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Remembrance of the Past in Beowulf
by Michael Lane1
The problem with current explanations of the fusion
of Christian and heathen elements in Beowulf is they are just that
--explanations. Their purpose is to show how the poet might have coped
with a difficulty, and so they remain essentially negative. Therefore,
by their very nature, they fail to help us understand the power
of the poem. I propose to establish the source of this poem's power in
its dynamic relationship to the past. This investigation then opens
up an appealing resolution to the heathen-Christian problem.
I begin with the treasure. Paul Beekman Taylor has called particular attention to the life-giving quality of treasure in Germanic tradition: "The fetish force in treasure is consecrated to both bringing forth and preserving life."3 Taylor reminds us that Anglo-Saxon poetry reveals and presumes a "conventional stock of etymological associations between treasure goods and the life forces which are understood to reside in them." For example, the dying Beowulf after expressing regret that he has no son, gazes on the treasure and makes this telling pronouncement:
Gestrynan, as Taylor observes, carries the sense of "to beget, to engender," perhaps implying "Beowulf's regrets concerning the lack of an heir," but also suggesting how the poet may have understood "the direct object of the phrase - frætwa ['seed/treasure'] - since the nominal form of gestrynan is gestreon," which includes the idea of treasure as "something begotten, a blood strain."6 Beowulf has achieved symbolic progeny: "Beowulf is consoling himself with the notion that a treasure won is a benefit to a people comparable to, if not equal to, a son." The treasure's status is part of the extraordinary aura of the whole hall, itself a work of unusual scale and mysterious design. All by itself it provokes awe and contemplation:
By desiring merely to gaze on this find before
be dies, Beowulf is not reverting to a crude barbarism. Quite the opposite,
he demonstrates a wise and knowing appreciation of history as the Beowulf-poet
understood it. Beowulf, with full awareness, is gazing on the primeval
world itself, a history of a lost time of heaven and earth, and godlike
men (really, a history of eternal significance, "ece-eorð-reced"
2719, my emphasis). The poet and his presumed audience contemplate this
history through Beowulf's eyes, pondering these mysterious relics that
carry the touch of those legendary figures who made them (and those who
wielded them for evil or for good). We should give Beowulf credit for
at least as much awe as we ourselves might feel in the presence of the
treasures of Sutton Hoo.
If the hall and its treasure are a door opening onto the past, is there any other hint in the poem as to what lies beyond that door? A clue may be found in the two other very old things that capture the poet's imagination. Taylor brings Old Norse language and culture (especially as relating to magic) to bear on Beowulf. Particularly valuable in that regard is the Noise concept of "sacral kingship," the idea that
In the Danish line, Scyld succeeds his father Heremod, arriving "gratuitously on the waves" to save a people who have been aldorleas [lordless, lifeless], suffering from the effects of their last king."9 In this way, Scyld's patrimony becomes renewed and "is given a name ['Sheaf'] which carries the hope and promise of a new fecundity for a people deprived of a sacral king. The treasure borne with him incarnates a new luck."10 In the Geatish line, "Beowulf, like the winter earth protecting the seeds of spring growth, is characterized as a holder and transmitter of ar" (usually understood as "honor," but cognates include "fruitfulness, potency").11 Although Beowulf has no son, his power of sacral kingship does not die with him. Wiglaf is like a son to Beowulf, and so Beowulf "passes on to another generation the force of life in treasure which contains a people's ar."12
We find the Creation story, followed only nine
lines later by two sequential events: Cain's murder of Abel and God's
destruction of Cain's descendants, the giants (91-98, 107-14). In connection
with Grendel's sword, we again have God's destruction of the giants (by
flood, cf. 1689-90) as the second of two sequential events. In this case,
the first event, inscribed on the hilt, is "fyrn-gewinnes" (1689a),
"the origin of ancient strife." Since Cain's murder of Abel
could, with literal accuracy, be denominated "the origin of ancient
strife," it does not seem unreasonable to infer that they are one
and the same. Such an inference is strengthened by the further statement
that the inscription told "hwam þæt sweord geworht"
(1696b), ie, for whom that sword had been made; in other words,
the inscription is a name. The name for the origin of strife would be
vein, there is a Norse analogue to the story of the Flood that destroyed
the giants. Before the earth was formed, Odin and his brothers drowned
all the race of frost-giants in the blood of Ymir, "except that one
who escaped with all his household. Giants call him Bergelmir. He went
up on to his ark with his wife and was preserved."17
Bergelmir is called "that wise giant" (Gylfaginning 7).
