The Beowulf Debate

This is probably going to be the beginning of a debate. I had another first post in mind, but it’s stalled a bit, so I’m going with this one. It will be short, but that’s OK. I just want to spark some discussion. My opinion, I know, is not that of the academic community at large, but that’s OK too. Here we go…

I have always been dissatisfied with my approach to “Beowulf”, both as poem and as character. I realise that the current dominant idea sees him as being more than human and, thus, something of a questionable character. To me, this approach reflects our own paradigm more than that of Anglo-Saxons. As I read the poem, it strikes me as an elegy. It laments that which is lost. Beowulf is upheld, throughout the poem, as the greatest hero. It is only during the final episode with the dragon that this begins to change. I think this is an important factor to keep in mind as we approach our thoughts on him.

I am aware of the linguistic arguments for a supernatural reading of him, but I think that Fred Robinson dealt with them rather well in his own essay on the subject. I remain convinced that, while we can read those disputed passages as pointing to Beowulf as supernatural himself, we are not compelled to conclude him as more than human. Yes, he is immensely strong, but that is not necessarily a supernatural thing. Thus, my digression into linguistics is finished.

I have always been struck by how little the poem makes of the difference in paradigms. The poem has a pagan hero in a pagan culture, but there is only one overt comment from the poet early in the poem and that does not apply directly to Beowulf himself. Indeed, for the remainder oft be poem, the language seems entirely Christian. Grendel is even characterised as being part of Cain’s clan, making him a clearly Christian evil. Thus, though he may not know it, Beowulf combats foes who fit the Christian definition of evil. The dragon, too, fits this category, since the Bible speaks of the devil as a dragon, a significant comparison.

The only other time there is a reference (possibly) to the difference of world views comes during the description of Beowulf’s funeral. As he is burned on his pyre,the poet tells us that ‘heaven swallowed the smoke.’ I have heard arguments that call this a clear statement that the pagan age was consumed by the Christian one or that Beowulf’s greatness is somehow negated by his lack of Christianity. I am not convinced. For one thing, the line is somewhat ambiguous. Had the poet desired to ultimately condemn Beowulf, he could have made a far more direct statement, having demonstrated that capability earlier in the poem. It was this that fuelled my further thoughts. I wanted to tie all of these individual ideas into a greater context.

As a poem, “Beowulf” seems to lament the loss of the heroic age in some way. I would guess that the poet did not see it as superior to the Christian one, but that certain good things fell by the wayside in the transition. With the coming of Christianity, there came an omnipotent supernatural ally in the battle against evil. Any warrior of faith could turn to God for aid in a battle against any foe. I wonder, then, if the nature of the heroism of Beowulf is simply that he is a man who must face and defeat a supernatural enemy on his own. From a pagan perspective, supernatural enemies, monsters, if you will, would carry with them a terrible menace. The others have failed and only the hero can save those who are oppressed by the evil. Such extraordinary men would have been rare, especially one such as Beowulf. A reading of him as human, an exceptional human of course, opens up a very interesting view that, I would argue, fits the era.

The coming of Christianity brought the solution to the problem of loss, as “The Wanderer” so beautifully shows. Now there would be an eternal Lord, an eternal hall and eternal glory. The glory of your story being told by men was augmented by that of your story being told by angels, as “The Seafarer” points out. This solved the problem of your story being lost when your people died out, as the Geats were about to do and as the people who buried the dragon’s hoard already had. Thus, the poet would have this in mind as the narrative came to its close. This is where the subtlety of the image of heaven swallowing the smoke comes in. Beowulf was still an exceptional hero, a man fighting against supernatural enemies, but his ultimate glory would be lost without Christianity. The poignancy is to be found there. As well, he represents the end of the heroic age, since it is really God who gives men the strength to face such foes, something alluded to throughout the poem anyway. For the pagan hero, the loss of the Geats means the loss of those who would tell his story most. Even the Danes face destruction, as Beowulf indicates in his account to Hygelac, perhaps hinting at the loss of his story there also.

How then do we conclude? A paradigm shift always brings with it some loss. Even when the new paradigm is far better than the previous one, some good things will pass away with it. It is so here, I think. While the coming of Christianity offered the Anglo-Saxons the eternal, it took away the need for the hero, or, at the least, redefined him radically. Thus, the poet, gazing back on a human hero, laments the loss of such a man, understanding that the loss was inevitable, as Beowulf’s final failure was also. Often, even that which is good cannot survive such a powerful shift.

Just some thoughts.

Also, I may have to rethink my definition of ‘short’.

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