The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 11 (May 2008)  |   Issue Editors: Larry Swain & Linda Malcor

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| babelisms—Absent Beowulf |


Absent Beowulf

Daniel M. Murtaugh
Florida Atlantic University

© 2008 by Daniel M. Murtaugh. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2008 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  The central argument of this essay derives in part from a long review by Umberto Eco, published in Diacritics in 1972, of the collected Amazing Adventures of Superman. Eco places Superman among those modern heroes of popular culture whose relation to ordinary time and to history is deliberately confused, to spare them the "consumption" or using up that history inevitably inflicts upon its subjects. The heroes of this type include creatures less preternatural, like private detectives (Nero Wolfe is Eco's favorite example), who do not age, who start each episode afresh in a sort of circular, non-cumulative time, and whose sphere of action is necessarily local and exclusively concerned with private values, especially that of property. To intervene in national destinies and political values, it seems, would be to step into linear, cumulative time, to take responsibility for change, and, finally, to be consumed. Thus Superman can first arrive from the verge of the galaxy or beyond, and he can occasionally return there, but he lands, takes off, and lands again only in Metropolis. His super powers could never be deployed on the German-Polish border in 1939, even though they would certainly have been decisive. Eco's reflections on Superman have a postmodern edge not shared by his subject's adventures. To make Superman postmodern, one would have to import Eco's theoretical machinery into the story. Perhaps Eco himself might appear to console Superman in his increasing frustration at being unable take a decisive role in history, his boredom with yet another bank robber as Hitler marched across Europe or Lee Harvey Oswald (readily disclosed to his X-ray vision) took aim from the Texas Book Depository.

§2.  Eco makes an interesting distinction between the heroes of cultural legend—Hercules or Theseus or Roland, for example—and the heroes of popular culture like Superman whose invention can be documented (and registered with the patent office). The distinction bears upon their different relations to history. The hero of legend, who may be a demigod, comes to us with his story complete. In a statue representing one of his labors, "Hercules would be seen as someone who has a story, and this story would characterize his divine features . . . [narrating] something that has already happened and of which the public was aware" (Eco 1972, 15). This, of course, is why legend fits seamlessly into history and is sometimes indistinguishable from it. Eco does not emphasize this, but this is also why legendary heroes often enact a culture's prehistory.

§3.  Superman, on the other hand, does not share this relation to history, because, like the hero of the modern novel (which prepared the cultural space for him), his story does not come to us complete. Our interest in him comes from what he will do, what will happen to him, both of which interest us because they are unknown. And this is precisely what excludes him from history, which is known because it has happened. To enter history, to actually accomplish something in it, would be to make "a gesture which is inscribed in his past and weighs on his future," to take "a step toward death . . . to 'consume' himself" (Eco 1972, 16). To keep him "inconsumable," therefore, his creators improvise, sometimes desperately, the "paradoxical solution with regard to time" (Eco 1972, 16) and the drastically narrowed scope of action described in my first paragraph.

§4.  I will argue that the author of Beowulf deals with the same narrative predicament and combines its elements into a different and tragic configuration. He presents us with a hero who is, like Superman, invented and endowed with powers that make him invincible against human antagonists, but who also suggests, to us as to Hrothgar's scop, a known, mythical hero (Sigemund). Self-consciously, the poet inserts this legend into a history that legend cannot change, bringing him and us to the impermeable membrane that separates a slayer of monsters from men and women struggling in and consumed by history. And in the end, in a kind of meta-tragedy, the poet allows a kind of dragon-history to close over and consume his invention who could not intervene, successfully, in all-too-human conflicts.

§5.  We all know the tantalizing but elusive relations that the Beowulf poet establishes between his hero and a dense matrix of early sixth-century Germanic history. They are exhaustively set forth in the critical apparatus of the Klaeber edition and in R. W. Chambers's Beowulf: An Introduction (1959). The connection that comes through with the greatest clarity on the side of the historical record is with the Geats, whose king Hygelac was killed in or near the year 521 as he departed, too slowly, from a piratical raid on the tribe of the Hetware. Gregory of Tours gives a circumstantial account of the battle, a different but linguistically traceable version of Hygelac's name, and a problematic identification of his tribe as Danes (Gregory of Tours, History 3.3). The Liber Francorum (727) says the tribe he attacked was the Atauri, recognizable as the Hetware. Another ninth- or tenth-century Anglo-Latin text, the Liber Monstrorum, gives the fallen king the name Higlacus and names his tribe as the "Getae" (see Mitchell-Robinson 1998, 225-26). No records, of course, note Beowulf, whose name fails to alliterate, as we might expect of a relative, with Hygelac or with his putative father Ecgtheow. The references to this history in the poem are fragmentary and elegiac, and they insist that Beowulf was right there at that final battle.

