Sunday, February 13, 2005

Week 02 Beowulf

From Michael Alexander, translator of Beowulf (Penguin, 1973): a. Epics involve "inclusiveness of scope, objectivity of treatment, unity of ethos and an ‘action' of significance." b. "The action of an epic, like the action of a myth, should have its own logic and an intrinsic significance."

1. Early Danish history.
2. Hrothgar builds Heorot.
3. Grendel attacks.
4. Beowulf.
5. The coastguard greets Beowulf.
6. Wulfgar greets Beowulf.
7. Hrothgar greets Beowulf.
8. Unferth challenges Beowulf; Beowulf replies.
9. Wealhtheow greets Beowulf.
10. Beowulf and Grendel fight.
11. Celebrations at Heorot; Beowulf rewarded. The story of Sigemund and the Finn episode.
12. More celebrations.
13. Grendel's mother attacks.
14. Beowulf comes to Hrothgar's aid.
15. Beowulf sinks into the mere, fights Grendel's mother, and cuts off Grendel's head.
16. Celebrations--thanks given.
17. Hrothgar prophecies and warns Beowulf.
18. Gifts and parting.
19. Home to Hygelac and Queen Hygd. Contrast--Queen Modthryth.
20. Beowulf recounts his exploits.
21. (Beowulf has changed since he was young.)
22. Gifts, land, etc.
23. Fifty years later, Beowulf is still ruling. The dragon's treasure is stolen.
24. The thief took the dragon's cup out of need.
25. Dragon attacks--Beowulf's hall burns. Elegy: ubi sunt; Beowulf's deeds at battle in which Hygelac died.
26. Beowulf salutes his companions.
27. Beowulf boasts that he will kill the dragon in single combat.
28. His companions run away.
29. Wiglaf helps Beowulf kill the dragon.
30. Wiglaf with Beowulf on his deathbed.
31. Wiglaf berates the traitors.
32. Wiglaf predicts chaos. (Older conflict between Swedes and Geats recounted.)
33. Useless treasure (paragraph 152).
34. Funeral pyre--heaven swallows the smoke.
35. Useless treasure (paragraph 158).

Composition: Set in writing around 700-750 AD in Mercia, the English Midlands, though the C10 manuscript later converts this into the commoner southwestern dialect of Old English.

Our Translation: I didn't talk about the poetics of Beowulf, but Heaney preserves the original's lively alliterative movement. Alliteration is a device whereby words in a poetic line are tied together closely because their initial consonant is the same. Moreover, English (old and modern) is full of strong monosyllables like "thug" and "thump." You can see a continuing fondness for strong meter and alliterative effects even in some later poets. See, for example, the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins' "sprung rhythm" poetics—it's just strong alliterative verse, really, that foregoes regular "unstressed/stressed" meter to render a sense of of authentic spiritual striving. The sonnet "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" is a good example of Hopkins' kind of poetry: notice the alliteration—fishers/fire, dragonflies/draw, etc. and the emphatic quality of the lines. Hopkins isn't after smoothness; he is after precision of thought and strength of feeling.

As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

As for the content of Beowulf, everyone is struck by the mixing of Germanic pagan heroic values with an early medieval Christian world view. Sometimes, at least in my admittedly limited view, the contrast between these views is overemphasized—they are obviously different, but hardly mutually exclusive.

What about the contrast in values? Well, the pre-Christian Germanic beliefs don't make much of an afterlife, and they invoke "fate" quite often, as if it were a random force and things just happen because they happen. A strong character will stand up against fate when it comes, but he can't overcome it—that isn't the point of the encounter at all. For example, we don't consider Beowulf a failure because he dies fighting the Dragon—the text specifically says that the hero senses he is about to meet his doom. And we admire his courage for going forth unselfishly to meet it. But the Christian preserver of the story folds in strong remarks about Providence—the idea that God has an infallible plan for everyone, and nothing really happens "at random." Thanks to Providence, the idea goes, even the greatest individual (or collective) suffering is part of a much larger pattern that ends in Christian triumph and the coming of the end time when "God shall be all in all." Thus life has meaning beyond the getting and giving of treasure earthly and earning glory for a few generations through the epic singer's stimulation of collective memory. In Beowulf, we shouldn't expect the doctrine of Providence to be fleshed out beyond basic statements like "God is always in charge," but that is sufficient to distance the poem from pre-Christian ideas about "fate." On the whole, we can bring "fate" and Providence somewhat closer together, as I think the Beowulf poet does, by explaining that to limited, fallen human understanding, it's always possible to misinterpret the consequences of our own errors and particular sections of God's plan as mere "accident." We are liable to call anything we can't understand "fate," as if it came from nowhere and we had nothing to do with it.

