Beowulf and Fortune's Wheel
I'm not alone in the belief that "Beowulf" is among the greatest legends ever written in the English language. Many are the giants of English literature who have dissected it to unravel its secrets, not least among them being J.R.R. Tolkien whose works are heavily inspired by the Beowulf saga. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and an expert on the topic of Beowulf, and he is largely credited with popularizing the legend, which had previously been regarded as unworthy of study. This article will be the first part of a series which will give an overview of the narrative, the plot and some important background information. We will also delve deeper into the intimidating mere of the myth that many consider to be England's National Epic, by interpreting the themes and devices that make this thousand-year-old myth relevant to modern man.
But before we dig into the myth itself, we must do our homework and learn a bit of history. "Beowulf" is set approximately in the 5th to 8th century C.E. All of the events in the tale occur in Scandinavia, but it is not a Scandinavian myth. It was passed down orally by skalds (storytellers) until it was finally committed to parchment, when it was written down by two different Christian monks around the year 1000 C.E in the Anglo-Saxon lands of what is now known as England. The Anglo-Saxons were a mixed collective of a number of Germanic tribes who had migrated to Britain from their homelands in Northern Europe due to overpopulation and a changing climate which rendered the lands of their ancestors inhospitable. "Beowulf" is thus the tale of a number of immigrants who looked back into their past and reminisced about their ancestral homelands. It is not hard to imagine the mind-set of such a people, and to understand the manner in which their nostalgic fondness for their past was reflected into their songs and stories. As far as we know, there was only ever one single version of the tale which had ever been written down on paper. This parchment eventually found itself in the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton and was stored in his collection at the ironically named Ashburnham House which caught fire in 1731, during which event the Beowulf manuscript was damaged and much of its contents were lost or rendered unreadable.
There are a number of ways to interpret the poem. First, as a purely pagan legend, passed down through word of mouth by illiterate storytellers until it was later written down by a Christian scribe, probably a monk, who added a number of Christian references in order to promote the Christian faith which by that time had become predominant in that land. Second, as the work of a Christian scribe, probably a monk, who inserted a number of Germanic pagan references into the tale in order to establish it as occurring sometime in the heroic past, and also to bridge or perhaps contrast the new Christian faith with the old Germanic Paganism. Third, as the work of a scribe who was neither entirely pagan nor Christian, but rather a man who bridged the divide between the two worldviews. Perhaps a convert or a man whose forebears had been Pagan and who traced the line of his people back into the days of Germanic tribes. I am of the opinion that the author was a Christian man who deliberately set the story against the backdrop of the Germanic Heroic Age, in order to pay it its due. It is clear from interpretation of the text that the author was in fact sympathetic to the pagan characters in the tale, especially Beowulf, even though many of his fellow Christians at that time would simply have written them off as being unworthy Heathen savages who were condemned to everlasting torment in the belly of their God's Hell. To add to our ignorance, we cannot be certain that the story as it has been presented to us by the scribe is in fact the way that it was presented to the scribe himself. It may be that the tale of Beowulf was to some degree well known among the people of that time and the scribe merely had to commit the story to paper. However, it may also be that what we call "Beowulf" is in fact a collection of legends and fairy-tales which have been fused together into one single narrative, revolving around one single hero character.
But regardless of the author's religious preference, it is significant that the God of the Christians, Christ himself, is never mentioned in the narrative and the references to biblical scripture are references to the Old Testament alone. The characters of the poem are all Germanic Pagans as far as we can tell. Even Beowulf, whose speeches make him appear to be the most Christian of the characters, is never confirmed as being so. He often makes reference to a God or a Lord of all men, but his description of this God is such that Beowulf's God is identical with the Germanic idea of "Wyrd", or what we might call "Fate". It is in fact Hrothgar who comes closest to Monotheism in his speeches, but is never confirmed as such. It wouldn't make sense for a poem set in 6th century Sweden and Denmark to contain warrior heroes who were anything other than Pagan, as the Christianization of these lands would not occur until centuries later. It is clear from the tone of the poem that the author was casting his net back into antiquity in the hopes of conveying some sense of the ancient Germanic way of life, whilst also trying to remain true to the new (aggressive) Christian worldview.
On the topic of language; "Beowulf" was written in the English language, but it would be completely unreadable for an English-speaker of today. The English of "Beowulf" is Old English or Anglo-Saxon, which was the primary language of the English peoples circa 1000 C.E. Old English is a cocktail of many Germanic/Celtic dialects which fused together on the multicultural British mainland and eventually evolved into Modern English as it is spoken today. The question of language is important because of the fact that the only surviving (heavily damaged) manuscript which recounts the "Beowulf" story is written in a language that is incredibly difficult to interpret with any degree of certainty. This means that our knowledge of Beowulf's deeds, his lineage, his age, his abilities, his companions, his rule, his religion and his degree of historicity is patchy and open to a number of different interpretations. When dealing with what has been called the "English National Epic", we must tread carefully, for nothing is true and all things are shrouded in a mystery that is over 1000 years old.
