that time would have written them off as being unworthy heathen savages who were condemned to everlasting torment in the belly of their God’s Hell.
To add to our ignorance, we can’t be confident that the story as it’s presented to us by the scribe is, in fact, the way that it was given to the scribe himself. It may be that the tale of Beowulf was to some degree well known among the people of that time, and the scribe merely had to commit the story to paper. However, it may also be that what we call “Beowulf” is, in fact, a collection of legends and fairy-tales which have been fused together into one single narrative revolving around one single hero.
But regardless of the author’s religious preference, it’s significant that the God of the Christians, Christ himself, is never mentioned in the narrative. The only references to biblical scripture are to the Old Testament. The characters of the poem are all Germanic Pagans, as far as we can tell. Even Beowulf, whose speeches make him appear to be the most Christian of the characters, is never confirmed as being so. He often refers to a God or a Lord of all men, but his description of this God is such that Beowulf’s God is identical with the Germanic idea of “Wyrd,” or what we might call “Fate.” Hrothgar comes closest to Monotheism in his speeches but is never stated to be a Christian outright. It wouldn’t make sense for a poem set in 6th century Sweden and Denmark to contain warrior heroes who were anything other than Pagan, as the Christianization of these lands wouldn’t occur until centuries later. It’s clear from the tone of the poem that the author was casting his net back into antiquity in the hopes of conveying some sense of the old Germanic way of life while also trying to remain faithful to the new expansive Christian worldview.
On the topic of language, the Beowulf manuscript was written in the English language, but it would be utterly unreadable for an English-speaker of today. The language is Old English or Anglo-Saxon, which was the primary language of the English peoples circa 1000 C.E. Old English is a cocktail of many Germanic dialects which fused together on the multicultural British mainland and eventually evolved into Modern English as it’s spoken today. The question of language is vital because the only surviving (heavily damaged) manuscript which recounts the story is written in a language that’s incredibly difficult to interpret with any degree of certainty. This means that our knowledge of Beowulf’s deeds, lineage, age, abilities, companions, rule, religion, and degree of historicity is patchy and open to many different interpretations. When dealing with what has been called the “English National Epic,” we must tread carefully, for few things are certain, and the events of the tale are shrouded in a mystery that’s over 1000 years old.
The saga of Beowulf begins with the building of a great Hall in Denmark, commissioned by the Danish King Hrothgar, who is (allegedly) a descendant of the legendary Scyld Scefing. Scyld was a Moses-like character who floated down a river one day as an infant, grew up to be a great warlord, slaughtered all of his people’s enemies
, and passed away in mysterious circumstances. Hrothgar is thus a member of a semi-mythical line of Danish Kings. After coming into power himself, he too experienced great fortune and earned renown as a powerful warlord and a generous King. He is hailed as a “ring-giver,” one who distributes golden rings and ornaments to his subjects so that they might share in the spoils of his reign. This was the model of kingship in the mind of the Anglo-Saxons. They regarded a generous lord as a good lord, and a selfish and mean lord unworthy of their allegiance. Hrothgar was, we are told, “a good king.” He shared his wealth with his people and handed out many gifts. Later he decided to honor himself by building a decadent mead-hall, ornamented with gold and furnished with the highest standards of craftsmanship. He named his hall “Heorot,” and many a merry feast was held within its high walls.
But those who made merry within the walls of Heorot gave little thought to those who dwelt without. One night, the sound of revelry and song carried across the moors and reached the ears of an outsider, one who was not welcomed amongst the dwellings of Danes. Grendel was his name, and some say that Grendel was a huge and malevolent demon, a descendant of Cain who committed the first murder against his own brother, for which his line was cursed. Others say that Grendel was merely a man (though a very strong one) and that he was, for reasons unknown, outcast from Hrothgar’s realm and forced to make his home in the wild, away from human civilization. Whatever the case may be, he was an “Other,” an outsider who lived beyond the walls of the Danish polis and harbored a spiteful grudge against those who made merry inside the hall.
Grendel entered Heorot one night as the Danes lay asleep inside. He grabbed thirty men and placed them in a huge sack. He took the men home to his miserable lair outside of the settlement and presumably had a rather large and gruesome feast. The following night, he struck again and slaughtered more Danes in Heorot, and every night after that, Grendel made the hall his own. It wasn’t long before people began to avoid the hall altogether for fear of the beast. King Hrothgar had to find somewhere else to sleep as he could only rule in Heorot by daylight. For twelve long years, the Danes suffered the incursion of Grendel, the outsider, inside their sacred hall, and the King was powerless to stop him.
But, as is the way of things, word of Grendel’s atrocities spread far across the land and seas until it reached the tribe of Geats in southern Sweden. One of the young Geatish warriors saw in the Dane’s struggle the opportunity to earn great glory and wealth. Beowulf was his name, and it’s said that he possessed the strength of thirty men. At this time, Beowulf was in need of glory, as his elders regarded him as a bit dim-witted and worthless. Though he was the strongest of men, he hadn’t yet proven himself or earned the honor of his peers. So, with fourteen companions, he sailed over the sea to Denmark. A watchman stood guard on the beach upon which Beowulf and his men landed their ship. From a high distant position, the Danish Coastwarden spied a longship full of foreign warriors clad in gleaming war gear. Outnumbered fourteen to one, he took up his spear, mounted his horse, and rode out to question the strange men who so boldly came uninvited to his homeland, dressed for battle. He challenged them sternly and questioned their motives, but he believed Beowulf when he claimed to have landed intending to aid the Danes in their plight with the demon, Grendel. After demonstrating his lineage, worth, and intent several times to doubtful retainers and courtiers, Beowulf found himself stood before Hrothgar, King of the Danes by daylight.
This is where Beowulf revealed himself as a man of worth, a man who backs up his many fine words with deeds of valor. Beowulf greeted Hrothgar in a courtly fashion before introducing himself as the son of Ecgtheow, who owed Hrothgar an outstanding debt since his youth, a debt that Beowulf came to repay on his dead father’s behalf. What follows in the tale is a sequence of events that make up a “Flyting.” Beowulf made a series of boasts concerning his skills as a monster slayer and destroyer of giants, the right man for the task of fighting Grendel. But there was a man in Hrothgar’s court who doubted Beowulf, whose job was to challenge him. Unferth acts as the Thyle in the Danish hall. It was the responsibility of the Thyle in Germanic societies to ascertain whether the men who make extraordinary claims in his lord’s presence could prove true on those claims. Unferth greeted Beowulf in a friendly manner at first, but he quickly turned to insult and question the truth of Beowulf’s boasts.