What would have been the Beowulf-poet's attitude towards this "wise
giant" story? I propose that the coincidence would have amazed him,
and that he would have said to himself something like: "My heathen
ancestors remembered, albeit imperfectly, the Flood and Noah! Come to
think of it, they were there, in Noah's loins. If they remembered the
Flood and Noah, they could have remembered Noah's God."18
Indeed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle directly connects to Noah the
same Danish royal house we see in Beowulf: "Beaw, the son of Sceldwea
[Scyld], the son of Heremod, the son of Itermon, the son of
Hrathra, who was born in the ark: Noah," etc.19
Noah as Sacral King
The poet is operating from something like the following
rationale, or Universal History: the immediate result of Adam's loss of
"luck" was a loss of fertility in the earth: "Cursed is
the earth in thy work," (Gen. 3.17, Douay-Rheims). We see Adam's
"bad luck" perpetuated in Cain's line with the first murder
and renewal of the curse: "When thou shalt till it, it shall not
yield to thee its fruit" (Gen. 4.12). We see the bad luck perpetuated
in Seth's line when his descendants mingle with the already luckless Cainites
(Gen. 6.2). However, God determines to start a new line, with a new covenant,
in the person of Noah. The ark is loaded not (like the earth-hall) with
metals and jewels but with a living gene pool, "that seed may be
saved upon the face of the whole earth" (7.3). When the waters subside,
Noah raises an altar, whereupon follows the restoration of the earth's
fertility: I will no more curse the earth for the sake of man" (8.21).
A Door Opens
The symbolism of the life-giving water would enrich
with Christian meaning the theme of seed-luck-fertility in the poem to
which Taylor has called attention, as well as the parallel theme (lent
by a passage from Origen) of Beowulf's cultivating (watering) the seeds
of Noah in himself. Beowulf and Wiglaf, in rescuing the treasure, rescue
the fertility of a nation and also embody that fertility in their persons.
1 Editor of Triumph of the Past, P.O. Box 29535, Columbus, Ohio 43229 USA; firstname.lastname@example.org
2 2349-48 B.C. according to Fr. Geofrey Haydock, ed. The Old Testament of the Holy Catholic Bible (New York: Dunigan & Brother, 1859), 1227. More simply, one might say that a "thousand winters" is the poet's way of saying, "before the Flood." Indeed, by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's genealogy, there would be only eight generations from Hrothgar back to Noah!
3 Sharing Story: Medieval Norse-English Literary Relationships (New York: AMS Press, 1998), 14 (the following quote is ibid, 19). Taylor adds that though "this fact has been long recognized in the study of the artifacts of Anglo-Saxon culture, it has not been sufficiently tested in the critical study of the poetry (14).
4 All citings are from Beowulf: A Dual Language Edition. Ed. Howell D. Chickering, Jr. (New York: Doubleday, 1977).
5 Translation in the block quotes is from Stanley Greenfield, A Readable Beowulf (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982).
6 Taylor, Sharing Story, 13, for this and the following quote. For more on treasure as mystical relic, see Robert Hanning, "Poetic Emblems in Medieval Narrative Texts," Vernacular Poetics in the Middle Ages. ed. Lois Ebin (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 1984) 4f., where he expands on the treasure-word laf: "The two basic meanings of laf are: (a) a survivor or survival, what is left from a once larger group or artifact, a fragment or relic; and (b) an heirloom, legacy, or inheritance, something bequeathed or left by one generation to another [... ]"; cf. Taylor, Sharing Story, 18.
7 John Pope, "The Existential Mysteries as Treated in Certain Passages of Our Older Poets," in Acts of Interpretation: The Text in Its Contexts, 700-1600, ed. Mary Carruthers (Norman: Pilgrim, 1982) 354, draws out the theme here of mutability/durability: As one meditating wisely, wis-hycgende, "Beowulf shares with the poet a wonder at something that pulls his mind away from his pain and his impending death, to admire the skill that made it and its power to endure. Instead of a lamentation over the mutability to which he himself is so painfully subject, we have admiration and awe at something time has not conquered."
