Beowulf and Archetypal Evil
by Maria S. Kardaun
July 11, 2013
Beowulf, the Geatish hero who prominently features in the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name, is one of the most successful and radical monster-slayers that world mythology has to offer. However, as he grows older, the hero’s powers diminish and the poem ends with a sense of deep mourning and loss. With the help of comparative mythology I will try to shed some light on the nature of the successive forms of evil that Beowulf encounters. Secondly, I will contrast evil as it appears in the thousand year old epic poem Beowulf with some (post)modern ideas about evil that we find in Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 movie Beowulf and Grendel.
Beowulf and Archetypal Evil
Maria S. Kardaun
Maastricht University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Department of Literature
I – The Storyline of the Old-English Poem Beowulf
In the year 1815, the Icelandic-Danish scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, National Archivist of Denmark and Professor of Antiquities at the University of Copenhagen, published the first modern edition of a lengthy Old-English epic poem by the name of Beowulf. The poem is important in many ways. For one thing, its 3,182 lines of verse are a major source of our knowledge of Old-English. Moreover, Beowulf is the only more or less pagan Old-English epic to have survived the course of time. That is to say, except for a few standard remarks about Christian faith, which are not very relevant to the storyline, the poem is completely pagan in nature. Thus, it offers us a glimpse into the lost world of Anglo-Saxon mythology.
Although it is hard to tell exactly when Beowulf was created, and by whom, without a doubt the poem is very old. The only surviving manuscript, the so-called Nowell-codex, roughly dates from around the year 1000. The codex is clearly a copy of an already existent, earlier text and appears to have been written down by two different scribes (from line 1939 onwards the handwriting is less elegant and the spelling less unified; also the second half of the poem shows more archaic and dialectical characteristics than the first half, perhaps because the second scribe was more straightforwardly copying the original, without trying to improve on it).
Oral versions may date back even further, possibly to the eighth or seventh century of the common era. The few confirmed historical events that we find in Beowulf – for example a raid by the Geats against the Franks and the Frisians that is also described by Gregory of Tours – all seem to have taken place in or before the sixth century CE. Furthermore, recent excavations at Lejre, Denmark’s ancient royal seat, show the remnants of a mighty, well-situated, 47 metres long, Late Iron Age residence, that for several reasons is believed to be possibly identical with king Hroðgar’s famous mead hall Heorot (Niles & Osborn 2007, pp. 116-124 and 214-227). This residence was built in the middle of the sixth century and abandoned by the mid-seventh century. It seems reasonable to assume that the first versions of the oral tale that incorporated these elements – assuming there were oral versions to begin with – started to take shape not so very much later in time.
Unlike comparable works, such as the Odyssey or the Arthurian legends, Beowulf is not well-known to the general public. In fact, in the centuries between 1000 and 1800 CE it had virtually disappeared from collective memory, and after its rediscovery, some two centuries ago, it was almost exclusively studied by academics and hardly read for pleasure. The tale can therefore not be called a living myth. Admittedly, readers may be acquainted with Beowulf in an indirect way, namely through the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who borrowed much from Beowulf (including names, various sub-plots and also the general atmosphere). Even so, there has not been any continuity in the poem’s reception. The main reason for Beowulf’s obscurity throughout most of the last millennium may be that the Norman rulers who ruthlessly subjugated the Anglo-Saxon world in the decades following the Battle of Hastings, tended to suppress Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage in favour of ‘harmless’ older legends about Celtic heroes, such as King Arthur.
Another thing to be noted is that we have no more than just a single codex of the text at our disposal. Furthermore, this one codex is our only source of the tale’s main mythical subject matter. This means that there is no such thing as a rich hoard of slightly different accounts of Beowulf that we could derive amplifications from. It goes without saying that this uniqueness (possibly due to the aforementioned Norman pacification policy) is rather disappointing from a depth-psychological point of view. On the other hand, in the text of Beowulf there are several references to other, more widespread Northern mythical stories, themes and figures, such as Weland the smith and Sigemund and the dragon, and there can be no doubt that Beowulf is firmly rooted in the overall Germanic tribal civilization of the early Middle Ages.