Unferth called Beowulf’s abilities into question and attempted to publicly disgrace and shame him in front of the Danish King. But his wits were easily bested by Beowulf, who was a master of words. Unferth was revealed to be a kinslayer, like the Biblical Cain, having killed his brother with his ancestral sword. To slay one’s kin, one’s own blood, is the greatest shame a Germanic warrior might bear. But Beowulf didn’t stop at merely shaming Unferth. He publically doubted the masculinity of all living Danish men who hid from Grendel instead of facing the demon like true men. Usually, this kind of insult would earn a foreign warrior death at the hands of his host’s warband, but Hrothgar was no fool and could see the truth in Beowulf’s words. So he gave Beowulf his hall for the night while he sneaked away with the womenfolk to sleep in safer dwellings.
Later, in the dark of night, Grendel came. Smashing the heavy doors of the hall with ease, he snatched the sleeping body of Hondscio, who slept near the door, and chewed him up like grizzled meat in front of his companions. Beowulf studied Grendel, sizing him up as his friend Hodscio was eaten alive. Then he cast aside his weapons and armor. Trusting only in his own strength, he grabbed hold of Grendel’s great arm with his bare hands. At that moment, Grendel felt a terror that he’d never known before. With the strength of thirty men, Beowulf had such a hold of the monster that he couldn’t shake loose from his grip. They wrestled in such a fury that the entire hall was broken and barely left standing.
Eventually, Grendel decided to flee. But still, the Geatish warrior had a grip on his arm and would not relent. Beowulf had seized his chance for eternal glory, and he would die sooner than he let it escape his grasp. The monster’s shoulder joint gave way first, then his sinews and flesh. Beowulf tore Grendel’s arm from his still-living body, and the monster’s blood blackened the stones of Heorot. Now missing one arm, he fled back through the door into the black night to his den in the marshes, where he lay down and gave up his miserable life.
In the morning, the King awoke to witness the severed arm of Grendel hanging from the roof of his hall. The Danes rejoiced that their curse was lifted. The court poet composed songs in Beowulf’s honor, and Hrothgar gifted him with vast amounts of wealth, even going so far as to adopt hi
m as a son (even though he already had sons, as his wife gently reminded him). Even Unferth was a bit more friendly to the Geats, and he gives Beowulf his ancestral sword, named Hrunting. Presumably, this was the sword that Unferth used to kill his brother, and as such, it was a cursed kinslaying blade that any man would be sensible to get rid of. As the feast raged on, the Danes became worried that Beowulf’s band of drunken Geatish warriors might decide that they liked Danish mead a little too much and usurp the throne by force. But, spurred on by Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s wife, the Geats proclaimed that they would leave the following day. Then everyone passed out drunk and crawled off to some bed or bench.
But when morning came, Beowulf and his men didn’t leave, for the rising sun revealed that his work was not yet complete. In the deep darkness of the night, another demon had crept into the hall, which housed the sleeping Danish men. Grendel’s mother (even monsters must have mothers), maddened with grief at her son’s murder, seized up one of King Hrothgar’s most trusted friends and dragged him away to her den. As we might expect from an aged old king who had been bent by age and weakness, Hrothgar’s grief was profound. He summons Beowulf and reveals not only that there was a second monster assaulting the hall, but surprisingly, that he also knew about Grendel’s mother’s existence and that he would lead Beowulf to her lair. Well, Beowulf didn’t care if he had to double his glory by slaying a second foe, so he agreed to meet Hrothgar’s challenge. But first, he told the aged King to get a grip of himself:
“Grieve not. Better is it for a man to avenge his friends rather than to lament overmuch. To each of us comes the end of life, but let him who can earn glory before his death.”
Wise words, and as is usual with Beowulf, he followed swiftly with action. The Danes led the party of Geats to the monster’s cave. In the cave was a deep pool filled with serpents and sea dragons. Beowulf kept his armor on this time and his helmet too. At his hip, he carried Hrunting the kinslaying blade which Unferth gifted him after the slaying of Grendel. After the customary boast, down he dived into the deep mere. Here we find more evidence of Beowulf’s superhuman ability. He seemed to breathe underwater as well as he did on land. Down to the murky depths of the pool, he delved and wrestled with Grendel’s mother in a cavern. She slashed at him with her claws and stabbed him with some cursed dagger, but his armor protected him. Hrunting, the sword of Unferth the kinslayer, failed Beowulf then when he needed it most. As he struck at the monster with the blade, it did no damage, and the hero’s sword failed him, not for the last time.
It should be noted that the sea-hag is descended from Cain, the kinslayer. It’s possible that a kinslaying weapon would make no wound upon those who bore the curse of kinslaying on their souls, but this is mere speculation on my part.
He grappled with her then in the same manner as he grappled with her son Grendel. She proved to be an equal match for Beowulf’s strength, and he almost met his end in the sea hag’s den. But then he spied in the cave a massive sword, engraved with runes of victory. It was no mere human weapon but the work of ancient giants. Grasping the blade with two hands, he struck the monster on the neck and beheaded her. As he composed himself after his fiercest battle to date, he stumbled upon the body of Grendel. The Geatish hero tended to take trophies after his victories, and so he severed Grendel’s head with the giant’s blade. However, for some reason, he didn’t take a trophy from Grendel’s mother. This is strange, considering he already had a trophy from Grendel in the form of his arm hanging from the roof of Heorot.
When Beowulf eventually swam back out of the mere and returned to shore, his comrades were greatly relieved to see him. The Danes had long since given him up for dead and returned to Heorot, but the Geats remained loyal to him and awaited his return. It took four men to carry Grendel’s head back to the hall, so great was its size. The Geats arrived back at the settlement to find the ignoble Danes feasting and drinking, as usual. Hrothgar then delivered a famous and long-winded sermon to Beowulf on the dangers of a man allowing his pride to blind him to the harsh truth of reality. He saw in Beowulf a man who would go on to achieve greatness beyond imagination and warned him to stay true to himself and his people. Using the example of his own rise to greatness and fall into degeneracy and frailty, Hrothgar implored Beowulf to remember that he would one day have to repay the gods for the good fortune they bestowed on him:
“Now for a while thy valour is in flower. But soon it will be that sickness or a sword or the fire’s touch or the water’s embrace or the shaft of spear or even dreadful old age will rob thee of thy might. Or the fire in thine eyes will fail and fade. One day it will be that thee, proud warrior, shall be by death laid low.”