The patterns of Beowulf reinforce the need for humility on the part of even great chieftains like Hrothgar, Hygelac, and Beowulf. It isn't necessarily that these men commit some terrible specific misdeed; rather, their "error" is simply to live without always minding the end that must come to them as it does to all, high or low. Pretentions of self-sufficiency and perpetuity are prideful, says Christian theology. We are responsible for what we do, but that doesn't mean we can stand on our own without God's blessing and assistance. This is true for individuals like Hrothgar and Beowulf, and it's just as true for whole societies. Remember what God does to Nimrod's builders of the Tower of Babel in Genesis? He "confounds their speech" so that they can't even understand one another's language anymore, much less try to rival God's magnificence. Hrothgar explicitly accuses himself of something like this very error—believing his well-established human community centered around Heorot Hall could stand long on its own efforts. Even if his error is no more than forgetfulness of the limitations of fallen human understanding, he must pay the price. In this sense, Grendel is his monster, not a random welling up of pure metaphysical evil. And perhaps Beowulf, though a good ruler, does much the same later on with his Geats—the years roll by, and at last his people fail their test with the Dragon miserably, soon to perish in spite of his heroic efforts. The author isn't blaming Beowulf, he's just making a lesson of him—we must be continually be reminded of our own mortality and of the ultimate futility of trying to turn earth into a permanent home. Christianity—especially in medieval times—often represents this life as a brief passage through a foreign territory, a "vale of tears," a trial by adversity in preparation for the life to come. Don't get comfortable in Heorot or anywhere else! Be mindful that we are always on our way back to God, who is our real home. And for those not even as virtuous as Beowulf, pride, ambition, disloyalty, love of gain and luxury are always threatening to unleash destruction. Their own or others' faults will bring trouble.

We know that the economy and social system of Beowulf's people revolves around getting treasure and distributing it generously. These are a people generous in word and deed, but reciprocity is a key concept with them, too. It may seem odd that Hrothgar should think so quickly of compensating Beowulf financially for the men he has lost in dealing with Grendel, but that's part of the social system—not compensating him would probably amount to an insult. And if there's one thing you had better not do to a Beowulf, it's "diss" him, to borrow the modern phrase. He quietly commands respect, and almost always gets it. Perhaps this seems like a major contrast with a more fully Christian view of human community. And there are some materialistic tendencies in Beowulf—as in, "let me see the dragon's treasure before I die." Still, the heroic economy isn't really about hoarding—it's about spending, dispensing the bounty one has gained by valor in battle. If a king doesn't do that, he loses everybody's allegiance, so what's the use of being a miser? Christianity translates this imperative to share with one's fellows into a more proper understanding of love, charitas or charity—that is, helping others because you really want to and because you know it's what God wants you to do. Charity or love is what binds together the community—not the distribution of material goods. But it would be unfair to say that the scriptor of Beowulf simply contrasts Christian charity with pagan materialism. Both cultures offer a spiritual economy of sorts, not simply a material one.

In both cultures, the isolated and the greedy hoarders of treasure are in the wrong. Grendel is the violent offspring of Cain, and his mother is motivated by vengeance. Notice that Grendel and his mother are both separated from Heorot Hall's joys, and Grendel goes there to lord it over the regular folk. And of course the Dragon is the ultimate gold-watcher, once he happens upon that cursed treasure set in the earth down by a dying tribe. Neither in the heroic Scandinavian and Germanic culture we find in Beowulf nor in Christianity is the human community obsessed with material possessions to the exclusion of more social, even spiritual, considerations.