Before discussing the different types of evil in Beowulf, I will briefly summarize the storyline. To be sure, far from being a mere chronicle, Beowulf is a carefully composed, densely structured work of art, with many inserted sub-stories, foreshadowing remarks and intriguing flashbacks, but for our purposes it is best to rearrange the most conspicuous events into a linear overview. Thus we may gain a clear grasp of the basic mythological pattern underlying the tale.
Beowulf, the protagonist of the poem, is a Geatland prince. He hails from an area that nowadays is situated in Sweden. Not only is he a close relative of the king of the Geats, but he is also a personal acquaintance of the king of the Danes, Hroðgar, who lives in Sjoelland, Denmark. King Hroðgar was once generous to Beowulf’s father and so Beowulf is indebted to him.
However, the poem does not begin with the adventures of either Beowulf or Hroðgar, but at a much earlier point in history, namely with the description of the funeral of king Scyld Scefing, the mythical founding father of the Danish royal dynasty and the supposed great-grandfather of king Hroðgar. The first sixty odd lines of verse commemorate the noble character and deeds of old king Scyld and his successors, and it is only after this introduction that the story turns to Hroðgar’s reign.
Hroðgar conceives of building a huge and splendid mead hall, a hall that he intends to be “a wonder of the world forever” (line 70, in the translation of Seamus Heaney). He names the hall Heorot (meaning ‘stag’ or ‘hart’, which I will return to later). The newly built, magnificent hall is a source of pride and joy to the Danes who are thrilled by the feasts that Hroðgar organizes and the royal gifts that he doles out. There is merriness, wealth and generosity, and there are lively gatherings with music, elevated poetry and huge amounts of beer.
But not for long, because a gruesome monster by the name of Grendel, a child of darkness that lives in a ghastly swamp, is unpleasantly disturbed by the sound of human happiness and culture and starts paying nightly visits to Heorot. He develops the habit of feeding himself with as many sleeping Danish warriors as he possibly can. He continues to do so for twelve years: king Hroðgar reigns during the day, but it is the monster that reigns at night.
Upon hearing about Hroðgar’s misfortune, Beowulf and fourteen other Geatish warriors leave Geatland and sail to Denmark, to offer their allegiance against this terrible foe. Hroðgar is strengthened by the arrival of the Geats. He organizes a party and they all stay at Heorot for the night. As was to be expected, it does not take long before Grendel shows up. His vicious heart laughs at the prospect of an exceptionally rich meal. He seizes one of the sleeping men, rips him apart and devours him completely, including feet and hands. Beowulf, however, is not asleep. (The text puts some emphasis on the fact that he is the only human being that is awake: lines 705f. and 1268). When Grendel comes after him, Beowulf grabs him with all his might and refuses to let go. A fierce battle ensues. The other Geatish warriors try to assist Beowulf, but their weapons are of no use, because not even the best iron in the world can harm this most evil of creatures. Finally, after a terrible duel, without armour or sword, Beowulf manages to tear off the arm of the beast. Grendel is defeated. He flees and returns to his muddy home to die, his hideous arm nailed to the wall of Heorot as a trophy.
Now everyone is very much relieved. Beowulf is rewarded with great honour and noble gifts. Heorot is cleaned up, Hroðgar resumes his royal lifestyle and life at court returns to business as usual, which, among other things, means that they all get drunk.
However, that night the Danes are in for a rather unpleasant surprise: as it turns out, the monster has a mother. (Apparently Grendel and his mother form a kind of couple; they dwell in the same filthy swamp and the text never mentions any other living relatives of Grendel. Furthermore, as Hroðgar explains in lines 1355-7, the monster and its mother have been seen together, but nobody knows anything about a father.) While the Danes sleep, unaware of any danger, the mother suddenly shows up at the mead hall to avenge the death of her son. In a kind of hit-and-run action she snatches one of the Danish warriors, namely Hroðgar’s favourite knight Aeschere, and kills him. She also retrieves her son’s arm.
