Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beowulf Sets the Bar

This post is lovingly dedicated to Stella Singer and Josie Bloomfield.

     This week Beowulf died. . . again; this time, perhaps, for the last time. The final tests are sitting on my desk waiting to be graded, and since I'm retiring from teaching public high school this spring, this is very likely the last time I'll be there when the great monster killer draws his final breath. More than a few of my seniors felt a quiver of relief as Beowulf expired from an enormous dragon bite to the neck; there's always a group of students who bore quickly and who live in perpetual hope that the next unit will be marginally more interesting than whatever we are studying now. For me, it was a poignant moment, as perhaps it should be in the presence of any death, let alone that of a great king; however, my grief this time was not for the mythic hero as he expired from the scalding, lethal venom that coursed through his veins, but for myself. This time as Beowulf died, I felt sorry for myself. Beowulf may be dead, but I'm just getting too old to take another group of high schoolers back to Geatland.
     Not all of my seniors, of course, are cynical, apathetic, or burned-out, and I remain extremely grateful that there are still some students who allow themselves to get swept up in the ancient adventure of this classic literary journey. Despite the best efforts of political factions who work tirelessly to wring every bit of joy out of teaching and learning, a core group of students – who actually like thinking and who don't mind thinking about difficult material – still persist in the habit of finding life interesting. It was for them, as much as myself, that I grew sentimental over the death of Beowulf. Certainly, next year when I'm gone (and appropriately enough the building I'm teaching in now becomes a parking lot), the school district will find someone to pass out the Beowulf books and cover the material. However, it won't be me, and never again, will I have a chance to share some of the intriguing insights that I have gained from repeatedly reading and explaining the text. So, with your indulgence, here are some of the life lessons I've learned from reading Beowulf. Keep in mind, however, I am not a medieval scholar; I'm a rhetorician. The aspects of the text that excite my attention might cause some serious consternation to some of my friends who really understand the history of the period and know what they are talking about when discussing Beowulf. So, Stella and Josie (who are such terrific medievalists that they do not need to rely upon autocorrect to spell the word “medievalist”), please forgive any of my 21st century anachronistic goofiness that may cause you to think I give a doctorate in English a bad reputation.
     Lesson #1: Every problem has a mother. If I had to choose the greatest life lesson that comes from studying Beowulf, it's that life is always waiting for you to think that you have a specific problem completely licked before it reveals to you that you're not even half finished with it yet. Anyone who has ever tried to keep a worn-out old car street-worthy knows exactly what I'm talking about. In the story of Beowulf, the greatest, strongest, bravest mortal to ever kill a sea monster (while swimming in full chainmail armor) arrives in Denmark to help its king, Hrothgar, deal with a real-life bogeyman who has been showing up at night to cannibalize his soldiers. After building the greatest drinking hall in history, Hrothgar soon learned he had to cut the taps off early each evening because if he didn't, a 10 foot Nordic hillbilly would come in and snack on his men after they had passed out on the floor. At first, our sympathies are with Grendel (the mutant yokel from the sticks), because, hey, who doesn't enjoy a Danish as a midnight treat? However, for the Danes, having to leave the most glorious mead-hall ever built after just a couple of rounds of Jägermeister is like owning a 72 inch plasma flatscreen TV and only being able to watch PBS. It's not something to brag about to the neighbors, anyway.
     So, after 12 years of being man-chewed by Grendel, Hrothgar is more than a little pessimistic when Beowulf shows up and claims he can kill the guy. He offers Beowulf a near gameshow list of prizes if he can exterminate Grendel. On the one hand, Hrothgar figures if somehow, miraculously, Beowulf can succeed it would be worth whatever it costs to get back to some serious Viking-style drinking, and on the other hand, if he finds Beowulf's remains half-eaten on the floor the next morning, then it wouldn't be the first time he had to have his people clean up that sort of mess. When Hrothgar goes to check on the results the next day, he is more than a little surprised to see Beowulf standing gleefully naked while waving Grendel's arm around like a boy scout learning semaphore.
     Naturally, that night Hrothgar and Beowulf party like it's 1399. Over dinner, Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with an impressive stack of gifts, and Beowulf replies that he was glad to lend a hand (or in this case, an entire arm from the shoulder down). All of their company pass out in a glorious drunken stupor the way God intended them to (or at least, according to the theology of the anonymous Christian monk who first put the story to paper). When they woke up the next day, however, everyone was deeply disappointed to discover that nothing makes a hangover worse than the suddenly recognition that you still have a monster problem. And that realization – in a story about a guy who can hold his breath for half a day while swimming underwater or who can hit a dragon in the head so hard that it shatters his sword – is a truth that goes beyond time itself: you're never really finished with a problem until you've dealt with its mom.
     Lesson #2: A good reputation is better than a cave full of treasure. Although Beowulf had no idea when he was tearing Grendel's arm off with his bare hands that he would also have to go after Grendel's mother the next day, the idea was not entirely unappealing. After all, Beowulf had not traveled from Geatland (which is now a part of modern Sweden) to merely return with a boatload of expensive rewards, he had gone with the intention of making a name for himself. Killing a second monster would only add to his renown. To Hrothgar, his men, and Beowulf's crew, the second demonic fiend looked to be much more difficult to kill than the first; whereas Grendel would come to them, Grendel's Mother would have to be killed in her own cave, miles under the sea, and thus, she had the home field advantage.
     When it came time to leap into the dark waters, Beowulf did not hesitate to take on the half day swim underwater to go after Grendel's Mother because, after all, what's a little thing like breathing when there's hero work to be done? After fighting off a few other sea monsters on his way to the cave, Beowulf finally located his second adversary standing next to an enormous pile of treasure. He knew he was in the right place when he also noticed Grendel's body on the floor lying next to the trove of riches. The first sword Beowulf used against Grendel's Mother (lent to him by a cowardly thane of Hrothgar who did not have the nerve to go after her himself) turned out to be about as useful as wheels on a rocking chair, and Grendel's Mother nearly killed him before he figured that out. As fate would have it though, Beowulf spotted a giant's sword mixed in with the treasure, and it turned out to be just the thing for killing a big, ugly, angry sea-hag. Despite Hollywood's assertion otherwise, Grendel's Mother was no Angelina Jolie.
     After killing Grendel's mom, Beowulf decides he is not at all interested in any of the treasure that's strewn about cave, and so he decides to cut off Grendel's head and take that as a souvenir instead.
The acid in Grendel's blood dissolves the blade of the giant sword, and thus, Beowulf is left holding a huge, useless handle. By the time Beowulf gets back to the surface, only his men were left waiting to see if he had survived; Hrothgar's men gave up hours before. When Beowulf climbs out of the water carrying Grendel's head and the heavy hilt that no one else can even lift, no one bothers to ask why he left so much treasure behind in order to come back with the creepy head of his enemy and a ruined giant's sword. Beowulf didn't want the treasure because any treasure he would have salvaged would have belonged to his king (who happened to also be his uncle) back in Geatland, and because Beowulf had no interest in wealth. As far as Beowulf was concerned, what matters most in life is what people know about what you've done; having possession of expensive, shiny stuff doesn't even factor into it.
     Lesson #3: It's all good as long as you haven't killed any family. In the third part of the story, Beowulf returns home to Geatland and hands over his bounty to his king and uncle, Hygelac. In turn, Hygelac gives Beowulf some good stuff back, but it's really besides the point because Beowulf knows he'll never have to pay for a drink again for the rest of his life. Later after his uncle dies, Beowulf is offered the throne by his aunt, Queen Hygd, but he declines because he knows it's not really his right to become king (his cousin, Heardred was next in line). Hygd wanted Beowulf to become king because she knew her own son, Heardred, was too young and inexperienced to last very long as king. She was right; before long, Heardred has died on a battlefield, and Beowulf becomes king. Then, nothing happens for 50 years. Presumably, Beowulf's half-century reign as king is uneventful because no one wanted to battle with an army lead by Beowulf.
     This leads then to the final epic fight of the story between Beowulf and a fire-breathing 40 foot lizard. Even though Beowulf had to be well into his 70s by the time a dragon goes on a rampage and starts burning down random Geat villages, Beowulf slaps on his old armor and heads out after the beast. Beowulf takes a dozen of his best men with him, but when it comes time to fight the dragon, all but one of them run away. At this point, we learn that Beowulf has never had a son and his last surviving relative, a thane named Wiglaf, is the only one of Beowulf's crew willing to stand next to him as he fights his final monster. The dragon takes a fatal knife to the belly, but only after it has already delivered a terminal bite to Beowulf's neck.
     As he is dying, Beowulf says to Wiglaf, (and I'm paraphrasing, of course) “Don't worry about my dying. It's all good. God will take me into Heaven because I always kept my word, I never instigated a fight, and I never killed a family member.” This, as much as anything, gives me hope. How awesome would it be if, upon our own deaths, God held us to the same standards Beowulf expected to face in the afterlife? I, for one, would be much relieved to find out that bar we had to cross to reach Heaven was pretty much being honest, not looking to start a fight, and not killing any kinfolk. And now I've said that to my students for the last time, I can only hope they can live up to it. God bless us, one and all.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.