§6.  The identity of the Geats is as cloudy as is Beowulf's relation to them. Attempts to identify them historically always end several steps short of conviction, and I am inclined to agree with the general argument made in 1967 by Jane Acomb Leake that they are identical with the "Getae" of the Liber Monstrorum, who are, in turn, identical with a semi-mythical, gigantic barbaric race from the far north, conjured up repeatedly by writers as early as Herodotus and (among the more accessible Latins) Ovid and Vergil. Over time they were confused with Jutes, Goths, Dacians, and Danes. They were, by some, spoken of as ancestors of any or all of these northern tribes, and dispersed into a generalized "geographical mythology." Leake's arguments have been faulted on linguistic grounds, because there are demonstrable problems in getting from Getae to Geatas by known patterns of sound change. But, as John D. Niles has pointed out, there is clear evidence that the Anglo-Saxons did make this translation, even if they should not have (Niles 1993, 100-1; cf. Niles 1997, 100). Leake's argument gains credibility from the consensus that has developed since she wrote, that Beowulf was probably written as late as the tenth or eleventh century,1 because the later date gives the identity of the Geats more time to disperse into semi-myth. There was likely a strategic artistic advantage to be gained from identifying an invented hero with a tribe that was so hard to track down.

§7.  As noted above, that identification is given to us piecemeal, in scattered references forward and backward to Beowulf's presence at the fatal battle described by Gregory of Tours, a presence that was ineffective. Proleptically, we are told that a neck-ring bestowed on Beowulf by Hrothgar after the killing of Grendel will be worn by Hygelac when he falls to the Hetware (1202-14).2 Retrospectively, as Beowulf arms for his last fight against the dragon, the memory of his fight with Grendeles maegum (2353) is joined to the memory of how Beowulf made his way home over the sea after his lord Hygelac fell in battle (2354-68).3 The insistence on Beowulf's presence at this historical event (one we might regard as famous when the poem was composed) follows the fictional victories he survives and anticipates the fictional victory that kills him. But his participation in this particular history, as opposed to his engagement with the fictional Grendelkin, was a defeat—more precisely, a failure to avert the defeat and death of his lord. In the same way, regardless of his slaughter of Grendel and Grendel's mother, as the poet tells us definitively at lines 83-85, the destruction of Heorot due to warfare between men (and not between men and monsters), is inevitable. This juxtaposition of history and fiction suggests the radical vulnerability of Beowulf as a fictional hero, of his absence on the stage of history. He could not save Hygelac on the banks of the lower Rhine because he wasn't there. Likewise, he could not save Heorot from Ingeld because he wasn't there.

§8.  The theme of the absent Beowulf is extended and complicated by the wish of Hygd, Hygelac's widow, to place him on the throne rather than her son Heardred, whose abilities she doubts. Beowulf declines, but he supports Heardred until the latter dies at the hands of invading Swedes, perhaps a dozen years after the death of Hygelac. The details of the earlier Swedish feud with Hygelac and the Geats need not detain us here. The relevant turn in the narrative is the Swedes' odd complaisance in allowing Beowulf to assume the Geatish throne. His reign extends the tenure of the kingdom by fifty years, a span that matches that of Hrothgar's reign, but that is plainly improbable (Niles 1983, 244-45), a point to which we shall return. Even so, at his death the Swedes loom once again, this time as a final catastrophe for the Geats. It seems likely that Beowulf's reign occupies a convenient hiatus in the historical record between Heardred's death and the disappearance of the Geats. If we accept Leake's relegation of the Geats to the geographical mythology of the Getae, the hiatus ends at the point where myth must evaporate in the brightening light of history. Whatever real hiatus may have been granted to the tribe named the Geats by the Beowulf poet may have been short indeed. Heardred's death may have been decisive. Beowulf's support may have counted for as little as his support of Hygelac, and it may have done so for the same reason: the absence of Beowulf from the real history of Hygelac or Heardred. Our uncertainty about when the Geats disappeared was shared, and exploited, by the Beowulf poet, who, like us, only knew that by the eighth century they were gone. So Beowulf can be inserted in those cloudy years to defend the Geats against a dragon, after failing to defend them against an enemy verified by history.

§9.  Beowulf's most poignant confrontation with history, however, is with the Danes of Heorot, and here the poet seems to call attention deliberately to that impermeable membrane that separates the mythical hero from the history that will be chronicled long before his appearance in the poem. After Grendel's flight, his arm severed and his life ebbing, the order is given to adorn Heorot, and the Danes gather in a tableau of victorious celebration:

Bugon þa to bence blædagande
fylle gefægon; fægere geþægon
medoful manig magas þara
swiðhicgende on sele þam hean,
Hroðgar ond Hroðulf. Heorot innan wæs
freondum afylled; nalles facenstafas
þeod-Schyldingas þenden fremedon. (1013-19)

(Men of renown then bent and sat on benches, rejoiced in the feast. Their kinsmen partook of many a mead cup, valiant in the high hall; I mean Hrothgar and Hrothulf. Heorot was filled within by friends. The Scylding folk did not then practice treachery.)

I have call this scene a tableau, a trait it shares with many other scenes in Beowulf, and one that is sharpened by the last three half-lines. They function as a kind of caption, reinterpreting what we see and placing it in the baleful context that history has given the associated names of Hrothgar and Hrothulf. Once again, we can assume that their story was famous when Beowulf was written, because it can be called up by such a fleeting allusion. We know it from Saxo-Grammaticus, conveniently summarized by Chambers in Beowulf: An Introduction (1959), who tells us how Roluo killed Roricus and took control of his house. These can be identified as Hrothulf and Hrethric, and other sources identify the latter as the son of Hrothgar.

