The only good thing to be said about really rotten times is that they are clarifying. The shock of rising floodwaters returns us to the first, most fundamental things. Set spinning in strong currents, we feel for a foothold and scan the sky for stars to steer by. Luckily, we human beings—uniquely privileged and vulnerable hominids—have long experience with catastrophe. Some old and durable writings may help us to reckon with the ruinous tide.
Take Beowulf, than which few books could be more timely. As J. R. R. Tolkien observed in his landmark essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” written in 1936 when rough beasts were on the prowl, the poem is an elegy more than an epic. Its ancient theme, Tolkien writes, is the general tragedy of human existence: “that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die.” Its mood is antiquarian: pious respect and intense regret for a buried world. Its narrative, hewn and fitted into well-joined Anglo-Saxon verse, is an A-frame, rising and falling with the power and fortune of the eponymous hero and his people, the Geats. Beowulf tells of noble pagan Northmen: great ruling houses and clans of sturdy fighters, all now swept away, with all their spears and shields. Yet that dead way of life, deposited in the flow of ages and sedimented in memory, forms the packed ground—newly covered in his time with green sprouts of Christian hope—on which the poet stands, and into which he casts his spade. Beowulf is positively geologic.
Especially in Seamus Heaney’s fresh and powerful translation (W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, from which I quote), Beowulf conveys an overwhelming impression of weight and density, of compactness. This is the effect of a great accumulation of essential human experience, shaped into poetry that is as much law as song. (The Greek word nomos means both.) It’s as though centuries of struggle and suffering to defend an ordered common life against surges of chaos and violence have solidified into concrete words replete with unfathomed meanings. The poet’s muse—the Muse, queen of them all, and older by far than the Christian God—is Mnemosyne: Memory. He repays his debts with dug-up treasure: the hard currency of the past, deeply felt and imagined.
Beowulf conveys an overwhelming impression of weight and density, of compactness.
And hard it is. Beowulf sounds gloom and doom with the eagerness of wrought iron plunging into heaving surf. Heorot, the great mead hall built by Hrothgar, king of the Shieldings, is a place of light, warmth, fellowship, and cheery decorum: libation-pouring and gift-giving. A splendid microcosm of civilized existence, Heorot “stands at the horizon, on its high ground,” a Nordic city on the hill “meant to be a wonder of the world forever.” But outside the wallstead is nasty weather: gray seas and sucking bogs, slouching monsters and keening women—the world of Cain, as the poet sees it. Disaster is a foregone conclusion. We are told barely eighty lines in that Heorot awaits “a barbarous burning . . . the killer instinct/ unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.” And at poem’s end, after Beowulf, abandoned by the Geats and poisoned by a dragon, has died, a grieving woman unleashes “a wild litany/ of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,/ enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,/ slavery and abasement.”
Shot through with violence and limned with dire prophecies, Beowulf is nevertheless bracing in its unshakable grasp of fundamental realities. The poem confronts horror and catastrophe directly, taking in whole epochs and discerning the most basic patterns of human existence: ineluctable rhythms of rise and fall, flourishing and decay, energy and entropy. Laden with words as serviceable as helmet and mail and launched, like the packed funeral boat of Shield Sheafson, founder of the Spear-Danes, “on out into the ocean’s sway,” the poem would be a boon to a people looking to gird itself for long battle under lowering skies. Like any book, it can be salvaged only by the readers it finds. Yet who, today, could refuse this providential cargo, which survives, against all odds, in a single fire-damaged codex?
When Beowulf and his band of warriors disembark unannounced on the Danish shore, a lone coast guard approaches on horseback, declares that he has seen no “mightier man-at-arms on this earth/ than the one standing here,” and demands that they state their business. This watchman asserts that “anyone with gumption/ and a sharp mind will take the measure/ of two things: what’s said and what’s done.” But these two things are one in his brave challenge to the unknown seafarers, and not just there. Word and deed, utterance and act, are fused in Beowulf as in few works of literature.
Shield Sheafson came to the Danes a foundling, cast away on the water like Moses. Grown into “a wrecker of mead benches” and “terror of the hall-troops,” he “laid down the law” for his adoptive people. “That was one good king [gōd cyning],” the poet remarks. And so he was. His wide-swinging axe won tribute from clans on “outlying coasts/ beyond the whale-road” and cleared the ground where his great-grandson Hrothgar would raise his famous hall.
