The Armchair MA: Beowulf by Ælfric

I should probably start this whole Armchair MA series with a huge disclaimer: I’M THROWING OUT MY ENTIRE ANALYTICAL FRAMEWORK. By which I mean that I’m no longer going to use How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas Foster or Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Not because they aren’t great books with great ideas about how to analyze literature, but because I was trying to fit my ideas in to their boxes and it just wasn’t working! So now, I bring you my own attempt at unguided and wholly independent analysis: lets hope that English degree wasn’t totally useless! hehe 🙂 Anyway, on to the first installment EVER of the Armchair MA, talking about *drum roll*….. Beowulf!

Beowulf is considered to be the first great heroic poem, written sometime between the first half of the 8th century and the first half of the 11th century – oh, the joys of trying to time-frame ancient texts! It’s also assumed to be written by one or a very few number of Christian authors, assumed to be such because of the many frequent allusions to Christ and Christian expectations, despite the fact that the poem is set in the Pagan days of the ancient Danes. So what’s this poem epically about? The Geat hero Beowulf, who shows up in the Danish kingdom of king Hrothgar (yep. Hrothgar. If I didn’t want him to hate me forever, I would name my first child Hrothgar. Then his name would be Hrothgar Outlaw, and that’s just not a name you f*ck with). Anyway, Hrothgar is up to his very tall armpits in monster’s, and as Beowulf is the greatest hero anywhere around, he shows up to help. And Beowulf is seriously badass. He’s described as swimming to the bottom of the ocean and back in order to fight monsters. He’s also known to be a great leader (referred to as a “ring-king”, a kenning* for a king who is generous when dividing the spoils of war) and is very respected. So he shows up, the Danes party, and then the first monster shows up: Grendel. And Beowulf, as expected, kicks some major ass. He kills Grendel and the war party celebrates again, getting piss drunk and hanging the monster’s arm from the front of the lodge. But this is a bad idea, as Grendel has a mother, and now this mother is pissed. REAL pissed. So, she shows up and kills a whole bunch of passed out Danes (they were super drunk, remember?) before scampering back to her cave beneath a lake. But Hrothgar and Beowulf just can’t have this, so they chase her down. Beowulf makes his way to her lair and there, where he finds a sword that once belonged to the giants. Which, of course, because he’s Beowulf, he uses to slay Grendel’s mother. He then makes his way back to land, where he is celebrated and sent home, having rid Hrothgar’s kingdom of it’s monsters – the Danes and the Geats forever friends. FAST FORWARD FIFTY YEARS. Beowulf is back in Geatland, and a dragon is pissed. A slave stole a cup from the dragon’s treasure, and when the dragon finds out, he leaves his cave and starts burning everything in sight. Beowulf and the Geats can’t have that, so he takes his men with him to do battle. But, Beowulf will always be Beowulf and he tells his men to wait while he goes to fight the dragon alone in his cave. However, Beowulf isn’t a spring chicken anymore, and finds himself outmatched. Seeing their leader failing, Beowulf’s men desert him (dicks!) save one, Wiglaf (THESE POOR PEOPLE WITH THESE NAMES!!), who stays and see Beowulf defeat the dragon, although he is dealt a fatal blow in the process. Beowulf dies and is buried in Geatland.

GAH! Talk about your epic poem! However, summarizing and analyzing aren’t the same thing, so hold on to your hats while I try some REAL analyzing here:

Beowulf and Hrothgar: Hrothgar’s people find their lives revolving around their meadhall. It’s the only building we ever see while we’re with the Danes. This could be for any number of reasons, but my guess is that it has a lot to do with sustenance and the giving of gifts or the dividing of spoils – two things that would happen primarily in the mead hall. That’s why, when Grendel attacks the meadhall, it’s seen as an even greater affront to Hrothgar and his people. Speaking of Hrothgar, it would seem that he and Beowulf exemplify what it means to be a good king, and this primarily revolves around their willingness and fairness with the giving of gifts, which was a sign of devotion and meant to promote reciprocity between a lord and his lieges. It also indicates that both the Danes and the Geats were operating within a gift economy, where the gifts received are directly proportional to good done. Both men also participate in what (I gather to be) the proper amount of ‘flyting’, or formal, ritualized boasting that usually focuses on moral impropriety or weakness, which is then dis-proved by the other members of the boasting party (I hope that makes sense! It does in my head, I swear, so please let me know in the comments if I just totally lost you!)

Grendel (and his mom): Grendel is actually my favorite character in Beowulf. He’s described as being a monster descended from Cain (HELLO, CHRISTIANITY), who attacks Hrothgar’s kingdom for singing about Christianity, something he can never be a part of because he’s marked as the monster he is. He is truly an outcast, especially in this culture – this is a culture of tribes, and an importance was placed on having a lord to be loyal to, and without that, Grendel truly has no place he can belong. I feel there is a certain amount of pity in that, although I can’t say I ‘approve’ of his taking out this loneliness on the people of Hrothgar’s court. I also think that the fight with Grendel’s mother allows us to see a weaker side of Beowulf, as he gives a LARGE majority of lines to his fight with Grendel in comparison to the fight with Grendel’s mother, which I believe is because Grendel’s mother posed more of a challenge to Beowulf’s skill, thus challenging his masculinity and asserting a kind of powerful, albeit monsterly, female figure.

The Dragon: To wrap up this analysis, I want to give brief discussion to Beowulf’s fight with the dragon. This is for two reasons. One: the fight with the dragon, as Beowulf and his men march to face the beast, is when we’re given the history of the Geats, a history which deepens our understanding of Beowulf – they’re a people under a constant threat of war and fear of invasion. This helps us to understand not only why Beowulf has felt it necessary to be the hero he has been, but also why his soon-to-be-had demise is hinted at being so devastating. So, after the rest of Beowulf’s men flee, Wiglaf is the only one who remains. This is not only an indicator of his own nobility and a small spark of hope for the future of the Geats (Beowulf basically places this mantle of hope on the young soldier before he dies); this scene also indicates the darker side, however, as the fact that all of Beowulf’s supposedly great men fled, indicating a kind of loss of honor and bravery amongst men, which could be disastrous for a country described as the one above.

Well, folks, there you have it! My first ever go at the Armchair MA! And now I need your feedback, lovely readers! Was it too much summary versus too little analysis? This is something I really want to work on keeping in balance, as summarizing is so much easier than analysis! What about the analysis – I know I probably could have gone deeper, but was there something you felt was TRULY, like DANGEROUSLY lacking? I’m also thinking about adding a section for ‘discussion questions’ (like a real college class!) but I’m not sure how well this would go over, considering I’m not sure how many people would have read whatever given work…So yeah! Obviously, any help or comments or input would be much appreciated! Happy reading!

*kenning = poetic speaking in circular, used in place of metaphor or simile