Monday, May 17, 2021

Notes on Beowulf

At first reading, Beowulf seems to be an exemplary hero.  Once you have started examining exemplary heroes around the world, however, you begin to notice that the texts nearly always sneak in some criticisms.  Odysseus is a first-class example of a survivor, but not even a third-class example of much else. Gilgamesh is in his personal life a mere rapist, partially subdued and reformed by Enkidu - and then the two of them go off on a bro-adventure. I am not sure we would be so attuned to tragic flaws leading to tragic heroes if it weren't for Shakespeare and a few Greeks, but now that we have seen it, we can't unsee it. The manuscript is clear that Beowulf is a great hero, and even in his 70s is the only hero who can go against the dragon.  Yet it hits this theme long enough, and wrings its hands over what will come next that the reader/listener has to consider why there is no one to come after.  Has Beowulf in fact failed to raise up a generation of leaders and heroes after himself? There is only Wiglaf, and his nobility seems to derive from blood and intention, not training.

Unrelatedly, Beowulf is put forth as the national epic of England. I disagree.  I don't much mind that he is ambiguous as to membership in Fair Albion. He is a Geat (pronounced "Yat,"),  but that is pretty typical for all heroes.  Among their many ambiguities, heroes of the great epics often come from border categories of the nationality in question. Still, he is pretty far afield even by the loose standards of epics. I would nominate the general character of Arthur across the contradictory literary works about him instead. There has been a shying away from Arthur over the last century because his actual historicity seems dodgy.  Why that would point us to Beowulf instead is a bit humorous. But no one in 1900, 1800, 1700, in England would have picked Beowulf as any representative of anything.  Most would not have heard of him, though Arthur would be recognisable. No, Beowulf has risen up because introductory British Lit courses have started there for the last 70 years, imbuing the work with an aura of UK continuity that is not there. Also, there are a half-dozen texts about Arthur that could be put forward, none commanding the heights, so they don't jump off a syllabus.

Still, Arthur is the one. Despite all the arguments and confusion, he is where the heart goes.

1 comment:

Grim said...

Definitely Arthur. Any generation from the 1100s would have known his story as the grounding story for why the Anglo-Norman kings held lands in Celtic regions of France as well as the British Isles, and the tale was already well enough known abroad as the English story that Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote of it. From the 1200s the English would have recognized the story as the high tale of their nation. Also by the 1200s, but especially flowering in the 1300s, the best poets from Germany to Southern France sang of the Arthurian cycle. Malory wrote in the 1400s, largely based on French prose writers who spun Lancelot's tale out to a million words. And there was a huge revival in the 1800s, especially when the ascension of a very young Queen Victoria inspired a generation to aspire to chivalric service of their queen.

Your insight into Beowulf's failure is also the subject of Elizabeth A. Howard's 2009 work “Beowulf Is Not God Cyning." As she points out, the poet tells you right at the beginning what a good king does in the example of Scyld Scefing. He destroys the enemy, wrecks their mead halls, makes all pay tribute -- and, crucially, secures the succession so that this peace and prosperity passes stably to his heirs. Beowulf was a great monster slayer, and the fear of those deeds (as well as his prowess in the wars with Sweden) keep the enemies at bay while he lives. But he didn't prepare at all for the succession, and his own powerful reputation meant that his warriors were weak and cowardly (excepting Wiglaf). Slavery was sure to follow when he was gone, as the poem clearly expresses.