The Beowulf Debate Response: Reassessing Beowulf’s Humanity

In a previous post in this series, Ryan presented a view of Beowulf as profoundly human hero, situated in a world shifting from a pagan to a christian paradigm. This is my response.

I completely agree with Ryan’s characterization of the poem as an elegy for a lost pagan age, which cannot survive, great as it may be, the coming of Christianity. I also agree that Beowulf’s humanity is integral to the story and to the spectacular failure at the end. He fails because he is human, because he is, as the poet reminds us constantly, the greatest man on “on that day, of this life” (197/790/806; Andy Orchard’s point and emphasis) – a great hero, but in the end a mortal, and one who cannot rely on divine aid.

However, as long as he does not allow his hero to pretend to powers that are above him, the poet has quite a bit of leeway to play around with the ambivalence he loves so much. I think that he does blur the boundaries between the human and the monstrous, and that this is every bit as important as his strict categorization of Beowulf as mortal.

Again and again, the Beowulf-poet asks what it means to be human. Human as he is, he allows his hero to have qualities that border on the monstrous: he is described repeatedly as /bolgen/, the adjective describing the excessive, violent anger that he otherwise uses only for monsters, including both Grendel himself and the dragon. In the fight with Grendel’s mother in the monster mere, it is impossible to distinguish the two combatants: they blend into one mass of part-human, part monstrous, super strength and violence.

On the other hand, he allows the monsters to have qualities that we would identify as human: Grendel is introduced to us as jealous of the joys of the hall. His mother attacks only to avenge her son (a loving gesture? The gesture of an animal who has been harmed and wants purely instinctual revenge? how do we tell?), and after snatching a single retainer, retreats almost fearfully. Is she entitled to her /wergild/? She is a woman – does her act of violence therefore make her /more/ of an abomination?

This is not a modern, Gaiman-esque blurring of the monstrous and the human; this is not a female monster in Angelina Jolie’s body, or an unfortnuate mermaid giving birth to a dragon, and Beowulf is not biologically part monster by birth. It is a blurring of boundaries and an exploration of what those boundaries mean.

So what makes one human, and what makes one monstrous? Grendel is at his most human when he is pictured in relation to his mother, or pining after hall-joys. In other words, he seems to be most human when he is part of some kind of community, or
wishes to be. What makes him most monstrous is being cast from the face of God. Beowulf, on the other hand, is most monstrous when he forsakes all that is human or human made: in his first battle he lays aside all weapons and help from his retainers, and makes a point of fighting the monster /on his own terms/. In the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf becomes distinguishable from her when he picks up a sword. The dragon is surrounded by human-made objects, but, as the poet points out, does not /use/ them, and therefore again forges no bonds with human communities.

At the end, Beowulf fails through human weakness, but also when he is at his most human: he takes up the fight with the dragon because, as the king of the thief’s lord, he is responsible for his actions. He takes on the fight with the greatest amount of human-wrought armour he has used so far. The repercussions of these actions are also dependent on human relationships: Beowulf fails not because he does not destroy the monster, but because he leaves no heir, and leaves his people at the mercy of the invading Swedes.

This also has interesting repercussions for other Old English poems like /The Wanderer/, /The Seafarer/, and the /Wife’s Lament/. Is lack of community a part of their existential suffering? On the other hand, is this why their grief for what is lost so important? It is interesting to note that the solution that /The Seafarer/ poses is to substitute a heavenly community for the earthly one. A heavenly community which, as Ryan notes, is unavailable to Beowulf at the end of the poem, leading directly to his downfall.

So those are my two cents. Agree? Disagree? Have an entirely different theory? Let us know in the comments!

[Because citing everything has been bred into me by years of essay writing, I should note that a lot of the above relies on Andy Orchard’s interpretations].

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