Beowulf, Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Guy
Courting the Classics Series
Fictionista Workshop, September 2010
The first time I read Beowulf, I hated it. Not in the “it’s a little difficult and linguistically annoying but I can suffer through it” kind of way, either. To a first year senior English teacher with an enduring love of the classics, the contradictory epic poem of Beowulf encapsulated everything I despised concerning so called “heroism” – unnecessary and flagrant violence in the name of personal glory and arrogant cavemen types arbitrarily wielding weapons and words. I can get down with some magic, with some monsters, with some arm-ripping battle scenes, but the difficult language of the piece and unbridled arrogance of Beowulf himself is enough to make anybody gag.
Two years ago I began teaching English IV to local seniors. Completely green and scared I would do my students a disservice in the world of English Literature, I figured the most appropriate work to begin with was, well, the beginning. Long held as the oldest piece of English literature, Beowulf was written down by an anonymous Anglo Saxon poet after the poem’s long oral tradition. At the time of the poem’s creation in Britain all literature included the violent and battle-driven tribes of the area as characters. The Celts were the preliminary tribe on the scene of Britain (where the name “Britons” comes from) but the Celts eventually clashed with the Roman Emperor Claudius for control of the British Isles. To his credit though Emperor Claudius’ arrival in 43 AD did begin to merge a Roman appreciation of written history and poetry with the existing battle-driven societies, creating the first action tales of English literature. Several more tribes leant a hand, a battle axe, or the occasional Pagan holiday or three, but suffice it to say that all tribes inhabiting the British Isles enjoyed frequently kicking the holy dog crap out of each other and writing about it.
The more I prepared to teach Beowulf the more I realized I owed Sir-What’s-His-Name an apology for doubting the cultural and personal application of his work. To begin with, Beowulf is the paradigm for every epic hero in English literature, and I daresay culture. An epic poem by nature is ridiculously long, very wordy, and hard to navigate with your brain; but the beauty of the work and the common human experiences found throughout are meant to draw the reader in and keep her reading. For example, Homer’s Iliad is 24 books worth of beautiful imagery, sword wielding nonsense between supposed heroes, some trickery, some tomfoolery, and a mutilated corpse; but the reader eventually realizes the commonality between the characters and the modern age, how relationships can strengthen or defeat, as well as some solid evidence for both sides of the fate and honor argument that plagued most Greek heroes. Perhaps arguably, epics are meant to draw the reader lovingly towards the protagonist through a series of victories, and then question that very loyalty through a significant character flaw.
Epic poems traditionally include the elements of epic hero, epic quest, valorous deeds, great events, and divine intervention. My interest in Beowulf began to peak when I realized that the epic element of the hero was still very much alive and well today. American heroes are traditionally arrogant although there has been a recent fad in having the heroes realize their arrogance has disastrous effects, but usually all is well or at least resolved at the end of the story, film, or book. Think about James Bond, created by Ian Fleming but mass produced in America as the wanna-hump-a-lot gadget genius with the cool accent, the never cold sheets, and the proclivity to set off explosions every time he blinks. Think about Dan Briggs, the initial main character of the Mission Impossible series that lasted from 1966 until the 2000s. Briggs was the leader of a top secret agency taking on impossible missions for impossible amounts of lucrative awards that reinforced American materialism and quest for validation through accolades and possessions. This idea of glory and riches defining the people we consider heroes, however, is not an American creation. To me, this idea began with Beowulf.
Beowulf as the epic hero is like a steroid version of Fabio complete with chain mail accessories, a booming bass voice that stalls men in their tracks, and a huge entourage of faithful fans. In the story, even Hrothgar’s soldier who was guarding the cliff where Beowulf and his men first landed on their way to destroy Herot’s monster problem couldn’t help but comment that Beowulf was a “beautiful man” and that his weapons were pretty cool too.
The case for Beowulf as epic hero begins when he tells his own chieftain that he is leaving to sail for Herot, the meadhall in another land plagued by a murderous monster that stalks and slaughters by night. This is an important introduction to Beowulf’s character because in the tribal system one’s chieftain is the only one capable of giving such an order or making such a proclamation – and Beowulf at this time is not a chieftain. Even so, Beowulf argues that he is the only one with the strength and strategy to defeat the monster Grendel, and tells (not requests) his chieftain that he is taking 14 of the best warriors with him to track down this monster. So not only is Beowulf possibly putting his own tribe in danger by leaving with the best warriors, he is not seeking Grendel out to help his homeboy Hrothgar. Beowulf leaves to go monster-chasing for personal glory. Luckily, he is supported by his chieftain, a warrior bloodline, and some pretty neat weaponry, but nonetheless Beowulf from the very beginning breaks from the tradition of his culture for personal gain. Hero?
Even in Beowulf’s primary encounter with Grendel, Beowulf puts himself and his own ambitions first. Beowulf orders his men to rest, tells them there is nothing to fear in the dark halls of Herot. Beowulf positions the men from the door to the walls of the meadhall, and as the only one awake Beowulf has the advantage of launching a surprise attack against Grendel when he chooses to strike. Grendel snatches the closest snack to the door, one of Beowulf’s best men strategically placed to engage Grendel. In the end Beowulf fatally wounds the monster by ripping his arm from the socket, revisits Grendel in his underwater lair to finish the monster off, has a creepy and violent encounter with Grendel’s mother, and in the end went down in his own history as what a hero should be – strong, unyielding, justifiably arrogant, and dedicated to the mission without wavering.
The final scenes of the poem see Beowulf as an old man going after a dragon’s treasure. While the dragon is said to have terrorized the township Beowulf eventually became chieftain of, it’s implied that the main object of Beowulf’s desire was the dragon’s treasure, not solely the safety of his people. Even as aged and debilitated as he was, the now much-more-crooked-and-weaknened version of Beowulf fought to the death against a dragon he never thought for an instant could best him. Even as an old man Beowulf goes down in a literal blaze of glory, setting an example for his men to follow.
While Beowulf’s arrogance may have reached nearly unbearable levels the reader is forced to contemplate his own itinerary for heroism, her own definition of virtuous acts, and whether one can serve himself and his people at the same. I teach my students the virtue of a classic piece of literature is whether it touches on a common human experience and withstands the test of time. Perhaps Beowulf is not meant to give solely an example of an ancient world hero; perhaps he is meant to make us challenge our own definition of heroism as well.