In the poetic anthropology of Beowulf, concrete epithets convey historical time and experience. Three generations removed from Sheafson’s Spear-Danes, Hrothgar’s Ring-Danes—called Weather-Danes while the monster Grendel marauds—know more than their forebears about the forms and practices of peace. Like Sheafson, Beowulf is ultimately adopted by the Danes, but it is for wise and good service, and by Hrothgar’s formal proclamation. And thanks to the berserkery of men of old, he can be a defender rather than a wrecker of mead halls. His unique heroic valor consists in terrifically bold strength mastered by sheer force of will. The poet extols his exemplary solidity at the mid-beam of his gabled narrative: Beowulf was “formidable in battle yet behaved with honor/ and took no advantage; never cut down/ a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper/ and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled/ his God-sent strength.”
In the poetic anthropology of Beowulf, concrete epithets convey historical time and experience.
Beowulf has come, he tells Hrothgar, to kill Grendel, a monstrous “corpse-maker mongering death” in his night-raids on Heorot. Hrothgar once gave refuge to Beowulf’s father and settled a feud for him; more recently, he’d sent gifts to seal pacts of friendship with the Geats. The hero moves within an established moral and political economy, and he excels in its civilized exchanges. He shows his bona fides up front, offering fair weight when he unlocks his well-wrought word-hord for the Danes. His father, he tells the coast guard, was “a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow./ He outlasted many a long winter/ and went on his way.” He offers Hrothgar a way “to find respite” from Grendel, “if any respite is to reach him, ever.” “I have suffered extremes/ and avenged the Geats,” he tells the Danish king: “their enemies brought it/ upon themselves, I devastated them.” His laconic frankness and imposing presence are convincing: Hrothgar counts “on the warrior’s steadfastness and his word,” and Wealhtheow, his queen, finds the Geat to be “a deliverer she could believe in.”
And he does deliver, to the extent that a political savior can. Slaying Grendel and his mother, Beowulf repays with interest his father’s debt to Hrothgar, gladdens the heart of his king (and uncle) Hygelac, and cinches the knot of peace between the clans of Danes and Geats. He ultimately succeeds Hygelac, and rules well “for fifty winters.” That his death brings down the untested Geats, soft from disuse, is unsurprising; this is the bill, come due at last, for the rule of a great protector. Anyway, no human shelter, no earthly dwelling-place, can stand forever beneath advancing wall-clouds and bolt-bursts of chaotic violence. And while the collapse of humanly capacious dwellings and shelters is always deeply lamentable, the fact of impermanence is what, in the poet’s reckoning, gives shape to our lives—the most shapely being those that nobly bear up to, even as they are formed by, the pressures of the time.
Welcomed cordially at Heorot, the hero receives an unintended compliment from a thane who crouches at Hrothgar’s feet but cannot stand to hear Beowulf praised. “Sick with envy” at “Beowulf’s coming,/ his sea-braving,” Unferth reproaches him for losing a legendary swimming contest against his childhood friend Breca. “You waded in,” Unferth begins, “embracing water,/ taking its measure, mastering currents,/ riding on the swell.” That’s an eloquent description of the confident skill and strength with which Beowulf—armed and mail-clad then, as when he plumbs the reptile-infested lake to slay Grendel’s mother in her lair—readily submits himself to what Conrad, in Lord Jim, called “the destructive element.”
Unferth’s envy has him almost rooting for Grendel, a descendant of “Cain’s clan” who begrudges the joyful din of Heorot, where minstrel and harp celebrate God’s green earth, teeming with life under the heavenly vault. But Beowulf dispatches the thane with hard truth and sharp irony. In fact he beat Breca and slew nine boat-plundering sea-monsters along the way; Unferth, however, is known mostly for killing “kith and kin.” Beowulf will show Grendel “how Geats shape to kill/ in the heat of battle,” so that “whoever wants to,” including Unferth, “may go bravely to mead.” He is nevertheless magnanimous in victory, accepting the loan of Unferth’s famous sword before he dives to hunt Grendel’s mother after he’s killed her son, and bequeathing him his own should he perish in the noxious mere.
But the weapons of men don’t work against these monsters. They and their line are the bitterest fruit of the tree of knowledge: the knowledge of Cain “in the curse of his exile.” That knowledge is poison, strong enough in their scalding blood to melt the huge, giant-forged blade Beowulf finds at the bottom of the lake, and with which he lops off the heads of dead Grendel and his living mother. The indigestible truth of exile, known to all the wretched of the earth, is that one can never be rid of the favored brother. This ulcerating knowledge twists body and soul into a sullen slouch. Outlawed by God, cast out by men, barred from hall and feast to gorge on envy and resentment, Cain’s clan—“ogres and elves and evil phantoms/ and the giants too who strove with God”—are grotesque figurations of murderous passions.