The tale of Beowulf begins with the building of a great Hall in Denmark, commissioned by the Danish King Hrothgar who is (allegedly) a descendant of the Legendary Scyld Scefing. Scyld was a Moses-like character who floated down a river one day as an infant, grew up to be a great warlord, slaughtered all of his people's enemies and passed away in mysterious circumstances. Hrothgar is thus a member of a semi-mythical line of Danish Kings, and after coming into power himself he experienced similar fortune and earned renown as a powerful warlord and a generous King. He is hailed as a "ring-giver", one who distributes golden rings and ornaments to his subjects so that they might share in the spoils of his reign. This was the model of kingship in the mind of the Anglo-Saxons, who were the tellers of this tale. They regarded a generous lord as a good lord, and a selfish and mean lord as unworthy of their allegiance. Hrothgar was, we are told, a good king. He shared all of his wealth with his people and handed out many gifts. Later he decided to honour himself and his people by building a decadent mead-hall, ornamented with gold and furnished with the highest standards of craftsmanship. He named his hall "Heorot", and many a merry feast was held within its high walls.
But those who made merry within the walls of Heorot gave little thought to those who dwelt without. One night, the sound of revelry and of song carried across the moors and reached the ears of an outsider, one who was not welcomed amongst the dwellings of Men. Grendel was his name, and some say that Grendel was a huge and malevolent demon, a descendant of Cain who committed the first murder against his own brother and was cursed for his deed. Others say that he was merely a man (though a very strong one) and that he was outcast from Hrothgar's realm and made his home in the wild, away from human civilization. Whatever the case may be, it is apparent that he was an "Other", an outsider who lived beyond the walls of the Danish polis and harboured a spiteful grudge against those who made merry inside the hall. Grendel entered Heorot one night as the Danes lay asleep inside, he grabbed thirty men and placed them in a huge sack. He took the men home to his miserable lair outside of the settlement and presumably had a rather large and bloody feast. The following night he struck again and slaughtered more Danes in Heorot, and every night afterwards Grendel made the hall his own. It wasn't long before people began to avoid the hall altogether for fear of the beast. King Hrothgar had to find somewhere else to sleep as he could only rule in Heorot by daylight. For twelve years the Danes suffered the incursion of Grendel, the outsider, inside their sacred hall.
But as is the way of things, word of Grendel's atrocities spread far across the land and seas until it reached the tribe of Geats in southern Sweden. One of the young Geatish warriors saw in the Dane’s struggle the opportunity to earn great glory and wealth. Beowulf was his name, and it is said that he possessed the strength of thirty men. At this time Beowulf was in need of glory, as he had been regarded by his tribal elders as a bit dim-witted and of little worth. Though he was the strongest of men, he had not yet proven himself or earned the honour of his peers. So with fourteen other companions he sails over the sea to the land of the Danes. A watchman stands guard on the beach upon which Beowulf and his men land their ship in Denmark. From a high distant position, the Danish Coastwarden spies a long-ship full of foreign warriors clad in gleaming war-gear. Outnumbered fourteen to one, he wields his spear, mounts his horse and rides out to question the strange men who have boldly come uninvited to his homeland, dressed for battle. He questions them sternly, but he believes Beowulf when he claims to have landed with the intention of aiding the Danes in their plight with the demon, Grendel. After having to demonstrate his lineage, worth and intent several times to doubtful retainers, Beowulf finds himself before Hrothgar, King of the Danes by daylight.
This is where Beowulf reveals himself, both to the Danes and to the reader, as a man of worth. A man who backs up his many fine words with deeds of valour. Beowulf greets Hrothgar in a courtly fashion before introducing himself as the son of Ecgtheow, who owed Hrothgar a great debt since his youth. A debt which Beowulf has come to repay on his dead father’s behalf. What follows is a sequence of events which make up a "Flyting". Beowulf makes a series of boasts concerning his skills as a monster slayer and destroyer of giants. Just the man for the task of fighting Grendel. But there is a man in Hrothgar's court who doubts Beowulf, whose job it is to doubt him in fact. Unferth acts as the Thyle in the Danish hall, and it is the responsibility of the Thyle to ascertain whether the men who make great claims in his lord's presence are capable of proving true on those claims. Unferth greets Beowulf in a friendly manner at first, but he quickly turns to insult and questions the truth of Beowulf's boasts. He calls Beowulf's abilities into question and attempts to publicly disgrace and shame him in front of the Danish King. But his wits are easily bested by the wits of Beowulf, who is a master of words. Unferth is revealed to be a kinslayer, like the Biblical Cain, having killed his own brother with his ancestral sword. To slay one’s kin, one’s own blood, is the greatest shame a Germanic warrior might bear. But Beowulf does not stop at merely shaming Unferth in retaliation to his jibes. He goes on to question the masculinity of all living Danish men who hide from Grendel instead of facing the demon like true men. Usually this kind of insult would earn a foreign warrior death at the hands of his host's warband, but Hrothgar sees the truth in Beowulf's words and he admires his cocky bravado. So he gives Beowulf his hall for the night, while he sneaks away with the womenfolk to sleep in safer dwellings.