Grendel is sometimes understood as primordial evil. And he does seem that way at times, doesn't he? But one must be careful with such assumptions—in Christian theology, evil has a very specific origin. It is not a vague metaphysical principle or a power that exists as a kind of rival empire to God's bounty. (Some religions have taken this dualistic view—consider Zoroastrianism, where Ahrimanes and Ahura-Mazda are locked in a perpetual battle between Good and Evil. And Saint Augustine had to let go of his early Manichean views for the same reason—he says they accorded evil too much respect, as if it were an independent force in the universe. Because the evil turn away from God's will, says Augustine, they lack any grounding in the authentic way of being, which has its source in God; thus, they "do not exist.") The Beowulf writer specifically links Grendel to the story of Cain and Abel. That is a precise enough lineage to allow him to promote his theme:

Here is part of Genesis Chapter 4:

004:001 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

004:002 And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

004:003 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.

004:004 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:

004:005 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

004:006 And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?

004:007 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

004:008 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

004:009 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

004:010 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.

004:011 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

004:012 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

004:013 And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

004:014 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

004:015 And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

004:016 And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

This kind of lineage shows us that the monsters are material representations of human frailty's bad consequences. Bad characters are always repeating themselves, or somehow taking part in a grand self-destructive circle of behavior, speech, or interpretive strategy. Even seeming heroes like Beowulf and Hygelac unwittingly behave as if they would substitute a satisfying "recursive loop" that would frustrate the linear program of Providence, and they always fail. Grendels seem to come upon us by chance, but really the cause has to do with our attitudes and deeds. Grendel may not see his motive as anything more than stupid resentment of Heorot's "shiny happy people holding hands," but the Lord moves in mysterious ways, and makes the wicked outcast do his bidding in spite of himself.

And then there's the Dragon, who only comes out to plague Beowulf's kingdom because some poor thief stumbles on the treasure and lifts a goblet. Like Grendel and his Mother, the Dragon is driven by primal needs—here it is the desire to hang onto material objects as if they were all that mattered. And who buried those objects in the first place? Why, the remnants of a race two centuries back, who themselves have long since gone the way of all flesh. The poor thief has caught up his whole group in an ancient cycle of vengeance, violence begetting violence. The cyclical and potentially everlasting "blood-feud" is an ancient threat—something we can find not only in the early Germans but in the Greeks and probably other cultures as well. (Read Aeschylus's trilogy The Oresteia on the power of cyclical revenge—the plays turn on the need to transform primal clan vengeance into civic justice, a society of laws far more than men.)

The point for the Beowulf poet is that we make ourselves subject to what seems like mere chance—monstrous visitations, rampant dragons, and so forth. The original treasure-hiders brought on the dragon, and the thief brought the dragon back into action, and Beowulf the good king had to die to set it right—even partially. But then his own retainers behaved like cowards, and so the Geats will perish when word gets around. They have declared themselves easy pickings for more valorous men. Ultimately, the epic's monsters represent the way in which Evil tries to frustrate God's plan (which is linear and ascending) by cyclical upheavals, themselves set in motion because of human baseness and stupidity, or, in the case of better folk like Hrothgar, forgetfulness and limitations in fallen human understanding.

If this all sounds gloomy, it is. Too much can be made, again, of the contrast or clash in values between pre-Christian and Christian. Pagan gloom melds with Christian gloom of the sort found in Ecclesiastes… The Hall, filled with mirth and honor, is always shadowed by its future emptiness—all things decline with the passage of time, requiring renewal with god's help. Humanity isn't self-sustaining, much less self-sufficient.

Indeed, the repetitive structure of Beowulf makes this point. The three great battles against Grendel, Grendel's Mother, and the Dragon drive home the following idea: "all is vanity under the sun," just as the preacher in Ecclesiastes says:

009:011….the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

009:012 For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

Notice that even the "wergild" system (85) doesn't settle matters for long when a feud has broken out. It seems that only God can settle the feud first instantiated by Cain's slaying of his good brother Abel. We are always liable to start it up again. For me, what makes the poem interesting isn't that we have a Christian poet who transfigures pagan hopelessness and gloom with sunny theological certainties—rather, I find it interesting that there are so many deeply felt affinities between the two world views, the one presumably a holdover from the "oral" original, and the latter a self-conscious addition to the tales that make up Beowulf.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home