Elegy of the North
By Matt McKeown
Beowulf fuses two worlds, pagan and Christian, with an effect seldom rivalled in any other literature.
Though its language makes it seem alien and scholarly to many modern audiences, Beowulf is a very straightforward work. In the first half, the titular hero, in the prime of his life, defeats a monster called Grendel (and later its monstrous mother) which has been terrorizing Heorot, one of the noble halls of Denmark, and then returns as a triumphant lord to his native country. In the second half, now an old man, Beowulf faces a dragon, and defeats that too but is mortally wounded in the process; the poem closes with his funeral rites.
Beowulf is a surprisingly difficult work to classify, especially given how simple its structure is. It is usually considered an epic, due to its length, its being written in verse, its solemn style, and a few other characteristics. Specifically, it is classified with primary epic, similar to Homer or the Gilgamesh, in which the materials have typically been gathered from familiar folk tales or oral history—hence their tendency to begin in the middle of the action. (Secondary epic, on the other hand, uses primary epics themselves as its material; the Æneid is a salient example.) But J. R. R. Tolkien rejected this standard view in his essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, comparing it to an elegy or a dirge instead. Whatever the merits of this classification (the present author has no knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and so cannot say much about that), Beowulf certainly has an elegiac theme, and one familiar to students of Norse mythology: a doom falls on the hero, not as in Greek tragedy because of a personal flaw like that of Oedipus or Achilles, but due to dark powers that overmaster him. The monstrous jötnar would defeat the gods in Ragnarök—and the gods in Asgard knew it. But they fought against the darkness nevertheless, and invited humanity to do the same.
The Norse (more accurately, Germanic) gods are not present in Beowulf, though they may have been in the stories from which the author drew. The world presented by the poet is a Christian one (the poem is widely thought to have been composed in the eighth century, not long after England had been entirely Christianized). Grendel is a descendant of Cain, the primordial murderer, and the songs of Heorot are about the creation of the world as told in Genesis. This complicates the darkness a little, since the nearest Biblical equivalent to Ragnarok is the Second Coming, which is a cosmic victory rather than a cosmic defeat. But the bittersweet sorrow of the earlier lore is maintained by focusing on a single life, that of Beowulf, and presenting him both at the noontide of his life and at his individual dusk. No one can escape death; it is a limit imposed from without, rather than produced by a personal character flaw. This mixture of glory and melancholy is profoundly satisfying, in that it carries forward into a baptized age the peculiar quality of Asgard: the defiance of evil purely because it is evil and not because of any expectation of reward. As C. S. Lewis heartbreakingly phrased it, “The giants and trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.” To achieve this same emotional effect, yet against the backdrop of a consistently Christian idea of the universe, is an artistic accomplishment of the highest order.
As always, we recommend that readers of the CLT journal give the original text a try themselves. Gutenberg offers a free translation here, one which renders the text in the same alliterative verse in which the original was written. (It also has glossaries of names and unusual terms; scroll up to find these.)
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at one of our other author profiles, like this one on Sir Isaac Newton or this one on Jorge Luis Borges. Or check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.