Grendel is said to have “dwelt for a time/ in misery among the banished monsters.” A drifter even among outcasts, he stalks heath and fen brooding on the unbearable reproach of Heorot. He repeatedly breaks into the mead hall, yet in fact he has always had a place at the benches, lurking in the lake of human hearts. Thus Hrothgar sits with Hrothulf, “uncle and nephew, each one of whom/ still trusted the other; and the forthright Unferth,/ admired by all for his mind and courage/ although under a cloud for killing his brothers,/ reclined near the king.” Demons stir here, restless for their hour to come round.
The indigestible truth of exile, known to all the wretched of the earth, is that one can never be rid of the favored brother.
Beowulf and Grendel are cousins, branches split off from the same trunk by the primal eldest sin. The family resemblance is strong. Beowulf has “the strength of thirty/ in the grip of each hand” and swims from one bloody engagement “shouldering thirty/ battle-dresses.” A perverse negative of that shining power, Grendel slays thirty Shielding hall-guards in one raid, devouring half on the spot and cramming the rest into a pouch sewn of “devilishly fitted dragon-skins.” Before he purged Heorot, Beowulf, too, was never much esteemed, regarded as a weakling by king and thane alike. In eschewing sword and shield (useless weapons in any case), in deliberately choosing to clutch and grapple with Grendel, he shows that wretchedness, too, is a choice.
No doubt Beowulf defeats his demons when he joins with the monster in a brawl that bursts bones and splinters benches, wrecking the bright hall to which they both lay claim. Unable to escape from “a handgrip harder than anything/ he had ever encountered in any man,” Grendel leaves a torn-off arm in Heorot. Mortally wounded, he returns to the foul lake, sloughing a scum of “gore and wound-slurry” as he dives. Yet even in the midst of his victory—in this great purifying splatter of blood and viscera—Beowulf is seized by larger fate from which there is no release, just because it is the human fate, the inexpungeable human stain.
Beowulf had to kill Grendel; there was simply no dealing with him. For “twelve winters, seasons of woe,” the monster had refused all Danish custom, all tenders of parley and peace, and paid no death-price for the men he’d killed. One could not have expected him to come up with torcs and coiled gold, the currency of honor and reparation among men, when he was barred by right from the hilltop hall where such goods were given and received. But did the hero have to kill Grendel’s mother? It is surely part of the poem’s tragedy that no one thinks to ask this question. “Grief stricken and ravenous” after the death of her only child, the “hell-dam” heads to Heorot to take her revenge. She does so with notable restraint, taking a life for a life—Aschere, Hrothgar’s dearest friend—and retrieving her son’s massive arm, hung high on the wall as a trophy. But this unexpected economy does not settle the business. The Northmen demand payment for the very things she thought she was owed. Civilized and savage accounts—and really, which is which here?—differ on matters of justice. Perhaps it could not be otherwise, as they seize the same terrible, foundational knowledge from opposite sides. God drove a hard bargain for that detestable fruit, of which Adam’s children, as Dostoyevsky observes, have never ceased to eat.
When he returns from the polluted lake, Beowulf drags Grendel’s severed head across the floor of Heorot and presents Hrothgar with the hilt of the melted antediluvian sword. The description of the celebration that follows contains the whole of Beowulf in balanced verses of recollection and prophecy: “Happiness came back, the hall was thronged,/ and a banquet set forth; black night fell/ and covered them in darkness.” After fifty years of law and order so blessedly unremarkable that they are covered in just four lines, Beowulf’s kingship is disturbed by a flame-belching sky-roamer that wastes Geatish farms, homesteads, forts, and earthworks with great sprays of “molten venom,” finally leaving his own house and throne-room—“the best of buildings”—in cinders. “Sad at heart,/ unsettled yet ready, sensing his death,” Beowulf unpacks rusting helmet and mail-shirt and advances to meet the winged plague. He and his kinsman Wiglaf slay the dragon, but not before its poison-filled fangs clamp the hero’s neck. And so black night falls on the Geats.
Roused from slumber himself, the dragon is another loner and drifter, but one who does not come looking for trouble. For three centuries, he’d squatted in a barrow where he’d nosed out hidden treasure, sleeping and dreaming in “age-long vigil” over a hoard—tarnished and corroding war gear, pitchers, flagons, goblets, rings, bars of gold—all buried by the last, forlorn survivor of a forgotten people ruined in war. He is finally awakened by a runaway slave who stumbles into the barrow and steals a gold-plated cup, hoping against hope that it might win him reinstatement from his master. The dragon’s inventory discloses the theft, and the bill for his lost cup and interrupted dreams is outlandish. The books of men and monsters cannot be reconciled.
