My freshman English teacher tried to introduce me to Beowulf, but as I was an engineering student, the translation was old and stiff, and the teacher (who shortly afterwards transferred to the Computer Science department) was perhaps too feminist to appreciate 6th-century Geatish gender roles, the introduction did not go so well. However, I picked up the Penguin Classics version of Beowulf (translated by Michael Alexander) and finally read the whole thing. This translation is fairly easy to read, and since I didn’t have to read it and write a paper about it, I could enjoy it more. It probably also helps that I am not 17 anymore.
So here are some observations, from the point of view of a semi-literate engineer (spoiler alert):
The story was put in writing by early medieval Christians, and it was about their pre-Christian ancestors from a few hundred years before. (Some events in the story relate to real events of the 6th century.) They wanted to honor their ancestors, while not honoring the paganism of their ancestors. So they portrayed their ancestors as knowing about God as portrayed in the Old Testament, but without knowledge of Jesus. Historically, this was not accurate: they were rank polytheistic pagans, and they did things their descendants would not care to mention. They had a reason for fictionalizing the culture and behavior of their ancestors. At the very least, the culture they portrayed had to be worth fighting for, or Beowulf could not have been a worthy hero.
Much of the story takes place in the mead-halls. That is where Grendel and Grendel’s mother do their murders, and that is where promises are made and stories are told. If I get rich and powerful I want a mead-hall. (Hold the monsters, please.) The Mrs. does not approve, and the blonde daughters, who have more than a trace of Viking blood, don’t like the idea either, since that will involve them in the making and serving of mead. Mead, like rum, if consumed in excess can turn even the most respectable of men into complete scoundrels.
The story is an interesting mix of history and legend. The tribes really existed, the places in the story really existed, and some of the events described as history really happened. But then there are two monsters and a dragon, woven skillfully into the story, not patched on like a bad mending job. The storyteller had a reason for these monsters, and they are not entirely fictional.
Grendel is a descendant of Cain, who was the first fratricide. The author makes absolutely sure that you understand that. The stories in the mead-hall include tales of betrayal, and even a prediction that a marriage would fail to bring peace. (That is, brothers-in-law would be at war with each other.) Beowulf killed Grendel, and he boasted at the end of his life that he had protected his kinsmen.
Grendel’s mother is the second monster, and she comes to the mead-hall seeking revenge. An ordinary sword does no good against her, and she must be slain with a giant’s sword. The stories in the mead-hall also include tales of revenge, as the warring tribes continually bear grudges and do battle with each other. Beowulf is almost alone among the leaders in that he focuses his energies against the monsters, and not against men.
The dragon lived around the Geats, but it seems that he only became active when the slave took a cup from his lair. Stealing a dragon’s stuff is like stirring up a hornet’s nest. Bilbo Baggins could tell you about that. Dragons are notoriously greedy. In fact, if the Occupy Wall Street crowd studied dragons, they would conclude, erroneously, that dragons are in the .0001%, like the Gordon Gekkos of the mythical-reptilian world. But really, there is a bit of dragon in all of us, and treasure-lust was another subject of the stories in the mead-hall. Beowulf kills the dragon only with the help of his kinsman, and in that battle he receives his mortal wound.
The story ends pessimistically, as the people realize that they would be in grave danger without Beowulf’s help. This is strange for 3 reasons. 1) The Geats seem to have still existed a few centuries later when Beowulf was put in writing. 2) Most stories have happier endings. The gloom and doom at the end is especially unusual since doesn’t seem to be backed up by history. 3) After Beowulf’s death, the surviving Geats are not afraid of monsters, but of the monstrous things men will do to them.
Beowulf is described as the best of all the world’s kings:
“they said that he was of all the world’s kings, the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.”
Though he had many virtues, he would not be good enough to save them in the end. And yet they survive. It almost seems like there is a sequel beyond the end of the story, and the pessimistic ending is not the real end.