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The Geat of Geats

The Old English poem Beowulf tells, in a little over three thousand lines of verse, the story of a great hero of the Geat tribe, which long ago inhabited what is now part of Sweden. Beowulf hears of the protracted sufferings of the neighboring Danes at the hands of a monster called Grendel, a wildly destructive and cannibalistic ogre who bursts, night after night, into the great hall of Hrothgar, the Danish king, and tears both the place and its defenders apart. Beowulf, seeing an opportunity for heroism, resolves to go to the aid of Hrothgar and crosses the sea with the intention of taking on Grendel singlehanded. On arrival at the Danish court he does the required amount of boasting and feasting and when Grendel arrives that night Beowulf, scorning to use a weapon, wrestles with the intruder and tears off his arm.

Grendel dies, but a greater ordeal lies ahead; for his mother, a monster even more frightening to ordinary mortals though not to Beowulf, sets out to avenge him. She and Beowulf have a phantasmagorical struggle in her underwater lair, which ends when he happens to find a sword in her cave and uses it to kill her. Loaded with gifts and praise, he returns home and tells his story to his own king, Hygelac.

There follows a fifty-year gap in the story, and when we meet Beowulf again he is an old man and has himself long been the king of the Geats. Now his own kingdom is threatened by a terrible fire-breathing dragon who guards a hoard, quite in the manner of Wagner’s Fafner. Beowulf fights the dragon; all but one of his supporters flee, but the king, with this single helper, prevails, though at the cost of his own life. The dragon’s hoard is appropriated, and Beowulf is given a ceremonial burial, along with the treasure, in a conspicuous barrow on a headland. So the basic structure of the poem consists of three episodes—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon—though with a good deal of ancillary information concerning Danes, Geats, and other Scandinavian tribes and customs.

If you are prepared to admit that it was written in English, Beowulf is by far the oldest poem of its length in our language. When struggling through it as a student I preferred to call its language Anglo-Saxon, regarding the official description, Old English, as a trick, a means of getting into an English literature course a work in a remote Germanic dialect. My instructors could be thought to have a vested interest in the poem and the language; they had gone to a lot of trouble to learnabout them, and since teaching it was to be their chief means of support they were clearly in favor of making their study compulsory. Or so it seemed, no doubt unfairly; the poem is, after all, in the language that was spoken in England for centuries, and its greatest poem must be a legitimate object of historical and philological inquiry.

The interests of the teachers were indeed exclusively philological and antiquarian. Beowulf provided them with a great variety of complicated scholarly problems, and it was in these that they wanted to involve their students. They rarely found it necessary or desirable to speak of Beowulf as a poem, and when they did so they were quite likely to say it was not a particularly good one. Moving house a while ago I found an essay of mine, some sixty years old, on “The Fight at Finsburgh.” This is a poetic fragment, preserved by chance, of forty-odd lines, some baffling, from a lost longer work, not a part of Beowulf though obscurely related to it. Somebody must have believed that an attempt, however callow, to understand the problems of that relationship would somehow sharpen my wits. Of course I was not required to do any literary criticism.

Nobody knows, for sure, the date of Beowulf. Conjectures range from the early eighth to the late tenth century. Possibly it was composed in Northumbria but written down by monks in the south, perhaps long afterward. The culture of the time of writing was Christian, but the poem, though it includes some pious Christian sentiments, looks back to a pagan past, to heroic deeds performed in another country by men who could perhaps be thought of as remote ancestors. Wyrd, which is untranslatable but means something like “fate,” is a stronger idea in the poem than Christian providence. During much of the period when the poem was written down and read, Danes of a later vintage were persistent and successful enemies of the Anglo-Saxons, which suggests that it was possible to distinguish, in poems, between dangerous, ugly modern Danes and old-time Danes, whose antique heroic virtues belonged at least as much to the tradition of the inhabitants of England as to that of the modern raiders. There is a question whether the Christian material in the poem was there from the start or intruded into it later, which is not impossible, considering that the practice of writing came in with Christianity. And of course, as R.M. Liuzza suggests in the preface to his new translation, the poem may have undergone changes during its life of oral performance, changes of which we can know nothing, before it reached the hands of the final author.