Well, in the night Grendel comes. Smashing the heavy doors of the hall with ease he snatches the sleeping body of Hondscio, who slept near the door, and chews him up like grizzled meat in front his companions. Beowulf watches Grendel, sizing him up as his friend is eaten alive, and casts aside his weapons and armour. Trusting only in his own strength, he grabs Grendel's great arm with his bare hands. In this moment Grendel feels a terror that he has never known before. Beowulf, with the strength of thirty men, has such a hold of the monster that he cannot shake loose from his grip. They wrestle in such a fury that the entire hall is broken and is barely left standing. Eventually Grendel flees, his courage gives out, but still the Geatish warrior has a grip on his arm and will not relent. Beowulf has seized his chance for eternal glory and he will die sooner than he will let it escape his grasp. The monster's shoulder joint is what gives way first, then his sinews and flesh. Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from off of his still living body and the monster's blood blackens the stones of Heorot. He flees back through the door into the black night and returns to his den in the marshes where he lies down and gives up his miserable life as he bleeds the last of his blood, which has never before been spilled by the hands of Men.
In the morning the King awakens to witness the severed arm of Grendel hanging from the roof of his hall. The Danes rejoice that their curse is lifted. The court poet composes songs in Beowulf's honour and Hrothgar gifts him with vast amounts of wealth, even going so far as to adopt him as a son (despite the fact that he already has sons, as his wife gently reminds him). Lo and behold, even Unferth is a bit more friendly to the Geats now and he gifts Beowulf with his ancestral sword, named Hrunting. Presumably this is the sword that Unferth used to kill his brother and as such it is a cursed kinslaying blade that any man would be sensible to get rid of. As the feast rages on, the Danes grow worried that Beowulf’s band of drunken Geatish warriors might decide that they like Danish mead a little too much and usurp the throne by force. But spurned on by Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s wife, the Geats proclaim that they shall leave on the next morning, before everyone passes out drunk and crawls off to some bed or bench.
But when morning comes Beowulf does not leave, for the rising sun reveals that his work is not yet complete. In the deep darkness of the night another demon has crept into the hall, which housed the sleeping Danish men. Grendel's mother (even monsters must have mothers), maddened with grief, seizes up one of King Hrothgar's most trusted friends and drags him away to her den. As we might expect from an aged old king who has been bent by age and weakness, Hrothgar's grief is deep. He summons Beowulf and reveals not only that there is a second monster now assaulting the hall, but surprisingly, that he also knew about Grendel's mother’s existence and that he can lead Beowulf to her lair. Very convenient. Well Beowulf cares not if he has to double his glory by slaying a second foe, so he agrees to meet Hrothgar's challenge. But first he tells the aged King to get a grip on himself:
"Grieve not. Better is it for a man to avenge his friends rather than to lament overmuch. To each of us comes the end of life, but let him who can earn glory before his death."
Wise words, and as is usual with Beowulf these words are followed swiftly with action. The party of Geats are led to the monster’s cave by a party from the Danish court. In the cave is a deep pool filled with serpents and sea-dragons. Beowulf keeps his armour on this time, and his helmet too. At his hip he carries Hrunting the kinslaying blade which Unferth gifted him after the slaying of Grendel. After the customary boast, down he dives into the deep mere. Here we glimpse more evidence of Beowulf's superhuman ability. He seems to breathe underwater as well as on land. Down to the murky depths of the pool he delves and wrestles with Grendel's mother in a cavern. She slashes at him with her claws and stabs him with some cursed dagger, but he is protected by his armour. Hrunting, the sword of Unferth the kinslayer, fails Beowulf when he needs it most. As he strikes the monster with the blade it does no damage and the hero's sword fails him, not for the last time. It should be noted that the sea-hag is descended from Cain, the kinslayer. It is possible that a kinslaying weapon would make no wound upon those who bore the curse of kinslaying on their souls, but this is mere speculation on my part. He grapples with her then in the same manner as he grappled with her son Grendel. She proves to be an equal match for Beowulf's strength and he almost meets his end in the sea-hags den. But he spies in the cave a massive sword, engraved with runes of victory. It is no mere human weapon but the work of ancient giants. Grasping the blade with two hands he smites the monster on the neck and beheads her where she stands. As he composes himself after his fiercest battle to date, he stumbles upon the body of Grendel. The Geatish hero has a tendency to take trophies after his victories and he severs Grendel's head with the Giants blade. It is interesting that he does not take a trophy from Grendel's mother, considering he already has Grendel's arm hanging as a trophy from the roof of Heorot.