In typical Danish fashion, what followed was more feasting and gift-giving and speech making to commemorate the foreign heroes and their captain’s glorious deeds. When the dawn came, the Geats packed up and prepared to return home. Hrothgar pledged to end the long-standing feud between the Geats and the Danes and swore an alliance between the two peoples because of Beowulf’s heroism. The watchman on the shore once again greeted the Geatish warband, but this time in a much friendlier manner. Before boarding his boat, Beowulf gifted a fine sword to the watchman as a gift. I think the sword that he gave away was Unferth’s blade, Hrunting, which was used in the act of kinslaying and which also failed Beowulf during his combat with the sea-hag. What man would wish to keep such an accursed blade? Upon returning to Geatland over the sea, he met King Hygelac and his wife, Hygd. Hygelac, who was secure in his house and chiefest among his champions, is thus contrasted with Hrothgar, who had to flee his own hall each night before the coming of Grendel. Beowulf formally addressed his lord and very modestly recounted the tales of his adventure. Though he had seen much of the hasty and drunken Danes and their feeble King, he didn’t criticize them to Hygelac. It’s better not to speak ill of one’s new allies. In a show of Germanic loyalty, Beowulf gifted most of his acquired treasure and wealth to Hygelac, keeping little of it for himself. Hygelac, being a good King, would be expected to distribute the wealth that Beowulf has brought home to his subjects justly and generously. This was the Germanic code. The warrior owed allegiance and tribute to his lord and King, whose duty was to give gifts and improve the fortunes of his loyal subjects. That, to the mind of the Anglo-Saxon, was a good King.
Before he left for Denmark to hunt Grendel, Beowulf was regarded as unworthy by the men of his tribe. He ate and drank his mead at the back of the mead hall, amongst those who had not disti
nguished themselves. He was thought to be a sluggard, lazy, clumsy, and lacked the respect of his companions. But by his own hand and courage, Beowulf returned to his people as a champion and a hero. He forever altered his fate by setting sail in search of glory while others stayed at home. Hygelac, good King that he was, gifted Beowulf with a fine hall on a vast tract of land. From a penniless wastrel to a landowning nobleman in the space of a few days, a man might gain much by venturing forth resolved to win or die.
This point in our tale marks a significant transition. We have seen young Beowulf, the superhuman warrior who had not yet earned any fame, venture out into the world in search of adventure. He triumphed and earned himself a place at the table with his King. But this was not the end of the tale of Beowulf. The poem continues to recount the battles and glories that the Geatish hero would achieve in old age, which will be covered in the other essays in this three-part series.
From words to deeds and from youth to age, this is a tale of balance. Hrothgar’s warning to Beowulf was to pay attention to the cyclical nature of life and fortune.
Fortune is a great wheel upon which every man sits. The wheel spins, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. Often a man seems to rise to the top of fortune’s wheel and win some glory or prize like the young Geatish hero in our story. But always the wheel turns, and the man who today is at the top will tomorrow be down at the lowest point of the cycle, in the mud and filth. There he will either fall away into obscurity or ride the wheel to the top again and witness new victories.
Part 2 of 3.
Fifty winters have passed since the young monster-slayer Beowulf and his companions returned home from the land of the Danes. This is a significant leap in time, and when we resume the telling of Beowulf’s tale, we learn that much has happened of which we’ve not been told. In the space of a few lines, we’re informed that King Hygelac and his son have long since died in their wars against neighboring other tribes, and the lordship over the Geats has fallen into the hands of Beowulf, slayer of demons. He has ruled well for fifty years until one night a runaway slave, fleeing from the whips of his masters, discovers some “pagan treasure” in a barrow on the heath and absconds with a golden goblet from the vast hoard. But men do not often molest stockpiles of treasure in the wilds without incurring the wrath of some vengeful guardian. Not in the old tales they don’t.
Long ago, three hundred winters before the slave steals his goblet in Beowulf’s time, some nameless hero stockpiled the treasure after his people had all gone down the Helroad into death. Sealing the treasure away in the earth where it would do no good to men, he lay down on the pile of gold and precious gems and gave his life up to the shades of the dead. But to amass such vast stores of currency is to invite creatures of greed and avarice to take up residence. A dragon, crawling through the night upon his belly, discovered the man’s treasure and sat himself down to sleep within the barrow, and grew to great size in his long slumber.
Now in the time of Beowulf’s kingship, the dragon still sleeps atop the hoard, and upon discovering that he’s been burgled, he gives in to his draconic rage. In the black of night, the serpent leaves his barrow and burns all of the human dwellings he encounters. This fiend is not like Grendel, who was content to occupy the halls of his foes, nor is he like Grendel’s Mother, who sought only revenge for her son in the price of blood. This dragon is resolved not only to kill men, who have disturbed his wealth, but to destroy everything they have built. Upon leaving his trail of fiery destruction behind, he retreats behind the walls of his barrow, where he feels safe.
King Beowulf, now an old man, is told that the dragon has left his people in desolation and has burned his own royal hall to ash. The mighty king gives in to grief upon hearing this and loses himself in dark thoughts, much as old King Hrothgar did in the years of his decline. But Beowulf has learned many lessons from Hrothgar, and he resolves to face this demon as he has faced others before. He commands his blacksmith to fashion a large, heavy iron shield to protect him from the dragon’s flame. Beowulf may be old, but he is still strong, and he trusts his strength as much as he has ever done. He gathers together eleven companions plus the slave who found the hoard as a guide, and they all set out to seek the dragon’s lair. The party of thirteen men makes their way through the wilds beyond the walls of their community. As they stand outside the ancient walls of the barrow, Beowulf grows melancholic as he bids farewell to his people, knowing full well that it’s his time to die. A man who faces a dragon cannot hope to escape the contest with his life intact, though he may gain the victory.
Thinking of Hrothgar and Hygelac, he recalls the many tribal feuds and petty raids which have followed the death of kings in the past and foreshadows that such shall be the case when his enemies hear of his own passing. But he is nonetheless resolved to do battle with the serpent alone, as he battled the monsters of his youth alone, and he forbids his men from coming to his aid in the fight. Making his customary boast not to yield to his foe, he proclaims his trust in his strength, his courage, and his “wyrd” or destiny.
