Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet. Photo: PDM 1.0 DEED

The first major work in the history of English Literature is a product of early-medieval cultural blending, writes Sean Ledwith 

On an autumn night in 1731, a fire broke out in Ashburnham House in London. The residents scrambled to save a collection of priceless antiquarian manuscripts from the library. Tragically many were destroyed and the loss in terms of our knowledge of medieval literature is incalculable. Thankfully, one of the saved manuscripts was the only extant copy of an Anglo-Saxon poem of uncertain origin titled Beowulf. Over subsequent centuries, this anonymous masterpiece has taken its place as the foundation stone of the rich history of English Literature that now includes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens and many other iconic names. Remarkably, for many readers today, in a society far removed from its origins in what used to be known as the ‘Dark Ages’, the story of Beowulf, originally written in the protype of our language known as Old English, retains an enigmatic power that is manifested in multiple adaptations for film radio and television. 

Ten years ago, the posthumous publication of a translation by JRR Tolkien, the renowned author of The Lord of the Rings cycle, catapulted the story to the top of the bestsellers list. In 1999, the same effect was caused by a translation by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. The BBC historian, Michael Wood, has reflected on the ongoing appeal of the story in our century: 

‘We live in a world where there’s a lot of terrifying and up-front violence, a world of Islamic State and horror going on around us … When we look back to the Anglo-Saxon period, where Beowulf comes from, we see an age where things come down to life and death decisions. But there was also an honour, a bravery and courage then, which appeals to us. We want a hero with a moral code, and a hero who sticks to that code as Beowulf does. That’s comforting now when it seems there is a moral quicksand everywhere.‘ 

US author Robin Bates even contends that the poem has a powerful message for his country as it confronts the insidious figure of Trump and other associated manifestations of a capitalist superpower in terminal decline. Barnes is the author of How Beowulf Can Save America, in which he explains how the liberal reformism of the Obama Presidency proved inadequate to resolve the deep contradictions of a grossly unequal society. Barnes compares the naivety of Trump’s predecessor in the White House to the titular hero who underestimates the scale of the threats he will have to deal with:  

‘His job, as he saw it, was to get everyone to the table where they could engage in bipartisan negotiating. We now know that events didn’t unfold as the president had hoped. Instead of witnessing a new spirit, America saw its political divides grow yet more toxic. Angry trolls rampaged through America’s mead hall, and the brave young warrior who was supposed to clean up the mess became a discouraged king presiding over it. Obama should have read Beowulf.‘ 

Uncertain origins 

The anonymous poem that was miraculously saved from a conflagration in the eighteenth century is of uncertain origin but is clearly rooted in the post-Roman era of British history, which sowed the seeds of medieval feudalism. There is currently no academic consensus on exactly when the story was first written down, with the earliest estimates placing it in the eight century CE and others going for almost two centuries later, on the eve of the Norman Conquest. Linguistic analysis has placed the creators of the poem somewhere in the east-central area of England, possibly near the Suffolk town of Woodbridge which has staged Beowulf festivals based on its putative connection with the poem. Intriguingly, this is not far from Sutton Hoo, the location of the most spectacular archaeological excavation in modern British history in 1939 which unearthed treasures probably belonging to Redwald, a sixth century Anglo-Saxon king.  

The crucial point regarding the linguistic analysis is that it reveals Beowulf could be the product of two poets (although this is sharply disputed by some scholars) with contrasting ideological agendas. One twentieth-century analyst of the text, Edward Irving noted: 

‘Earlier scholars tried to make the poem fundamentally pagan in ethos and message, while in this century there has been an equally vigorous attempt to read it as a cleverly masked theological work. Most recently, scholars have tried in various ways to describe a complex blending or balancing of the two traditions, with the honoured values of an older heroic society placed in a familiar Christian context … To many the combination of pagan and Christian elements has seemed a problem demanding clearer resolution.’ 

Ideological priorities 

What Irving is alluding to here is the interpretative history of Beowulf which reflects the changing ideological priorities of different generations of literary scholars since the text became widely read in the early nineteenth century. In that era, as the British Empire was heading for global hegemony, English-speaking commentators tried to present the poem as the cornerstone of a native literary tradition rooted in the pagan beliefs of the presumed waves of invaders who supplanted the Romans in Britain from the fifth century CE onwards; a tradition which they felt could rival the better known myths and legends of the classical world of Greece and Rome.  

They perceived Beowulf as a potent progenitor of the elevated culture that imperialism would supposedly distribute to the possessions of empire. A few decades later, as anti-colonial resistance abroad and working-class insurgency at home emerged to challenge that hegemony, scholars preferred to emphasise the Christian dimension of the poem with a message of reconciliation and submission to divine power. Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton, notes this ideological shift in English academia around the turn of the twentieth century which influenced the reception of Beowulf

‘Far from barbarously undermining liberal civilisation, pre-modern literary studies at Oxford lent it a new lease of life. What was needed, as an increasingly godless century wore on, was a set of myths and archetypes which might recall us to the neglected questions of good and evil, hierarchy and tradition, and provide an alternative symbolic universe to the levelling technological present. The result was the fiction of the Anglo-Saxonist JRR Tolkien and the medievalist CS Lewis, both of whom raided the heroic resources of early literature for contemporary ideological ends.‘ 

Beowulf at the crossroads 

Many modern scholars now seek to assimilate these two competing interpretations of Beowulf into a view of the poem as a fascinating product of an England in political and ideological flux as a new post-Roman feudal order emerged characterised by social hybridity. Invasions, the extent of which is greatly disputed now, by Angles, Saxons and other Germanic peoples from north-west Europe in the wake of the departure of the legions, led to the development of local kingships around the country. There was a general sense of cultural unity among these small polities, but they lacked any political capacity for national unification. From the late eighth century CE onwards, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England were challenged in turn by amphibious attacks by the Vikings from Denmark and Norway. 

