There be dragons!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Beowulf the hero

I read with interest Douglas Wilson’s article on Beowulf in Touchstone magazine. I was surprised, however, that Mr. Wilson did not mention the concept of Ragnarok in regards to the epic poem. Surely the pagan Norse were not unique in their experience of internecine war, treachery, and hopelessness; one has to look only to the strife-ridden court of Constantinople to prove this. But the Norse were unique in their concept of Ragnarok as an inevitable end of everything that exists (gods included). As J.R.R. Tolkien has pointed out in his masterful article “The Monsters and the Critics” the heroic strength to face despair and grapple manfully with it rather than backing down is the greatest contribution that Anglo-Saxon literature has given to Western culture. This concept must have permeated the world view of the Anglo-Saxon poet and influenced the nature of his work.
When the Anglo-Saxons sharing this world view of inevitable ruin were converted to Christianity they must have seen in the person of Christ a savior who fit this view of heroism. Such an interpretation is born out by two examples, namely “The Dream of the Rood” which refers to Christ’s victory over death in terms of bravery in battle and entrance into the Lord’s mead hall.

That Son was victory-fast in that great venture,
with might and good-speed when he with many,
vast host of souls, came to God's kingdom,
One-Wielder Almighty: bliss to the angels
and all the saints--those who in heaven
dwelt long in glory--when their Wielder came,
Almighty God, where his homeland was.

Se sunu wæs sigorfæst on þam siðfate,
mihtig ond spedig, þa he mid manigeo com,
gasta weorode, on godes rice,
anwealda ælmihtig, englum to blisse
ond eallum ðam halgum þam þe on heofonum ær
wunedon on wuldre, þa heora wealdend cwom,
ælmihtig god, þær his eðel wæs.

The second example is a vignette concerning the conversion of King Edwin in “Bede’s Ecclesiastical History”, Bk II, Ch XIII. After the priest, Coifi, gives a speech supporting Christianity and calling for conversion, one unnamed theign casts his lot in favor of conversion and uses the famous image of a sparrow flying through a mead hall, saying,

"The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

The darkness surrounding the mead hall, with all its uncertainty and menace, is a parallel to Ragnarok, in the face of which every man is made weak. Beowulf proposes that facing this darkness is what makes a man heroic. Rather than crying out for something radically different than paganism it seems that the poet is actually encouraging his audience to embrace an image of heroism also exhibited in the heroism of Christ. As such, it tells a much more universal and human story.

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