So far we have only dealt with recounting the events of the Beowulf tale in narrative form, without actually delving too deep beyond the surface. What follows now is an analysis of some of the themes of this tale, according to my interpretation. Many men, more learned than I in such matters, have taken apart this piece of work in order to extract the wisdom contained therein, and I am in their debt for the aid they have given me in my attempt. By no means is the account I have given thus far to be considered exhaustive or complete. In the name of brevity and readability, I have neglected to mention many important events that occur in the poem itself, such as the Finnsburg Episode and the tales of historical Kings and warriors who make an appearance only in passing mention. Though I have not mentioned such tales here, they are not to be considered irrelevant or unworthy of interest. I have chosen to deal only with what I consider to be the main themes of the tale and I have interpreted them each individually as best I am able in the account that follows. We will begin as J.R.R. Tolkien did, by stressing the importance of:
The monsters in “Beowulf” are not to be taken as literal monsters who were slain by a literal hero. “Beowulf” is a myth and it is important to remember that myths and fairy stories and old-wives tales often have a secret to reveal or some wisdom to share. For a long time before we had books and educational videos to show to our children, we had to rely on the passing down of cautionary tales and myths infused with the collective understanding of the human race. That is why the old tales have survived for so long, they speak to us on a level that we can appreciate, and serve as a roadmap for navigating the world within which we find ourselves. When you begin to study the old stories as imaginative allegory, rather than episodes of shallow entertainment, you begin to appreciate that there is wisdom to be found in the myths and that they are trying to tell you something. Many scholars have criticized this particular myth because it places the monsters and the hero at the forefront, while the serious business of noble dynasties and political tensions and tribal interactions are left in the background. But Tolkien argued that the monsters are exactly where they are supposed to be because they are what gives this tale substance and relevance. Think of the Beowulf monsters not as fairy-tale monsters, but as archetypes of what we collectively consider to be monstrous behavior. The monsters in the story serve as a warning to those who are at risk of becoming monstrous themselves, just as our hero Beowulf serves as the archetype which we should emulate if we hope to become heroic.
But when considering the monsters, it is essential to remember that “Beowulf” is a tale which was born from the Northern Mythology of the Germanic and Norse Tribes, and in that body of Mythos the monsters ultimately gain the final victory. The Northern Mindset (that of the Germanic, Norse and Celtic peoples) understood that all things have an ending. Things that are good and beautiful and worthy will ultimately fall away into decay in the same manner as we ourselves will. The idea that nothing lasts forever (nor should it) is reflected in the tale of Ragnarok, the Germanic apocalypse, where all of the Chaotic demons and giants and serpents will unite and overcome the forces of the Gods of Order and the Men who are allied with them. In the battle of Order versus Chaos, the forces of Order cannot hope to win, only to hold out for as long as possible. This notion is in conflict with the Christian undertones of the tale, which would have us believe that the Christian God is incorruptible and those who serve him well will never experience death or an end of days. He promises everlasting life. But the Gods of the Northern myth are more human than the Gods of the Eastern desert and as such, the Northern Mindset cannot shake off the notion that eventually the monsters will triumph, though the heroes of men may win small victories in the beginning. This fact does not detract from Beowulfs triumph over his opponents any more than it detracts from Sigurds slaying of Fafnir or the Binding of Loki. The monsters of darkness may ultimately cackle the last laugh, but we should not give in to despair and accelerate our descent. We should strive like Odin and Beowulf have shown us, for all of our days, in the battle against darkness, chaos, degeneracy, and weakness.
The fact that there is a trinity of monsters in the tale is significant. I’ve found that any single concept can be broken down into three core components, and if it can’t, it is over complicated. The three monsters embody different forms of fiendishness and combine to make up a trinity of psychological and societal defects which combine to corrode and corrupt the civilization and its people. Grendel disturbs the Danes revelry and social hierarchy. His Mother disturbs their sleep and security. The Dragon disrupts the Geats achievements and prosperity. How can a man or a society as a whole be expected to prosper when it cannot even control its borders, its culture, its order, its justice, its security, or the distribution of its wealth? Each of the monsters is representative of a distinct psychological corruption that festers in the souls of Men and leads to the decline of once great civilizations, as has happened countless times in the past. Stated briefly, Grendel embodies the resentment and rage of the Outsider or the downtrodden. His Mother embodies the limitless grief and sorrow which can consume a persons thoughts and drive them insane. The dragon, as is the case with all dragons, is a creature of pure greed, malice, reckless power, and self-serving destruction. The monsters acting in this archetypal manner serve as a warning, while Beowulfs reaction to them serves as a guide for those who would hope to fight what is monstrous and cultivate what is noble, honorable and strong.
