Tag Archives: Beowulf

“Beowulf, like Everyman, accepted death towards the end of his life.”

That’s a pretty good time to accept it.

Actually, both of them fully accept death AT life’s end, not TOWARDS it. Furthermore, Beowulf makes a beginning at acceptance quite early in life, whereas Everyman waits until the last minute.

We see Beowulf as heroic partly because he accepts even in youth the very real possibility that he will die in one of his exploits. Wrestling with the ferocious and powerful Grendel in the Danes’ mead hall is fraught with danger; but even though Beowulf acknowledges this, he insists on meeting Grendel in barehanded single combat; although a dozen hand-picked Geats stand ready to assist him, he sees the battle as HIS fight. Either he will prevail, thus saving the lives of countless Danes and relieving King Hrothgar of the burden of guilt AND at the same time enhancing his own reputation for strength and courage; or he will fail, and failure means death of a particularly gruesome kind. Similarly, when he takes a sword and pursues Grendel’s mother into her underwater cave to avenge her (revenge-) killing of Hrothgar’s best friend, he tells his Geats and the Dane warriors assembled at the brink of the mere that he goes into this alone, and their only task is to watch and, if necessary, report his death. Fifty years later, when he goes to fight the dragon who has been despoiling his kingdom after a drunken lout disturbed the treasure-hoard the dragon existed to guard, he acknowledges that he will probably die in the attempt but insists that he must fight alone. Young Wiglaf enters the fight after the dragon has wounded Beowulf, but although he manages to wound the dragon he leaves the last knife-thrust for Beowulf. Both hero and dragon die as a result of this battle; but before Beowulf dies he distributes some of the treasure from the hoard among his people and gives them some good advice (through Wiglaf)—in effect, he makes his will. His people mourn him greatly, a “good king” who has ruled wisely and fairly. Beowulf, though, accepts death with the same grace with which he has accepted success before: it is in his nature to accept death.

This is nothing like the way Everyman “accepts” death, especially towards (as distinct from at) the end of his life. When God sends Death to Everyman to set him on the road to his final accounting at the grave, Everyman tries to talk Death out of it, asking him to come back later, give him just a little more time…. Death being adamant, Everyman then bemoans the terrible state of his accounting book and tries to persuade a series of friends and relatives to go with him to buck him up on the journey. They all refuse (one pleads a sore toe!); he sets out, but continues to ask such friends as Beauty and Strength to come along. He manages to restore Good Deeds to health after much too much neglect, and he embraces the promise of salvation and confesses his sins; he can’t actually be accurately said to “accept” death until the very end, though—his attitude is closer to resignation than acceptance.

So my student is wrong two ways: both on the timing of the acceptance of death, and on the similarity of this acceptance. She should have known better than to try to equate a HERO with an EVERYMAN, or “typical person.”

What an interesting discussion could have developed from a comparison between the two characters. She might have speculated on the relative philosophical stances of a hero and an everyday kind of guy, or on the role of an afterlife on the way a Christian should live life as handled by a (probably) Christian monk writing about a pre-Christian hero, and another (probably) monk several centuries later writing about a not-very-diligent Christian. She could have discussed the value of remembering the inevitability of death (memento mori) even when life is at its richest, comparing Beowulf’s integrity even in his youthful adventures to Everyman’s moral and religious laxity until the last minute (“O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind”). What conclusions she might have reached I don’t know, since I admit I’ve only begun to think of these possibilities as a result of writing today’s post on today’s horror. But they seem to be worth exploring nevertheless.

Making a hasty generalization about a vaguely defined moment is not the way to find the road to revelation: I do know that.

Sometimes I look back on my college career and lament the opportunities I missed: courses I might have taken, papers I might have given more thought to, heights I might have reached…. I know we all have such regrets. It breaks my heart that my students seem to amass regrettable moments so quickly, and at such a trivial level, where they could instead have let themselves be tempted into taking more glorious risks.

Well, anyway, she sighed.

Let us accept the inevitable things while we can still throw joy at them.


“He went to help Hrothgar, the King of the Dames.”

What a difference a letter makes—not even a letter, but just a little hump.

I’m not willing to dismiss this as a “mere” typo, though. First, my policy is “mistake in a rough draft = typo; mistake turned in  = mistake.”

More to the point here, students seem to have the sketchiest of ideas of other countries, old or current. I have read repeatedly, for example, that Dylan Thomas was a great poet of Whales. It would not surprise me one bit if the student here thinks that living over there with the Swedes and Norwegians are the Dames. The possibility of intention rather than error increases in matters of place-names and people-names in Beowulf. The monster Grendel has shown up in papers for me as Grendal, Grendle, Grendole, Grandal, and Grend. Hrothgar loses his H as often as not. Beowulf himself is sometimes referred to, chummily, as Beo (his grandpa’s name, but grandpa is rarely meant). Students who have no idea who the Geats are assume everyone in the poem is a Dane (or, as here, a Dame). Various translations of the poem transcribe/translate various names variously, to be sure; but only this student has brought Dames into the picture.

Now, in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene (1590, which means at least 600 years after Beowulf), the Squire of Dames makes a brief appearance in Book III. Run ragged seeking ladies to serve, and then seeking ladies who refuse to be served, he is a comic-pathetic presence in a section of the poem that considers light and dark aspects of sexuality.