§10.  I am taking sides here in a disagreement over the presence in Beowulf of this chapter in the history of the Danes. Kenneth Sisam (1965, 34-43, 80-82), Bruce Mitchell (1992, 10-14), Gerald Morgan (1972, 23-39), and John D. Niles (1997, 226-27) have argued, against the prevailing reading of this scene, that there is no compelling reason to suspect Hrothulf of later treachery in thwarting the succession of Hrethric to the Danish throne. "That Hrothulf was a traitor is an assumption," writes Mitchell. "It is not a fact firmly and openly stated in the poem" (Mitchell 1992, 13). I agree with Robinson's contrary view, on behalf of the traditional reading, that those who will settle only for explicit statement here "would seem determined to turn a deaf ear to the tone and words of the poem. Anyone who does not hear anxiety in Wealhtheow's speech about how Hrothulf will act toward her offspring must think that Mark Antony genuinely believes Caesar's murderers to be honorable men" (Robinson 1984, 109).

§11.  The anxiety of which Robinson speaks is artfully revealed in Wealhtheow's famous toast to Hrothgar. It is, like so many speeches in Beowulf, a carefully constructed public utterance, addressed to one person but with persuasive intentions aimed primarily at others also present. To Beowulf, the message is that she wants her son to succeed to Hrothgar's throne. She does not want him to accept a rumored offer of adoption by Hrothgar. Explicitly, to Hrothgar, she says:

"Me men sægde þæt þu ðe for sunu wolde
hererinc habban. Heorot is gefælsod,
beahsele beorhta; bruc, þenden þu mote,
manigra medo, ond þinum magum læf
folc ond rice, þonne ðu forð scyle,
metodsceaft seon." (1175-80a)

("People have said that you would like to take the warrior for your son. Heorot is purged, the bright ring-hall. Enjoy while you may many rewards, and leave to your kin the folk and kingdom when you must go to face the Maker's judgment.")

Edward B. Irving has remarked on the "incantations" in Wealhtheow's speech, which impose "word patterns on the brute turbulence of reality" (Irving 1968, 140, 141). This becomes more intense as she turns her attention (though not her direct address) to Hrothulf:

       "Ic minne can
glædne Hroþulf, þæt he þa geogoðe wile
arum healdan, gyf þu ær þonne he,
wine Scildinga, worold oflætest;
wene ic þæt he mid gode gyldan wille
uncran eaferan, gif he þæt eal gemon,
hwæt wit to willan ond to worðmyndum
umborwesendum ær arna gefremedon." (1180b-88).

("I know my gracious Hrothulf, that he will hold in honor the young warriors if you, friend of the Scyldings, should leave the world before him. I believe that he will repay our sons with goodness if he remembers all the favors we did for his pleasure and honor when he was a child.")

§12.  Wealtheow seems trapped in a situation in which she can only address a husband who is almost somnambulistic, utterly passive in his response to Grendel and to the threat that she sees represented by Hrothulf. It seems plausible that she recognizes in Hrothgar's rumored desire to adopt Beowulf his own sense of his inadequacy in both predicaments. Although adoption would contravene her ambitions for her sons and, I would emphasize, her own position at the court, she does share Hrothgar's desire to reach outside the closed system of the Danish kingdom to the help that the demonstrated prowess of Beowulf offers. The placement of Beowulf at a second table between her sons Hrethric and Hrothmund makes a second tableau to balance the troubling one of Hrothgar and Hrothulf. It is not necessary to assume that Wealtheow was responsible for the seating arrangement to recognize that it represents her dream for her sons. It is confirmed, of course, in her speech in which, as a hostess offering the neck ring that will later be Hygelac's, she is liberated from the rhetorical decorum that requires her to address Hrothgar only.

§13.  The restrained urgency of the speech has been justly celebrated: "þyssum cnyhtum wes / lara liðe. Ic þe þæs lean geman" ("Be kind of counsel to these boys. I shall remember to reward you for it," 1219-20). She assures Beowulf of his future fame for his deeds at Heorot, then resumes her plea:

       "Beo þu suna minum
dædum gedefe, dreamhealdende.
Her is æghwylc eorl oþrum getrywe,
modes milde, mandrihtne hold;
þegnas syndon geþwære, þeod ealgearo,
druncne dryhtguman doð swa ic bidde." (1227b-31)

("Be kind in your deeds to my sons, you blessed one. Here each earl is true to the others, kind-hearted, loyal to his lord; the thanes are as one, the people obedient, the retainers flushed with drink do as I bid.")