In many ways, mankind is nothing if it has no monster against which to oppose himself. We define our justness, our piety, our kindness, our honor, our valor, our very humanity, by how much it differs from that of the monsters that we despise. This is why we continue to create and evolve the monsters in our myths in accordance with the changing face our our collective psyche. Without the monsters, Beowulf would be nothing, and by extension mankind would be nothing without Beowulf and our other heroes. Grendels existence inspires Beowulf to leave the easy, ignoble life of a lazy young warrior and to pursue undying glory. Without Grendel, Beowulf does not exist. Without monsters to give us purpose and direction, mankind is reduced in his own mind to a state of animalistic baseness. We may well be no better than the lesser beasts of this world, but because we have monsters to spur us on to greatness we at least attempt to surpass our animal nature.
Grendel and his Mother represent the perpetual blood feuds and inter-tribal resentment which were an everyday occurrence in Germanic tribal cultures. If a man was wronged it was his sacred duty to pursue revenge, most often in gold, but in blood if necessary. Grendel harbors a grudge against the Danes, who revile him as a demon, and is resolved to make them suffer. Imagine the thoughts that must go through his dark mind while he dwells in a cave and must to listen to the music, songs, and prayers of drunken Danish revelers who force him to live outside their walls in the wilds. He resents the prosperous Danes because he cannot have the wealth, comfort and happiness that they possess.
In modern society, in this age of crooked deals and mismanagement, we often feel resentment and grief when we witness the large scale corruption and psychopathic greed of the Plutocrats who dictate our society. These men are dragons possessed by Dragon Sickness; unquenchable greed. Grendel is an outsider who gains nothing from the success and wealth of Danish civilization. Even if he were to ally himself with them, they hate him because of the way he was born and would kill him on sight if they had the power. He becomes furious when he bears witness to the sight of Danes making merry whilst he is excluded from the feast. Mad with rage he launches his attack, but significantly, he doesn’t attack Hrothgar himself or his throne. Grendel can’t even go near the throne in fact. Powerless to vent his rage upon the wealthy ruling class who are responsible for his exile, he vents his resentment upon the Danish common folk. Grendel turns against those who have done him little or no wrong. In our time we see similar parallels when the working class and middle class bicker over petty trivialities without addressing the core issues that can effect real, lasting change. Members of the middle class often feel resentment at the wealthy upper classes who control all the money, whilst also resenting the working class for fear that they might take the wealth away from the middle class. Like Germanic tribes, we feud amongst ourselves over trifles and minor gains because we give in to our Grendelian impulses.
We can see these impulses being embodied in Unferth when he taunts Beowulf to test his mettle. Unferth occupies a place of privilege in the Danish court, yet he has not had the courage to face the demon Grendel in battle. Fearing that this foreign warrior might usurp his place of honor, Unferth lashes out at Beowulf due to sheer resentment. Unferth is merely a lesser form of Grendel, who happens to live inside the walls of society rather than outside in the wilds. He has not gone so far down the road of bitter resentment that he cannot be won over by wise words and a firm grip, but he is in danger of becoming monstrous himself if he does not change his ways. It is this small and large-scale resentment that keeps us divided and weak when we should work towards uniting with those of a like mind to ourselves in the pursuit of honor and strength. Instead we often buy in to the materialistic consumerism that we are sold by media and marketers as we attempt to gain whatever trinkets we can for ourselves alone. Divided and self-serving, we become more and more like Grendel, the grinder of men’s bones.
