The Heroic Age
Civilized Rage in 'Beowulf'
by Thomas L. Wymer and Erin F. Labbie
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio
"Civilized Rage in Beowulf" argues that there is a difference between controlled rage and uncontrolled rage in Beowulf. Controlled rage is useful to the development of social relations and the nation; uncontrolled rage is damaging to civil interaction and the formation of society. We work with Norbert Elias' work on Civilization to determine that evidence of the socialization present in 13th century court society is also incipient in Beowulf.
Issue and Journal
© 2004 by Thomas L. Wymer and Erin F. Labbie. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2004 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.
Norbert Elias's notion of civility is based on the assumption that the nation as a social structure was not yet established in the Middle Ages, and that the historical development of civility led to the reigning in and subduing, indeed, sublimation, of emotions. For Elias, members of medieval cultures took social pleasure in the performance of violent battle. He claims that life in medieval societies was openly violent and lent itself to the satiation of instincts and drives fulfilling both pain and pleasure. "Rapine, battle, hunting of men and animals--all these were vital necessities which, in accordance with the structure of society, were visible to all. And thus, for the mighty and strong, they formed part of the pleasures of life" (Elias 1994, 1:158). Although much of his evidence for the blood-lust and pleasure taken in killing ostensibly rampant in the Middle Ages is taken from Troubadour songs, he does note that epics also are integral parts of social formations. "They express the feelings of the listeners for whom they are intended far more directly than most of our literature" .
Enfolded within Elias' The Civilizing Process is a mode of thinking about instincts and drives as partially constituted constructs, in a manner that Foucault would depend on for his own history of various institutions, taxonomies, and disciplines. . Elias describes the results of the historical transformation by which relatively uninhibited warlike instincts are "confined and tamed by innumerable rules and prohibitions that have become self-constraints," so that "cruelty and joy in the destruction and torment of others, like the proof of physical superiority, are placed under an increasingly strong social control anchored in the state organization (Elias 1994 1:157-8).
Many factors and forces entered into the strengthening of social control by state organizations, but a fundamental problem at the root of that transformation was basic weaknesses in the kind and degree of social control typical within warrior cultures. These weaknesses are especially evident in Beowulf, in its elegiac portrayal of a social order on the edge of dissolution and in its ambiguous portrayal of a uniquely heroic figure. The elegiac tone is directly linked to the uniqueness of Beowulf's heroism in Anglo-Saxon literary heritage. The poem consistently remarks that there was none like him before and will never be another like him again. What is especially interesting about his heroism is his unique ability to handle that fundamental problem of warrior cultures, the use and control of rage.
The problem of rage begins with the fact that in the right context, in battle, rage is almost always presented as a positive force. When warriors are fighting successfully in the Iliad, for instance, they are typically described as being in some sort of rage, in a killing frenzy that seems to render them--for the time at least--unstoppable. More than an emotional state, rage can lead the warrior to achieve a state of spiritual ecstasy that obliterates any possibility of cowardice or concern for one's own safety and focuses the warrior totally on the business of killing; such a transfer of the ostensibly destructive force of rage to the constructive force of spirituality is dependent upon a belief in a power larger and higher than the subject at stake in battle. This power can take the form of a god, God, the nation, or a philosophical belief that one is fighting for a larger good. Battle rage then can be a transcendent experience, generating in the warrior himself as well as in his companions, and especially in his enemies, the belief that he is possessed by a god of war. Epic literature has consistently presented battle rage as conducive to winning; from the Iliad to Beowulf, and in later Norman texts such as Raoul de Cambrai, it is prized and cultivated by warriors. If literature is any indication of what was at stake in historical social contexts, then we can assume, with Elias, that it reflects and constructs a form of paradoxical pleasure in violent conflict. Rage is either highly ritualized, such as in controlled battles and therefore "in control," or it is out of control, such as in cases of inter-kin conflict.