I find in a cruise through the Internet’s choppy seas that “The Squire of Dames” has been used as a title for a number of subsequent stories and plays, and is even an “obsolete literary euphemism for pimp.”

But Hrothgar is not a pimp, or an occasion for a discussion of sexuality.

Perhaps the King of Dames has, over the centuries, lost not only rank but also integrity. Has he slid further since 1590, to be simply one of the singing sailors in South Pacific?

The word “dame” had a similar decline (except in Burke’s Peerage), from noblewoman to elderly woman…and, of course, to the thing there’s nothing like a.

If we try to picture the King of Dames in all his splendor, back there in the Beowulf days, I guess we have to drape him in buxom blonde-or-redheaded (noble?) beauties, a little cheap but with hearts of gold, their gowns rather TOO open at the neckline, perhaps too much jewelry, perhaps too heavy a hand with the berry-juice lip-stain. “This is the King,” says the guardsman to Beowulf; “and these are his dames.”

 


“In ‘Beowulf’ I do not believe I heard anything about him being committed…”

While we’re on the subject of Beowulf.

Here’s a student who is up-front about having only a vague recollection of the text. “I do not believe” is, this time, not a denial of a thesis but an expression that means “hmmm, seems to me….” She treats the text as a story-telling or gossip session, too (“heard anything about”)—which is nice in a way, since we do believe the poem Beowulf was meant to be recited rather than read, and since the various legends on which it is based definitely were orally transmitted. Had my student been around in England or Denmark between, say, 500 and 1000 C.E., she certainly could have remarked that she didn’t believe she’d heard something about Beowulf. For the teacher who assigned the poem to be read, though, the phrase does not suggest conscientious behavior on the part of a student.

And what’s this about “him being committed”? Would rumors that he had been confined in a facility for the insane not have surprised her? Here we go:

“In ‘Beowulf’ I do not believe I heard anything about him being committed, but some may consider that Alison was somehow committed, but she really did not wed for love, only what was in it for her.”

As George Takei, my latest secret crush, would say, “Oh, my.”

The “Alison” in question is the winsome and lissome young wife in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale.” Yes, she’s married, but to an older and jealous husband (two out-of-proportion and therefore medievally negative traits)—who can blame her for flirting with a susceptible cleric and dallying with John’s lodger, “hende” Nicholas?

I can’t remember why my student felt that Beowulf and Alison should be discussed together. Maybe she was writing a paper about marriage in the literature of the Middle Ages…which would still raise the question of how Beowulf got in there, especially since Arthur and Guinevere were just waiting to be talked about and would, with Lancelot, have made an interesting combination with Alison, her elderly cuckoldy carpenter John, Absolon the squeamish cleric, and that irresistible hende Nicholas. But speculations are beside the point here: we have Beowulf, who doesn’t seem to have been committed, and Alison, who was “somehow committed.”

Well, the mention that Alison did not “wed for love” is the giveaway: “committed” is obviously short for “in a committed relationship.” Alison’s marriage was “somewhat committed,” but obviously not committed enough: she was only interested in “what was in it for her,” that gold-digger, and had not given John her heart along with her hand. The rest of her body was therefore up for, dare I say it, grabs. Enter hende Nicholas.

So when my student says she didn’t hear anything about Beowulf “being committed,” she means she didn’t hear any rumors that he was married, or in a committed relationship (can’t you just see theBeowulf poet trying to get that into a four-stress alliterative line with caesura? Try it!).

In a poem that celebrates the diplomacy-driven but clearly happy marriage of King Hrothgar and presents a number of other songs and back-stories involving good and bad marriages, Beowulf’s life is curiously private. All we know for sure is that when he died after his battle with the dragon he left no heirs of the body. Young Wiglaf, who in coming to Beowulf’s aid defies Beowulf’s announced determination to fight the dragon alone, is presented as the only young man in the rising generation with courage and principles of fealty like Beowulf’s; Beowulf says he has no sons to leave his armor to, and Wiglaf is the one who sits with him as he dies. Whether he had daughters, whether he had lovers, whether he had a wife, we do not know; my student is right, we don’t “hear anything” about those possibilities.

If we’re using “committed” to mean “promised, dedicated, pledged,” then certainly Beowulf was committed. Commitment was practically his middle name. He committed himself to repay his father’s debt of honor to Hrothgar by destroying Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, the monsters who had been besieging the Danes. He gave his loyalty to his own king and to the king’s heir, and then by popular demand succeeded him, to become a committed king for fifty years. He committed himself to protect his people by destroying the hoard-dragon some local drunk had awakened. In each of his battles he insisted on fighting alone, in view of the great risk (and also in view of his own reputation, at that time considered one’s earthly immortality).

But the way my student has phrased it, “committed” reeks of the loony bin. And maybe for Alison staying faithful to old John would have driven her nuts.

Does the rising generation of today use “committed” to mean “in a committed relationship”? If I hear someone say “I heard he was committed,” should I not think of mental or emotional problems but instead imagine him happy and fulfilled? If I see a smooching couple, should I walk up to them and say “You two should be committed!“? And what would my student think if she read that for a time King George III’s family had him committed?