Tag Archives: Grendal

Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon experience

First page of the oldest surviving Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf is an epic poem that is richly Anglo-Saxon–despite its hero being a Dane.  When I read it I am amazed at how clearly the image of the hall of Hrothgar, Heorot, appears in my mind, with its central fire, its tables and warrior thegns and ealdormen drawn by the wealth, success and generosity of their king.  In these strongholds the storyteller was revered for his harp, voice and tales.  Certainly, that is how Beowulf began, as a story told to the community in the halls of kings. When I think about how Beowulf’s images of come to be so clearly formed in my imagination, there are two sources to credit: the first is The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and the second was through the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar, Bede, by way of one of my history professors, Dr. Lawrence Poos (The Catholic University of America). J.R.R. Tolkien, a scholar of early European cultures, especially Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, made copious reference to Beowulf’s culture and borrowed a great deal in the formation of the complex world of his literary Middle Earth and languages.  The Rohirrim are based upon the Anglo-Saxons, except for the horses–replace horses with ships and it is a closer approximation to the reality.  In fact, Tolkien writes one of the foundational lectures/essays on Beowulf arguing for the first time that the story is just that: a story.  Previous interpretations always assumed or sought to establish an historical event that gave way to the Grendal myth.  (For a modern author’s fictional interpretation of this idea, I recommend Michael Crichton’s Eater’s of the Dead also titled The 13th Warrior–yes, from the movie with Antonio Banderas–which is based in part on the writings of an Arab who encountered the Vikings and in part on a “plausible” event that inspired the epic Beowulf.)

One of the earliest images of Bede

The other inspiration for my imagination is, as mentioned, Bede.  Dr. Poos, in particular, drew attention to an exquisite description of the Anglo-Saxon culture that is captured, almost accidentally, by Bede in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  This work of history is in large part the story of England from Roman times up until his lifetime ending around 732 AD/CE.  Central to this story is the Church in England and the conversion of recently arrived Anglo-Saxon peoples from the continent, as the title would imply–Ecclesiastical History!  Bede writes in Book II, Chapter 13 about the missionary work of the bishop Paulinus with King Edwin:

When the king heard his words, he answered that he was both willing and bound to accept the faith which Paulinus taught.  He said, however,  that he would confer about this with his loyal chief men and his counselors so that, if they agreed with him, they might all be consecrated together in the waters of life.  Paulinus agreed and the king did as he had said.  A meeting of his council was held and each one was asked in turn what he thought of this doctrine hitherto unknown to them and this new worship of God which was being proclaimed.

This is a significant chunk of text for most people who are used to thinking of kings with absolute power.  The thegns and ealdormen chose the king and rewarded him with their service based on his loyalty and generosity to them–they were free to break with him and follow another if he was regarded as unworthy–an element of the culture that is also evident in Beowulf.  After the king’s chief priest claims no faith in their gods because he has followed them with zeal without rewards, one of the “chief men agreed with this advice and with these wise words” he added:

This is how the present life of man on earth, King, appears to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us.  You are sitting feasting with your ealdormen and thegns in winter time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of that hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall.  It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other.  For the few moments it is inside the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again.  So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all.  If this new doctrine brings us more certain information, it seems right that we should accept it.

I am not overly fond of this particular translation (from Latin, not Anglo-Saxon, despite it being Bede’s native tongue), but I am extremely fond of the imagery.  That sparrow, if he flew into the hall during winter’s tempests, would very likely and unknowingly have winged through a performance of Beowulf or one of the other Anglo-Saxon works that were preserved when someone chose to write them down in Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English), such as “The Battle of Maldon” and other poems.

This is part the Anglo-Saxon text

This brings us back to Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon experience.  The story, especially when bolstered by the imagery of Tolkien and Bede, paints the Anglo-Saxon life in the mind with poetry.  I am partial to the Seamus Heaney bilingual edition (recently a new illustrated edition that is only in translation was published and is wonderfully beautiful).  Heaney is himself a poet and a son of a Gaelic speaking country, as such I am convinced by his artistic translation and liberal use of onomatopoeic Gaelic words–it sounds right!  (Arguably, some other translations, such as Burton Raffel may have other merits that are greater to the integrity of the poem, but I am drawn to Heaney’s because I believe he preserves the integrity of the experience.)  While Tolkien has taught us not to look for history in Beowulf, we may look to its poetry and imagery for the historical experiences of the Anglo-Saxons.  This is poetry’s gift, after all. In class, I teach in a windowless room with two solid doors and two fixed glass transoms above the doors at opposite corners of the room–much like the openings at either end of the mead hall, just below the eaves where the smoke from the fire could escape.  Using the computer and the projector, I played a recording of Heaney reading from his edition in the darkness, while a fire crackled on the screen from a YouTube video. Allow me to recommend the experience!  The BBC recordings are probably available in a few places online, but I used the excerpts from the Norton Anthology webpage.  Below, you can use the same burning fire that I did! Some lines that I find particularly instructive regarding the experiences of Anglo-Saxon life include the following:

The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar. Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks, young followers, a force that grew to be a mighty army.  So his mind turned hall-building: he handed down orders for men to work on a great mead-hall meant to be a wonder of the world forever; it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense his God-given goods to young and old– but not the common land or people’s lives. Far and wide through the world, I have heard, orders for work to adorn that wallstead were sent to many peoples.  And soon ot stood there, finished and ready, in full view, the hall of halls.  Heorot was the name he had settled on it, whose utterance was law. Nor did he renege, but doled out rings and torques at the table.  The hall towered, its gables wide and high and awaiting a barbarous burning.  That doom abided, but in time it would come: the killer instinct unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant. Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance.  It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters; in His splendor He set the sun and the moon to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men, and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves; and quickend life in every other thing that moved.

In this stanza the king’s success and nobility draws men to him and with this he builds the great mead hall, Heorot.  Therein the poets sing to the people.  According to the author, they sing about the genesis of the world–a biblical genesis, not a pagan one–and, this with feasting is what so offends the demon Grendal who attacks Hrothgar and his people.  This is where Beowulf enters the picture–he is the hero from nearby kingdom and is the kin of Hrothgar.  He will defeat the dragon’s lust for Hrothgar’s treasure and the blood of his men.

Anglo-Saxon treasure from the Staffordshire hoard

Recommended Reading

Every edition of Bede or Beowulf will have a helpful introduction.  I would also recommend the Penguin Classics’ publication, The Earliest English Poems, translated by Michael Alexander.  (Literature provides a unique source for a culture and often gives us many hints about the lives of people in general as opposed to great individuals in particular.)

If you are interested in Beowulf as literature, you will find many scholarly articles that address it.  I would also recommend, especially to folks interested in Tolkien, that you take a look at a book, Beowulf and the Critics, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Michael D. C. Drout, in the Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies series out of Arizona’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.  This is a review of Tolkien’s concepts regarding the epic and its place in literature.  It is a definite intersection between Tolkien’s imagination and his scholarship, because the medieval literature of the Germanic peoples, such as the Anglo-Saxons, so entertained and delighted him.

If it is Bede who catches your fancy, then I recommend reading more of his works, though they are mostly theology and biblical exegesis.  He does have a fascinating book on time which is both scientific, calculative and theological, The Reckoning of Time.  There are a number of books that have been written about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History if that is more your cup of tea.  Additionally, there are other historians writing close to his day and age, such as Gregory of Tours (see my post on Gregory’s History of the Franks).

2 Comments

Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Historian's Journal