Calling out challenges to the beast, the aged warrior strides valiantly into the barrow. He wakes the sleeping dragon and soon feels the biting sting of its flames. He’s protected from the inferno for a time by his heavy shield, and he stabs at the serpent with his sword. Once again, we see how blades seem to fail Beowulf as the dragon remains unharmed. The battle continues as the flames grow more intense, and Beowulf is hard-pressed.
Outside of the barrow, the Geatish warriors who had accompanied Beowulf have fled into a nearby wood out of terror of the beast. Only one of them desires to fight at Beowulf’s side and aid him in his task. Wiglaf, a young cousin of Beowulf, who has never been tested in combat, upbraids the cowardly thanes who would leave their valiant king to burn in dragon-fire. He recalls aloud the many favors and gifts Beowulf has paid them in the past and shames the other warriors for their weakness and impotence. Rushing into the flames, Wiglaf encourages his king to fight hard and gain the ultimate honor. Beowulf takes heart when he sees this young man, the next generation of Geatish nobility, disdaining danger and playing the manly part. Grasping hold of the great iron shield, Wiglaf covers both men as Beowulf strikes once more at the dragon with his sword. But Beowulf is, in fact, too strong for swords, as his ancient weapon, Naegling, shatters in his hands. Wiglaf plunges his own blade into the throat of the beast and quenches his deadly flames. The dragon then seizes Beowulf about the neck in its fierce jaws and poisons his blood with its venom. Undaunted, the mighty king, renowned slayer of monsters, draws forth his dagger and guts the fire-serpent from his naval upwards, until at last it lies down defeated.
Beowulf’s wound from the dragon’s bite quickly begins to burn and swell so that both men know the hour of his death is at hand. He sits himself down beside the barrow and commands Wiglaf to bring as much of the treasure before him as he can manage to savor the sight of the vast wealth that he’s gained for the good of his people. Lamenting that he has no heir to bequeath the treasure and the throne to, he gives it instead to all of his tribe so that they may benefit from his death. He orders Wiglaf to gather men who have been tried in warfare to build a grand mound on a headland overlooking the sea and to lay his body to be burned on the hill in the heathen custom of old. He gives his armor and golden torc to his young cousin as a sign that he should inherit the throne and rule now as the new king. The last of his house, Beowulf gives up his life and walks the dark road down into death.
Wiglaf grieves at the side of his fallen lord and hero, a man whom all men revered. No wars were waged against the Geats during the kingship of Beowulf. No enemy raided his lands or attacked his ships. Such was the fame of his deeds and his esteem in the eyes of his neighbors. Now the kingdom lies in the hands of Wiglaf, who is young and barely experienced in war and justice. When the last of the dragon’s flames burn low, the other warriors, cowards and laggards all, slither into the barrow and behold the lifeless body of their king. Having broken their vows to fight for him because their hearts gave in to fear, they move in shame like men without purpose. Seeing them thus, Wiglaf, now their king, scolds them as useless wastrels and hangers-on at their lord’s feasts. He strips them of all land, titles, and wealth that had been previously granted to them by Beowulf and orders them to begin work on the great barrow wherein they would lay their fallen hero’s remains.
Beowulf’s people are summoned to attend the burning of the great king’s body. Bitter of heart and forlorn with grief, Wiglaf nonetheless retains his senses enough to realize the dire peril that his people now find themselves in. Bereft of the unbreakable might of Beowulf, who was feared and loved by all, there exists now a power vacuum that other kings will attempt to fill. War will come to the Geatish lands when neighboring tribes learn of their warriors’ weakness. Other people will covet the significant hoard of wealth that they now possess. Having gone so long without a war in which to hone their manhood, the Geatish warriors have proven themselves to be cowardly and unwilling to fight. Wiglaf correctly recognizes that the history of the once proud Geats is coming to an end. He addresses his people and assembles a party to begin Beowulf’s funeral. First, they cast the dragon’s body over the cliff’s edge, into the endless sea. Next, they prepare a great pyre and lay thereon the body of their king.
But unusually, Wiglaf is not so enamored of the cursed hoard as others have been upon beholding its golden beauty. For Wiglaf has seen the doom that awaits his people and knows that their civilization will not live long enough to enjoy the prosperity that the wealth might bring. So just as it was once before, the treasure is buried in the earth, inside Beowulf’s Barrow, as useless now as it ever has been. None shall profit from the sacrifice of Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow. Wiglaf regrets that the old king ever went to face the dragon. He thinks that by letting the serpent sleep in its den, this doom could have been avoided. But he’s young and idealistic, and he underestimates the destructive effect of tolerating a dragon in a society. Now the men begin to grieve at their loss, and with gloom in their hearts, they carry out the customary funeral rites. Beowulf is remembered of all the kings of men as the most gracious, most generous lord. The kindest to his people and the keenest for fame and glory. As the flames rise and burn Beowulf’s remains, so too rises the lament of some unnamed woman, possibly the Geatish Queen Hygd. As she sings a mournful song foretelling dark days to come, the heavens look on indifferent and swallow the smoke.
So ends the tale of Beowulf and also the Golden Age of the Geats as a whole. For the people of the Geats did not merely exist in legend alone, but rather they were a historical Scandinavian tribe who are well documented and who would later go on to be instrumental in the formation of the land known as Sweden today.
In many ways, it is only right and fitting for Beowulf to be slain by a dragon. Had he lived, he would have eventually grown old and frail, and the Swedes on his borders would have taken advantage of his weakness. Had they invaded, Beowulf, never one to back out of a fight, would no doubt have donned his armor once more and challenged the enemy chieftain to single combat. He may possibly have won, but sooner or later, as Hrothgar predicted all those winters past, fire or a weapon or hideous old age would steal the light from his eyes and send him into a sleep from which he would never wake. But instead of that ignoble fate, he chooses to go down in glory to meet a death that can never be rivaled. For a man such as he, no enemy was more suitable to fall to than the dragon. It was the slaying of monsters that won Beowulf his fame in youth, but those monsters were not so far removed from humans. Our hero triumphed over them with ease, but he is hard-pressed in his battle with the primordial force that is the dragon. Dragons in all forms in the myths are not mere monsters. They are forces of nature and symbolic of the wild, destructive indifference of the world. No man can avoid his death when he wages war on the forces of nature, not even a great king.
