The summer months, though technically in their adolescence for the year, will certainly be coming to a halt before we know it as is always the case with such a season. As the days grow shorter, my time itself wanes in respect to the looming monkey residing on my back (i.e. student teaching). This summer like any other was welcomed with eyes much bigger than the stomach as the amount of things to be read and that which has actually been read is not a very good ratio at the moment. Likewise, the impending doom awaiting me has prompted me to suspend my “female literature” reading for the moment as I look to my more pressing (and to be quite honest more exciting) genres of literature. After diving quickly into Macbeth and back again for a more detailed look, I went next to Beowulf to seek the perspective needed for this blog and to fulfill a new reading list that will adequately prepare me for September.
I suspect the average person reading this blog has very little interest to ever read Beowful, and those that have have probably found the poem to be somewhat dry. Either melodramatic or anti-climatic, the poem lacks much of what we moderns desire in a narrative. It is my job to recommend the poem to you as a thrilling read and to persuade those who know it to give it a second chance.
Before I begin, I must say that my recent readings (in both Beowulf and currently The Canterbury Tales) have been leading me to more of an idea of the time period I will be studying in grad school. I supposed, upon applying, that I would inevitably study the nineteenth century as my favorite author, Dickens, resides in that period. Being a “Dickens scholar” as a career move appealed to me (and still does of course), but I believe wisdom may persuade me to not study someone simply because I enjoy him. The reasoning follows as such: when we first come to an author or a book for nothing but mere enjoyment, it is nearly a tragedy that we begin to tear it all to shreds through analyzation. And if I must analyze everything to death in the first place, there certainly is no need for encouragement. Thus, it makes much more sense to emphasize the literary period (medieval and renaissance) I find most appealing in terms of studying when I do continue my education — for I was introduced to this time period through study. As is the case with many things in my life, I tend to find something I enjoy only to analyze the fun out of it. Fortunately, I spending much more time in books than I do in serious relationships. For when this action takes hold of a relationship, it has catastrophic implications (here my own melodrama).
Beowulf was written by an unknown poet and was also more than likely orally handed down until the mid 10th-century or so when it was finally penned. Many believe the epic poem to have been first conceived as early as the 8th century, but no one can know for sure. This is what makes this time period so interesting me to. Not only is there a mystery in the story, but we are reminded that the narrator himself is a mystery. However, in Beowulf there really is no such mystery as far as the narrative goes. A beast attacks Heorot, a savior saves the day, and the like is repeated twice until he dies. Many who dislike the poem perhaps dislike it for this reason. Essentially the poem could be a third of what it actually is. This would of course defeat the whole purpose of poetry, and the reader would inevitably miss out on the proverbs given to us by the anonymous narrator.
- Behavior that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere. (line 25)
- Oh, cursed is he who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he who after death can approach the Lord and find friendship in the Father’s embrace. (lines 183-188)
- “Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done.” — The coastguard of Heorot, upon meeting Beowulf and his men (lines 287-288)
- “Fate goes ever as fate must.” — Beowulf (line 455)
- Death is not easily escaped from by anyone: all of us with souls, earth-dwellers and children of men, must make our way to a destination already ordained where the body, after banqueting, sleeps on its deathbed. (lines 1001-7)
- Past and present, God’s will prevails. Hence, understanding is always best and a prudent mind. Whoever remains for long here in this earthly life will enjoy and endure more than enough. (lines 1057-61)
- “It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For everyone of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.” — Beowulf, in response to the death of Aeschere (1384-85)
- Then, in a fury, [Beowulf] flung his sword away. The keen, inlaid, worm-loop-patterned steel was hurled to the ground: he would have to rely on the might of his arm. So must a man do who intends to gain enduring glory in a combat. Life doesn’t cost him a thought. (lines 1531-36)
- He who wields power over time and tide: he is the true Lord. (lines 1610-11)
- “[The Lord] often helps the unbefriended.” — Beowulf, after defeating Grendel’s mother (line 1662)
- In a man of worth, the claims of kinship cannot be denied. (lines 2600-1)
- “A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” — Wiglaf, adressing those who deserted Beowulf in his fight against the dragon (lines 2890-91)
And these are of course but a snippet of the worlds of wisdom found in such a poem. We trace the beginnings of a legend who had trouble persuading even the lowly coastguard of ill-guarded Heorot all the way to his immortal fame he acquired through his dealings with the three monsters. We see an epic “inclusio” in Beowulf’s setting sun at the end of the poem. We cannot help but notice the means by which the dragon was awakened, eerily familiar of Bilbo and Smaug. Furthermore, we are given the necessary tools needed to laugh fully and deeply as such epics as The Rape of the Lock.
I too had trouble discovering the literary worth in Beowulf the first time through. Part of this we must all confess is due to the loss that is inevitable in translation. The grand alliteration that would have occurred is salvaged only to a degree, as it is always hard to truly appreciate art that is tainted. Concerning the Old English, it became clear to me as I first was introduced to it nearly two years ago that Tolkien drew quite a bit from the Old and Middle English language when he wrote his own epics. A professor of mine told me that when Tolkien first came across the west-midland dialect (our English is derived from the east-midland), he believed he was hearing the language of his ancestors. A fascinating bit of information I would say.
But reading Beowulf and other classics of this time period as well as the medieval and renaissance periods continues to convict me of my chronological snobbery. It is all too obvious that modern man believes to be the most enlightened generation. We have the technology, the power, the facts to do nearly whatever we please. A recent generation put a man on the moon and a more recent discovered the internet. Consequently, the image that comes into our head when we think of past generations is often one of men who are living in the midst of a foggy stupor they cannot see out of. They know so little of science and mathematics and the far reaching ends of the universe. Because they appear to know very little, our logic tells us we are the enlightened ones. Yet when I read Beowulf and his friends, I discover a world enriched with fully enlightened individuals.
There is no debate: our generation knows more raw facts. But perhaps information is not the key but the ability to think outside oneself. For the medieval man may still believe the earth is the center of the universe but he at least perceives a God to be the center of his. All this reminds me that it may be modern man who is living in the foggy stupor, unable to think critically past his Xbox and Ipod, though we would never actually begin to believe this. Perhaps, then, it is not the man living in the Dark Ages who is in the dark, but the modern man, with all the lights one could ever need, who is blind and crawling in the dark. For just as the delusional man has no idea he is delusional, the materialist cannot imagine anything supernatural. Impossible it is to see, let alone think, outside the box if outside the box does not exist. Though for now man is content on staying inside the box and playing with his trinkets, I choose to join the man dancing on top the box, defeating his dragons and drinking his mead.
Soli Deo Gloria!