When, with its baffling comparisons and stylistic pirouettes, the post-postmodern criticism of the thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is finally written, it will begin like this:
On December 22, 1938, in the estuary of the Chalumna River off the Eastern Cape of South Africa, the young naturalist Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer pulled out of a trawler a five-foot-long, prickly-scaled, sharp-toothed fish of a type she had never seen before. The smelly, oily catch, weighing 127 pounds, would eventually make her famous as the discoverer of the coelacanth, which was quickly named a “living fossil”, thought to be extinct for 70 million years. Zoologist J. L. B. Smith, who had to scramble to preserve the specimen, and who would make the fish his life’s work, nicknamed it “Fourlegs” for its odd configuration of fins. The species captured the world’s imagination as an ancestor of all land vertebrates, including amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and Trent undergraduates.
Beowulf, the poem, is the coelacanth of the English literary canon. Thickset, fearless, and with no predators, the fish is inedible as a meal for students except when tenderized in translation. The original manuscript, almost lost to history, is now preserved in archival formaldehyde in the British Library, and has been the subject of intense study ever since it landed on the deck of the trawler over three-quarters of a century ago.
Here, then, is our post-post baffling comparison, which happily preserves the dignity of the fish (still found off the coast of Madagascar) while flattering this 3,000-line medieval poem. In the US, millions of students read it in Grade 9 as an adventure story; in Anglo universities, including Trent, it is lodged in the English Department canon as a foundation text—the first masterpiece of English literature. It arrived from a distant bardic tradition, in an unreadable language, with unpronounceable names, and set in an archaic, almost unreachable pastthe Scandinavia of 500 C.E.
Although the importance of Beowulf to scholars is easy to explain, its unending appeal to a wider audience is a much more interesting question. Beowulf is the love-beast of pop culture, and continues to be revived again and again in seemingly impossible forms. Elizabeth Popham, Professor of English at Trent, recently listed some of these adaptations for me: “There are at least three moviesall various degrees of horrible. There’s an Icelandic-Canadian joint film production, a 1980’s cartoon, a graphic novel, a radio play, a new video game.” And then there’s Game of Thrones. When teaching Beowulf, Popham tells her Thrones-besotted students, “This is where it comes from.”
Liam Mitchell, an Assistant Professor in Trent’s Cultural Studies Department, remembers reading Beowulf as a student. His current interest in the phenomenology of the Internet recently led him to try out the new Ubisoft on-line incarnation. “This video game instantiation of it is a total failure,” he says with exasperation, “but that might have to do with the media difference, where one medium has a forced interaction and the other doesn’t. The monsters in the video game are hilariously terrible. In the swimming contest with Breca, a huge sea monster looms. You run up and punch it in the face a few times. It’s absurd. It takes all the majesty out of it, or any of the work of imagination or fear—that’s all just gone.” Yet in spite of these new-media failures, Beowulf continues to be a money-maker for everybody. A fine-art print of the first page of the original manuscript is a British Library bestseller, rivaling the Magna Carta as frameable art.
Why are we so obsessed? The basic plot hardly seems to justify it: the young Viking warrior Beowulf travels to Denmark, rips the monster Grendel apart, then kills Grendel’s vengeful mother, returns to Sweden to reign as King for 50 years, puts on weight, and dies slaying a dragon after misreading his job description, which requires him to be merely a regal figurehead. The driving narrative of the poem, with its alliteration and pulsing rhythm, is, of course, only part of the story. Beowulf’s reputation as a masterpiece of combat, exultation, drinking and doom rests on a larger richness.
BALLAST IN THE HOLD
The poem braids together many genres, themes, set pieces, tonal colours, and storytelling tactics that would become embedded in England’s evolving literature. From Christian homiletic, elegy, secular sermon, and tragic death tableau, to historical digressions, narrative sophistication, prancing horses and the nostril-biting smoke of the funeral pyre, Beowulf is a literary feast, delivering as a side dish enough psychotic mayhem and trashing of hotel rooms to hold the attention of rowdy drunks (or Christian clerics) in the bard’s audience. At times, through its sheer gravitational pull and unassailable reputation, Beowulf feels like the ballast deep in the hold that keeps the entire English literature canon upright. It is the Deep Fact, the Origin Myth Singularity. It is also the great holding-of-the-breath before 1066, but that’s another story.
Although the manuscript first surfaced in the library of the English antiquarian Laurence Nowell in 1563, Beowulfiana—the scholarship around the epic—only began in the early 1800’s, with a growing interest in its philology, historical roots, and the first translations into Modern English. The second major phase had to wait until the Oxford scholar J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his swerving 1936 essay, “The Monsters and the Critics”, where he was the first to defend the poem as a brilliant work of art on the tragic theme of youth and age. A recent milestone—arguably the crest of a third wave—was the 2006 publication of The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook, a 700-page anthology of essays reflecting the new preoccupations of the past quarter century.
