Beowulf’s heroism qualified: kaleidoscopic playfulness of instability
hile the last post explored Beowulf’s heroic qualities, this time I am going to relate some of the poetic techniques used to qualify this heroism in the poem. Instead of anchoring the problematics in the clash between Christianity and Germanic pagan culture, or the main plot and digressions, I am going to focus on parallelisms and on Beowulf’s relation to women. These two themes will sufficiently prove that the narrator with conspicuous associations implies that the hero, when fighting and defeating the monstrous enemies, balances all too painfully on the verge of becoming a monster himself. The monsters Beowulf overcomes are there also in himself waiting to be unleashed in combat. It is precisely these associations and themes that render the work the well of infinite meanings, and as such the “interpretative plurality” (although Briezman, 1029 arrives at this from another angle) that invites the reader’s response to put together the kaleidoscopic playfulness of instability.
The first sequence of parallels concerns numbers that uncannily place Beowulf and his enemies all too close to each other. Number fifty relates Beowulf to other characters in the poem on two plains: length of the period of rule and body. The number of years spent with ruling a “nation” links Beowulf, Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother. The first reference to a fifty-year period of reign relates to Grendel’s mother “that unappeased demon / who had ruled the reaches of the flood / for half a century” (1497-99). Hrothgar also reigned for the same period of time, as he tells Beowulf “So I ruled the Ring-Danes for fifty winters” (1769). Seemingly rulers find their mighty opponent at the end of a fifty-year period of rule, so it will not take the reader aback that Beowulf’s nations was attacked when he “ruled it well for fifty winters” (2208). This closeness of rulers in terms of the period they had the chance to rule places them embarrassingly on the same level. The dragon’s relatedness to Beowulf is strengthened with number fifty. Although this number operates on another plain than the number of years, as it is used as measurement, the dragon being “fifty yards in length,” (3042) yet it again associates Beowulf with one of his and humanity’s enemies.
Similarly to number fifty, number thirty also poses the same closeness of hero and enemy. This is the number which proves the horror that Grendel causes in Heorot and at the same time the might of Beowulf. Introducing Grendel’s visit to Heorot, the narrator to heighten the horror of the attack tells that “[h]e seized from the rest / thirty men” (121/122). Levelling out Grendel’s might Hrothgar to demonstrate that Beowulf has a chance to oppose the foe claims that Beowulf, “this war-tempered one / has the strength of thirty men / in his hand-grip” (379-81). This very act of possible levelling out brings the opponents close to each other. So that the reader would not forget that the number links the two, during the description of the battle in which Higelac died the reader is informed that “on one arm alone he [Beowulf—Zs.A.] bore thirty / suits of armour […]”(2361-2). Number thirty thus also links the hero and his opponents.
It also casts negative light on Beowulf that he becomes similar to the Grendel family and the dragon insomuch as he is an intruder to halls. The most awful act of Beowulf’s enemies is that they attack and destroy the hall of the Danes and the Geats. This is the most fearful, because these places were not only buildings but had symbolic functions, standing for the unity of the nations, social order, friendship and loyalty for the lord and his thanes. Attacking this place then is also a symbolic act of destruction: attacking the entire civilizations and culture and unity of a nation. It would thus not be farfetched to claim that attacking the halls is similar to the attack against the Twin Towers, as this latter was not only a particularly cruel deed, but also a raid against the values of a civilization.
It is then more telling that the enemies’ places are referred to as halls identifying Beowulf thus with intruder. Grendel’s mother’s dwelling place is referred to with labels as “roofed hall” (1516-17, 1572), she is as seen above, also a ruler. To make things even more conspicuous Beowulf is claimed to be a “guest in her hall” (1522), which further fosters the implication that Beowulf is not only a heroic warrior, but a latently negative figure, who abuses his status as a guest, and kills Grendel’s mother, a ruler in her own hall.
The case is similar to the dragon as far as his dwelling place and his purpose are concerned. The dragon’s dwelling place is named as “ring-hall” (3054), a “gold-hall” (2320), which phrases may well apply to the halls of human beings. His purpose is represented through phrases like “barrow-keeper” (2304, 3067), “gold-keeper” (3081, 3133). Furthermore the dragon is also a “guard” (2413), after its death the treasure became “guardianless”(3129), and also the “hoard’s protector”(2302), a “hoard-keeper” (2554) and the “barrow’s lord” (2525). These latter three are significant insofar as these are names that may well be used to represent lords of the human society. Furthermore Beowulf himself was not only a lord of his people but Hrothgar calls him the “hoard guardian of men” (1851).
These similarities between the hero and his enemies do not actually undermine Beowulf’s noble heroism, but rather qualify it through the kaleidoscopic playfulness of instability. Beowulf’s association with the monstrous enemies implies that at his very heart the warrior is not so much different from his enemies. The potential monster dwells in him, awaits for surfacing, awaits to be unleashed. The hero is only different from his enemies insofar as the destructive energies represented by the monsters in him are channeled for the benefit of those for whom the warrior bears some responsibility. The good cause for which the monsters are unleashed does not render the monsters angelic though.
Although the good cause keeps the monsters monsters, yet there would be some remedy for the warrior hero. This remedy could be a wife, but seemingly Beowulf is not very much interested in the other sex. Even when Hrothgar’s wife praised him beyond expectations, the narrator reveals that he was not moved towards her but raised his spirit to fight: “Her words had fired him with a zeal for war” (630). Later in his life Beowulf remained a bachelor, without a wife, and consequently did not leave an heir to keep the Geats together.
This lack of a wife in his life may well be harmonized with the monster in Beowulf, the monster that did not need any binding and limitation, which would naturally follow from marriage in the apparel of duty and responsibility. A life with the monster inside, constant risking of life, being on the way of the warrior did not make it viable to love a woman, because tenderness and commitment to somebody else would have bound the monster.
Beowulf’s noble heroism, thus, has been qualified through a reference to the painful similarities with the monsters, his enemies and to the missing companion. The kaleidoscopic playfulness of instability may be proven by poetic allusions beyond what has been utilized through the opposition between the Christian and pagan layers of the text, or between the main plot and the digressions. Having destabilized the value system of heroism, now I may turn to the filmic adaptation, or more precisely to the five scenes which may function as commentaries on heroism.
Natalia Breizmann. “‘Beowulf’’” as Romance: Literary Interpretation as Quest” MLN, Vol. 113, No. 5, Comparative Literature Issue (Dec., 1998): 1022-1035.