At that time it presumably took its place along with many other writings of the same sort, but the extant body of Anglo-Saxon literature is quite small; we can say that such poems as “The Battle of Maldon” and “The Seafarer” have a good deal in common with Beowulf, but it remains historically rather isolated. For a long time so little was known about the culture that produced such a poem that it must have seemed that all its talk of splendid gold ornaments, rings, cups, swords, and the like was mere fantasy, until the discovery, just before the outbreak of war in 1939, of the rich seventh-century ship-burial treasure near the East Suffolk town of Sutton Hoo. The effect on our sense of the civilization that produced it might be thought comparable to that of Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations at Knossos on the understanding of the Homeric world. We may even think the rich trappings of Beowulf’s burial chime with those of the Sutton Hoo treasure, but the experts warn us not to make too much of such parallels.

The unique manuscript of the poem, which is written out continuously, with no breaks between the verse lines, survived centuries of almost total neglect until Sir Robert Cotton acquired it early in the seventeenth century. In 1731 it was damaged by fire, but it is now in the British Library, legible except for a few charred lines. Interest in it was slight until early-nineteenth-century Romantic nationalists claimed the work as an early English epic, comparable to Homer, the Nibelungenlied, and the Chanson de Roland, and gratifyingly older than the last two. Scholars, by no means just the English but learned men and women of many nations—German, Danish, Icelandic, British, and American—have worked on it ever since. It has often been translated into modern English, in the nineteenth century by Longfellow and William Morris among others. But on the whole versions made in recent years are better, a development that may be explained, at any rate in part, by a rather striking scholarly event that occurred in 1936.

This was the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”1 It would not be easy to think of a parallel to this occasion, a professorial lecture that changed a generation’s attitude toward a document of national and historical importance. Tolkien noted that previous scholarship had treated Beowulf less as a poem than as matter for archaeological and historical inquiry. “The shadow of research has lain upon criticism,” says Tolkien; the current of interest had been antiquarian rather than critical. An unhappy consequence had been the erroneous assumption that the poem was “primitive” when in fact it looks back, from a much later civilized period, on a primitive heroic age long past. More impor-tant, the experts, obsessed with the idea of its primitiveness, had simply neglected the poem as a poem, or criticized it for its “thin and poor” story: Beowulf destroys the ogre Grendel, then he defeats Grendel’s ogre mother, and then, after fifty years have elapsed in a few lines, he kills a fiery dragon and dies of injuries sustained in the fight. Apart from anything else, the structure of the tale, looked at in this way, looked weak, “primitive.”

Tolkien, however, has no difficulty with the episodic structure and finds in the poetry a high seriousness, a grim understanding that monsters are evidence of what cannot be denied, the potential of evil in the world; they are the enemies of men and gods (and God). The poem is a celebration of the necessary defeat of even the greatest human valor; the tragic truth of mortality, a theme always valid, though in a poem set in a pagan past by an author whose Christianity is attested by some moralistic musings and the scriptural references to Cain (ancestor of the monsters who, like him, bore the wrath of God, godes yrre) and to the war of the giants against heaven.2

Tolkien commends the meter of the poem (the lines “more like masonry than music”) but particularly loves those monsters, “the evil side of heroic life.” Beowulf himself can be seen as a hero in a more general and more impressive way, not merely as a Germanic adventurer: “He is a man, and that for him is sufficient tragedy.” And Tolkien endorses the resonant account of the British scholar W.P. Ker: these heroes of the North offer “absolute resistance, perfect because without hope.” The mood is that of two famous lines, better remembered than most Anglo-Saxon verses, in the tenth-century poem “The Battle of Maldon,” which was originally in the same manuscript as Beowulf but was destroyed in the fire, though fortunately somebody had made a copy of it. In a version of the lines by W.H. Auden, from The Orators, “Heart and head shall be keener, mood the more/As our might lessens.”

Beowulf, on this view, is not to be described as an epic poem or a lay poem but as “an heroic-elegiac poem,” its climax the death and funeral of the hero in the last lines.Somebody else had said Beowulf was “small beer,” but Tolkien, in what became a famous phrase, described it as “a drink dark and bitter, a solemn funeral ale with the taste of death.” And after this the poem, we were counseled, should never be treated as it had been hitherto; it was henceforth to be studied as great literature. “There is not much poetry in the world like this,” Tolkien wrote.

  1. 1

    Republished in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1984), pp. 5-48.

  2. 2

    Much has been made of the fact that the biblical references are to the Old, not the New Testament, as if the author, though professing Christianity, betrayed ignorance of or an indifference to its central doctrines, which of course depend on the New rather than the Old.

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