8 Sharing Story, 54 (my italics)
9 Ibid., 66.
10 Ibid, 66; cf. 67: This luck "is confirmed later in his own son whose name - Beaw or Beowulf - carries the sacral agricultural legacy of his father (see n. 25]. In turn, this Beowulf's own son Healfdane ['Half-Dane'] carries the luck of his father along with the blood of another race [... ]. Scyld, then, atones for the bad blood/bad luck of Heremod"; cf. also 63: Finally, Healfdane's son Hrothgar "monumentalizes the family's concatenation of sacral 'luck' with the building of Heorot."
11 Ibid., 59.
12 Ibid.. 69. Beowulf's father's gift-giving function had lain idle because Ecgtheow found himself exiled on account of a killing. The restitution of the Waegmundings' hall, gift-throne, and native right (eþel-riht" 2198) to Beowulf on his return from Denmark (2190-99) suggests the theme of luck lost and regained. When, as king, Beowulf battles the Worm, "Wiglaf enters the fight alongside his lord in remembrance of the ar Beowulf had given him previously (2606a) associated also with a father's folcriht [common land]. In other words, Beowulf had restored to Wiglaf a paternal prosperity" (68f.). Taylor concludes: "Like a winter-bound seed, and like the young and feasceaft [bereft] Scyld, the sacral luck of the Geats, so lamented now, lies in wait to be actualized by a future hero. The poem begins with the story of Scyld who cleanses Denmark of the bad-luck heritage of Heremod, and concludes with Beowulf's purging of the malefic force of the dragon to restore the positive natural and social force of the dragon's treasure. Beowulf, like Scyld, mediates a future of potential, no matter how long it takes to achieve. His ar, figured in the barrow and poem which monumentalizes his accomplishment, survives him" (70).
13 A name would address Hilda Davidson's concern, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962) 137, "We know that runes could be inscribed on a hilt but nothing of the complexity suggested here."
14 Cain's great-great-great-great grandson, Tubal-Cain (the "second Cain"), is the inventor of metalworking (Gen. 4.22), whose art therefore attaches to the first Cain by association, as in Origen's statement, "The smith from Cain, manufacturer of brass and iron, is a servant to the hammer" (Catena 30; trans. John Clark Smith, vol. 97 of The Fathers of the Church [Washington: Catholic U. of America P, 1998]); cf. characterization of Grendel's sword as "old work of giants" "enta ær-geweore" 1679). Grendel and his parent still possess a negative form of the art (804-5, 1522-24, 1557-58, cf. "deofles cræftum" 2088). The second Cain, interestingly enough, belongs to exactly the same generation as Noah, being his sixth cousin, and their fathers have the same name, Lamech. The Cainite Lamech's boast that his death will be avenged with a "seventy-seven fold vengeance" upon his killer (Gen. 4.24, Douay-Rheims) may allude to his son's possessions of superior metal weapons (cf. Bernard Orchard et al., eds., A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture [New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953]).
15 The commingling of the lines could have begun as early as Enos's generation, and I think the poet takes giants to be antediluvian human beings in general (the reduction in man's life-span at Gen. 6.3 coinciding with a reduction in stature). According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Palestine seems to have been inhabited about the fourth millennium B.C. by a population which may be called, without insisting upon the meaning of the word, aboriginal. This population is designated by the general name of Nephilim [giants]." (1909 ed., s.v. "geography." 6:432). Although the Flood effectively destroyed the giants as a race, there is no reason the poet could not have imagined that a few stragglers escaped. Grendel, carrying Cainite blood in his veins, would be a survival of a near-extinct branch of mankind (rather as we think of Neanderthal).
16 S. A. J. Bradley, ed and trans., Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Dent, 1982). St. John Chrysostom gives the same interpretation, in Homilies on Genesis 22.8; trans. Robert C. Hill, vol. 82 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1990). The manuscript of Alcuin's Interrogationes et Responsiones in Genesin identifies them with the descendants of "Cham" and "Sem" respectively (Interrogatio 96, PL 100: 526), which, as it is unlikely to be Alcuin's mistake (Cham and Sem having no descendants before the Flood), looks like a copyist's error for Cain and Seth.