This is certainly, in Irving's phrase, an imposition "of word patterns on the brute turbulence of reality." Her rhetoric seeks to stabilize a present situation that appears harmonious but is also visibly dependent on the passing euphoria of drink. My translation of her address to Beowulf as "blessed one" leaves a great deal behind in the Old English kenning dreamhealdende, literally "joy holder." Holding the joy of the moment in Heorot is the aim of her speech and what she sees embodied in the prowess of Beowulf. His response, his commitment to her sons, will enable her rhetoric to change the fate of Heorot. Of course, Beowulf does not answer. We are told simply that "she walked to her seat" ("Eode þa to setle," 1232). Beowulf does not answer because, in a sense, he is not there, not actually present in the history of the Danes that is known as a whole by the audience of the poem.4 This is a scene in which we actually witness his absence instead of deducing it from incoherencies in the anticipatory and retrospective narratives of what happened when Beowulf was not fighting monsters. This is where that impermeable membrane between history and the slaying of monsters is a palpable presence.

§14.  The sung stories of what happens on either side of that membrane have a generic difference, and the author of Beowulf brings that difference explicitly to our attention in this same banquet scene. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, we see the Danish scop prepare to celebrate the victory:

       Hwilum cyninges þegn,
guma gilphlæden, gidda gemyndig,
se ðe ealfela ealdgesegena
worn gemunde, word oþer fand
soðe gebunden; secg eft ongan
sið Beowulfes snyttrum styrian,
ond on sped wrecan spel gerade,
wordum wrixlan. (867b-74a)

(Meanwhile, a thane of the king's, skilled at telling adventures, songs stored in his memory, who could recall many of the stories of the old days, wrought a new tale in well-joined words: This man undertook with his art to recite in turn Beowulf's exploit, and skillfully to tell an apt tale, to remix the words.)

Then, somewhat surprisingly, "welhwylc gecwæð, / þæt he fram Sigemundes secgan hyrde / ellendædum" ("He spoke everything that he had heard tell of Sigemund's various deeds"), particularly his slaying of a dragon (874b-76a). A song about Beowulf turns into a song about Sigemund, or perhaps the reverse. The scop is said to "remix the words" (wordum wrixlan, 874), which seems to mean that he drew on a store of remembered formulae associated with Sigemund and applied them to Beowulf, or that he bent the story of Sigemund to make it seem to allude to Beowulf, who, having killed a dread monster, was a new Sigemund.

§15.  But there is another kind of song in which Beowulf or Sigemund can have no part, and it dominates this portion of the banquet scene. The song of Hnaef, Hildeburh, Finn, and Hengest is a story of tribal warfare, its ebb and flow unaffected by monsters or dragons, its conclusion open and inconclusive. The central role given to a queen whose loyalties are divided between a husband from one tribe and kinsmen from another has an obvious prophetic relevance to Freawaru, Hrothgar's daughter destined for a marriage to Ingeld, the son of a former enemy. This is the world of history, from which Wealtheow looks out at Beowulf. She is destined to be the subject of this kind of song in which Beowulf is bound to be absent.

§16.  This generic contrast of songs helps to define more sharply the kind of song where Beowulf is present. The self-awareness with which the contrast is made is an aspect of the poet's Christianity, which puts him outside the culture that produced both types of song. It is another aspect of his Christian difference that, in the consensus of criticism since Tolkien, enables the Beowulf poet to make his monsters symbolize the forces that undermine the joy of Heorot. It is these monsters, rather than what they represent, that Beowulf is equipped to fight. He passes among historical figures whose warrior ethos he represents in its purest form, purest in its strength and in its abstraction from the contamination of historical effect. His featured battles are with monsters who are similarly abstract distillations of that contamination. The Beowulf poet is himself highly conscious of the impassable border between this symbolic fiction and history, between Beowulf and the historical figures who look to him for deliverance from their histories. This consciousness is a natural component of the poet's belated relation to his subject matter, since he is a Christian writing about a lost pagan world. From his privileged but sympathetic vantage point, he discerns the tragedy of history reaching for a salvation—even a meaning—that will always elude its grasp.

§17.  Two confrontations (not quite dialogues) with Hrothgar share with the Wealhtheow passages this sense of a palpable barrier between Beowulf and a historical character who asks his help. I draw here on the account of Mary Dockray-Miller in a study with a different but compatible emphasis. Building upon work by Carol J. Clover on sex and gender in early northern Europe, and by Clare A. Lees and Gillian Overing on gender and Beowulf, Dockray-Miller argues that masculine gender is presented in Beowulf not as a biological given, but as a quality that is acquired and can be lost, particularly to the weakness of old age. Although the poet repeats formulaically that Hrothgar is strong and manly, he shows him to be weak and floundering. An insidious symptom of this, Dockray-Miller argues, is the twice-noted fact that he sleeps in the women's quarters (662ff, 918ff). As Niles notes, the Danish retainers who refrain from sleeping in the masculine space of Heorot probably follow his example (Niles 1983, 108).

