Heroic Beowulf in the "Original"
aving separated and then reconnected the epic poem and the filmic adaptation in the previous posts, now I am going to present heroic Beowulf as he surfaces in the epic poem. The exploration of this theme is limited in two ways. First, in contrast with what has been published in the last decade in monographs, I am going to use a modern translation. Second, as the text is a translation, the focus is not going to rely on philological analysis, but on an informed but not specialist reading. The reason for these decisions is that the aim is discussing the relatedness of the film for a non-specialist audience, insofar as the target audience could not have been the small circle of Old-English specialist, but a more wider set of viewers.
In contrast with the monographic output of the this decade, methodologically I will follow a different route. The previous books arranged their discussion around the succession of actions, deeds or scenes, while I arrange the meditation around features that seem to render Beowulf a warrior hero in this epic poem even for present day theatre, movie goers. Ruth Johnston Staver in her A Companion to Beowulf focuses on the plot and retells it for an interested student. Gwara Scott in the brilliant Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf clarifies the ambiguity in Beowulf with reference to the “contrapuntal” poetic representation of judgements about Beowulf’s actions and motivations lying in either recklessness or boldness:
The tacit contrapuntalism of Beowulf takes the form of coordinating antithetical perspectives on heroism and responsible kingship, in which charges and countercharges issue in succession (359).
Andy Orchard in his A Critical Companion to Beowulf although without addressing heroism directly demonstrates with an impressive philological apparatus the technique of claim and claim undermined structure on the level of words and deeds revealing the complexity and anxiety around the main character.
Although the monographs mentioned above could present their material in a more convincing way, the approach I have chosen should be more beneficial for the present purpose, as the heroic features are to be revealed in the “original” with respect to the filmic adaptation. I am going to start off with an initial definition of heroism, and then explore what it means that Beowulf is on the way to and of the hero. This will be followed by a reference to strength and an exploration of “prudence,” brave openness and lack of lust for political power.
When arriving at Higelac’s court from the Ring-Danes, and having given the treasure received over to his lord, and after Beowulf’s speech, the narrator sums up what is deemed heroic in Beowulf:
So Beowulf revealed himself brave;
martial in war and merciful in peace,
he sought glory. Nor did he slay
his hearth-companions in drunken frenzy;
nor was he savage of temper; he reserved for battle
that peerless strength, prodigious gift
God had given him. [...] (2177-2183)
In this summary there appears the Germanic martial world with its battles and revels, celebration of power and heroic motivation. It is conspicuous here that physical qualities and also character traits are brought together to frame heroism in an unequal proportion. There is only one reference to physical strength, and the rest of the attributes rather present heroic morality: being brave, reserving the fighting spirit for the battlefield and otherwise showing mercy, furthermore glory is mentioned as a motivating force. This initial description of heroism is refined at other loci of the text.
First, it is important that in opposition to other warrior heroes, Beowulf is not a hero over there from the beginning to the end, but his heroism lies in his being on the way of and to heroism. Although the plot-line represents him as an outstanding warrior, in a marginal reference it turns out that he was not born a hero, but has become one:
he had been reckoned
a worthless boy; the Weders held
he was weak-spirited, and the Weder lord
seldom thought of him at feast time.
They firmly believed he was slack in judgement,
slothful in bearing. (2183-9)
Seemingly he started his heroic carrier rather low. In the eyes of his fellow Geats, he was valueless, he had no indomitable disposition, and he was not even named at feasts. They thought he was not somebody with a heroic future because he could not judge situations and people well, and also could not endure physical hardships.
With these charges at his back, it is understandable that he became accustomed to proving his worth. It follows from this that he always has to test himself, if he is really such a heroic man. This is also revealed by the parallel with Hrothgar. Hrothgar could not stand the final test, defending his people against Grendel, whereas Beowulf could do so against the dragon. This opposition is further corroborated by Hrothgar’s prophesying that time will take away Beowulf’s power (1761-1768), which prophesy does not come true, as Beowulf, in contrast to Hrothgar, will pass the final test. So it seems that in this poem heroism is not a state, but rather a process.
Beowulf himself looks at his own life as a process, a series of opportunities to demonstrate his might, heroism, which represents the second aspect of heroism consisting in what might be termed as brave openness to challenges. When talking about his achievements, he does not start telling a romantic story, but rather states: “the grief-stricken king implored me / to risk my life, test my courage / in the violent surf, gaining thereby lasting glory” (2132-4). This speech and others as well claim that heroic life calls for risking it, being in the liminal position between life and death, in an existential borderline situation, secondly that the heroic quality, i.e. courage is to be tested, and thirdly that the ultimate motivation for this is lasting fame.
Corroborating the constant being on the road to and of heroism, the narrative structure is to be presented. The very work is structured around two heroic projects: the Grendel family at the time of Beowulf’s early maturity, the dragon in his old age. To complete this circle a third heroic deed in his youth, the swimming contest is narrated. Thus the very narrative structure substantiates the narrator’s conceptualization of life as a heroic process, a series of tests in which courage is demonstrated. In this respect Beowulf’s openness surfaces in his famous speech-ending remark: “Let wyrd go as it must”(455) which includes the active acceptance of the necessity included in the direction of fate.
