Why Me, Beowulf?
At a time when I was feeling morose for a variety of nameless reasons buried deep within me, I took to reading Beowulf, not just once, but dozens of times, clear through. I bought an early translation by Chittering and a later one by Heaney. I studied relevant archeology books and even gave a lecture on the poem to a group of retirees at Oregon State University.
People wondered why. A man in the audience asked, “Why are people still translating and reading this poem?” My literary friend Anne asked, “Peter, are you still reading Beowulf?” Here was my answer to both.
“I feel comforted and calmed and reassured by the worldview presented in the poem, namely, doom and foreboding.”
Where did those gloomy feelings come from? I grew up with them.
My father was seriously ill from the time I was seven, but when asked by his old friends how he was, he was always cheerful. “Oh, hell, I should have died long ago.”
My sister, who turned thirteen at the start of World War II, listened to war news every day at school and was prescient about impending disaster. She would hunch her shoulders, screw up her face, and say, “Pete, I just hate it when I feel this way.” When an unexpected death or plane crash or some other satisfying disaster occurred, she would feel relieved.
My mother did her best to concentrate on the cheerful and beautiful moments of daily life. It must have been hard for her.
Now, when I read lines of doom and foreboding in Beowulf, I know that all is right with the world, and IT, whatever IT is, will happen!
(The Beowulf manuscript translation by Seamus Heany.)
The hall towered,
Its gables wide and high and awaiting
A barbarous burning. That doom abided,
But in time it would come.
now he felt secure
In the vaults of his barrow; but his trust was unavailing.
His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain;
Furthermore, I enjoy relating Beowulf to religion. Are we today Heathens or Christians? Beowulf suggests that we are both. Originally a spoken poem around 600 AD, Beowulf was probably written down by a Christian monk around 800 AD. The poem intermixes the Anglo-Saxon concept of WYRD or FATE with the Christian concept of GOD. Either way, IT is out of our hands.
We are in GOD’s hands,
Whichever one death fells
Must deem it a just judgment by God
or those of FATE,
Fate goes ever as fate must.
So may a man not marked by fate
Easily escape exile and woe
By the grace of God.
I can also relate Beowulf to today’s politics.
Political leaders have their flaws.
the forthright Unferth,
admired by all for his mind and courage
although under a cloud for killing his brothers,
We are called to duty.
So every man should act,
Be at hand when needed
We are justified in attacking our enemies,
I have suffered extremes
And avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it
Upon themselves, I devastated them).
and that is a good thing to do.
Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
To avenge dear ones than to indulge in morning.
Finally, it is a damn fine story with many exciting passages. A HERO (think of the Lone Ranger and John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled into one) battles a MONSTER (think of Sasquatch looming through the dark rainy forest of the northwest coast range,) the MONSTER’S MOTHER (think of a giant squid, leagues under the sea,) and finally a DRAGON (think of Smaug guarding his gold in the caverns of the dwarves.)
Lines from the final battle –
Then he gave a shout. The lord of the Geats
Unburdened his breast and broke out
In a storm of anger. Under grey stone
His voice challenged and resounded clearly.
Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized
A human voice, the time was over
For peace and parleying. There was a rumble under ground.
Down there in the barrow, Beowulf the warrior
Lifted his shield: the outlandish thing
Writhed and convulsed and vehemently
Turned on the king, whose keen-edged sword
An heirloom inherited by ancient right,
Was already in his hand. Roused to a fury
Each antagonist struck terror in the other.
The hero’s last words –
Fate swept us away,
sent my whole brave high-born clan
to their final doom. Now I must follow them.
IT has happened. I know that I can now rest easy.
So, there we have it – a personally appealing worldview, insight into contemporary American culture, and a grand adventure story – all in one. That’s why, Beowulf.
Incidentally, I am loosening up. Beowulf does not speak to me today as he did a few years back. Writing, journaling, meditation, acceptance, and participating with grief support groups have all helped me lighten up. Writing my journals, particularly Small Steps toward Transforming Grief, has been a major part of my healing process, my learning to accept the realities of life and change my behavior from dysfunctional gloom to useful activity. I have become less concerned about doom and more concerned about staying upright and useful until IT overtakes me.