Beowulf was sleeping elsewhere at the time, and it is only the next morning that he finds out about this second vile creature. Devastated, Hroðgar puts all his hope in Beowulf again. He implores the young hero to help him once more and also kill Grendel’s mother for him. Though Beowulf does not feel too confident he accepts the unexpected extra challenge and descends into the swampy pit where the Grendel family have their home.
Within the swamp there is an underwater den containing both Grendel’s corpse and his doting mother. Beowulf and the monster’s mother fight a fierce battle. Beowulf is armed this time, but his human sword is worthless against the demonic enemy. He is nearly killed, but just in time he catches sight of another weapon, a magical sword from a long bygone age, forged by giants. It has a wavy-patterned blade – hence is very sharp – and is “larger than any other man might carry out to battle-play” (line 1560, translation by Michael Swanton). Beowulf grabs the otherworldly, damascened, super-sized sword and decapitates Grendel’s mother. He also cuts off the head of Grendel’s corpse, and after that he swims ashore where he is anxiously awaited by his men. He has the giant sword with him, however the blade has melted owing to the foul blood of the two monsters. Upon his return to Heorot, Beowulf again receives many royal gifts, as well as a very grateful speech by Hroðgar, though with a mild warning this time: Beowulf should not think that his luck will last forever. Finally the hero returns to Geatland.
Back in Geatland, at the court of his uncle, king Hygelac, Beowulf recounts what happened on his journey to the Danes, and so we get to hear the main events again, but now from the hero’s own perspective. The next thing we read, is that Beowulf follows his uncle in an oversea raid against the Franks. On this expedition, Hygelac is killed and Beowulf swims home in full armour. Thereupon, his aunt, queen Hygd, offers Beowulf the throne of Geatland, but Beowulf declines in favour of Hygelac and Hygd’s young son Heardred. However, somewhat later prince Heardred is killed by the Swedes, and so the brave and loyal Beowulf is proclaimed king of the Geats after all.
Thereupon Beowulf rules the Geats for a very long time, fifty years to be precise, and he is in all respects a great king: wise as a ruler and a trustworthy guardian of his native land. However, at the end of his life disaster strikes again, meaning that in his old age Beowulf has to deal with a frightening supernatural foe once more. This time his adversary is not a troll from the swamps but a fiery dragon. Someone had stolen a cup from its hoard, and now the sinister creature is infuriated and has started burning down all of Beowulf’s empire.1
Though Beowulf is now of quite an advanced age, he is still as brave as ever, and together with twelve of his knights, he attempts to pursue the dragon into its lair. However, as soon as the mission starts to become really dangerous, the knights do not dare to follow him. Only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf stays with him until the end. Against the scorching enemy Beowulf’s sword is of no use, but his iron shield offers him some protection. Beowulf wishes he could have approached the dragon without artificial means, as in the fight with Grendel long ago, but realizes that this is impossible. Finally, Beowulf manages to slay the dragon with the help of young Wiglaf, but he is mortally wounded by the dragon’s poison. He dies in the hope that at least the dragon’s gold will benefit his people, the Geats. However, as the reader finds out after Beowulf has died, the gold is in fact enchanted and has to be buried. The poem then ends as it began, with a funeral and with a sad yet grateful commemoration of a truly great king.
II – The Storyline of the Movie Beowulf and Grendel
Let us now turn to the storyline of Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film production Beowulf & Grendel. Here the events are presented as more or less realistic, the setting is historical, and there are definitely no magical elements. In fact, the film-makers appear to have done their utmost to demythologize and disenchant the old mythical tale of Beowulf and have turned it into an explicit psychological lesson.
And what an explicit lesson it is. The makers seem to be afraid that we might miss the point and so they spell everything out for us. For example, apart from simply showing us what happens, they come up with short, informative texts, such as “A Hate Is Born” or “From the Sea a Hero”, or they inform us about exactly where and in what historical year a particular event is supposed to take place.