Rage, therefore, serves the community for whom the warrior fights--as long as that rage is directed solely against the community's enemies or the "other" against whom the group is battling. Unfortunately, such restraint is not always evident in contexts outside of battle. In the Iliad the plot turns on the fact that battle rage emerges in inappropriate contexts, from which emerges a central paradox on which Homer's plot rests: battle rage sustains and profits the community by assuring its victory against outside forces, while it threatens to destroy the community when the warrior hero cannot control himself among his own friends and allies. It is also a major source of the epic's tragic impact, the ironic fact that the hero's greatest strength is likewise the source of his greatest weakness. It is a paradox that all warrior cultures struggle with, limited today to certain subcultures and manifesting its effects in the problems of veterans returning from foreign wars, neighborhood gangs that despoil their own communities, and violent athletes who abuse their spouses.
This theme involves a fairly fundamental feature of warrior cultures. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is developed extensively as well in Beowulf, but it is surprising that so fundamental a notion does not seem to have been noticed anywhere in the Beowulf criticism. The need to control anger or wrath or rage is, of course, commonly noted, but there is a special edge given to that idea in recognizing the importance in these cultures of encouraging and cultivating rage. Recognizing the positive value of rage also illuminates the special nature of Beowulf's heroism. And placing the poem in its historical context in the light of Elias' notions of the civilizing process helps account for why the concept of rage as portrayed in the hero is imbued with elegaic nostalgia.
Martin Puhvel, in his comparison between the pre-battle fury traditional in Celtic lore and Beowulf's pre-battle fury, lends some insight into why rage has not been explored more thoroughly in the literature. He notes the fact that Beowulf's rage never gets out of hand: "Beowulf is no volatile Achilles buffeted by fits of fierce emotion, prominently wrath." This leads him to minimize the importance of rage in his speculation that "one may well suspect the presence in the Anglo-Saxon epic of a somewhat superficially superimposed influence of the Celtic motif in question," and he can only conclude that "[Beowulf's] pre-battle fury seems altogether anomalous" (Puhvel 1979, 53-54). Puhvel sees Beowulf's rage as a superficial motif, in other words, because, in being so under control, it is so unlike the more common exemplar of Celtic battle rage, the berserker. Beowulf's pre-battle fury is certainly anomalous, but it is far from superficial. In fact, it is precisely that unique handling of rage, which signals its importance to understanding the actions and reactions of the primary characters in the epic, and to understanding how Beowulf functions as a unique and exemplary hero.
If we see Beowulf as A. Kent Hieatt describes it, "commentary through and through," "a tissue of oblique allusions and highly stylized elegiac passages intended to build a particular atmosphere and a particular feeling about life, more than it is a straight narration of a series of events in the life of a hero," then we are better prepared to perceive that the commentary being asserted about battle rage reveals its connection with the social order. This view is also consistent with Katheryn Hume's argument that Beowulf is about "threats to social order" (Hume 1975, 5) and John D. Niles' claim that the poem is about community (Niles 1993, 860, 862). This theme is pursued even further, in separate contexts, by Hugh Magennis (1996) and John M. Hill. As Hill argues, "The crucial [social] imperative is the settling of feuds and the continuation of fruitful exchange, the latter creating or else intensifying further kinship between individuals and peoples" (Hill 1997, 265). But none of these commentators explores the way in which rage is presented as possessing the greatest potential not only to destroy, but to preserve the sense of community within the warrior cultures of Beowulf.
A more useful approach might be to follow the lead of Norbert Elias, who in his ground-breaking study, The Civilizing Process, examines the growth of civilization in Medieval society in terms of the rise of emotional self-control:
how restraints through others from a variety of angles are converted into self-restraints, how the more animalic activities are progressively thrust behind the scenes of men's communal social life and invested with feelings of shame, how the regulation of the whole instinctual and affective life by steady self-control becomes more and more stable, more even and more all-embracing (Elias 1982, 2: 230).