§18.  Dockray-Miller focuses on two addresses of Hrothgar to Beowulf, his famous "sermon" or "harangue" occasioned by his contemplation of the inscribed hilt of the sword that killed Grendel's mother, and his highly emotional farewell to Beowulf. In both cases, words of exceptional weight fail to win any more response from the hero than did Wealhtheow's plea to support her sons. The first address can be seen as Hrothgar's attempt to assert control, to claim the alpha position, by giving counsel to the younger man. To be effective, however, it must draw from Beowulf a response acknowledging some value received from it. Beowulf gives no such response. His only gesture, going to his bench with a glad heart "swa se snottra heht" ("as the wise one bade," 1786b), relates to Hrothgar's closing remarks on Beowulf's glory and the prospect of gifts.5 Later, when Hrothgar takes leave of Beowulf, Dockray-Miller finds, persuasively I think, that the "emotional and physical presentation of Hrothgar's farewell underscores the fragility of Hrothgar's masculinity as he tries to assert himself as a Father figure but ends up positioning himself as an effeminate Other" (Dockray-Miller 1998; repr. 2007, 453). He weeps uncontrollably, and the poet comments on the source of this display:

       Wæs him se man to þon leof,
þæt he þone breostwylm forberan ne mehte;
ac him on hreþre hygebendum fæst
æfter deorum men dyrne langað
beorn wið blode. (1876b-1880a)

§19.  Dockray-Miller's translation departs from others in taking "langað" to be a third-person-singular verb and "beorn" to be a noun (instead of the reverse): "The man was by him so loved that he could not forbear the breastwelling; but for him in his spirit (with heart-bonds fast because of the dear man) secretly the man [Hrothgar] longed with blood" (Dockray-Miller 1998; repr. 2007, 453). Beowulf says nothing in response, and instead the poet tells us, "Him Beowulf þanan, / guðrinc goldwlanc græsmoldan træd / since hremig" ("Away from him thence Beowulf, the warrior proud of his gold rewards, trod the greensward, exulting in treasure," 1984b-96a). This shocking indifference is, in Dockray-Miller's argument, an indication that the power of male gender is invested entirely in Beowulf, leaving Hrothgar as "a figure of impotence" (Dockray-Miller 1998; repr. 2007, 458). And I would add that Beowulf's male potency comes to Hrothgar and his Danes from outside their known history, and inevitably it walks away from that history, leaving it unchanged. In this scene, Hrothgar, like Wealhtheow, looks across the border of his history at the receding figure of Beowulf the dreamhaldende and his reaction raises Wealhtheow's anxiety to the level of panic.

§20.  Beowulf's definitive departure from history in old age can only be at the hands of a superhuman antagonist. This excludes two alternatives. He cannot fall to a man because that is simply a given of his character. He cannot dwindle into senescence like Hrothgar, because that would compromise the purity of his heroism. He must be, to the end, what all heroes aspire to be, the one who accepts the stark binary of killing the monster or dying (Dockray-Miller 1998; repr. 2007, 446). His last opponent, as Niles notes, represents "a threat to society [that] is more impersonal than Grendel's" (Niles 1983, 229). The dragon is savage but not malicious, a wild animal, not a condensation of moral evil like the Grendelkin. So Beowulf's exit is clean. His moral strength is unsullied because moral strength is not challenged by such an antagonist. His physical strength is vindicated as it proves too much for his sword (2677-80). Finally, Beowulf's alpha status, relative to Wiglaf, is sustained even as Wiglaf delivers the deathblow to the dragon. Only Beowulf's shield can cover Wiglaf from the dragon's fiery breath, and so Beowulf retains his claim on the royal honorific helm. In sum, his death, with its overdetermined purity, its multiple exemptions, is ultimately unhistorical, as befits a stranger to history.

§21.  In Beowulf's death and in the strangely opaque account of his improbably long reign that precedes it, we face Niles's radical question about the poem: "What work did the poem do?" (Niles 1993, 79). By this he means cultural work, the presentation to the poem's audience of some model of communal authority that will lift society out of the seemingly ceaseless cycle of feud and war. Niles and other critics have joined in a general consensus on this point, moving beyond Tolkien's classically humanist (and, some would say, New Critical) notion of Beowulf as a model of the individual man facing death with stoical nobility (Tolkien, 1936). "Throughout Beowulf," Niles writes, summarizing this consensus, "interest centers not on man as solitary hero but on people and what holds them together" (Niles 1983, 186).

§22.  In an interesting Lacanian turn on this collective narrative of emergence from one order of social organization to another, Janet Thormann argues that the cycle of the feud from which Wealhtheow and Hrothgar look to Beowulf for deliverance is "a system of social exchange based supported by the enjoyment of violence" (Thormann 2007, 289). That is, she sees the feud as a phylogenetic counterpart of the infant's discovery of and fixation upon his image in a mirror. This fixation oscillates between identification and rivalry, a rivalry that the child transfers to others who, like the mirror image, at once represent and pre-empt the space of organic wholeness that he aspires to (Thormann 2007, 289).6 Simply by narrating the feuds that surround Beowulf, Thormann agues, the poem moves those feuds into the Lacanian Symbolic order of language, a system of difference rather than identity or rivalry. Its authority, presented to the child by the father on behalf of the community, is impersonal. The Symbolic order "reduces the enjoyment [of violence] by inserting it into language" (Thormann 2007, 297) and implies the possibility of a rule of impersonal law to replace revenge and the man-price. This function of narrative is redoubled when Beowulf himself recapitulates to Hygelac events from earlier in the poem.