Grendel is a creature of the wilds, whether by choice or by circumstance, and as such he resents the “civilization” that the Danes have brought to the lands that he calls his home. They wipe out the trees and poison the rivers with their filth in order to make themselves rich, secure, and influential. They enjoy a high standard of living that he is denied. Maybe he wants a piece of their prosperity, or maybe he wants to wipe their filthy “civilizing” culture off of the face of his wild-lands but either way, he is attempting to usurp what they have built for his own gain. Imagine how the “underdeveloped” world looks at our western way of life. They see us eating, drinking, and consuming at a rate that is unprecedented and unsustainable, and they want a piece of the action too. We in the wealthy Western societies enjoy prosperity that the majority of the worlds populations could only ever dream of. They must feel a lot like Grendel when they see us taking everything for ourselves and leaving nothing for anyone else to enjoy. “East” vs “West” is a battle that is more than two thousand years old. That conflict has been waged since long before Xerxes ever brought the vast armies of the Eastern lands to trample the European Greek states under his sandals at Thermopylae and Plateia. When we analyze Grendel, we understand something about the mindset of those outside our societies, who see us live so large and are motivated to get a piece of what we’ve got. He is an external witness to the world that we have built and he causes us to question the validity of the philosophies and moralities and systems of living that we hold to be correct and true.
But resentment, like Grendel, never travels alone. The fact that the second monster is Grendels Mother is significant in that she represents sorrow and grief, which very often are the root causes that give birth to Grendelian Resentment. Many of us look to the past with nostalgic reverence as though we have lost something that should not have been lost. We are a cynical people because we have seen things which have given us hope and we have learned of Heroes who have promised to lead us into a Golden Age, but the Golden Day never comes. We collectively grieve for the glorious future that we have been promised, but never comes, in the same way as we grieve for what has been lost or sold or given away. Mankind has reached a point of unimaginable potential and technological mastery, but it comes at the cost of personal liberty, cultural identity, and the destruction of the very world that gives us life. Politically speaking, corruption and mismanagement have never before been so apparent and yet still tolerated. Our ancestors united in bloody rebellion countless times against tyrannies and oppressions that seen commonplace for those of us who love today. For example, the men and women of my homeland waged a war on the mighty British Empire not even 100 years ago, which eventually led to economic and political independence for this land, which had not held its own sovereignty in 1000 years. But over the course of a few decades that independence was sold off and we now live as subjects of another Empire. Not an Empire of Land and Sea, but an Empire of Economics and Politics. How could we as a people not grieve over the great opportunity that was presented to our ancestors that has been squandered by a century of mismanagement and corruption and cronyism? As it is with the Gael, so it is with other Men. The anger, sorrow, and rage that many of us feel when we look at the state of our once promising nations, is what overwhelmed Grendels Mother and drove her to seek revenge. Her son was cruelly taken from her by self-serving men, and she goes mad with despair. As we are.
The Dark Pool/Katabasis:
Beowulfs descent into the mere of Grendels Mother is an example of Katabasis, which I have written of in another post. Time and time again in Myth and Fairy Tale we see a lake or a pond being presented to represent the subconscious mind. In this myth, in the dark depths of a frozen wood on a mountainside, the mere where Grendels mother lives is full of weeds and water-demons who hide from the light of the sun, but writhe and come to life in the darkness of night. This is a powerful metaphor for the grieving mind which is consumed by rage and sorrow. Men who have lost wives, mothers who have lost sons, veterans who have lost limbs and their brothers-in-arms, a people who have lost their heroes and their identity, all are consumed for a time by a range of dark and devious emotions which we have been trained to hide from our peers. We have been conditioned to repress our grief and be optimistic and happy, otherwise people will call us depressing or pitiful. The demons in our minds hide in the shadows and only awaken when it is dark and we are alone.