The story of Beowulf is no mere folk-tale or legend or euhemerization, though it bears similarities to all of these things. It stands above these lesser forms of allegorical wisdom and touches on universal truths. I’ve often found it challenging to penetrate the shell of this myth because of the many difficulties it presents, but once you manage to get into the meat of the tale, you find yourself swimming upon an open sea of pure human insight and understanding. As in all good seas, there are monsters to be found there, but also glory, honor, power, wisdom, demons to slay, kingdoms to win, women to wed, and mighty heroic deaths to die.
These are the tales that tell us what it is to be human, regardless of what age you’ve been born into. I have not yet presented much mythic interpretation for this tale, as I’ve dedicated these first two articles to a simple retelling in my own words. But the final part of this series will be devoted entirely to the enlightenment that I’ve gained by studying this myth.
Part 3 of 3.
So far, this series has only summarized the events of the Beowulf narrative without actually delving too deep beyond the surface material. But what follows is an analysis of the main themes of this tale according to my interpretation. Many who are more learned than I in such matters have taken apart this piece of literature to extract the wisdom contained therein, and I’m in their debt for the aid their works have given me in my attempt. By no means is the account I’ve offered thus far to be considered exhaustive or complete. In the name of brevity and readability, I’ve neglected to mention many significant events that occur in the poem, such as the Finnsburg Episode and the tales of historical kings and warriors who make an appearance only in passing mention. Though I haven’t mentioned such accounts here, they’re not to be considered irrelevant or unworthy of interest. I’ve chosen to deal only with what I believe to be the main themes of the tale and interpreted them as best I’m able given my admittedly modest study of this work. We’ll begin our exploration of what this poem might actually have to teach us as J.R.R. Tolkien once did, by stressing the importance of:
The monsters in “Beowulf” are not to be taken as literal monsters slain by a literal hero. “Beowulf” is not a piece of history or a mere monster-tale. It’s a myth, and we must remember that myths, legends, fairy stories, folklore, and old-wives tales often have a secret to reveal or some bit of wisdom to share. For a long time, before we had easy access to schools, books, and educational videos to show our children, we had to rely on stories to teach the young. Our ancestors educated their children by passing down cautionary tales and myths infused with the collective understanding of the human race. That is why these old stories like Beowulf have survived for so long. They speak to us on a level that we can relate to and serve as a roadmap for navigating the world within which we find ourselves. When you begin to study the old stories as imaginative allegory rather than episodes of shallow entertainment, you start to grasp that there is great wisdom to be found in the myths and that they are trying to tell you something important. Something older generations wanted you to remember.
Many scholars of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature have criticized this particular story because it places the monsters and the hero at the forefront of events, while the serious business of noble dynasties and political intrigues and tribal dynamics are left in the background. But Tolkien argued that the monsters are precisely where they’re supposed to be because they give this tale substance and relevance. Tolkien didn’t look at this story historically, but rather he looked at it psychologically and mythically. Think of the Beowulf monsters not merely as fairy-tale villains but as archetypes of what we collectively consider to be monstrous behavior. The monsters in the story serve as a warning to those at risk of becoming monstrous themselves, just as our hero Beowulf serves as the archetype we should emulate if we hope to become heroic.
But when considering the monsters, it’s essential to remember that Beowulf is a product of the mythology of Northern Europe, from the cultures of the Germanic and Norse peoples. In that body of Mythos, the monsters ultimately gain the final victory. The Northern mindset (that of the Germanic, Norse, and Celtic peoples) understood that all things have an ending. Things that are good and beautiful and worthy will ultimately fall away into decay in the same manner as we ourselves will. The idea that nothing lasts forever is reflected in the tale of Ragnarok. In this Germanic apocalypse, all the chaotic demons, giants, and serpents will unite and overcome the forces of the Gods of order and those allied with them. In the battle of Order versus Chaos, the forces of Order cannot hope to win, only to hold out for as long as possible. This notion is in conflict with the Christian undertones of the tale, which would have us believe that the true God Christ has conquered death, and those who serve him well will never experience an end of life. But, unlike Christ, the Gods of Northern Europe are subject to death. As such, the Northern mindset cannot shake off the notion that eventually, the monsters will triumph, though the heroes of men and gods may win small victories which amount to little more than a valiant death. This fact does not detract from Beowulf’s triumph over his opponents any more than it detracts from Sigurd’s slaying of Fafnir or the loss of Tyr’s hand in other Germanic myths. The monsters of darkness may ultimately cackle the last laugh, but we should not give in to despair and accelerate our descent. We should strive like Odin and Beowulf have shown us, for all of our days, in the battle against darkness, chaos, depravity, and weakness. We may be doomed to die, but we’re not doomed to die wretched.
The fact that there is a trinity of monsters in the tale is significant. The three monsters embody different forms of fiendishness to make up a trinity of psychological and societal defects, which combine to erode and corrupt the civilization and its people. Grendel disturbs the Danes’ revelry and social hierarchy. His Mother disturbs their sleep and security. The Dragon destroys the Geats’ achievements and prosperity. How can a man or society as a whole be expected to prosper when it cannot even control its borders, culture, order, justice, security, or the distribution of its wealth? Each of the monsters represents a distinct psychological corruption that festers in the souls of men and leads to the decline of once-great civilizations, as has happened countless times in the past.
Stated briefly, Grendel embodies the resentment and rage of the outsider or the downtrodden. His Mother represents the limitless grief and sorrow which can consume a person’s thoughts and drive them insane with longing. The Dragon is a creature of pure greed, malice, reckless power, and self-serving destruction. The monsters acting in this archetypal manner serve as a warning to us, while Beowulf’s reaction to them serves as a guide for those who would fight what is monstrous and aspire to emulate what is noble, honorable, and strong.
In many ways, mankind is nothing if it has no monster against which to oppose himself. We define our justness, piety, kindness, honor, and our very humanity by how much it differs from that of the villains we despise. This is why we continue to create and evolve the monsters in our myths in accordance with the changing face of our collective psyche. Without the monsters, Beowulf would be nothing, and by extension, mankind would be nothing without Beowulf and our other heroes. Grendel’s existence inspires Beowulf to leave the easy, ignoble life of a lazy young warrior and pursue undying glory. Without Grendel, Beowulf does not truly exist. Without monsters to give us purpose and direction, mankind is reduced in its own mind to a state of animalistic baseness. We may well be no better than the lesser beasts of this world, but because we have monsters to spur us on to greatness, we at least attempt to surpass our animal nature.