Moreover, in order to enhance our understanding of what happens in the plot – the plot being: Danish king builds magnificent hall which a monster subsequently attempts to destroy, followed by the appearance of a saviour-hero from overseas who manages to solve the problem – they explain to us in detail what in their view must have happened before. In other words, we learn that there is a history behind the monster’s mysterious aggression. For example, we learn that in the year 500 AD, that is to say some twenty years before the main events take place, the young king Hroðgar, without having been provoked in any way, killed the father of Grendel right in front of the latter’s eyes. At that time, Grendel was only a helpless child. The Grendels are depicted in the film as a kind of Neanderthal people, as primitive but innocent outsiders who are despised by the Danes, who consider themselves superior. In short, we are to understand that poor Grendel has every reason to hate king Hroðgar and his arrogant Danish warriors, and that Grendel’s wish to devastate Heorot some twenty years later makes perfect sense.
And of course there is a romantic interest in the movie. Grendel has a mate that he cares about, a witch (who is no more to be found in the original epic poem Beowulf than Grendel’s father). The witch is both a very beautiful and a particularly articulate woman. As Grendel’s partner and the mother of his son, she is living proof of Grendel’s high esteem of traditional family values, but she also serves to clarify the monster’s point of view to the audience. Beowulf feels attracted to her and visits her often. What we find out through her is that, though society projects ‘the Other’ onto Grendel, the poor guy actually means well. In other words, it is not Grendel who is the cause of evil, but society’s rather hysterical projections. Grendel is a kind of noble savage, with a natural sense of right and wrong. He is always very precise and proportionate in his justified revenge on the world, and has never harmed anyone innocent at all. Actually, it is not Grendel but we who need to be re-educated.
Another point where the film significantly differs from the Old-English original is in its view of Christianity. The Old-English poem as we have it – that is to say, the version that has come to us through the Nowell-codex – was clearly edited in Christian times. Especially in the first half of the poem we find references to God, not only by the narrator but also by Beowulf himself and in a quite natural way for that matter. Still, Christian views are hardly integrated into the events, and it is the mythical heroism in Beowulf that constitutes the plot. For example, though the narrator remarks that the “holy God, [...] the mighty Lord, Ruler of skies” (lines 1553f., translation by Howell Chickering) helped Beowulf to survive an otherwise deadly attack, there is no explanation as to how and why this happens and the real solution of Beowulf’s problem subsequently comes from a magical sword.2
In the film this is all very different. Christianity is an issue here. Several of the uncouth Danes are won over to the idea of having themselves baptized by an Irish priest. The idea seems to be that Christianity is somehow less brutal than paganism, and it is suggested that their increasing readiness to be baptized is a sign that at least some of the Danes have begun to see the necessity of becoming slightly more civilized.
At the same time, the real hero of the film, Beowulf, has already moved beyond (superficial forms of) Christianity. His ideals are quite similar to the ideals of a perfectly modern, secular type of post-Christian humanism. All the same, the filmmakers chose to fashion their hero iconographically after conventional nineteenth and twentieth-century Western representations of Jesus Christ. Especially in the second half of the film the cinematic Beowulf – a tall, dark-blond young man in plain white clothes with a mild expression on his bearded face – could easily be mistaken for the protagonist of a run-of-the-mill gospel movie.
The dénouement, finally, is as follows: just as in the mythical story, Beowulf eliminates both Grendel and Grendel’s mother for king Hroðgar. However, in marked contrast to the original the Grendels in the movie are in fact quite honourable and the hero cannot help finding out about the structural injustice that is done to these supposedly evil creatures. Beowulf gradually starts to unravel Hroðgar’s part in the problem and after a while it becomes clear to him, that for Hroðgar to get rid of his depression and alcohol problem, he needs to clear his conscience and confess. At first Hroðgar is reluctant to do so – it takes several therapeutic sessions before he admits his guilt –, but once he has done so, he starts to feel better. Thereupon, Beowulf brings peace, reconciliation and forgiveness to all the participants in the drama, not only to the king of the Danes, but also to the witch and to Grendel’s son. Beowulf sleeps with the witch, tells the son he should be proud of his father and posthumously even honours Grendel himself by giving him a dignified burial, thereby ending the cycle of violence that Hroðgar started.