When Beowulf eventually swims back out of the mere and returns to shore, his comrades are greatly relieved to see him. The Danes had long since given him up for dead and returned to Heorot, but the Geats remained loyal to him and greet his return. It takes four men to carry Grendel's head back to the hall, such is its size. The Geats arrive back at the settlement to find the ignoble Danes feasting and drinking, as usual. Hrothgar now delivers a famous and long-winded sermon to Beowulf on the dangers of a man allowing his pride to blind him to the harsh truth of reality. He sees in Beowulf a man who will go on to achieve greatness beyond imagination, and warns him to stay true to himself and his people. Using the example of his own rise to greatness and fall into degeneracy and frailty, Hrothgar implores Beowulf to remember that he will one day have to repay the gods for the good fortune they have bestowed on him:
"Now for a while thy valour is in flower. But soon it will be that sickness or a sword or the fire's touch or the water's embrace or the shaft of spear or even dreadful old age will rob thee of thy might. Or the fire in thine eyes will fail and fade. One day it will be that thee, proud warrior, shall be by death laid low."
What follows, in typical Danish fashion, is more feasting and gift giving and speech making to commemorate the foreign heroes and their captain's glorious deeds. When the dawn comes the Geats pack up and prepare to return home. Hrothgar pledges to end the long-standing feud that has existed between the Geats and the Danes, and swears an alliance between the two peoples because of Beowulf's aid. The watchman on the shore once again greets the Geatish warband, but this time in a much friendlier manner. Before boarding his boat, Beowulf gives a fine sword to the watchman as a gift. I am of the opinion that the sword that he gives away is in fact Unferth's blade, Hrunting, which was used in the act of kinslaying and which also failed Beowulf during his combat with the sea-hag. What man would wish to keep such an accursed blade? Upon returning to Geatland over the sea, we meet King Hygelac and his wife Hygd. Hygelac, who is secure in his house and chiefest among his champions, is here contrasted with Hrothgar, who had to flee his own hall each night before the coming of Grendel. Beowulf addresses his lord and very modestly recounts the tales of his adventure. Though he had seen much of the character of the Danes and their King, he offers no criticism here. Better it is not to speak ill of one's new allies. In a show of Germanic loyalty, Beowulf gives the majority of his acquired treasure and wealth to Hygelac, keeping little of it for himself. Hygelac, if he be a good King, will be expected to distribute the wealth that Beowulf has brought home to his subjects justly and generously. This is the Germanic code, the warrior owes allegiance and tribute to his lord and King, whose duty it is to give gifts and improve the fortunes of his loyal subjects. That, to the mind of the Anglo-Saxon, is a good King.
Before he left for Denmark to hunt Grendel, Beowulf was regarded as unworthy by the men of his tribe. He ate and drank his mead at the back of the mead hall, amongst those who had not distinguished themselves. He was thought to be a sluggard, lazy, clumsy and lacked the honour of his companions. But by his own hand and courage, Beowulf returns to his people as a champion and a hero. He has forever altered his fate by setting sail in search of glory, while others stayed at home. Hygelac, good King that he is, gifts Beowulf with a fine hall on a vast tract of land. From a penniless wastrel to a landowning nobleman in the space of a few days; a man might gain much by venturing forth resolved to win or die.
This point in our tale marks the transitional period. We have seen young Beowulf, the superhuman warrior who has not yet earned his fame, venture out into the world in search of adventure. He triumphs, and earns himself a place at the table with his King. But this is not the end of the tale of Beowulf. The poem continues and recounts the battles and glories that the Geatish hero achieves in old age. From word to deed and from youth to age, this is a tale of balance. Hrothgar's warning to Beowulf was to pay attention to the cyclical nature of life and fortune.
Fortune is a great wheel upon which every man sits. The wheel spins, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. Often a man seems to rise to the top of Fortune's Wheel and win some glory or prize like the young Geatish hero in our story. But always the wheel turns, and the man who today is at the top will tomorrow be down at the lowest point of the cycle, in the mud and filth.
In this article we have discussed Beowulf's rise to fame and his waxing strength, but the rest of this examination of Beowulf deals with the waning of his power, his descent from living glory into legend, and the psychological insights that modern readers like you and I can gain by studying this fascinating myth. To read the rest of this series check out my book "Unchaining The Titan:Collected Essays", available on Amazon and in the WOODKERN Store.