Monday, 16 June 2014


Burton Raffel (translator)
Beowulf (1963, material dating to 8th century or later)

At the age of eight or nine or however old I was, when playing at superheroes with my little pals, I generally opted to be the Marvel Comics version of Thor for reasons I no longer quite recall. This usually pissed off my friend Sean who would take on the role of Spiderman whilst complaining that Thor wasn't as good because he didn’t jump about as much. Generally, this is the full extent of my engagement with either Celtic or north-European mythology, a lore to which I was never particularly drawn being as it appeared for the most part to involve bearded men listening to heavy metal and hitting each other with hammers in the pouring rain. It seemed uncivilised and uncouth, and a far cry from early equatorial cultures, or at least cultures of lands in which it wasn't freezing cold and pissing with rain for eleven months of the Julian or equivalent year. I suppose there's also the additional stigma of the appeal which such lore clearly holds for those who do write books about goblins with swords who do go a-questing for treasure, and fat, bald men from Surrey who compose songs wherein the death of Baldur the Brave serves as a clever metaphor for the alternately-chromatic coming over here and taking our jobs, not being racialist of nuffink.

I'm greatly out of my depth, is what I'm trying to say here; and no, I didn't bother watching that shitty film, despite Ray Winstone.

Happily, Beowulf - at least as translated by Burton Raffel - is entirely readable, highly accessible without a suggestion of pandering, and enough so to ping the sort of bells which are generally pinged by hypothetically equivalent Mesoamerican epics of the kind with which I am greatly more familiar. This may of course simply be a case of my seeing Quetzalcoatl wherever I look, irrespective of what I'm actually looking at, although it could probably be argued that both Mexico and Scandinavia were theologically shamanic in pre-Christian times, so there are bound to be certain parallels stemming from human beings tending to have similar responses to similar conditions or stimuli regardless of geography.

Beowulf is without doubt the work of early Christian authors, although their version of Christianity was probably quite different to that which we would recognise today, and it seems likely that the core of the saga is pre-Christian, possibly evolving through retelling into this form - as distinct from anything so crude as a Christian revision which might in any case be pointless given that the thrust of the story was probably never significantly at odds with ecclesiastical purpose.

Indivisible from its historical details of the politics and kingships of sixth century Scandinavia, the tale centres upon Beowulf, a culture hero of familiar type who comes from a distant land to defeat first a monster, then the monster's mother, and much later, a dragon. The monstrous Grendel is identified as a descendent of the Biblical Cain, the first murderer, and although he seems in many respects explicitly demonic, his home is the cold, watery depths of the swamp, thematically much closer to the Norse Niflheim and any number of similarly shamanic underworlds than the Christian inferno. Similarly he appears to represent an opposing force to that of Beowulf with all his gold and precious metals, rather than an adversary in the absolutely strictest sense. Grendel is a creature of night, water, and cold, born from the decay of the swamp, dead land which can be neither farmed nor settled and which in mythological terms had once been the rotting flesh of the slain giant Ymir, the medium from which grubs and burrowing creatures became dwarves and other subterranean beings.

They have seen my strength for themselves,
Have watched me rise from the darkness of war,
Dripping with my enemies' blood. I drove
Five great giants into chains, chased
All of that race from the Earth. I swam
In the blackness of night, hunting monsters
Out of the ocean, and killing them one
By one; death was my errand and the fate
They had earned. Now Grendel and I are called
Together, and I've come.

The duality seems further emphasised when Beowulf elects to fight unarmed, and with the repetition of his three great battles, each one increased in magnitude from its predecessor in keeping with the ritual song form from which it was most likely derived. So Beowulf battles a terrible equal, then its parent, and ultimately a dragon which may possibly represent some more romanticised incarnation of Jörmungandr, the serpent which encircles the entire world, and which now guards a horde of treasure explicitly identified as being of pagan origin.

Coming to the dragon's treasure, we find a number of apparent contradictions. The treasure is desirable and yet to be shunned as the fruit of an older, less moral world. Metal artefacts are praised throughout the text in transparently ostentatious terms, being the hallmark of technology and civilisation of the time, and yet:

And so the Devil's dark urgings wound him, for he can't
Remember how he clung to the rotting wealth
Of this world, how he clawed to keep it, how he earned
No honour, no glory, in giving golden
Rings, how he forgot the future glory
God gave him at his birth, and forgetting did not care.
And finally his body fails him, these bones
And flesh quickened by God fall
And die—and some other soul inherits
His place in Heaven, some open-handed
Giver of old treasures, who takes no delight
In mere gold. Guard against such wickedness,
Beloved Beowulf, best of warriors,
And choose, instead, eternal happiness;
Push away pride!

The contradiction suggests trace elements of pre-Christian thought wherein poetic form struggles with message, or at least it does to me; although this serves to provide texture rather than necessarily being to the detriment of the whole. Whilst Beowulf is in some respects a morality tale of triumph over evil, the nature of each is probably open to interpretation. It's tempting to read certain details as the victory of civilisation over the more violent pagan world, but I'm not absolutely convinced of the text representing anything quite so simple or obvious. In other words, I'm still not entirely sure what any of this means, but I've had fun thinking about it; and reading it, which was unexpected.

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