Beowulf scholarship, however, will never be the true guarantor of the poem’s grip on our psyche. That power will always reside in the monsters and the heroes themselves, and for paradoxical reasons.
The West has been spawning and stabbing mythical monsters for so long that it can be hard to remember they aren’t real except as literary and psychic artifacts. We rely on our children to reassure to us that, as Bruno Bettelheim expressed it when talking about the ogres in fairy tales, “They are not real, but they are true.” When you ask someone who read Beowulf long ago what they remember, they are likely to say: “There were monsters.”
The truth residing in the monsters of Beowulf owes its cumulative force to the mythic comprehensiveness of its three marauders: Grendel, kin to the Cain of Genesis and thus the entire bestiary of the Old Testament; Grendel’s mother as primordial Creator and Destroyer; and the dragon, with its lineage stretching back even further, to the pre-cosmogonic, self-devouring Uroboros worm. The narrator holds us with scenes of hand-to-hand combat, but he fixates us by another means: it is the famous silences of Beowulf (Where are the women? to cite one example), the vagueness of shapes and landscapes, and the flatness of the hero, that give the poem its real power. Here is a shadowy screen onto which we, as readers or as the original listening audience, can project ourselves. “The poem,” says James W. Earl, adding a Freudian point of view in The Postmodern Beowulf, “sits in place of the analyst.” In our vast, unmet need to be listened to, we pour our monstrous fears into the ears of the silent text.
THE BESTIARY REVISITED
Our understanding of myth and monsters is very different today than it was a hundred years ago. Freudian psychodynamics, Jungian archetypes, and the relentless de-mythologizing project of the social sciences, while bleaching out much of the romance, have given us insights into how we project images of fear and ungovernable forces both outward and inward as social, cultural, and psychological beings. The outward projections of the monsters in Beowulf, explains scholar and translator R. M. Liuzza, “are narrative manifestations of the forces of disorder and chaos which an orderly society must hold at bay but which will, in the dark world of the poem, inevitably triumph.”
For Freud, and for clinical psychologists and therapists, the inward projections are something else altogether. As children we internalize our significant others, in all their creative and destructive guises. When things go terribly wrong, the introjected destroyer becomes a Beowulfian dragon within, an autonomous, tail-snapping agent that acts out unconsciously. The true horror cited in 1939 by poet W. H. Auden is that, when “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return,” they do not attack the original perpetrators, but total strangers. In the Beowulf digression about the legendary Modthryth, innocent retainers are executed on the spot for accidentally making eye contact with the Queen.
What good are monsters without heroes to dismember them? True, the protagonist Beowulf is a failed hero in a vaguely modern sense, but he is also a purely social being of the Middle Ages, with simple behaviour elicited by a simple trigger in a hive-like environment—the two-dimensional incarnation of a heroic warrior code. “It’s not psychological, it’s social,” explains Professor Popham. “This is the difference between the medieval period and the Renaissance, which has become deeply involved in exploring the human psyche.” Five-hundred years after Beowulf was written down, Western literature would invent human nature as we know it today, and begin to produce more exquisite failures, including the anti-heroes we have come to love, from Don Quixote and Milton’s Satan to John le Carré’s George Smiley and the basement tinkerer Walter White.
Something of the old heroic ideal persisted into the last century in Joseph Campbell’s passionate revival of The Hero With a Thousand Faces. More recently, the prominent University of Toronto psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, in his Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, and in his many public and TV talks, has laboured to produce a fresh charter for the everyday hero informed by lab-rat neuroscience, mythology, literature, clinical psychology and religious wisdom.
NIBBLING AT SUBJECTIVITY
Neuroscience may prove to be the monster that devours the last hero, as the free will presupposed by Beowulf’s decisive action continues to be eroded by the reductionist project of science. American sociobiologist E. O. Wilson has speculated that our irreducible feeling of free will is in fact an illusion provided by evolution to help us manage sensory input and stay sane. Reflecting on autonomous agency as the basis for our legal system of personal responsibility—and thus of all of our ignoble and noble acts—cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has warned against what he calls “the Specter of Creeping Exculpation”, a troll more dangerous than Grendel’s ferocious mother. This is the kind of thing that makes Beowulf show up in dreams as a sharp-toothed coelacanth accompanied by many small pilot fish darting here and there, grooming the overlord and feeding on leftovers.
Meanwhile, laundry piles up. To wash your own Beowulf chain-mail shirt, follow these simple steps.
- Soak the shirt overnight in a wooden trough of river water.
- Swish vigorously to remove spear tips, broken teeth, clots of brain tissue, blood, sweat, saliva, tears, snot and snack crumbs.
- Rinse in clean water.
- Drip dry.