Grendel and his Mother represent the perpetual blood feuds and inter-tribal resentment which were an everyday occurrence in Germanic tribal cultures. If a man was wronged, it was his sacred duty to pursue revenge, most often in gold, but in blood if necessary. Grendel bears a grudge against the Danes, who revile him as a demon, and is resolved to make them suffer. Imagine the thoughts that must go through his dark mind while he scrapes out a living in a cave and must listen to the music, songs, and prayers of drunken Danish revelers who force him to live outside their walls in the wilds. He resents the prosperous and happy Danes because he can’t have the wealth, comfort, and happiness they enjoy.
In modern society, in this age of shady deals and mismanagement, many people feel resentment and grief when witnessing the large-scale corruption and psychopathic greed of the Plutocrats who dictate the social order. These men very often are dragons possessed by Dragon Sickness, unquenchable greed. Grendel is an outsider who doesn’t benefit from the success and wealth of Danish civilization. Even if he were to ally himself with them, they hate him because of how he was born and would kill him on sight if they had the power. He becomes furious when he bears witness to the company of Danes making merry while he’s excluded from the feast. Mad with rage, he launches his attack, but significantly, he doesn’t attack Hrothgar himself or his throne. Grendel can’t even go near the throne, in fact. Powerless to vent his rage upon the wealthy ruling class responsible for his exile, he vents his resentment upon the common Danish folk and warriors. Grendel turns against those who have done him little or no wrong. In our time, we see similar parallels when the working class and middle-class bicker over petty trivialities without addressing the core issues that can affect real, lasting change. Members of the middle class often feel resentment at the wealthy upper classes who control all the money while also resenting the working class for fear that they might take the wealth away from the middle class. Like Germanic tribes, we feud amongst ourselves over trifles and minor gains because we give in to our Grendelian impulses.
We can see these impulses embodied in Unferth when he taunts Beowulf to test his mettle. Unferth occupies a place of privilege in the Danish court, yet he has not dared to face the demon Grendel in battle. Fearing that this foreign warrior might usurp his position of privilege, Unferth lashes out at Beowulf from sheer resentment. Unferth is merely a lesser form of Grendel, who happens to live inside the walls of society rather than outside in the wilds. He hasn’t gone so far down the road of bitter resentment that he can’t be won over by wise words and a firm grip but is in danger of becoming monstrous himself if he doesn’t change his ways. This small and large-scale resentment keeps us divided and weak when we should work towards uniting with those of a like mind to ourselves in the pursuit of mutual benefit. Instead, we often buy into the materialistic consumerism that we’re sold by media and marketers as we attempt to gain whatever trinkets we can for ourselves alone. Divided and self-serving, we become more and more like Grendel, the grinder of men’s bones.
Grendel is a creature of the wilds, whether by choice or by circumstance, and as such, he resents the “civilization” that the Danes have brought to the lands he calls his home. They wipe out the trees and poison the rivers with their filth to make themselves rich, secure, and influential. They enjoy a high standard of living that he is denied. Maybe he wants a piece of their prosperity, or perhaps he wants to wipe their filthy “civilizing” culture off the face of his lands, but either way, he’s attempting to usurp what they’ve built for his own gain. Imagine how the “underdeveloped” world looks at our Western way of life. They see us eating, drinking, consuming, and polluting at an unprecedented rate and possibly unsustainable, and they want a piece of the action. We in wealthy Western societies enjoy prosperity that most of the world’s population could only ever dream of. They must feel a lot like Grendel when they see us taking everything for ourselves and leaving nothing for anyone else to enjoy. “East” vs. “West” is a battle that is more than two thousand years old. That conflict has been waged since long before Xerxes ever brought the vast armies of the Eastern lands to trample the European Greek states under his sandals at Thermopylae and Plateia. When we analyze Grendel, we understand something about the mindset of those outside our societies, who see us live so large and are motivated to get a piece of what we’ve got. He’s an outside witness to the world that we’ve built, and he causes us to question the philosophies, moralities, and systems of living that we hold to be correct and true.
Resentment, like Grendel, never travels alone. The fact that the second monster is Grendel’s Mother is significant in that she represents sorrow and grief, which very often are the root causes that give birth to Grendelian Resentment. Many of us look to the past with nostalgic reverence as though we have lost something that should not have been lost. We are a cynical people because we’ve seen things that give us hope, and we’ve learned of Heroes who have promised to lead us into a Golden Age. But the Golden Age never comes. We collectively grieve for the glorious future that we’ve been promised but which never arrives, in the same way as we grieve for what’s been lost, sold, or given away.
Mankind has reached a point of incredible potential and technological mastery, but it comes at the cost of personal liberty, cultural identity, and the destruction of the very world that gives us life. Politically speaking, corruption and mismanagement have never before been so apparent and yet still tolerated. Our ancestors united in bloody rebellion countless times against tyrannies and oppressions that seem commonplace for those of us who live today. For example, the men and women of my homeland waged a war on the mighty British Empire a century ago, which eventually led to economic and political independence for this land, which hadn’t held its own sovereignty in almost 1000 years. But over the course of a few decades, that independence was sold off, and we now live as subjects of another Empire. Not an Empire of land and sea, but an Empire of economics and politics. How could we as a people not grieve over the great opportunity presented to our ancestors that’s been squandered by a century of mismanagement, corruption, and cronyism? As it is with the Gael, so it is with other Men. The anger, sorrow, and rage that many of us feel when we look at the state of our once-promising nations is what overwhelmed Grendel’s Mother and drove her to seek revenge. Her son, her hope for the future, was cruelly taken from her by self-serving men, and she goes mad with despair. As do we.
The Dark Pool/Katabasis:
Beowulf’s descent into the pool in which Grendel’s Mother lives is an example of Katabasis, which I have written of elsewhere. Time and time again, in Myth and Fairy Tale, we see a lake or a pond representing the subconscious mind. In this myth, in the dark depths of a frozen wood on a mountainside, the mere where Grendel’s mother lives is full of weeds and water-demons who hide from the light of the sun but writhe and come to life in the darkness of night. This is a powerful metaphor for a grieving mind that’s been consumed by rage and sorrow. Men who have lost wives, mothers who have lost sons, veterans who have lost limbs and their brothers-in-arms, a people who have lost their heroes and their identity, all are consumed for a time by a range of dark and devious emotions which we’ve been trained to hide from our peers. We’ve been conditioned to repress our grief and feign optimism even if we don’t feel it. Otherwise, people call us depressing or pitiful. The demons in our minds hide in the shadows, only awakening when it’s dark and we’re alone.
