Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Beowulf


During the last millennia Europe suffered a crippling ‘Dark Age’. True, recent historians have singled this description out as a misnomer. There was still art, and some trade, a bit of literacy, and peasant’s lives weren’t as horrid as once thought. All the same the feudal system was a far cry from the free grain for Roman citizens or the democracy and trial by jury of Athens.
            Our image of Vikings is often wrong. No Viking helmet has ever been found with horns – such illustrations and descriptions are the fancy of those attempting to depict barbaric ferocity. So too must we content ourselves with the mundane realization that they were predominately peaceful farmers, who only on occasion would sail out to raid other kingdoms. Yet the Scandinavian societies eventually grew in strength and enjoyed great geographic and cultural influence, with colonies and outposts from Greenland to Spain, Moscow to Cape Cod.
            In the midst of this civilization were the British Isles, politically divided and comparatively weak. Viking settlements on the island are not merely coastal fair-weather habitations, but far inland towns and permanent bases. From the Norse culture we gain a new pantheon of Gods and heroes to add to the Greco-Roman, and the origins of the English language. Beowulf concerns both of these developments.
            Literature after Rome hit a low that would continue until the first stirrings of the Renaissance. What writings there were are usually poetic, although the saga – prose tales of battles and journeys – was also a Norse development. Beowulf is clearly situated in the field of epic poetry. It was written in a language that is seen as the earliest predecessor of modern English. It would be nearly impossible to read today. Its opening lines read:

“Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
Þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
Hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

This may not look like English, but it is the progenitor, and happens to translate as the first lines of the poem:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

It may strike us that the story begins with days gone by – an oddly nostalgic choice for an epic. Beowulf was the last of the great ones, similar in strength to Hercules. The stories passed down to us concern the story of Beowulf versus Grendel and Beowulf, past his prime, fighting a dragon. The latter story is interesting for two reasons, in that there seems to have been two strains of the Beowulf story: one as a courageous hero and one as a bit of an oafish object of ridicule, all brawn and no brains. The encounter with the dragon is of this latter type, but the dragon itself is the other interesting feature of the latter story. A whole menagerie of beasts as well as important tropes come to the Western world from Norse and, by extension, Germanic and Celtic sources: gold-hoarding dragons, elves, warlocks, giant wolves, the twilight of the Gods (much of the Tolkien’s Middle Earth can be seen as heavily Norse influenced).

            Some scribbling monk fiddled around with the copy of the manuscript we have. The influence of Christianity on the Norse world eventually took its toll on the unique mythology of Northern Europe. Late depictions of Thor’s powerful magical hammer are fashioned as an object in the shape of a Celtic cross. Peculiar, out of place mentions of God and Jesus pepper Beowulf which certainly were not original. But this too tells an important story – an important stage in the progression of Christianity throughout the continent. Written around 900 CE Beowulf comes from the heart of the Viking Age, ~700 – ~1000 CE, by which point the inland kingdoms, sometimes with Viking help, had achieved sufficient strength to unify their surroundings and dispel invading armies or raiders.

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