Telling Medieval Stories

“I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up
meaning – yes, meaning – something. I admit it: above all things,
I fear absurdity.” (Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children)

It might seem somewhat incongruous to begin a post to this blog with a quotation from a post-modern novel. After all, the focus is meant to be on the Middle Ages, rather than contemporary ideas. The Beowulf poet would not have been familiar with Rushdie’s work, nor Chaucer, yet this is how I have chosen to begin. While it might seem strange to do so, I think that there is something profoundly important in the passage I have quoted. It is here that Saleem Sinai states just what he is trying to accomplish. While I have no desire (here) to deal with this novel, I want to note that he ties meaning with the telling of stories. His reference to Scheherazade is the connection to narrative. It was Scheherazade who saved her own life through the telling of stories. Saleem seeks to do that and more. He seeks to render himself meaningful by telling his story. This, I would argue, is central to our understanding of the role that stories and, thus, literature play in our human experience. We tell stories as a way to explain who we are and how we engage our world. We also tell stories to ensure our own significance.
The context of many of the stories that arise from the Medieval period seems to be one of societal flux. While it is not my design to deal with the mistaken notion that any part of this epoch was plunged into societal and intellectual darkness, I do want to ensure that it is clear that I see the Middle Ages as rich and varied in their examination of the world. The stories we have received from this time point to major paradigm shifts in the society. Interestingly, stories are central (in my opinion) to the major narratives from this period, Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales. Both texts feature storytelling within their narratives as important elements. Indeed, Chaucer’s text uses storytelling as its very structure. Therefore, I think it is important to examine how the stories are used and, ultimately, how they establish the shifting ideologies of their times.
Although it is possible (and a wonderful prospect) to write a magnum opus on this very notion, it will suffice, I think, to introduce the notion of storytelling through that most famous of Anglo-Saxon poems, Beowulf. The narrative, by following the life of Beowulf from his emergence as a hero at Heorot to his death fighting the dragon serves to highlight the passing of the pagan heroic age into the Christian one. Laying aside other arguments for the moment (and the focus of this, already lengthy, post), it is the ideal of glory that begins to illuminate what Beowulf values. With the death of Aeshere, Beowulf exhorts Hrothgar with these words,
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before his death. When a warrior is gone
that will be his best and only bulwark. (Heaney, 1387-1390)

At this moment, Beowulf sums up that which is valued by his society and the immortality that can be achieved. The greatest defence against death is to establish glory by deeds. These deeds would be retold by future generations, cementing (one hopes) the greatness of a warrior. This is a notion brought up in other poems as well, such as ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer.’ Indeed, Hrothgar reminds Beowulf that his actions have his story being told all through the world.
…Beowulf, my friend
Your fame has gone far and wide,
You are known everywhere.
(Heaney, 1703-1705)

Hrothgar understands the nature of stories and how they exemplify that which is valued. Beowulf’s heroism is a tale to be told often as an example of what is valued in a warrior. A few lines later, Hrothgar will tell the story of Heremod as a contrast to Beowulf, reminding the audience that one can be remembered in infamy also. It is, therefore, the stories themselves that are important for legacy. The idea that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ truly does not apply here.
If the importance of Beowulf’s life is to be measured by the pervasiveness of his story, I thinks it’s safe to say that he would see his life as a success, laying aside all other considerations that may have come up in another posting on this blog. I would suggest that Rushdie’s viewpoint is not all that far from the Medieval mindset when it comes to stories. In many ways, Beowulf, like Saleem, seeks to have his story told in a way that would paint him in a good light. Stories define the ideals of the society and confirm the significance of its members. Chaucer would take this even further, I think, using the stories his characters tell to allow marginal voices to express subversive criticisms of, and alternative perspectives to, the dominant discourse. However, that, I think, is another story for another time.

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