Hrothgar is an example of one who has been paralyzed by his grief but doesn’t show it. His depression at the death of Aeschere would have plunged his entire kingdom into darkness if Beowulf hadn’t encouraged him to put his grief to good use by avenging the creature that robbed him of his dearest friend. Those who give in to despair and cynicism abandon all hope for the future of their society and busy themselves with feasting and entertainment to distract themselves from the cause of their distress. Their demons hide from the light of the sun, but their demons are still there, in the pool of their subconscious mind. Beowulf doesn’t hide from monsters or fear the dark backward recesses of his mind. He plunges into the pool headfirst with his armor on his back and his sword at his hip. As in all cases of Katabasis, Beowulf descends into the depths of the underworld, where no man would wish to go, and he finds there a weapon that can be used to cut down his demon. The unworthy sword of Unferth fails him, and he’s almost killed in his battle with Grendel’s Mother. But at the last moment, he finds the ancient blade of some giant hero that he didn’t know was there and strikes down Grendel’s Mother, the demon of Grief, before beheading Grendel’s corpse, the demon of resentment. At this moment, a mighty light shines throughout the pool, and the entire lake is cleansed of all its monsters and slime. Hope is thus rekindled when we pass through the depths with courage and resolve to face the demons. At the very end of our tether, when all light seems to have been stolen from the world, we might just find a giant sword, some inner strength or courage, with which we can cut down our foes for good.
It’s important to stress that the sword of Unferth, which doesn’t belong to Beowulf, is useless when he fights the demon of the lake. This is an example of an unworthy weapon that many will offer us in an attempt to resolve our struggles. Only worthy weapons that we find in the depths of our own souls should be wielded when fighting our battles in the deep places. We cannot hope to rely on others to resolve problems that only we can face up to or understand. This episode in the tale is very much more symbolic than the others as it applies not only to the individual but to the collective character of an entire people.
The Fallen Goddess:
It seems to me that the religious tension between the old Pagan traditions and the young, expansive Christian religion may help to shed some light on Grendel and his Mother. We know that it was a common tactic of Christian missionaries to adapt existing pagan myths and rituals and to either transform them into a Christianized duplicate or to portray them as evil, wicked, or ridiculous. This is why the ancient Winter Solstice festival, called Yule by some, has evolved into Christmas and maintained its sacral importance in popular culture. In contrast, the Spring fertility festival has been reduced to a day where a magical rabbit allegedly brings chocolates to children to commemorate the resurrection of Christ, who had been offered up in human sacrifice. Whatever non-secular modern holiday you can think of, there is probably a parallel festival in the Christian calendar and often possibly an older pagan ritual that inspired it.
With this in mind, I sometimes express a degree of skepticism when I read in the text that Grendel and his mother are descended from Cain and, as such, are cursed fugitives who must hide from God because of the sin of kinslaying which they apparently bear because of their ancestry. Suppose for a moment that the Mother is, in fact, one of the ancient Pagan Goddesses, nature spirits, or Holy-Women who has fallen out of the people’s favor as they embrace the new foreign religion. She grieves at the loss of the old noble days of polytheism wherein she was reverenced and hides away in secluded isolation in a pool in the forest. Perhaps this pool was formerly regarded as a sacred well where people would leave offerings in return for some boon or blessing. Now in the days of Christ, the spirits of the wood and the water are no longer worshipped, and over time they become corrupted and bitter, resentful at the loss of what used to be.
If we continue with this hypothesis, it’s not difficult to imagine Grendel as the last champion of this fallen goddess. Perhaps formerly a priest or a spirit or a God himself in the old days when the Danes prayed for their aid. In some ways, Grendel resembles a kind of corrupted Thor. A Dark Thor. He possesses immense physical strength and attacks his enemies in a blind rage. He boldly seeks out his enemies in their homes, as Thor seeks out the Giants in Jotunheim. As he and his kind have been cast aside, anger festers in his heart which fuels his hatred and rage. When he hears the Danish poets singing Christian hymns in Heorot, he lashes out and wreaks vengeance in the name of the Old Gods and the nature spirits which have been neglected and portrayed as monstrous and fearsome.
This is pure speculation, but I think it adds an interesting dimension to the tale, highlighting the fact that the poem describes a world in the midst of a great upheaval of values. This is when two conflicting world-views are meeting, and the old ways are giving way to the new. It makes sense when you consider that the person who wrote down the only existing version of Beowulf was a Christian scribe who inevitably would have impressed some of his own prejudices against the old heathen legends into his work. Whether or not this hypothesis contains any truth will never be known for sure, but this is a myth that is deep, wide, and ancient. More so than many other myths, the tale of Beowulf and his Monsters is open to diverse interpretations.
The final monster, the Dragon, highlights the underlying problem of the world in which the tale is set. Dragons have always embodied the political greed that undermines societal stability and the destructive forces that occur naturally throughout the world. We are constantly reminded that a good King redistributes wealth fairly so that his people benefit. A good King doesn’t hoard wealth and jealously guard it for his own pleasure. We learn that the man who gathered the treasure store that the dragon guards intended to hide his wealth from mankind. He wanted to collect as many precious objects as possible and keep them all for himself, even in death. If this isn’t inviting a dragon into your culture, then I don’t know what is.
Several examples of bad Kings are given throughout the narrative, who all share the characteristic of greed. They hoard wealth and keep it for themselves, like dragons. We see this kind of behavior daily. Those responsible for governing society are expected to assist the people of that society in prospering, but they often do the opposite. The parallel between the dragon and our own systems of governance is so acute that they hardly need to be stated. We live in a plutocratic society whereby power lies not in the hands of the people or even the government but rather in the hands of a number of hyper-wealthy corporations and their figureheads. The governments of many supposedly democratic nations hold elections and referendums to maintain the illusion that the people are in control. They speak with surety and confident bravado of their plans, promises, and ideas. But in reality, there are a number of foreign investors who have amassed enough economic bartering power to rule from behind the curtain. This is neither a conspiracy nor a theory. I do not entertain such flights of fancy. It is instead an unfortunate economic and political reality. Money talks, and most governments do not control their own money.