In his examination of this process, however, Elias focuses on the age of feudalism at its height, in the context of courtly society, neglecting its precursors in both the classical world and the earlier Middle Ages. He focuses little attention on that prior period before the shift from physical battle to rhetorical debate and juridical inquisition, when the more "animalic" drives such as physical rage are thrust into the background. What Elias does point out that is significant to an application of his argument about the later Middle Ages to Beowulf (and this is an argument that Foucault will later rely on for his repressive hypothesis) is that in the above shifts which "civilize" culture by eliminating open and rampant physical battle, rage is in fact foregrounded in conjunction with an ideal of control. Therefore, although he makes no mention of Beowulf, partly due to political decisions, and partly due to the time period he is studying, Elias' theory of the process of civilization does what Freud's Civilization and its Discontents would be hard pressed to do--it shows the possibility for a controlled rage within violent battle, as it is the inverse of violent rage in controlled courtly discourse. This is the crucial aspect of a reading of the epic elegy that focuses on the problematic of rage.
Beowulf can be seen as a work which chronicles the earliest stage in the process of controlling rage. This is a stage in which a model of self-restraints, operating within a context Elias describes as one "where the strongest functional dependence between people is still that of war and violence" (Elias 1982, 2:87), is built around a special and precarious kind of control exerted on perhaps the most primal feature of warrior societies, the experience and cultivation of rage. With its emphasis on community the poem explores the struggle to maintain civilization against the forces of unrestrained passion, and it offers a model, which in important ways both anticipates and falls short of the courtly ideal which Elias sees as developing within and transforming feudalism into a more organized civilization. We shall demonstrate this by examining the contexts in which rage occurs, most commonly expressed by the various forms of belgan, and by considering how the Beowulf poet relates the incidents involving rage to the concept of social order developed in the poem.
First, rage needs to be seen clearly as differing from all other kinds of anger expressed in Beowulf and as having specific applications. Niles provides us some excellent insight into the special qualities of rage in Beowulf when, in discussing the difficulty of translating the Old English word gebolgen, and referring to Puhvel, he maintains that "ordinary human beings may be angry, but only the monsters and the hero are swollen in a way that may call to mind the violent battle-fury of the Scandinavian beserkr or, as Martin Puhvel has remarked, the still more violent war-spasm of Celtic heroes like Cuchulain" (Niles 1993, 865). Yet Niles is no more able than Puhvel to make anything out of Beowulf's uniqueness among humans in this regard.
An examination of the way the word belgan has been traditionally defined also lends insight into both the curious nature of the word and the surprisingly curious way the significance of rage has been overlooked in Beowulf scholarship. The verb belgan, according to both A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Clark Hall 1975) and the new Dictionary of Old English means "to be or become angry," or "to offend, provoke." The various occurrences of forms of belgan are traditionally translated in accordance with this dictionary definition--Raffel, Kennedy, Crossley-Holand, Chickering, and most recently Seamus Heaney are typical. However, there are some notable exceptions, including, for example, Klaeber (1950), who defines these forms in some contexts as "rage," and Donaldson, who, following Klaeber, translates them almost always as some form of rage, usually "swollen with rage." If belgan means "rage," "enraged," or "swollen with rage" then a reading of the relationship between warrior energy and the formation of social communities is much more pervasive in a thorough reading of Beowulf than has been previously argued. Each time that belgan is employed in the text of Beowulf, the poetic context involves a situation in which the social order is at stake; further, in every case in which rage is appropriate, it appears to be cultivated consciously as an essential part of preparation for battle.
From the use of "rage" in Beowulf we can draw the following conclusions:
1. Rage is a tool used by the Good to maintain the social order.
2. Rage is cultivated, reached through a process that is controlled and subordinated to a rational end when it is used for good.