Hrothgar is an example of one who has been paralyzed by his grief but does not show it. His depression at the death of Aeschere would have plunged his entire kingdom into darkness if Beowulf hadn’t encouraged him to put his grief to good use by avenging the creature that robbed him of his dearest friend. Those who give in to despair and cynicism abandon all hope for the future of their society and busy themselves with feasting and entertainment to distract themselves from the cause of their distress. Their demons hide from the light of the sun but their demons are still there, in the pool of their subconscious mind. Beowulf does not hide from demons or fear the dark backward recesses of his mind. He plunges into the pool headfirst with his armor on his back and his sword at his hip. As in all cases of Katabasis, Beowulf descends into the depths of the underworld, where no man would wish to go, and he finds there a weapon which can be used to cut down his demon. The sword of Unferth the Unworthy fails him and he is almost killed in his battle with Grendels Mother. But at the last moment he finds the ancient sword of some giant hero that he did not know was there, and strikes down Grendels Mother, the demon of Grief, before beheading Grendels corpse, the demon of resentment. At this moment a mighty light shines throughout the pool and the entire lake is cleansed of all its monsters and slime. Hope is thus rekindled when we pass through the depths with courage and resolve to face the demons. At the very end of our tether when all light seems to have been stolen from the world, we might just find a giant sword, some inner strength or courage, with which we can cut down our foes for good.
It is important to stress that the sword of Unferth, which does not belong to Beowulf, is useless when he fights the demon of the lake. This is an example of an unworthy weapon which many will offer us in an attempt to resolve our struggles. Only worthy weapons that we find deep inside ourselves should be wielded when fighting our battles in the deep places. We cannot hope to rely on others to resolve problems that only we can face up to or understand. This episode in the tale is very much more versatile and metaphorical than the others as it applies not only to the individual but to the collective character of an entire people.
The Fallen Goddess:
It has occurred to me that the religious tension between the old Pagan traditions and the young, aggressive Christian religion which can be seen throughout “Beowulf”, may help to shed some light on the matter of Grendel and his Mother. We know that it was a common tactic of Christian missionaries to usurp the existing pagan myths and rituals, and to either transform them into some Christianized duplicate or to portray them as evil, wicked, and accursed. This is why the ancient Winter Solstice festival of Yule has evolved into Christmas and maintained its importance, whereas the openly sexual Spring fertility festival has been reduced to a day where a magical rabbit allegedly brings chocolates to children in order to commentate the resurrection of the Christian God who had been killed. Whatever non-secular modern holiday you can think of, there is probably a parallel among the ancient pagan rituals which inspired it.
With this in mind, I sometimes express a degree of skepticism when I read in the text that Grendel and his mother are descended from Cain and as such are cursed fugitives who must hide from God because of the sin of kinslaying which apparently they bear because of their ancestry. Suppose for a moment, that the Mother is in fact one of the ancient Pagan Goddesses, nature spirits or Holy-Women who has fallen out of the people’s favor as they begin to embrace the new foreign religion. She grieves at the loss of the old noble days of polytheistic nature-worship wherein she was reverenced, and hides herself away in secluded isolation in a pool in the forest. Perhaps this was formerly regarded as a sacred-well in a spirit-forest where people would leave her offerings in return for some boon or favor. Now in the days of the Christ, the spirits of the wood and the water are no longer worshipped and over time they become corrupted and bitter.
If we continue with this hypothesis, it is not difficult to imagine Grendel as being the last champion of this fallen goddess. Perhaps formerly a priest or a shamanic warrior or a spirit or a God himself in the old days when the Danes prayed for their aid. In some ways Grendel resembles a kind of corrupted Thor. A Dark Thor. He possesses immense physical strength and attacks his enemies in a blind rage. He boldly seeks out his enemies in their own homes, as Thor seeks out the Giants in Jotunheim. As he and his kind have been cast aside, anger festers in his heart which fuels his hatred and rage. When he hears the Danish Skalds singing Christian hymns in Heorot, he lashes out and wreaks vengeance in the name of the Old Gods and the nature spirits which have been neglected and portrayed as monstrous and fearsome.
This is pure speculation on my part, but I think that it adds an interesting dimension to the tale which highlights the fact that the poem describes a world in the midst of a great upheaval of values. This is a time where two conflicting world-views are meeting, and the old ways are giving way to the new. It makes sense when you consider that the person who wrote down the only existing version of “Beowulf” was a Christian scribe who inevitably would have impressed some of his own prejudices against the old heathen legends into his work. Whether or not this hypothesis contains any truth will never be known for certain, but this is a myth which is deep, wide, and ancient. More-so than may other myths which are better understood, the tale of Beowulf and his Monsters is open to diverse interpretations.
