There be dragons!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Beowulf - Crossing the River


I cannot do justice to the whole of this magnificent poem. Only to mention here that each major event - the journey to Denmark, the besting of Unferth, the killing of Grendel, the killing of Grendel's dam, the slaying of the Dragon - involves a water crossing. Water is the element of renewal & of birth; it is the element of chaos & forgetfulness; and it is the element of transformation & change. Consequently the poem is reiterating the same type of conflict in increasingly potent and threatening ways. The crossing over to Denmark is frought with peril and the unknown, but is a conquering of that which speaks of our own ruin and failure; Beowulf comes to Denmark to overcome failure but himself faces the possibility of failure. Successively he defeats Unferth's disparaging words of hopelessness with words of success about a water journey. He defeats the monster of despair, the Grendel or Grinder, who comes over the watery marsh at night while everyone is sleeping (the condition associated with death & water). He defeats Grendel's dam, the feminine all-devourer, by descending into the water of the bubbling tarn and being dragged by sea creatures into the rock cave/womb where she dwells. And lastly he kills the dragon which lives on a promontory near the sea surrounded on three sides by water.

The passage that is most striking in this poem is the response of Wiglaf to Beowulf's immanent defeat by the Dragon. All of the 12 noblest knights flee and hide from the Dragon and Beowulf alone goes to face this nightmarish creature of hopelessness. Seeing his liege-lord outmatched and overpowered Wiglaf is filled with shame at his own cowardice and upbraids his fellow knights saying;

"I remember the time, when mead we took,
what promise we made to this prince of ours
in the banquet-hall, to our breaker-of-rings
for gear of combat to give him requital
for hard-sword and helmet, if hap should bring
stress of this sort! Himself who chose us
from all his army to aid him now
urged us to glory, and gave these treasures
because he counted us keen with the spear
and hardy 'neath helm, though this hero-work
our leader hoped unhelped and alone
to finish for us, -- folk-defender
who hath got him glory greater than all men
for daring deeds! Now the day is come
that our noble master has need of the might
of warriors stout. Let us stride along
the hero to help while the heat is about him
glowing and grim! For God is my witness
I am far more fain the fire should seize
along with my lord these limbs of mine!
Unsuiting it seems our shields to bear
homeward hence, save here we essay
to fell the foe and defend the life
of the Weders' lord. I wot 'twere shame
on the law of our land if alone the king
out of Geatish warriors woe endured
and sank in the struggle! My sword and helmet
breastplate and board, for us both shall serve!"

Beowulf XXXVI

In Old English

"Ic ðæt mæl geman, þær we medu þegun,
þonne we geheton ussum hlaforde
in biorsele, ðe us ðas beagas geaf,
þæt we him ða guðgetawa gyldan woldon
gif him þyslicu þearf gelumpe,
helmas ond heard sweord. ðe he usic on herge geceas
to ðyssum siðfate sylfes willum,
onmunde usic mærða, ond me þas maðmas geaf,
þe he usic garwigend gode tealde,
hwate helmberend, þeah ðe hlaford us
þis ellenweorc ana aðohte
to gefremmanne, folces hyrde,
for ðam he manna mæst mærða gefremede,
dæda dollicra. Nu is se dæg cumen
þæt ure mandryhten mægenes behofað,
godra guðrinca; wutun gongan to,
helpan hildfruman, þenden hyt sy,
gledegesa grim. God wat on mec
þæt me is micle leofre þæt minne lichaman
mid minne goldgyfan gled fæðmie.
Ne þynceð me gerysne þæt we rondas beren
eft to earde, nemne we æror mægen
fane gefyllan, feorh ealgian
Wedra ðeodnes. Ic wat geare
þæt næron ealdgewyrht, þæt he ana scyle
Geata duguðe gnorn þrowian,
gesigan æt sæcce; urum sceal sweord ond helm,
byrne ond beaduscrud, bam gemæne."

After which he leaps forward to the aid of his lord and together they kill the Dragon. Beowulf passes on the kingship to Wiglaf who then, in justified anger, berates the other knights and foretells their inevitable defeat at the hand of their neighbors. because they would not fight alongside their lord even though he chose them. Of course it is also a condemnation of Christians who give lip-service to the Christ and then refuse to follow him into the maw of death; Peter and the others who fled at the first signs of trouble.


Yet, Wiglaf alone, of all the young men, shows courage in the face of defeat; crosses over the river of terror that threatens each of us and prevents us from becoming heros - and thus he alone recieves the blessing of the dying king and the mantle of kingship. Wiglaf's act gives some hope to the dying Beowulf that indeed his trust has not been in vain; other men take up the challenge; the light of the human race continues however dim it might seem at times; and hope, nobililty, honor, never ultimately perish from the earth even if they are severely challenged.


To paraphrase Roy Hobbes "God I love this poem!"


1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I regret not pursuing a formal study of English literature. American studies is good, though. I stand by my choice. Still... I'd like to know more about Anglo-Saxon history (and the Danes, Swedes, Norse, etc.). Oh well, I'm still young. I've time to look into it :-)

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