And that is apparently all there is to it. The movie does not bother to tell us what happens in the much darker second half of the original story, where Beowulf and his people meet their doom. Ultimately, the movie is not distressing at all. Beowulf goes back to Geatland, his mission accomplished. All’s well that ends well, and in all probability they all live happily ever after.
III – Two Contrasting Approaches to Evil
This brings us to my final topic. Where does evil come from? For example, in the context of the Beowulf-tale it is quite natural to ask ourselves: why is it that Grendel terrorizes Heorot? Let us explore two different answers, the first a civilized, enlightened, Judaeo-Platonic-Christian-Humanistic-(post)modern, relatively pleasant one, the second a primitive, mythological, yet to my mind much more realistic one.
The civilized answer is rather straightforwardly presented in the film. Though evil may be scary, there is a remedy, it can be redeemed. If only we can bring ourselves to be nice to supposed monsters, if we make the effort and come to understand their point of view, we are likely to discover they mean no harm, because they may well be simply wonderful people. The message of the film is a good news message of the cheerful kind that is to be found in the gospels: evil does not have to exist, you can make it go away. In the end evil is just a matter of misunderstanding, social injustice and projection; as soon as we manage to see through these mechanisms, evil will disappear and paradise begin. Hallelujah.
The mythical story is richer and far more ominous. First of all, the original Beowulf is cyclical in structure.3 It starts and ends with the obsequies for a deceased hero-king, king Scyld and king Beowulf respectively. In both cases there is joy over the glorious deeds that have been done, but sorrow because all this has now come to an end. Apart from being sad about Beowulf’s death, the Geats also realize that the loss of their protector may get them involved in an involuntary war. In other words, the original story does not exactly have a happy ending. Besides, in the many sub-stories that the poem contains, we also read about other kings and heroes, and not only about their successes, but first and foremost about how they all meet their fate. As James Campbell observes: “All the kings and kingdoms mentioned in the poem ultimately come to grief, and the poet is at pains to remind his audience of this. The world he describes is an unstable one” (Campbell 1991 , p. 54.). Indeed it is, but is our own world that different? Is not our own world unstable as well? Isn’t the human condition fundamentally unstable?
A feeling that is very typical of mythology, but unlike anything that we in our contemporary Western world view tend to believe, is that the mere fact of human achievement is enough to provoke evil. Naturally, in the pictorial language of mythology, when evil is summoned it appears mostly in the form of angry or jealous gods, goddesses, demons or other supernatural beings, such as the Grendel figure. In psychological terms we might say that any conscious effort to do something particularly well is bound to have its downside. Conscious decisions tend to disturb the balance in the psyche and may therefore elicit uncalled-for reactions from the unconscious. Especially if one tries very hard to accomplish something these unconscious reactions may be rather nasty and can actually spoil the party.
From a modern point of view there is absolutely nothing wrong with king Hroðgar. Quite the contrary, he is brave and generous and thoroughly civilized. He has the best of intentions, treats everyone with respect and is clearly full of wisdom. Not for nothing does the text call him “blameless in everything” (line 1885, translation by Howell Chickering). You feel for him when you read what calamities happen to him for twelve long years, because he really does not deserve it. He is a more than decent chap, really the most civilized person one can imagine.
However, according to the logic of Beowulf, that may well be Hroðgar’s problem. He is too decent, something which is simply impossible within more modern Western value systems. King Hroðgar is over-civilized (not only he himself, naturally, but him and his court; for in mythical thinking the king is supposed to embody the community as a whole). As I see it, the Danes have a Jekyll and Hyde-problem. As you may remember from Stevenson’s famous novella, Jekyll was also too civilized, which explains why perfect Dr. Jekyll could not resist turning into despicable Mr. Hyde every now and then (see Barbara Hannah’s short monograph Ego and Shadow, Hannah 1963). Civilization involves repression, and repression entails tension as well as a number of rejected, uncontrolled, primitive forces that want to get out. A small amount of tension may perhaps not cause problems, but a sudden leap in civilization certainly entails huge tension, and possibly dissociation.