When a people witness the upper classes of society hoarding the majority of wealth, they grow cynical and resentful. This emotional instability often leads to apathy and a tragic lack of social participation, whereby people resort to individualistic hoarding of whatever meager possessions they can hold on to. They become cold and reptilian themselves because that’s what they’ve seen the successful upper echelons do. These financial and political elites no longer see themselves in any kind of fellowship with the lower classes, and so they hoard even more treasure for themselves. The dragon sickness does not take very long to spread, and it eventually affects everyone in the same manner.
Ours is an age of materialism and greed whereby those who we look to for guidance and hope are revealed to be “bad kings” in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the term. Wealth flows ever upwards, and only a token amount ever trickles back down to the mob. Occasionally a would-be hero arises and challenges the sleeping dragon, as old King Beowulf did. Beowulf sees that the dragon has spread its sickness into his society, leading to unacceptable destruction. Wise king that he is, he also recognizes the vast hoard upon which the dragon sits as a huge opportunity to enrich his people and elevate them into greatness. But there’s a good reason why there are so few dragon-slayers in Germanic literature; slaying dragons is so tricky that even great heroes like Beowulf are hard-pressed in the battle.
The dragon episode goes ill from the very beginning. Beowulf is reluctant to assault the serpent until it finally destroys his own house, arousing the aged King from his foolish inaction. Once he resolves to fight the beast, he trusts once again to his own strength alone and orders his men not to come to his aid. In the duel, he is almost slain by the monster until Wiglaf, who represents the next generation of Geatish society, rushes in alone of all the warriors to assist his worthy King. When the old warrior works together with the courageous young idealist, the dragon loses his flame and is finally cast down dead. But Beowulf is broken, poisoned by the dragon’s venom. Infected with the poison, Beowulf turns his thought to the treasure and orders Wiglaf to present it to the Geatish people so that they might put it to good use. At this point in the tale, Beowulf has to die, else he risks falling prey to the dragon-sickness in his blood.
The character of Hrothgar serves as a warning to all men. In his youth, he won fame and glory and built a great and powerful kingdom, but when he appears in the Beowulf tale, he’s old and weak. We constantly see him behaving like a broken, impotent old man who is “stricken and helpless, humiliated… staring aghast…in deep distress…numb with grief”. Broken with woe at the death of his friend and counselor, Aeschere, he has to be commanded by Beowulf, a foreigner of lesser rank, to man up and get a hold of himself for the sake of his people. This is a once great and mighty warlord who has vanquished his foes, sired a prosperous family, wedded a beautiful young wife, earned the love of his people, and yet he is reduced to a childlike state of helpless infancy. His finest warriors have been chewed up by the monster, and those that remain to him are cowards who would not dare to risk their hides in battle. He’s so desperate for men that he even grants Unferth, who killed his own brother, a place of respect in his court. Considering all this, it’s not hard to understand why all we ever see the Danes doing is feasting and drinking. While foreigners face fierce monsters on their behalf, they drink themselves stupid.
Hrothgar and his Danes are a people who have lost their honor, their heroes, and their will to fight. They drink to distract themselves from the real issues which plague their society because they feel impotent, as though they couldn’t change anything even if they tried. Think of the majority of modern citizens who do nothing to assert their will to the political and economic snakes who seek to fatten their fortunes at their people’s expense. There are monsters in our halls, yet like impotent Danes, we often turn a blind eye and distract ourselves with food, drink, and shallow entertainment.
Beowulf, The Universal Hero:
The situation represented in the Beowulf story, when stated plainly, looks hopeless and grim. But fortune never abandons us entirely so long as some are prepared to stand and assert themselves in the face of great woe. Beowulf is a hero not because he has the strength of thirty men and balls of iron. He’s a hero because he chooses to tackle the monsters at the risk of his life while other men flee in terror. Beowulf battles with more than just the three monsters. He first has to battle with suspicion, grief, apathy, cowardice, corruption, and greed. There are monsters within and without the halls of the Danes and Geats, just as the monsters that Beowulf faces represent both internal and external monstrous stimuli, emotions, and thoughts that we all face daily.
Beowulf’s battle with Grendel teaches us to know our enemy, do not resort to his level out of desperation or fear, grab hold of our opponent, and do not let him loose until he concedes defeat and flees in shame to his lair. The hero remains calm in the face of attack, sizes up his opponent’s weakness, asserts himself with courage and confidence, shames his opponent by his actions, and remains gracious in victory while maintaining his integrity. In his pursuit and contest with Grendel’s Mother, Beowulf descends into dark places where other men dare not tread. He plunges down into the depths of the pool and of his own soul, where he wrestles with demons until he finds the secret sword with which he can emerge victorious. As we see in his contest with Unferth, he doesn’t always resort to physical force, but when it is time to get violent, he trusts his own courage and the strength of his arm and does not relent in the pursuit of his goals. This is the manner in which Beowulf defeats Unferth, Grendel, his Mother, and the naysayers among his people. Beowulf possesses excellent strength and a fine sword, but he never wields the blade as the first course of action. He always uses his reason and eloquence when he encounters opposition before finally resorting to violence without hesitation when it is truly necessary. He never hesitates or seeks to excuse himself from what must be done, and when he commits himself, he does so with conviction and unbreakable resolve. So should we all.
It’s fitting that this great hero is slain by an ancient and elemental dragon rather than some petty Swedish invader or lesser creature. This is a reminder of the fundamental Germanic truth: the monsters win out in the end. But before he dies, Beowulf grants his people a mighty gift. It’s young Wiglaf, a brave-hearted fellow, who realizes that this treasure and the gossip of the Geatish warriors’ cowardice will attract hostile invaders into their lands who will take advantage of the Geats’ weakness and carve up the wealth for themselves. The next generation of Beowulf’s people will have dire perils to overcome if they’re to survive the aftermath of the dragon’s fall. The treasure is eventually buried underground, as useless to mankind as it ever was before. Beowulf’s error was that he thought that he alone could rid his culture of its dragon problem, but it takes more than one man to accomplish such a task. Our political leaders should take a hard lesson from Beowulf’s folly in his approach to the dragon and trust the young Wiglafs of this world to get involved when presented with the opportunity and the proper guidance.
But all have been poisoned by the dragon, and there are now few Beowulfs or Wiglafs to give us hope and rouse us from our apathy. But if the tale has taught us anything, it is that there’s always the potential for greatness in even the most unlikely places. Monsters exist only to inspire us to overcome them. And we today have no shortage of monsters to overcome.