In our age of fresh harrowing, of renewed raid, and lamented loss, Beowulf may yet come to our aid. The power and elegiac majesty of this most renowned of Old English poems has ensured its continued cultural significance, though the mead halls are long derelict, the days of hoard and heraldry long past. As a piece of literature, Beowulf provides a stark reminder of the ominous possibilities of a sin-wracked world, the need that remains for the heroic and altruistic, and the virtue of courage in the face of seemingly unassailable evil.
This ancient poem offers many points of contact with the vexations of the second decade of the twenty-first century. In its narrative arc, rough-hewn poetic language, and insistence on supernatural realism, I am convinced we may find a vantage point from which to view our present horrors and find future hope.
The Happiness of the Hall & the Harrowing of the Earth
In what ways might this poem yet help and bless us? Early among our answers must be that the sheer realism of Beowulf’s joy and terror gives us room to explore the “wound-slurry” that evil visits on society while also rejoicing in the warmth and welcome of the hall in our periods of respite.
The skill of the Beowulf poet is most finely displayed in the poem’s juxtaposition of the fields of the hearth and the lair. Seamus Heaney’s translation has liberated the text to sing the solace and kindness of fellowship alongside the irreducible and intractable nature of evil. The peaceful moments of the poem remind us that while our shore might be brine-bashed, while our nemesis might ride on the wings of nightfall, there is shelter and fellowship at the meal board and joy in the company of our comrades. Beowulf neither sugars the goodness of gathering with others nor mitigates the resolve and resource of evil, but portrays these polar experiences in all their resplendence and malevolence.
Beowulf may yet come to our aid in these days when our halls are plundered, when lives are lost, when hope splutters close to the wick, and when rest is only a brief respite from battle.Andrew Roycroft
This benefits us in our age, as our twin temptations of denial and depression are punctured by the inhabitants of the hall. Beowulf’s characters can rejoice in merriment and mead, yet stand stone-faced against the force of evil, gripping the sinews of Grendel (one of the poem’s chief antagonists, “devourer of humankind”) with the same hands that have embraced one another in rejoicing. This, the poem insists, will always be our paradox. Grendel is followed by his grief-stricken mother, who is followed in turn by a dragon which will fell the hero of the poem. Such times are terrible, but the haven of home and hall provide respite even when evil is seldom far from the door.
Our modern Grendel, the creeping thief of health and wealth we have come to know as COVID-19, is perhaps making us more aware than ever of the need to link arms and share swords when the enemy comes, longing for the day when we touch tankards and rejoice in the rubied light of being together once more. Beowulf only ever provides respite from evil, never full resolution, and this is the space in which we congregate our joys and recalibrate our weapons for the next skirmish. This is a much healthier space than waiting for a “happily ever after” stalked by the undeniable shadow of our next nemesis.
The Call for Courage
Behind the fantastic tales of beasts and conflict, a real political heart beats in Beowulf. Faced with existential threat, the society of the poem is still riven by political vice and exploitation. The horrors of Grendel and the dragon are foes whom the hero faces head on and grapples with at close quarters, but the other ills of the epic remain unresolved. In Beowulf’s actions we see the glory of conscience and nerve pitted against prevailing evil, but we also witness the capitulation of a culture to future political defeat. The cowardice of Beowulf’s comrades guarantees the downfall of the Geats at the hands of old enemies; the dragon may lie lifeless by the hero’s side, but hard times are yet to come. The battle at hand is not always capable of addressing the prowling malevolence of political movers.
This is of help to us in our age as well. Today’s existential threats call up our courage, enlist us to bear arms, to grit teeth, and to summon valour in the face of vicious opposition, but we must not allow it to bewitch us into thinking that lasting change will follow by necessity. When the dragon is slain, there will still be manipulation on the part of politicians, petty wars, and narcissism. The fresh battles with prevailing enemies will soon give way to the old perennial battles of personality and self-aggrandizement on the part of those who wield power. Our calling is not to be surprised when this is so, nor to give in when it happens, but to embody the justice that Beowulf does in the face of such things. Part of the hero’s character is that he walks well in peacetime in the same way as he wages war in battle; the fierceness of his grip is matched by the evenness of his hand when the ordinary resumes.
Our calling will be the same as that of Beowulf. It takes courage to rip Grendel apart, and it takes bravery and honour to stand straight in a crooked world, to speak truth to power, and to take our place for justice when Machiavellianism is the main modus operandi of those who should serve our society.
Beowulf may yet come to our aid in these days when our halls are plundered, when lives are lost, when hope splutters close to the wick, and when rest is only a brief respite from battle. It will also serve us well in the anomalies and angst of a world almost devoid of public heroes, and where poisonous politics can be more monstrous than the most fiery dragon.
Featured image is an illustration by John Howe called “Beowulf and the Dragon.”