The latter is what seems to have happened to Hroðgar and the Danes. Psychologically speaking, the situation depicted in the first half of Beowulf is an image of dissociation: during the day king Hroðgar is in charge, he is benevolent, well-mannered, generous etc., but at night the Danish king has to give the floor to a man-eating monster. And this uncanny situation has come into being right after good king Hroðgar built himself a new center of power that he called ‘Heorot’, meaning ‘hart’.
A hart is a male red deer of at least five years of age, that is to say the deer in its fully mature state. In the Middle Ages, it was seen as the most difficult and therefore most prestigious hunting prey, a noble creature, a match only for kings. It is not for nothing that the hart is a well-known symbol in heraldry. In other words, ‘Heorot’ is a very proud and majestic name, something which in a mythical context immediately hints at the idea that the name-giver might be suffering from hybris.
Hroðgar is very high-minded and aims at control and perfection. He has become king – as was common practice in Germanic tribal culture – because of his victories in war (lines 64-67). But he does not only want to be a warlord, but also wants to be known as a man of cultural prestige, and so he has built himself a glorious mead hall that is intended to surpass all others in the world. He has even given it a golden roof (lines 926-927). And that is not all. Also on a moral level, Hroðgar is determined to shine. With Heorot as his royal seat he will rule as a truly great lord, for example he will share all his possessions with his people (lines 71-72).
And indeed, as soon as Heorot is ready, Hroðgar starts living as he intended to, and everything would be just perfect, were he not struck by disaster in the form of the monstrous Grendel who is annoyed by the sound of human thriving. So, the result of all Hroðgar’s efforts is that his idealistic values apply during the day, that is to say in the realm of the conscious mind. However, unfortunately, during the night, that is to say behind his back, without his knowledge, his unrealistic views are compensated by their very unpleasant, merciless and brutal reverse.
This is the situation that poor Hroðgar and the Danes find themselves in for twelve years. And they cannot solve their problem on their own, because ‘Grendel’ concerns their own blind spots. The monster from the chilly swamp is incomprehensible to them and beyond their reach, because he is the reverse side of their own civilized standards. If they are to get rid of the Grendel-problem at all, they need someone who is to a certain extent akin to Grendel.
Luckily for them there is Beowulf. He is the perfect match for Grendel: Grendel devours thirty men in just one night (line 123 and lines 1581f.), but Beowulf has the strength of thirty men (line 379f.) and in the raiding expedition against the Franks and the Frisians, Beowulf carries away the war-gear of thirty enemies (line 2361f.). There are more similarities: unlike the Danes, both Grendel and Beowulf are relatively close to nature. As I see it, Grendel symbolizes the rejected, natural, animal-like parts of the psyche, conjured up by the Danes’ sudden leap in civilization. His heroic counterpart Beowulf possesses some of these animal characteristics as well. The name ‘Beowulf’ may be understood as a kenning for ‘bear’ (namely ‘Bee-wolf’, Chickering 2006, p. 252) or then again it may mean ‘War-wolf’ (Bosworth & Toller 1898, p. 87). In any case, our hero is named after a wild and ferocious animal. Furthermore, Beowulf, like Grendel, tends to fight bare-handed, without weapons (or in any case when he fights without artificial means, as he does in his confrontation with Grendel, he is at his best). Just like Harry Potter and so many other heroes in literature and mythology, Beowulf rather resembles the enemy he fights.
As it happens, Beowulf is also the only other creature besides Grendel who is awake during Grendel’s nocturnal visits to Heorot. This is explicitly said several times in the text. One wonders how the Danes can always be sleeping while waiting for the monster to appear! Astonishingly, also the Geatish warriors, though they have come to Heorot with the special purpose of helping the Danes against their devilish foe, are sound asleep when Grendel visits them, and that is why Grendel can grab a comrade of Beowulf and eat him. These naive collective sleep-ins at Heorot, when taken literally, are so utterly absurd that they can only be understood on a symbolic level, namely as a sign that except for Beowulf everybody else is completely unconscious of this particular type of evil. Beowulf is alert where others are not. He does not shut his eyes where others are asleep. He is the only one ready to confront evil.