3. Rage out of control is a serious threat to the social order.
4. Rage out of control can most effectively be met by rage in control.
It may appear paradoxical, or even contradictory, to assert a difference between controlled rage and rage that is out of control; however, a clarification of modes of violence within Anglo-Saxon culture, as opposed to the chaos and the unpredictability of violence known as "terrorism" as seen from the point of view of our contemporary global culture of order and unity, reveals that the distinction underlies a history of western approaches to community formation, societal regulation, and order.
The subtle but crucial distinction between controlled rage and rage that is "out of control" depends of course on perspective and the determination of "good" from "evil." Rage that is consciously mustered and "controlled" will appear to the enemy as if it is "out of control" since the two opposing sides in a battle will often lack the communication to perceive the rationale of the other. This is not always historically the case, however. Significant moments in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman literature reveal that battle can often occur in a manner that is completely ordered. The difference between these ordered battles and those that appear more chaotic and uncontrolled is marked by the distinction of the degree to which the warriors are championing personal, or intimate political causes, as they stand in opposition to those who are championing the causes of a larger community, culture, or nation.
The first occurrence of a form of belgan, one of the two instances of bolgenmod, is in the lines which describe Beowulf's temperament as he awaits the visit by Grendel:
Þæt wæs yldum cuþ,
þæt hie ne moste, þa Metod nolde,
se s[c]ynscaþa under sceadu bregdan,
ac he wæccende wraþum on andan
bad bolgenmod beadwa geþinges.
It was known to the elders
that the hostile foe must not,
the Lord did not will it, drag them under shadow.
But [Beowulf], watchful, with indignant wrath,
awaited, swollen with rage, the results of battle. (ll.705-709) 
Translators like Chickering, Crossley-Holland, Kennedy, and Raffel define bolgenmod here as "angrily," "with increasing anger," "in anger," or "angry"; Heaney renders it "spoiling for action"; Donaldson is better, offering "swollen in anger." We prefer translations such as "with enraged spirit" or "swollen with rage." The difference between "anger" and "rage" signals respectively the difference between an emotion felt in response to injury or offense, and one felt during or immediately prior to battle. Indeed, forms of anger, it could be argued, are not even logical translations for a passage that situates events within a battle scene. Hrothgar has suffered injury, while Beowulf has taken upon himself the task of redressing that injury. As Beowulf the warrior waits for Grendel to arrive, his tension rises since on his shoulders rests perhaps the last chance for Heorot, a symbol of civilized and just order, to survive, and his rage "swells" in anticipation as he invokes the pre-battle fury that is part of a warrior's preparation for battle. As rage, a state of emotional readiness for battle, bolgenmod makes perfectly good sense, especially in this context where it is focused for justifiable battle. The translation as "anger," however, offsets and undermines the communication of the significance that Beowulf's role as champion of Heorot plays in the struggle of a kingdom. Instead, "rage" in the process of being summoned and strengthened--bolgenmod--symbolizes and transmits the relevance of the battle in the development and maintenance of a society mutually opposing a malevolent Other.
Rage appears here as the culmination of a process of preparation for battle that would normally include the warrior arming himself for battle, but in this case, the process includes some degree of disarming. Beowulf must meet his opponent on balanced and equal footing in order to maintain his honor. This part of the process of preparation should not be overlooked, because all three of the major fights in the poem focus on the balance of weapons between Beowulf and his opponents and how well those weapons stand up to battle. Knowing that Grendel bears no arms, Beowulf disarms himself, choosing to meet his enemy on equal terms, a decision that he expresses as part of his pre-battle boast: "No ic me an herewæsmum / hnagran talige // guðgeweorca, / þonne Grendel hine," "I count myself no less in battle strength, in war deeds, than Grendel does" (ll. 677-678). He goes on to say that "nat he þara goda, / þæt he me ongean slea, // rand geheawe, þeah ðe he rof sie // niþgeweorca," "He [Grendel] knows not those good things [e.g., swords] that he might strike me with, hew my shield with, strong though he is in evil deeds" (ll. 681-683). But Beowulf needs to invoke his rage as well, since Grendel is himself enraged. Lest we fail to note the power of that rage from reports of his previous attacks, it is called unmistakably to our attention when Grendel enters Heorot on the night he encounters Beowulf. Though the door of the meadhall is bound fast with iron, "fyrbendum fæst," it springs open at the mere touch of his hands, "syþðan he hire folmum (æthr)an." How even a monster of Grendel's power can accomplish such an act is indicated by the formulaic phrase, "ða he [ge]bolgen wæs," "for he was enraged" (ll. 722-723). His extraordinary strength is generated by his rage. Beowulf therefore must be enraged, swollen with battle spirit, if he has any chance of defeating the evil and enraged Grendel.