One cannot read Beowulf today without a feeling of alarm at the greenish storms gathering on the horizon.
But monsters are not all alike, and there is bad blood between the ones in Beowulf. Grendel creeps up from the depths to break into the mead hall and carries butchered men in a dragon-skin tote. The dragon—lord of a mute hoard, who clings in fantastic isolation to a treasure he claims by adverse possession—resents even a miserable outcast’s petty theft. One punches up, the other down, and both with great ferocity. Yet they share a common condition. Like the ogres and churls of Beowulf, the dragon is an interloper who must be satisfied only with the dead remains of human life. Resentment turns Grendel’s blood to acid; like all civilized evil, the dragon’s poison—a slow distillate of long rumination—nauseates before it kills. But raw or refined, gushing or seeping, these toxins all form in polluted bogs of envy and pride.
Every age of man has its monsters. The dragon is one for old men, who live mostly in memory and reflection. “Wintered into wisdom,” Hrothgar had warned Beowulf about a demon that can creep into the heart of a man so sated with wealth and power that “the soul’s guard, its sentry, drowses.” Then he “covets and resents,” and “ignores the shape of things to come.” Numbed by many good years of rule, Hrothgar himself came to imagine that his enemies “had faded from the face of the earth.”
Neither Beowulf nor Hrothgar is covetous or resentful, but no one is safe from oblivion. When that unknown survivor buried the treasure of his dying people, he lamented a loss that dragons do not feel: “I am left with nobody/ to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets. . . . the helmet shiner/ who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps;/ the coat of mail that came through all fights,/ through shield collapse and cut of sword,/ decays with the warrior.” But the anonymous poet feels it deeply, and the final and lasting victory of Beowulf belongs to him. The Geats pitch the dragon’s corpse into the sea and entomb their king in a barrow on a commanding headland, high above the crashing surf. Buried with him in the monument are torcs and jewels and items from the hoard, a treasure “as useless to men now as it ever was.” But Beowulf houses a most needful ancestral treasure: the story of the man and his people, and, in a larger sense, of all men and all peoples.
Nietzsche identifies three kinds of history that serve life; Beowulf is a poetic integration of all of them. It is monumental in its mythically enlarged recollection of a hero who strove, and suffered, and who yielded to the perilous waters only in death. It is antiquarian in its reverent and loving excavation of a whole vanished world, a past concretely felt and understood to be linked with every present and future, and with the eternal human tragedy. It is critical in its deeply rooted pagan and biblical grasp of some long-forgotten truths: that we pay for order, stability, and a decent human existence with exclusion and enmity; and that civilization, born of fratricide, will never be free of the monstrosities into which it repeatedly unravels. In these ways, Beowulf encourages, solaces, and warns its grateful readers.
Let us above all not neglect the warning. One cannot read Beowulf today without a feeling of alarm at the greenish storms gathering on the horizon. The poorest countries face plagues of locusts, famine, and sickness that will likely kill millions, immiserate hundreds of millions, and produce widespread social unrest. The richest have so far responded to covid-19 as though it were good policy to swell the ranks of Grendels and multiply dragons. In the United States, the major risks and burdens of the virus and the social and economic chemotherapy with which we have chosen to treat it—including illness, unemployment, poverty, inferior education, mental illness, substance abuse, and the many indignities that attend these conditions—have overwhelmingly been borne by those whose jobs cannot be done remotely. Those in the so-called “knowledge economy” are better off and can generally work online from home. But the really wealthy and powerful, who favor personal isolation in any case, have only become more so. They have used the crisis to move us rapidly toward a centralized digital economy of isolated, highly managed workers, blockchain identities, human capital markets, “pay for success” credentialing, and uninterrupted surveillance, delivered by partnerships of multinational corporations, large philanthropies, and governments—the faceless and insatiable monsters of our abstract and technocratic age.
Having been “predicted” for years, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is said to be necessary and good. More certain is that it will increase social distances of the most fundamental sort: dissolving communities of work and learning; casting our brothers and sisters into outer darkness while making them ever more dependent on the barred and battened hall; provoking strong spasms of protest that will be met with increasingly tight controls; and opening up an abyss into which the tortured and dismembered body politic may fall. If we cannot understand that we must by all means try to prevent such a violent consummation, we shall be left with the cold and craven consolation that such is, after all, the human fate. And we shall have learned nothing from Beowulf or history.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 21
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