§23.  The narrative, however, remains one of characters trapped in the Mirror Stage, mesmerized by a rival whose death falsely promises a return to equilibrium. The one suggestion of an escape into history that moves forward and does not repeat itself—a history that is capable of being changed—is that improbable fifty-year reign of Beowulf over the Geats. Thormann notes that it springs "out of the narration in two and a half lines [before] sinking back into its momentum" and calls it "Beowulf's absent rule" (Thormann 2007, 303). Niles regards this brief treatment as unsurprising, since heroic narratives cannot sustain themselves on a steady regime of good news (Niles 1983, 244-45). This is true enough, but I am drawn to Thormann's argument that the gap of Beowulf's reign is the poem's "ethical core," inexpressible within the poem's discourse because its true reference is to the future, not to the past, to a future of "centralized Anglo-Saxon kingship . . . with the power to subordinate violence to the direction of public authority" (Thormann 2007, 303, 304). The absence of Beowulf's reign in the poem's discourse gives rise to a desire for such a reign, one that is linear rather than circular. Beowulf's own account of his reign expresses an aspiration for the benefits of a regime of law. Here is part of Thormann's summary:

He does not lead a feud; notably he protects Eadgils from Onela, and if he supports Eadgils's campaign against Onela, he does not act in it. He also protects Wiglaf from any repercussions of his father's, Weohstan's, help in Onela's elimination of [Eadgils's brother] Ea[n]mund as a threat to the Swedish throne. (Thormann 2007, 303-4)

§24.  There is material here for a negative view of Beowulf that has been plausibly argued by some of the poem's critics.7 He protects Eadgils and then protects the murderer of Eadgils's brother Eanmund: Weohstan, father of Wiglaf. The very sword that Wiglaf later uses to kill the dragon is booty from Eanmund's corpse. So Beowulf's dealings with the Swedes, taking both sides of the conflict between Onela and the sons of Ohthere, can seem like complicated treachery. The point, however, is that Beowulf is pulling away from an ethos of blood loyalty to a nascent concept of a "national interest" based on prudent calculation and negotiation. Beowulf's narration of his reign indicates a radical shift in values, and this makes it difficult to understand or evaluate. The standard of the new order is impersonal, in contrast to the personal identifications and rivalries of a feud culture, and it therefore also calls forth the impersonal threat noted by Niles in the dragon.

§25.  But, paradoxically, the impersonal order of Beowulf's absent reign is secured solely by his person. Once he is gone, the Swedes will resume the feud. No entente of shared national interests is established by Beowulf that will survive him. Thormann argues that his "death transforms Beowulf from a person to a principle, the [Lacanian] 'Name-of-the-Father' that authorizes lawful rule" (Thormann 2007, 304). She means, of course, lawful rule in the future, perhaps in the time of Alfred the Great. Still, I am not sure that I can follow her this far, because Beowulf never acts as anything other than a hero, and a hero is necessarily entangled in the ethos of the feud and in what Thormann calls the "enjoyment of violence." The historical characters who look to Beowulf for deliverance define that deliverance in the terms of the value system that imprisons them. Beowulf's response to them accepts those terms, and even idealizes them. The membrane that separates Wealhtheow and Hrothgar from Beowulf turns out to be a kind of mirror.

§26.  In a chapter entitled "The Fatal Contradiction," Niles argues against a modern critical trend to see Beowulf as a flawed or sinful character whose greed for treasures brings ruin on his people. Niles traces this revisionism to its source in a 1965 study by John Leyerle and cites among its tributaries the work of Margaret E. Goldsmith, Barbara K. Raw, Larry D. Benson, H. Marshall Leicester, and Harry Berger. In response to these critics, Niles says that the poem "expresses an essentially conservative impulse," praising "a life lived in accord with ideals that help perpetuate the best features of the kind of society it depicts. The ideals deserve the name 'heroic,' but they are of Christian and well-nigh universal significance as well" (Niles 1983, 236). I generally agree with Niles, with some qualifications about Christianity that I will elaborate further down. I think, however, that one must recognize, with more emphasis than Niles does, that there is a great deal in the poem that provokes the sort of reading that he opposes, and somehow one must account for this.

§27.  This obligation makes itself felt at many points and on many levels in the poem, but perhaps most tellingly in the issue of its materialism, particularly as expressed in the custom of giving and receiving treasure. The dismissal of the practice as sinful greed is anthropologically obtuse, and yet, in its own way, this judgment imposes a modern mindset on medieval culture, in which Christianity supposedly alternated between the (strategic) accommodation and the vigorous condemnation of laying up treasures in this world. The anthropologically sensitive case for treasure exchange is well expressed by Michael Cherniss:

The primary assumption about those materials which we have designated as 'treasure' is that they give moral value to their possessors; that they are, in fact, the material manifestations or representations of the proven or inherent worthiness of whoever possesses them. We may define the function of treasure as that of a tangible, material symbol of the intangible, abstract qualities of virtue in a warrior (Cherniss 1968, 475-76).