Naturally, to be able to survive the constant risking of life, the warrior needs physical power. Beowulf’s physical qualities appear first in the coast-warden’s description of Beowulf:
Never have I seen
a greater man than the one there,
a champion in war-gear: nor is he someone’s servant,
possessed of such weapons, unless his face belies him,
that singular visage.(247-51)
In this speech he is represented as a large, mascular man, even before we would learn his name. Later on this is corroborated in the queen’s reference to him as an able man, in the story of his activities on the battlefield that he could bore the shields of thirty man in his hand, his seizing Grendel in a way that scared Grendel so much that he could only think about saving his life. Also he used a giant sword when killing Grendel’s mother. His physical power exceeds that of any other character who appears or is referred to in the work.
Beowul’s fighting skills are described not only with reference to his outstanding physical power, but with a a reference to “prudence” (1706) as well. His prudence lies in his ability of adaptation to new situations, e.g. his fighting Grendel naked. This naked fight is all the more important as in Germanic, heroic societies, weapons had a special value—names, histories etc. as can be witnessed in Beowulf, too. This act of not using weapons seems to be noble on the one hand, as he fights Grendel on his grounds: if Grendel does not use weapons, he will not either. On the other hand, however, this is a strategic decision as well, as prior to the fight he learns that: weapons are useless against Grendel. If they are useless, this practically means that they would consequently be disadvantageous, as the warrior’s trust in his weapons will give him confidence which is only illusionary, and thus harmful.
Prudence does not only surface in Beowulf’s strategic decisions as a fighter, but also in his being a perfect orator. Before even learning his name, we are informed that he “measured his words carefully and well” (259). Which description of his speaking qualities includes a reference to his circumspect methodology of choosing what to say and also the how as well fashioning the word to the situation, expectations of the listeners and also to his interest. Words are his weapons of self-defence, encouragement (boasting) and noble integration into the social reality of courts. His speeches are received with amazement, i.e. even the listeners testify to his perfection as an orator. As an example it suffices to quote Hrothgar’s reaction to Beowulf’s speech: “The Lord in his wisdom has sent these words / into your mind; I have never heard / so young a man speak more wisely. / You are great in strength, prudent in spirit, / and wise in discourse” (1841-5).
A third aspect of heroic prudence appears in Beowulf’s diplomatic skills. He tells Hrothgar that “travel to far countries / always profits the capable man” (1838-9). This profit does not only mean gaining fame and gathering treasure but also learning about foreign politics, and measuring their possible consequences pertaining to his nation. Beowulf, when staying in Hrothgar’s hall did not only do the dirty job of slaughtering the enemies, and did not only enjoy the feasts and fame but seemingly paid attention to every detail that may have had some effect on his own people. This seems to be the case, as when arriving home, handling over the treasure to his lord, and telling the story of his combats with the Grendel family, he also shares the information with Higelac about Freawaru’s, Hrothgar’s daughter’s proposed marriage to Froda (2020-31).
The last element of his heroism lies in his understanding and accepting his place in his society. The powerful heroic warrior proves at least three times that he is not power-hungry, which quality surfaces in his absolute loyalty to his lord, Higelac, and in his long delayed acceptance of the kingship. Beowulf is absolutely loyal to his king even though an air of mutual distrust characterizes their relationship. The latter does not have faith in Beowulf’s heroic abilities (1993-5), and Beowulf deems Higelac “still inexperienced / as leader of his people” (1831-2). Beowulf’s loyalty to Higelac is demonstrated by his handling over to his lord the entire treasure that was given to Beowulf for his redeeming the Danish people of the Grendel family (2140-50) without keeping anything for himself. Also when chance appears for him to become the lord of the Geats, he refuses this position until there is no chance to avoid becoming so. When Higelac dies, his wife offers Beowulf the crown, who refuses it claiming that there is Higelac’s son in line before him (2370-78). Finally, Beowulf accepts the position only when Higelac’s offspring dies and there is nobody in front of his succession (2389).
So far we have seen the elements of the heroic code represented in the title character that appear in the Old-Modern English poem. These elements included in a lesser degree references to the physical aspect of the hero, and in a larger degree his inner qualities which include being on the way to heroism, brave openness to challenges, prudence as far as strategic decisions, rhetorical and diplomatic skills are concerned, and finally lack of power-hunger. All these, and maybe many more suggest the superhuman, model-like qualities of the title character of the poem. This, however, is not the complete story, as the narrator leaves ample room for doubt about the ultimate perfection of a warrior hero. The next part will account for this aspect.
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Beowulf. Trans. with Commentary by Marc Hudson, Intro and Notes by Martin Garrett. Ware, Herfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2007.
Ruth Johnston Staver A Companion to Beowulf Westport, Connecticut--London: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Gwara Scott. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Leiden--Boston: Brill, 2008.
Andy Orchard A Critical Companion to Beowulf. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003