After Grendel’s elimination, the Danes believe that evil has been eradicated, but it is not, because Grendel’s mother appears. She is really the nastiest mother-complex one can imagine. In my view, she embodies an ultra-conservative, hostile tendency towards stagnation and regression. Just when the Danes think they can return to their former lifestyle again, she paralyzes them by dragging Hroðgar’s favorite warrior, so to say his right hand, as well as her son’s claw to her swamp. She seems perhaps less violent than her son, who in his heyday used to kill many Danes in a single raid, but she may well be more tricky than him. In any case she strikes with more precision, and as it turns out, she is also more difficult to eliminate. Still, Beowulf manages to deal with this deeper problem too, by confronting her in the underwater den and beheading her. He also beheads Grendel’s corpse. He literally dives into the world of the Grendel family and cuts off the way of thinking that they represent.
In the second part of the poem, Beowulf is depicted as a peaceful, fair and wise king who has ruled for fifty years, and now the time has come for him to leave the stage. The film leaves out this part of the story, but it is important to notice that in the original poem there is no such thing as a final redemption. Anything (or anyone) that rules is bound to become rigid, outdated and in need of replacement some day. For those whose time has come it is of course a narcissistic blow to have to make place, but it cannot be helped. Even the most ideal of situations cannot stay the way it is forever. At some point someone has to spice up things a little bit, and in Beowulf’s case the spice is provided by a fire dragon. Beowulf was capable of dealing with the cold frenzy that overcame the Danes as the reverse of their sudden over-sophistication, but in the figure of the blistering dragon Beowulf finally meets his fate.
The poem then ends as it began, with solemn death rites for, and praise of, a truly great king. Its cyclical structure expresses that in the Anglo-Saxon world there is no sense of linear progression but only of temporary victories that are always followed by defeat. According to the mythical world view, that is what the human condition is. And we should not be too sorry, because, like the good king Scyld, Beowulf too has been a more than respectable king. The same expression is used for both of them: “þæt wæs god cyning” (lines 11 and 2390). Perfection does not exist, except as an illusion in the human mind. Being good and being able to maintain oneself – like Beowulf – for a long period of time is already an admirable achievement and a reason for joy. It is more than one can normally expect from life. It is great.4
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Tolkien, J.R.R. (2006 ). Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: Harper Collins, pp. 5-48.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (2006 ). On Translating Beowulf. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: Harper Collins, pp. 49-71.
1Indeed, this is one of the many elements in Beowulf that return in Tolkien’s oeuvre. In 1938, in a letter to the editor of the Observer (Carpenter 1981, letter 25), Tolkien explains this matter as follows: “Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.”
2Unfortunately I cannot agree with Alan Ambrisco, who claims that the original poem shares with Gunnarsson’s movie “a hard look at pagan culture, its violence and its code of vengeance, its rhetoric of heroism and the compromises it requires of human beings in pursuit of fame” (Ambrisco 2013, p. 252). In the poem there is not much of an opposition between Christian and pagan values. As Michael Alexander rightly observes: “The poem presents its world as a kind of ancestral Old Testament, a heroic age under former dispensation, where wonders are to be expected.” (Alexander 2005, p. xvii)
3As Susan Hathaway Boydston suggests in her Freudian interpretation of Beowulf, the loose, episodic structure of the poem with its many digressions and lack of progression may be understood in the light of its preoedipal content (Boydston 2005, 156f.). Indeed, there may be a fruitful theme for further investigation here, as many mythical works (if not all) are cyclical and episodic, whereas modern literary works and movies usually are not: they tend to tell a(n oedipal) story with a head and a tail.
4I am grateful to Amadeus de Koning for his advice about the English.
Received: June 14, 2013, Published: July 11, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Maria S. Kardaun