A few days ago I read a thread on Twitter that didn’t have to do with the president of the United States. It was about Beowulf.
I know the Beowulf is not on the top of most peoples’ minds. I know that he’s largely a cause of much pain and suffering in high school. He was for me, too. It wasn’t until I suddenly (really, it was sudden) became something of a medievalist that I began to revise my views on this amazing work of poetry. In 2002, on my way to a job interview in Cheyenne, WY, I found Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf at the Denver airport where I changed planes.
It was so captivating that I didn’t do much to prepare for my interview except get dressed up and show up on time.
I love Beowulf the character. He’s just wonderful, but I’m not a “modern” person. I don’t have the preconceived biases people are taught today and that I found on the Twitter thread.
You see, here’s the thing. Beowulf wasn’t written by a 20th century author. No one knows who wrote it or even why other than to entertain people. It’s a composite of mythic stories and historical events. It’s now believed to have been written in the 8th century. Some of the factual information in the story has been confirmed. But…
These people were not us — or were they? Could Beowulf be just another scary story about men vs. monsters along the lines of The Thing or Alien? But somehow — according to the long, disturbing thread on Twitter — it’s now being taught as White Males vs. The Poor, Suffering Other portrayed by the trolls, Grendel and his mother. For them Beowulf is not a hero; he’s a villain, and the poor monster, Grendel, is the true hero because he is the victim of hatred. In fact, I don’t see a lot of hatred in that story. The person who’s hired Beowulf — King Hrothgar — is angry because Grendel keeps breaking up parties in the mead hall and eating people. I’d be angry too. Beowulf takes on the job for pay.
In my opinion, if there’s any backstory involved, fitting with Medieval people would be a Biblical allegory — especially as this was the era in which the Scandinavians were converting to Christianity. But I like the hired killer vs. monster angle myself and I’m sticking with it. The story was never written as “Literature.” It was written for those long, cold, Scandinavian nights by the fire in the mead hall, when people were bored.
And, isn’t this beautiful and true:
…Men were drinking wineBeowulf, Seamus Heaney translation p 87
at that rare feast; how could they know fate,
the grim shape of things to come…