The problem is that this view, vividly realized in the arts of Old English culture, was also contested in that culture, a consideration that qualifies the proposal by Niles of the Odyssey as a parallel instance (Niles 1983, 213-14).8 That contestation gives credibility to Thormann's darker restatement of Cherniss's rationale of treasure exchange:

For the ruler, or war leader, one of the rewards of successful feud is booty to distribute, providing a means for payment for the service of a fighting force and ensuring its loyalty, while conquest of a territory in feud may ensure the stable income of tribute. . . . The gift giving between groups of men, the rewards for service that secure alliance—the necklace, horses, helmet, saddle, garments, and treasure Beowulf earns at Heorot, for example—is the other side of feud, the occasion for ceremonial generosity. (Thormann 2007, 293)

§28.  Treasure as "the other side of feud" is what the dragon guards and what Beowulf dies for, and his last request is that he die looking at it. When Wiglaf brings an armload from the hoard—which is described in terms divided equally between brightness and decay (2752-66)—Beowulf has his wish: gold sceawode ("he looked at the gold," 2793). The isolated and unqualified half-line joins a series of arrested beholdings, all using the same verb, identified by Seth Lerer:

The king "looked upon the hilt" (hylt sceawode, line 1687), and in this action Hrothgar comes initially to be affiliated with the uncomprehending warriors who, throughout the poem, gaze in wonder at the relics of an alien kingdom. Upon confronting Grendel's severed arm in Heorot, for example, men can only "behold the marvel" (wundor sceawian, line 840). When Hrothgar's men idly spear a sea creature at Grendel's mere, they mutely stare at its beached form ("weras sceawedon / gryrellicne gist," lines 1440-41). Faced with such remnants of the other world, the Danes are left speechless. They see that world only through the dead or dismembered creatures who no longer can inhabit it. They differ both from hero and from king in that none of them confronts directly or recounts in words their own experience. (Lerer 1991; repr. 2007, 590)

The contrast between the warriors and "hero and king" is more pointed in Lerer's argument with reference to the king, Hrothgar, because he actually explicates the written content of the hilt of the sword that killed Grendel's mother.

§29.  The question I would pose here is which side of the contrast Beowulf falls on as he looks at the treasure, an instance not adduced by Lerer. I would argue that he aligns himself with the inarticulate warriors. Although he speaks, he cannot explicate the treasure because, unlike the hilt, it is mute. He can only express a wish, one that proves to be futile:

"Ic þara frætwe Frean ealles ðanc,
wuldurcyninge, wordum secge,
ecum Dryhtne, þe ic her on starie,
þæs ðe ic moste minum leodum
ær swylt-dæge swyc gestrynan.
nu ic on maðma hord mine bebohte
frode feorh-lege, fremmað gena
leoda þearfe!" (2794-801a)

("I tell with words my thanks to the Lord, the King of glory, eternal Master, for the treasure that I gaze on here, which I was able to acquire for my people before my death-day. Now that I have traded my old life for the hoard of treasure, look after the people's needs henceforward.")

Of course, his wish is not respected. His treasure will be buried with him, apparently on Wiglaf's orders, and the poet says of it, in effect, "good riddance":

forleton eorla gestreon eorðan healdan
god on greote þær hit nu gen lifað
eldum swa unnyt swa hyt æror wæs. (3166-69)

(They left the lordly treasure for the ground to hold, the gold in the earth, where it still remains now, as useless to men as it was before.)

The sharp negativity of this last comment on the treasure is not palliated by Niles's comment that "Beowulf died in the belief that he had won the hoard for his people" when "[i]n fact, as Wiglaf makes clear, they have proven themselves unworthy to keep it" (Niles 1983, 221). In a treasure-giving culture, judgment of the recipients' worthiness is the prerogative of the giver. I know no formula for refusing or deflecting a gift that can avoid insulting the giver. The treasure itself is an impersonal evil; it is cursed. It is difficult not to connect that curse with the disturbing comment of Wiglaf on the highly personal nature of heroism:

"Oft sceall eorl monig anes willan
Wræc adreogan swa us gewordan is.
Ne meahton we gelæran leofne þeoden
Rices hyrde ræd ænigne,
Þæt he ne grette goldweard þone . . . ." (3077-81)

("Often many warriors suffer misery because of the will of one, as has happened with us. We could not persuade our beloved leader, the guardian of our kingdom, by any argument, that he should not engage the guardian of the gold . . . .")

Wiglaf states the thane's dilemma, as discussed by James Earl (1994, 175-87). The thane, one of "eorla monig," must follow the will of the lord ("anes willan"), while the lord answers only to himself. This heroic code reaches a dead end in the conclusion of Beowulf, and the treasure that sponsors it is buried with its ideal representative.