17 Snorri Sturluson, Edda, trans. Anthony Faulkes (London: Dent, 1987), for this and the "wise giant" quote that follows.
18 I still remember my own amazement (once upon a time), when, knowing the Genesis story, I first read the story of the Greek hero of the flood, Deucalion, in Bullfinch's Mythology. Scholars have become so accustomed to parallels in different mythologies, that they forget how impressive they are and the kind of awe they would instill in a Christian scribe and poet.
19 Ã853 from p. 64; G. N. Garmonsway, ed. and trans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: Dent, 1972): 21f.
20 "The Christian Color in Beowulf: Fact or Fiction?" University of Southern Florida Language Quarterly 20 (1981): 21f.
21 Commentary on the Gospel of John 20.13, trans. Ronald Heine, vol. 89 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1993), for this and the following quoted matter from Origen.
22 Beowulfs soul rises towards the doom of the just: him of hreðe gewat / sawol secean soð-fæstra dom." The poet's way of assimilating Universal History implies possible associations: e.g., the Beowulf-poet may have interpreted Valhalla as a Germanic recollection of Heaven or Purgatory. Significantly, just before Beowulf descends to face Grendel's mother, he asks (in the event of his death) that Hrothgar perform the office of a father (cf. 1478f.). Perhaps Hrothgar is supposed to pray for Beowulf's soul; if so, Beowulf pictures himself in Purgatory, the only realm of the dead where prayers of the living might avail. Bede speaks of Purgatory where he writes that some souls "are taken after death by the flames of purgatorial fire and severely punished. Either they are cleansed of the taint of their vices by a long trial in this fire, or thanks to the prayers, alms, fasting, tears, and eucharistic offerings of their faithful friends, they are delivered from punishment and allowed to enjoy the repose of the blessed" - PL 94: 30D; qtd. in Jacques LeGoff, Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984), 102f.
23 Cf. the favor shown Noah, likewise indicated by smoke, "The Lord smelled a sweet savor" (Gen. 8.21); cf. as well the rejection of Cain's offering (4.5).
24 Here I quote from Taylor, "Some Ritual Charms in Beowulf"' Journal of Popular Culture 1 (1967): 278; cf. Sharing Story, 82.
Baptism also connects with John the Baptist. John ate honey, and Beowulf's
name ("Bee-wolf") establishes him as a honey-eater. Honey, of
course, is a symbol of the fertility of the Promised Land. Perhaps
we should also think of the honey-ale that is so prodigally consumed in
Cf. Raymond P. Tripp, Jr, in "Bad Breath at the Barrow, Beowulf
2288a: Stonc ða fter stane: The Implications of a Homiletic
Perspective," In Geardagum 20 (1999): 11-12: These, awoc,
'awoke,' geniwad, 'renewed,' and stonc, [2287-88] as 'rose
up,' all signify a 'rising up and coming into being,' something of a diabolic
epiphany, and, therefore, constitute a unified series. The wroht ws
geniwad / stonc ða fter stane, [2287b-88a] which follows
the dragon's awakening, echoes the sweg up astag, / niwe geneahhe
(782b-83a), 'The tumult rose up, erupting once again,' which describes
Grendel's waking, to renew the ancient warfare against goodness. In acknowledging
the common signification linking awoc, geniwad and stonc,
and its narrative and thematic anticipation in astag, we can see
more clearly that the waking of the actual but indisputably symbolic dragon
is the renewal of strife, which does rise up again like smoke from
the smoldering fires of hell. From this point of view, we can also confirm
that these summary half-lines together refer to the same event, namely,
to another eruption of what Marijane Osborne has called the 'great feud'
between God and his adversaries, of which there has been an immemorial
succession"; cf. Osborne's "The Great Feud: Scriptural History
and Strife in Beowulf," PMLA 93 (1978): 973-81. See
also Tripp's More About the Fight with the Dragon (New York: University
Press of America, 1983), 33f., 39f., 103, 369-79, and 409-11.