Yesterday: Top Ten Histories Tomorrow: Areopagitica
We are taught in the modern US to hate monarchy, that democracy is the best form of government, has historically been the most conducive to happiness, and is more inclusive. This view is patently false, removed from sound historical reasoning, and distasteful to an intelligent observer. But there have been many critiques of monarchy, beginning with Samuel I in the Bible, and among the most notable ones has been Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic.
Beowulf begins when the king Hrothgar’s palace is being hounded by a monster. The monster Grendel is eating his guards and causing fear throughout the whole realm; the ineffective Hrothgar can do nothing to stop him. Arriving at his coast, Beowulf tells the coast guards that he has come to earn glory for himself and his noble Geats, by ridding Hrothgar of this menace. He arrives at Hrothgar’s palace, and tells Hrothgar that he wishes to fight Grendel alone, and without his weapons, just hand-to-hand as the monster prefers to fight.
After engaging in a contest of words with a high noble at dinner–the noble demeans Beowulf’s deeds because he has not heard of them, much as you have seen my deeds spoken about by others–Beowulf and his party go off to sleep. Grendel comes in the middle of the night and eats one of Beowulf’s men. Beowulf, still awake, suddenly attacks the monster. They grapple for some time. Beowulf rips off his arm, and Grendel heads back to his mother’s underwater home, where he bleeds to death.
In the next few days Grendel’s mother begins to renew his attacks in vengeance for her son’s death. Beowulf again feels compelled to fight, so he seeks out the mother underwater in her own home. Everyone fears that he will at best drown to death. At best. They agree that if he is not back in some time they will assume he has failed and head home in mourning. The time arrives and they begin to leave. But in the mean time, we are privy, as readers, to a combat scene of surpassing brilliance, which ends in Beowulf’s victory by decapitation of the mother. He comes up to shore, is recognized, cheered as heroic, and they all head back to the palace.
At this point the scene shifts, and we are fast forwarded fifty years to Beowulf’s homeland, where he is now king. He has patiently waited for the succession to fall to him, not engaging in any criminal activity. But now as king he is confronted with a crisis. A dragon sits on a hoard of treasure, of which a drunken peasant has one night stolen a goblet. The dragon has accordingly begun war against Beowulf’s kingdom. The aged Beowulf sets out with eleven nobles to confront the dragon. Approaching him, the nobles shy away, cowards to the bone. Beowulf fights alone. He dispatches the dragon, as one of his nobles, Wiglaf, comes back to help him after witnessing his struggle, but Beowulf is wounded so badly that he dies.
A funeral scene ensues wherein Wiglaf notes that the destruction of their kingdom is near. Other nations will hear of the cowardly nobles and attack them. Beowulf is buried and the dragon’s remains are thrown into the sea.
Now two things stand out to me about Beowulf the poem. The first is its structure. To me the structure is obvious: there are three monsters and three battles. Each one represents a section of the poem. Three is an obviously Christian number, and the religious overtones of the poem support the conclusion. Three times the cock shall crow. Beowulf is abandoned by his eleven nobles (the number of the true apostles is of course 11). But scholars have sometimes argued that the poem should be structured around the funerals, of which there are four. To justify this they claim that one of the funeral scenes is in fact not a funeral, merely a lay; but it is clear from the context that a ritual animal sacrifice, associated with funerals, is happening in it, so this is a mistake.
The second thing that stands out is that the position of king is marked by complete futility. The kings, Hrothgar and Beowulf, who are most prominent in the poem are also the biggest losers. Now this is something I focus on fairly heavily in The Decline of the Epic?, so I’d advise you to check there. But the crux of my thesis is this: if epics are nationalist in nature, and this is an Anglo-Saxon poem, is it any surprise that the English-speaking peoples become the most active and fervent anti-monarchists of all the European nations????
The whole poem is a short 100 pages and, God willing, I will be teaching it next summer in my course on the epics. Check this to see whether others don’t like it: http://inkslingerblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/book-review-beowulf/
I will leave you until tomorrow. That will be my last post until Monday or possibly Tuesday, as I am leaving for Las Vegas this weekend.
I hope this finds you well!