§30.  The moment of Beowulf's death has a complicated sadness. His last wish, fulfilled, is to gaze upon (to fill his visual field with) the treasure he bought with his life. The bare statement of that epiphany (gold sceawode) reminds us that it is just a pile of stuff. And so we come back to our opening reflections on Superman, as read by Umberto Eco. In particular, we recall the drastic narrowing of Superman's sphere of action to the local and of his values to the personal, especially those concerned with property, because he cannot enter and thus cannot change history. History—World War II, the moon landing, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the whole show—simply passes him by, because it is walking in a straight line. The author of Beowulf, unlike his hero, lived in that history. He could look back to irreversible changes, which had brought his people with their language to the island of Britain and to Christian conversion.9 That conversion connected him with the Redemption, which his Faith told him was the fulcrum of history and the proof that history could be changed. We should recall as well that Christianity, like its modern adversary Marxism, has always held that history had a goal that was impersonal, in the sense of being transcendent. History is not changed and the goal is not drawn nearer by the personal qualities of Germanic heroism, any more than they are by the ability to leap tall buildings at a single bound. These will always be diversions, turning from the straight path into the circle of the feud, which is always tribal and local. Thormann's point about moving from the Imaginary to the Symbolic is appealing and makes good sense, but King Alfred would probably identify the rule of law with the flowering of Christianity, which asks us to love our enemies and thus enables us to negotiate with them.

§31.  But the heroes draw the best songs from us. We cannot put away Sigemund or Odysseus or Gilgamesh as childish things, because our scope of imaginative vision remains approximately that of Beowulf's (or Superman's) scope of action. We respond to a hero facing an adversary, even if, as responsible adults engaged in the Symbolic order, we also discern the fatality that circumscribes him. The design of Beowulf brings forth the response while maintaining the discernment. It inserts into the feuds of our fathers and mothers in geardagum, a hero who embodies for us and shines back on them the brightest aspect of their doomed ethos. Beowulf represents a limit on the aspirations of the warrior society, one that the members of that society cannot quite touch and that the poet and his audience look on from the outside, armed with the remarkably sympathetic "sense of history" documented by Roberta Frank (1982) and the reserved equivocation of judgment identified in the poem's "appositive style" by Fred C. Robinson. Beowulf's death after his long but absent reign seals forever his exclusion from history. Perhaps in that negative sense, we can agree with Thormann that it transforms him from a person into a principle.


1.   Important documents of this revision in dating are Amos 1980, Chase 1996, and Kiernan 1996. A new study by North (2007) argues for a date of 826-27 and even identifies the author as one Abbot Eanmund of Breedon.  [Back]

2.   All citations of Beowulf are from the Klaeber (1950) edition. I have frequently consulted the Mitchell-Robinson edition as well. All translations, unless otherwise noted, are mine.  [Back]

3.   I should note here that I am persuaded by the arguments of Karl P. Wentersdorf (1971) and Fred C. Robinson (1965 and 1974) that reject the received reading of Beowulf's return that has him swimming some five hundred miles across the North Sea bearing thirty suits of armor on his arm, a feat that would give the wrong sort of relevance to my opening remarks on Superman and that lives on in Seamus Heaney's translation (2000). Robinson makes the general observation that "[e]lements of the marvellous are not uncommon in Beowulf . . . . But in general the wonders are carefully restricted to the devil's party" (Robinson 1974, 119). Wentersdorf noted that OE oferswam can mean to traverse water by boat as well as by swimming (a meaning that persists, with reference to improvised watercraft, in Chaucer's Miller's Tale, A3550); Robinson notes that hildegeatwa is "war-gear," not necessarily "suits of armor," that it is a non-count or "mass" noun not governable by the Roman numeral "XXX" only partly represented at the torn upper edge of Cotton Vitellius A.xv, folio 182v (Robinson 1965, 6). In fact, that Roman numeral, represented by the word þritig in modern editions, is of questionable meaning (Robinson 1965, 6-7). This demystification of Beowulf harmonizes with his characterization a few lines later as a "wretched loner" (earm anhaga) as he oferswam the sea back to the Geatish land and its widowed queen (2368).  [Back]

4.   Of course, Beowulf is present in the poem and I do not mean to suggest that he is not present as a character in the narrative, only that when he is called upon to enter or actually enters historical events likely known by the audience of the poem, he is not able to change or alter the outcome of those events by his prowess or other supra-gifts, and is therefore "not there."  [Back]

5.   Dockray-Miller includes the offer of adoption by Hrothgar and the many gifts bestowed upon him as further occasions for a "startling" non-response by Beowulf (Dockray-Miller 1998; repr. 2007, 450).  [Back]

6.   See Lacan, "The Mirror Stage" (Lacan 2006, 75-82). For a Lacanian account of the opposition of Beowulf and monsters, see Cohen 1999; repr. 2007, 345-81.  [Back]

7.   Recently such an argument has been made by Chris Vinsonhaler (2006), in a paper she read at the 41st International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (4-7 May 2006), "The Ironic Frame of Beowulf." She sees Beowulf as something of a Machiaveli who secured the Geatish throne as a reward for his quiet services to the Swedish Onela.  [Back]

8.   It also qualifies the reliability of his citation of Marcel Mauss's study of gift-giving in "Archaic Society" (1990) and studies like those of Donahue (1975) which rely upon it.  [Back]

9.   On the implied presence of this history in Beowulf, see Howe 1989; repr. 2007, 143-79.  [Back]

Works Cited

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———. 1997. Myth and history. In A Beowulf handbook, ed. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 213-32.  [Back]

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———. 1974. Elements of the marvelous in the characterization of Beowulf: A Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence. In Old English studies in honour of John C. Pope, ed. Robert B. Burlin, Edward B. Irving, and Marie Borroff. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 119-37.  [Back]

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