So Long, Beowulf, and Thanks for all the Fish

A famous illustration of the Goths, an ancient Germanic people related to Beowulf's people.

A famous illustration of the Goths, an ancient Germanic people related to Beowulf’s people.

Last August, after much discussion and delay, I began an extended study of “Beowulf” with the Endor discussion list. Formerly Xenite.Org’s Middle-earth Mailing List, Endor is devoted to Tolkien fans who want to talk about all things related to Tolkien. It’s usually a fairly serious group, although we’ve had the occasional humorous thread.

For several months we had talked about the idea of doing a “Beowulf” readalong. I finally got the impression that people were waiting for me to take the initiative (probably because I had suggested the project to begin with). Although I’ve been a big fan of “Beowulf” since I was a kid (I was introduced to the poem in the fourth grade), I’ve never really done much research into “Beowulf”. I figured we could just all share in the discussion together.

And it did sort of start out that way. But I think I managed to steal the group’s thunder. When you get to talking about ancient Germanic tribes, I tend to go hog-wild. I used to love reading about barbarian peoples. Germants, Celts, Wends, whatevers. I read everything I could get my hands on in college.

And my fascination with all things barbarian was by no means unique. When I took a “Birth of Europe” class in college, the professor handed out a survey at the beginning of the term. One of the questions was, “What do you expect to learn in this class?” I answered, “I’d like to learn more about the ancient Germans and Celts”. So did everyone else.

When he recapped the survey results, Dr. Shealy said, “Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the barbarians from whom we are descended. Everyone wants to know more, but there is little to tell.”

Works like “Beowulf” give you a glimpse into that pre-medieval Europe through the eyes of medieval European poets. And that’s the problem. The barbaric Germans and Celts were literate peoples. We know that the Celts used the Greek alphabet on coins and inscriptions. We know that the Germanic peoples were carving runes as far back as the 1st century CE and probably earlier. But they did not leave behind any great libraries of scrolls or books. If ever those societies possessed literary traditions, they have been lost to us.

We can reconstruct how barbaric peoples lived and how they memorialized their fallen leaders through archaeology, but we only get incomplete pictures. And it doesn’t help that archaeologists tend to associate every little clay figurine with religious overtones (sometimes a clay figurine is just a clay figurine).

So we have to look to the literature that was produced in the early to middle medieval period, which looked back to legendary heroes and origins, and use our imaginations to filter out the crusted attenuations of contemporary associations. That is, we have to decipher what might be aspects of the poets world translated onto the legends. That process goes on today. We update our old stories so that they are relevant to our current audiences. We dress up our movies and plays so that they are familiar and comfortable to us.

The raw barbaric elements which shine through in “Beowulf” are the details of the various feuds between clans. Real names are associated with the characters in the poem. Some of those names are found in other poems, other literature. Some of the events described in the poem are mentioned elsewhere, too. However much of “Beowulf” we choose to disbelieve because it seems so fantastic (such as Beowulf’s swimming through the sea for 5 days, carrying a sword in one hand, and fighting off sea-monsters), the poem is still regarded as a serious piece of literature. And it is believed to retain echoes of a distant past that really happened.

My commentaries didn’t always focus on the elements of the poem. In fact, I’m not much of a poetic analyst. I don’t dwell on metre and allusion, metaphor and juxtaposition. And the fact I switched from one translation to another after 15 sections would only complicate such analysis anyway.

Instead, I got wrapped up in the world depicted by “Beowulf”. I wanted to revisit the mythic places and heroes I had read about throughout the years I was studying ancient barbarian cultures. The Internet makes it a little easier to do that, as there are many Web sites which are devoted to the various excavations that have been completed through the last 200 years. Many sites are now tourist attractions. People take pictures of these attractions.

There is also a great deal of literature on the Web in the form of republished academic papers and essays. People sometimes just put up original research and share their notes. Some of these sites are composed by amateurs. Some of them are funded by research grants. I’ve often browsed the official Web sites for archaeological projects in the Middle East, for example.

While archaeology is not much interested in “Beowulf” these days, there have been many archaeological revelations which prove that the Beowulf poet(s) didn’t just make up everything. Some things really did exist in the 4th and 5th centuries CE just as the poets imagined. Reading “Beowulf” is like reading Homer’s “Iliad” in that you’re seeing an ancient world through not-quite-so-ancient eyes, and yet glimmers of fact flicker through the hallowed legends.

If Beowulf really lived, he most likely was a great warrior king. He would have fought more than one feud with near and distant rivals. He probably did go off seeking adventure, fame, and glory in his youth. Whether he really fought monsters is anyone’s guess. While most people would say there were no Grendels or dragons, even today we argue over whether the Loch Ness monster and its supposed relatives in other lakes can truly exist; even today we argue over whether there are Yeti and Sasquatches wandering in the remote wildernesses.

Only a few centuries before Beowulf would have lived, Roman hunters were killing giant bears, lions, and aurochs (huge bison-like creatures) in the woods and meadows of Italy and Gaul. Monsters abounded in the ancient world, not because people’s imaginations were overactive, but because it was a much more dangerous, unknown place than today’s Europe. Maybe Beowulf’s dragon was a bear. Maybe Grendel was a hairy Wuduwasa (wild man of the woods). Maybe there really were dragon-like monsters that only died out as civilization encroached upon their domains and killed them off.

We’ll never know for sure. But we can enjoy the exploits, real or imagined, of great heroes like Jason, Hercules, Beowulf, and Rolland through the eyes of the poets who saw them.

When I started the Beowulf Discussion, I had no idea it would take so long for me to finish it. I hoped someone else would step up and take on the burden at those times when I was too busy or too ill to continue. Instead, the Endor membors patiently waited for me to return to the task. I appreciate their support and confidence, but there were times when I thought to myself, “I really don’t know what to say”.

Of course, it doesn’t take much to get me started. They know that. Once I found a small point to focus on, I could do some research or dredge up a long-forgotten passage and share a few recollections.

This morning I posted my commentaries on the last three sections. I hope the journey has been worthwhile. No one has resigned from the list. No one has complained. So, whether they agree with my analysis or not, I guess it entertained them.

And that’s what it’s all about.

Next week, we start a sentence-by-sentence analysis of The Rise And Fall Of The Roman Empire.

Well, maybe the week after….

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