The Meaning of Beowulf

They said that of all the kings upon the earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame. — Beowulf

I was prompted to say something about Beowulf, my favorite ancient poem, after reading the article, “The Anglo-Saxon Evangel,” by Douglas Wilson in Touchstone. It was mere coincidence that as I drafted this entry I saw advertisements for Robert Zemeckis’ new film version of the Dark Age epic. Sadly, this production seems to be another unpromising Hollywood hunk-and-babe action flick. There is none of the mythic authenticity of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies, so close in its themes to the Anglo-Saxon poem. And having recently watched some of the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, I think they come much closer to capturing the heroic, tragic, pre-Christian warrior society than Zemeckis ever will.

Wilson’s theory is that the Dark Age poet “acknowledges the high nobility that could be present in that culture, but then bluntly shows us that same nobility at the point of profound despair…. Our poet shows us this pagan hopelessness in a period of history just before [Anglo-Saxon] conversion to Christianity.” No doubt there is a lot of room for debate on this point — as to whether this story, set in 6th century Scandinavia, was originally Christian or was a heathen tale that was later “baptized” with Christian ideas. But at least Wilson has grasped the spirit of Beowulf, unlike those who try to deconstruct it in some absurd postmodern manner or render it as a championship wrestling extravaganza complete with bad costumes.

Academic debates aside, Wilson makes the interesting point that Beowulf is a harbinger of a new age about to dawn on the grim realm of barbarian Europe. Yet if unsullied heroism redeems Beowulf the individual, who exhibits many Christian virtues, it is not enough to save his society as a whole. Like the Greek warrior culture of the Homeric Age, murder and treachery are too often justified by the cult of heroic individualism. There is little to live for other than glory and plunder. Grendel and the dragon, according to Wilson, represent the twin motives of that fatalistic epoch. Grendel, who is descended from Cain, is obsessed with malice and envy. “He raided Hereot to destroy people, not to take their gold. With the dragon that appears at the end of the poem, we find the other basic driving engine of this culture: greed.”

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