It is the final monster, the Dragon, which highlights the underlying problem of the world in which the tale is set. Dragons have always embodied the political greed which undermines societal stability, as well as the destructive forces that occur naturally throughout the world. We are constantly reminded that a good King is one who redistributes wealth fairly so that his people benefit. A good King does not hoard wealth and jealously guard it for his own pleasure. We learn that the man who gathered the treasure store that the dragon guards, intended to hide the wealth from mankind. He wanted to gather as many precious objects as he could and keep it all for himself, even in death. If this isn’t inviting a dragon into your culture than I don’t know what is.
We see this kind of behavior on a daily basis. Those who are responsible for governing a society are expected to assist the people of that society to prosper. Several examples of bad Kings are given throughout the narrative who all share the characteristic of greed. They hoard wealth and keep it for themselves, like dragons. The parallel between the dragon and our own systems of governance are so acute that they hardly need to be stated. We live in a plutocratic society whereby power lies not in the hands of the people or even the government, but rather in the hands of a number of hyper-wealthy corporations and their figureheads. The governments of many “democratic” nations hold elections and referendums to maintain the illusion that the people are in control. They speak with surety and confident bravado of their plans, promises, and ideas. But in reality, there are a number of foreign investors who have amassed enough economic bartering power to rule these lands from behind the curtain. This is neither a conspiracy nor a theory, I do not entertain such flights of fancy, it is rather an unfortunate economic and political reality. Money talks, and most governments do not control their own money.
When a people witness the upper classes of society hoarding the majority of the wealth, they grow cynical and resentful. This emotional instability very often leads to apathy and a tragic lack of societal participation, whereby people resort to individualistic hoarding of whatever meager possessions they can hold on to. They become cold, scaly and reptilian themselves because that is what they have seen the successful upper echelons do. These financial and political elites no longer see themselves in any kind of fellowship with the lower classes, and so they hoard even more treasure for themselves. The dragon sickness does not take very long to spread and it eventually affects everyone in the same manner.
Ours is an age of materialism and individualistic greed whereby those who we look to for guidance and hope are revealed to be “bad kings” in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the term. Wealth flows ever upwards and only a token amount ever trickles back down to the plebeian mob. Occasionally a would-be hero arises and challenges the sleeping dragon, as old King Beowulf did. Beowulf sees that the dragon has spread his sickness into his society and it has led to unacceptable destruction. Wise king that he is, he also recognizes the vast hoard upon which the dragon sits as a huge opportunity to enrich his people and elevate them into greatness. There is good reason why there are so few dragon-slayers in Germanic literature; slaying dragons is so difficult that even great heroes like Beowulf are hard pressed in the battle. This episode goes ill from the very beginning. Beowulf is reluctant to assault the serpent until it finally destroys his own house, arousing the aged King from his foolish inaction. Once he resolves to fight the beast, he trusts once again to his own strength alone and orders his men not to come to his aid. In the duel he is almost slain by the monster until Wiglaf, who represents the next generation of Geatish society, rushes in alone of all the warriors to assist his worthy King. When the old warrior works together with the young courageous idealist, the dragon loses his flame and is finally cast down into death. But Beowulf is broken, poisoned by the dragons venom. Infected with the dragon-poison, Beowulf turns his thought to the treasure and orders Wiglaf to present it to the Geatish people so that they might put it to good use. At this point in the tale Beowulf has to die, else he risks falling prey to the dragon-sickness in his blood.
The character of Hrothgar serves as a warning to all men. In his youth he has won fame and glory and built a great and powerful kingdom, but when he appears in the Beowulf tale he is old and weak. We constantly see him behaving as a broken, impotent old man who is “stricken and helpless, humiliated… staring aghast…in deep distress…numb with grief”. Broken with woe at the death of his friend and counsellor, Aeshere, he has to be commanded by Beowulf, a foreigner of lesser rank, to man up and get a hold of himself for the sake of his people. This is a once great and powerful warlord who has vanquished his foes, sired a prosperous family, wedded a beautiful young wife, earned the love of his people and yet he is reduced to a childlike state of helpless infancy. His finest warriors have been chewed up by the monster and the Warriors that remain to him are the cowards who would not dare to risk their hides in battle. He is so desperate for men that he even grants Unferth, who killed his own brother, a place of honor in his court. Considering all this, it is not hard to understand why all that we ever see the Danes doing is feast and drink. While foreign men face powerful monsters on their behalf, they drink themselves stupid.
