Through the Cracks in Beowulf

I promised you a post about this, so here we go. One of the lingering vestiges of my English degree shows in my habit of looking at a piece of writing for things that are just barely there. So one of my favorite things about re-reading Beowulf every once in a while is the chance to ponder the hints the poem gives us about life outside of the warrior-hero addressing a crisis.

There aren’t a lot of them, but these little touches make me think about the humans who created the story, who recited the story, who wrote down the story, who lived in the context where this story fitted as their present or their recent past.

Things like the three separate times this not-all-that-long story refers to killing one’s brothers, which was frowned upon but apparently not infrequent, nor did it get you thrown out of decent society. There are one or two references to gifts of land, a distant glimpse of the work that had to be done to keep these warriors fed. Many references to mead, of course–I don’t think beekeeping as such had been invented yet, so one wonders how much wild honey had to be gathered to keep a hall like Heorot supplied, and who did it? For that matter, who built the hall and its furniture, wove the tapestries, gilded the famous rafters?

There’s the scene I mentioned before, with all of the bachelor warriors bedding down in the great hall. The king meanwhile goes off to some more domestically oriented part of the building, not worthy of description, although also less subject to monster attack. Kings are the only married people in the story, and women show up either in the partner role, handing around mead and gifts of gold, or as wailing mourners at royal funerals–and as a monster, of course, although the femininity of Grendel’s mother is curious as much for its lack of emphasis as anything else.

Speaking of which, this world may not be overtly peopled by artisans or farmers, but it is generously supplied with monsters. In the sea where Beowulf and his boyhood friend swim, in the boggy land where Grendel lurks and the lake where his mother dwells, dreaming on mounds of buried treasure–they’re everywhere. Fearsome, but also to some extent taken for granted; their mere existence is no more worthy of surprise than a horse or a boat. Swords and treasures likewise carry their protective charms, with never a whisper of who created them, or how, or why.

I’m left with the feeling of looking through a very narrow crack at a scene that is dense with detail–but all of the lines lead off out of view, giving only hints of the complete design.

Happy New Year, by the way! I’ve started a new book.

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