  1. Gosh… thank you for the post and for your compliments, Dr. D. Although I’m enjoying the flattery, I still think I’d go with “cave full of treasure” rather than “good reputation”—had I the choice. So although I’m with you on the first and last lessons, I dispute #2!

    I enjoyed your post very much. And you needn’t issue disclaimers my way, by the way: I’ve spent the past couple of weeks extolling the virtues of anachronism to my students! (We’re studying medievalism, after all.) Indeed, _Beowulf_ itself is—if not anachronistic—nostalgic. The poem is out of time…
    (Speaking of which, I love your line about Hrothgar and Beowulf partying like it’s 1399)

    Are you familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “_Beowulf_: The Monster and the Critics”? It’s based on a lecture he delivered in 1936—one year before _The Hobbit _was published. I think it’d be particularly interesting to a rhetorician like yourself: amongst other things, it’s a profound intervention in literary criticism. Beyond that, you’re a rhetorician at the rim—and Tolkien is analyzing what is properly peripheral and what is profound.

    I initiated this response with a disputation (albeit in jest) regarding reputation and its relative value, so I’m going to conclude by restoring reputations and treasure troves. This was on JRRT’s agenda, too, in the aforementioned essay: he was interested in _Beowulf_’s reputation—the poem’s, mind you, not the eponymous hero’s—a volume of value, so to speak. And JRRT recognizes that _Beowulf_’s majesty is, in no small part, invested in its monsters. He writes, “A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.” A wonderful statement of value, no? Yet Tolkien exceeds himself at the end of the same passage: “There are in any case many heroes but very few good dragons.”

    1. I read the Tolkien essay years ago when I was first prepping my Beowulf lectures. I still have it on PDF so I think I'll reread it this week.

      Sometime in the future I'd like your opinion on what the students' textbook says about Beowulf. It presents the poem as the product of centuries of oral retelling that an anonymous Christian monk co-opted in order to convert the pagans by subtly inserting Biblical references and expunging the older gods entirely. This is pretty much presented in the textbook without any disclaimer as "theory", just as historical fact. Anyway, I stopped using the anthology and now have the students read the Heaney translation.

      Thanks for reading my blog this week. See you soon if the weather ever cooperates.


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