Hrothgar and his Danes are a people who have lost their honor, their heroes, and their will to fight. They drink to distract themselves from the real issues which plague their society because they feel impotent, as though they could not change anything even if they tried. Think of the majority of modern citizens who do nothing to assert their will to the political and economic snakes who seek to fatten their fortunes at our expense. Their are monsters in our halls and yet like impotent Danes we turn a blind eye and distract ourselves with food, drink, and shallow entertainment.
Beowulf, The Universal Hero:
The situation, when stated plainly, looks very drear and forlorn. But fortune never abandons us completely so long as there are men and women who are prepared to stand and assert themselves in the face of great woes. Beowulf is a hero not because he has the strength of thirty men and balls of iron. He is a hero because he chooses to tackle the monsters while other men flee in terror. Beowulf battles with more foes than just the three monsters, he first has to battle with suspicion, grief, apathy, cowardice, corruption and greed. There are monsters within as well as without, just as the monsters that Beowulf faces represent monstrous emotions and thoughts that we all face on a daily basis.
Beowulfs battle with Grendel teaches us to know our enemy, do not resort to his level out of desperation or fear, grab hold of your opponent and do not let him loose until he concedes defeat and flees in shame to his dark lair. The hero remains calm in the face of attack, sizes up his opponents weaknesses, asserts himself with courage and confidence, shames his opponent by virtue of his actions, and remains gracious in victory whilst maintaining his integrity. In his pursuit and contest with Grendels Mother, Beowulf descends into dark places where other men dare not tread. He plunges down into the depths of the pool and of his own soul and wrestles with his demon until he finds the secret sword with which he can emerge victorious. As we see in his contest with Unferth he does not always resort to physical force, but when it is time to get violent, he trusts to his own courage and the strength of his arm and does not relent in the pursuit of his goals. This is the manner in which Beowulf defeats Unferth, Grendel, his Mother and the naysayers among his people. Beowulf possesses great strength and a fine sword, but he never wields the sword as a first course of action. He always makes use of his reason and his eloquence when he encounters opposition, before finally resorting to violence without hesitation when it is truly necessary. He never hesitates or seeks to excuse himself from what must be done, and when he commits himself he does so with conviction and an unbreakable resolve. So should we all.
It is fitting that this great hero is slain by an ancient and elemental dragon rather than some petty Swedish invader or lesser creature. This is a fitting reminder of the fundamental Germanic truth: the monsters win out in the end. But before he dies, Beowulf grants his people a mighty gift. It is young Wiglaf, brave hearted fellow, who realizes that this treasure and the gossip of the Geatish warriors cowardice will attract hostile invaders into their lands who will take advantage of the Geats weakness and carve up the wealth for themselves. The next generation of Beowulfs people will have dire perils to overcome if they are to survive the aftermath of the fall of the dragon. The treasure is eventually buried underground, as useless to Man as it ever was before. Beowulfs error was that he thought that he alone could rid his culture of its dragon problem, but it takes more than one man to accomplish such a task. Our political leaders should take a hard lesson from Beowulfs folly in his approach to the dragon, and trust to the young Wiglafs of this world to get involved when presented the opportunity. But all have been poisoned by the dragon, and there are now few Beowulfs or Wiglafs to give us hope, and rouse us from our apathy. But if the tale has taught us anything, it is that there is always the potential for greatness in even the most unlikely places. Monsters exist only to inspire us to overcome them. And we today have no shortage of monsters to overcome.
Over the years I have read a number of texts concerning Beowulf which I have consulted in the writing of this article. These include but are not limited to:
-“Beowulf” by Sheamus Heaney.
-“Beowulf” by J.R.R. Tolkien.
-“Beowulf” by Michael Alexander.
-“Teutonic Myths and Legends” by Donald Mackenzie.
-“How Beowulf Can Save America” by Robin Bates.
-“A Critical Companion to Beowulf”
-“The Monsters and The Critics” by J.R.R. Tolkien.
-“Grendel” by John Gardner.
*All artworks belong to their respective artists.
July, 2015. Dublin.