Very interesting stuff, Steve. I had never heard the Ransom Theory before. I wonder, in your theory, just how close some of today's governments might be to receiving a Jesus for their oppressive-ness?
Guys, gals, it's Beowulf time!
Beowulf - Unknown author (somewhere between the 8th and 11th century)
Beowulf is kind of the big dog of Old English lit. I'd guess a large part of that is to do with its length relative to the shorter poems we've seen so far here and the historical significance of the story (it is mostly fictional but it does contain a few references to actual events which are of interest). I'm here to argue for it's literary merit, though, because it's kind of awesome.
I've read Beowulf twice before but this was the first time I can say I really enjoyed it. Maybe those other times I had pushed it off to the point where I mostly had to skim it to cover my bases, who knows. It's not too long, coming in at a nice 3182 lines of pretty cool poetry which I read in about an hour and a half. Unfortunately, that dumb mo-cap movie from a few years back was constantly echoing in my head and I pictured the majority of the action as those kind of plastic-y looking figures instead of real people. Oh well, can't win 'em all.
The structure of Beowulf is one of the more interesting elements to me. We begin with a set up not of Beowulf's greatness but rather that of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. He's got this big mead hall thing that is the envy of kingdoms the world over. And he's got a terrible monster problem. I love monster movies and Grendel is one of the fathers of the genre. He's a big, ugly brute. I actually like the depiction of his "malignant" visage in the 2007 movie. He's a creature of anger, enraged by the noise of the nightly celebrations in the mead hall, but also one of fear. The author takes some time out to tell us that Grendel has spent his time amonst the other monsters that were "descendants of Cain," who he then explains were cast out of God's love. The author does this a few times in the poem, gets distracted by these weird tangents that relate whatever's happening in the story to the biblical precedent. The Norton preamble talks briefly about the mournful tone that the author tells the entire tale in because even these great people are all doomed to hell for their pagan ways. Elegiac is the word Norton uses and it fits. I was struck this time around at the pity I felt towards Grendel (this may also be due in part to my reading of John Gardner's Grendel, which I appreciated more than I enjoyed) and his condition. He's probably autistic - or at least on the spectrum - and, heck, I get annoyed at those dumb college kids that live down the road from me who party from Thursday night into Sunday morning nearly every weekend. Is Beowulf the forefather of Neighbors as well as Frankenstein?
Well, it doesn't really matter, because after Hrothgar sends out the call for warriors to fight this eternal evil we get our hero, Beowulf, answering it. He sails with some of his best fighter buddies and lands on the neighboring island where Hrothgar lives. There he goes through the first of several ceremonial introductions. How many times can he recount how great a hero he is and how happy the Ring-Danes should be that he has arrived. And everybody from the lookout on the beach to the king himself has to go through a lengthy speech about who they are and what they do and, after learning who Beowulf is and why he's there, how happy they are that he has arrived to save them from Grendel's cruelty. This repetition gets a little boring and probably violates the crap out of "show, don't tell," but with these old, potentially orally passed down stories (more on that later), I kind of like this stuff. It's a chorus, kind of, an echo in case you weren't paying enough attention the first time around. After the tenth time that the author tells us how great a king Hrothgar is, you kind of have to believe him.
And then the fight scene. Oh boy, Beowulf is a total badass. Grendel doesn't use any swords or shields so Beowulf decides he won't either. Some kind of honor thing. Of course, we discover later that mere swords can't do much to pure evil flesh, so Beowulf has stumbled into a good idea. And what does he do? HE RIPS GRENDEL'S FREAKING ARM OFF! AT THE SHOULDER! You try it. It's hard to do on even us puny humans. Grendel, demon, flesh eater, all around gross giant guy, well, he'd put up a bigger fight than you or I in the limb-rending department. But still, he runs off into the forest down a limb and Beowulf declares himself the victor. Because of course Grendel is going to be dead after all that, right? WRONG. GRENDEL IS A BEAST! He makes it at least back to his mommy's house and tells her how mean the other boys at the mead hall were to him. She gets her helicopter mom helmet on and goes back for revenge just as everybody is sleeping off the giant feast.
Before we talk about the second battle, let's talk a bit about the gift giving thing. It's another cultural touchstone that I find interesting in the general sense but gets very repetitive in practice. Here, have this kind of armor. Also this other kind, and this sword, and this other sword, and this shield, and this horse, and this horse armor, and some rings, and my eternal friendship. But each of those gets like five lines to cover just how great and generous Hrothgar is. And then it happens again when Beowulf defeats Grendel's mom. Gift-giving is a huge component of the Beowulf story and the ways people treated each other in the time, so I understand why they are given such a prominent place here, but maybe keep the after party a little shorter than the battle itself?
Anyways, Grendel's mom shows up to set the record straight. She eats a few more people and then runs away back to her underwater lair. And the author knows we've already had a nice big battle scene so he makes this one a little different in that IT TAKES PLACE ENTIRELY UNDERWATER! Beowulf has the lung capacity of a whale, methinks, because his original plan of attack (again, fighting Grendel's mom bare-handed) gets thrown out the window and he realizes the sword he has does no damage to her. But lo! There is a giant's sword in her underwater lair and he uses it to CUT HER FREAKING HEAD OFF! And you said poetry was boring. The whole battle takes so long that everybody thinks the blood that boils up to the surface of the water following the decapitation must be his and are halfway back to the mead-hall before they turn around to see that Beowulf is still alive. Again, gifts are given and Beowulf returns to his own lands.
Here is where the story gets a little squirrely. Upon his return to his own lands, Beowulf has to tell the whole story to his own king. That's a lot of repetition. This part is shorter than the actual events, but it's still there. And then there's an (out-of-order) history which tells how Beowulf became the king of the Geats himself, and then the dragon is introduced (but an important part of that has been destroyed in a fire, sadly). And then, an older but no less heroic Beowuf decides to attack the dragon that has been terrorizing his land almost bare handed. What is it with this guy? He brings along a shield, but wood against fire isn't really a fair fight there. This one goes a little differently, though, as the soldiers he brings along don't follow his orders to stay back and instead attack when they see Beowulf is about to die and provide enough of a distraction to give Beowulf an opening to stab and kill the dragon. But he gets poisoned in the process and dies. He's burried in a giant mound and then the end.
The dragon provides a number of interesting points of thematic intrigue. He hoards gold and stuff and is jealous of the thief who steals one of his cups. Sound familiar? It's a prototypical dragon trait, the attachment to shiny things. But the parallels with all of the shining gifts given between Beowulf and Hrothgar in the early goings are there. Is the author casting aspersions on the whole gift idea? He clearly cares more about their immortal souls than the worldly wonders they give each other. It's also interesting to note that by the end of the story Beowulf has probably killed as many people (and monsters) as the dragon, though he fought for his land and king rather than in revenge for a theft. But vengeance is vengeance, isn't it? The dragon's poison (wrath) gets him in the end.
Look for another post later today about whale-roads and translations and oral traditions.