By the 900s, the latter had evolved from raiders to settlers and established their own mini- kingdoms predominantly in the north-east of the country. The two social formations, roughly based in the north and south of England, would ultimately resolve their political differences into a loosely united Anglo-Scandinavian ruling class in the decades after the Danish prince Cnut became king in 1016CE. 

In the preceding centuries, Christianity was thoroughly hegemonic over the ruling class, at least after the seventh century, but many aspects of pagan culture did not entirely disappear. Beowulf is best seen as a dialectical product of this political and social flux as two distinct ideological visions can be seen in the poem, creating the contradictory and uneasy nature of its characters and plot. It is possible that the hands of two poets are at work in the text, writing at different times and in different locations. One immersed in a Scandinavian heritage, writing down the original oral story from across the North Sea with its ingredients of Danes, Swedes and monsters from pagan folklore; and a second poet, tasked by the clerical elite of the Anglo-Saxons with making a popular story compatible with the ideological requirements of Christianity. American writer, Daniel Vagnoni, articulates this dialectical perspective on the poem: 

‘The social order dominant at the time of Beowulf’s production was a bizarre union of Christianity and the heroic code. Beowulf occupies a niche in the timeline of England that sees the country being immersed [in] Christianity, in an elite ideological system with the power to produce documents. Christianity was rapidly unseating the previous system of the heroic code, whose cultural productions relied largely on impermanent oral traditions. Estimated to have been composed orally in the pre-Christian era, and then modified by monks between the eighth and tenth centuries, Beowulf stands at the crossroads of these two dominant ideological systems — the waning ideological system of the heroic code, and the waxing ideological system of Christianity.‘ 

Horror in Heorot 

The early feudal context of the story is evident from the outset as Hrothgar, the Danish king, is celebrating victory over local rivals with his vassals in the great hall of Heorot: 

To Hrothgar was given such glory of war, 

such honor of combat, that all his kin 

obeyed him gladly till great grew his band 

of youthful comrades. It came in his mind 

to bid his henchmen a hall uprear, 

a master mead-house, mightier far 

than ever was seen by the sons of earth, 

and within it, then, too old and young 

he would all allot that the Lord had sent him, 

save only the land and the lives of his men. 

The celebrations are horrifically cut short when the monstrous Grendel bursts in, devours several of Hrothgar’s men and then departs with impunity. The exact nature of the creature is never fully explained and his appearance is skilfully left to the imagination of the reader to visualise. The Christian poet probably added the notion that Grendel has a biblical origin: 

Of Cain awoke all that woful breed, 

Etins and elves and evil-spirits, 

as well as the giants that warred with God 

weary while: but their wage was paid them! 

The slaughter at Heorot prompts Beowulf of the Geats (who lived in today’s southern Sweden) to make the journey to Denmark to slay Grendel. One of the many rich ambiguities about the poem is the motivation of the eponymous hero. His desire to kill the creature is not founded on a Christian-like instinct to purge the forces of evil, but solely based on the pursuit of individual glory, a warrior ethic. Beowulf’s superhuman fighting abilities prove fatal to Grendel but the threat of the latter is promptly followed by the equally murderous appearance of his unnamed mother in pursuit of vengeance. 

Again, her appearance is never fully described and many readers, past and present, might be tempted to empathise with her desire to punish the men who robbed her of her only offspring. The rich possibilities of the narrative to different generations have led to multiple alternative versions, such as Maria Headley’s The Mere Wife, published in 2018 which transplants the story to twenty-first-century America, presents Grendel’s mother as a soldier recovering from PTSD and makes ‘Ben Woolf’ a shady police officer! 

Black thoughts 

Having dispatched the threats from Grendel and his mother, Beowulf in the original poem is confronted decades later by a fire-breathing dragon, wreaking havoc on his native kingdom of Geatland. Again, the hero’s motivation is questionable and conspicuously far from the noble intentions one might expect from a God-fearing warrior: 

His breast within 

with black thoughts welled, as his wont was never. 

The folk’s own fastness that fiery dragon 

with flame had destroyed, and the stronghold all 

washed by waves; but the warlike king, 

prince of the Weders, plotted vengeance. 

For a third time, Beowulf gets the better of his foe, but he is mortally wounded and the story ends with a funeral which is in the classic burning boat-style of the pagan Vikings. There is no glorious climax to the story and in fact, the Geats are left in a state of anxiety as they confront a future without the mighty leader who had protected them for so long. Their fear of what might await them in the years to come perhaps reflects the uncertainties of the poem’s first listeners at the dawn of the feudal era; but also resonates in our time as the world endures the mounting crises of capitalism: 

Wailing her woe, the widow old, 

her hair upbound, for Beowulf’s death 

sung in her sorrow, and said full oft 

she dreaded the doleful days to come, 

deaths enow, and doom of battle, 

and shame. — The smoke by the sky was devoured. 

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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