John M. Hill's essay "Revenge and Superego Mastery in Beowulf" provides an analysis of orality and aggression that is helpful in understanding the relationship between Beowulf's boasting speeches and the "swelling rage" that is produced in reaction to the anticipation of battle fury (Hill 1989). Through a discussion of orality as it explicitly relates to aggression Hill demonstrates the ambiguity of "good" and "evil" in Beowulf's characters and various monsters. Beowulf's boasting becomes more than merely the anti-heroic self-congratulatory speech; rather, it is that weapon with which Beowulf begins to meet Grendel's aggression. We have seen Grendel's oral aggression in the context of his cannibalistic habits; and, as Jaeger points out, powerful speech acts as well as describes (Jager 1990, 845-859). Hill takes this argument a step further when he claims that by boasting, Beowulf may have been enacting one of the shape-changing and shaman-assisted rituals performed by warriors prior to battle and in order to foreground the possibility for perceiving monstrosity among the warring feuds .
In Beowulf's encounter with Grendel's dam, the emphasis is less on the pattern of developing rage as preparation for battle and more on the hero's ability to call upon rage at need. The issue of fairness is also less directly addressed, but Beowulf's sword and mail coat turn out to be appropriate means of dealing with the monster's claws and extraordinarily tough hide; indeed, his sword turns out to be less than a fair match. Perhaps an initial state of rage is unimportant since Beowulf must swim into the depths of the mere "hwil dæges," "for a great part of a day," a context in which rage would be both unnecessary and difficult to maintain for so long a time. But the sea witch finally accosts him and drags him into her cave. There, able to free his sword, he strikes and discovers her invulnerability to any ordinary sword. His response to this situation first emphasizes his self-possession: he is "anræd, / nalas elnes læt, // mærða gemyndig," "resolute, not slow in courage, mindful of fame" (ll. 1529-1530). He then grabs her by the shoulder and hurls her to the floor, and, as we might expect, his ability to perform so great a feat is indicated by the formulaic phrase we have seen before, "þa he gebolgen wæs," "because he was enraged" (ll. 1539). Beowulf, in other words, has been able to call upon the necessary rage when the situation demanded it, and that it emerges as a product of his self-control is reinforced by its being described not as an emotional reaction but as following from his resoluteness, courage, and mindfulness.
This encounter further reveals what might be described as an even higher level of rage, indicated by forms of the word hreoh, which Klaeber glosses as "rough, fierce, savage, troubled." The witch immediately jumps up and Beowulf has to call on deeper resources. He spies a sword hanging on the wall, and now, "hreoh ond heorogrim," "fierce and sword-grim" as Klaeber glosses it (l.1564), he seizes the sword and strikes her dead. But hreoh seems to suggest a feeling stronger than fierceness. The sword Beowulf found was "eotenisc," "made by giants, giant," as Klaeber glosses it, though perhaps more accurately "gigantic"; it is so massive that no other man could use it in battle, but it is not magic. It strikes through the otherwise invulnerable monster in part because of its weight, but also because being hreoh, in a state of desperate rage, gives Beowulf the strength to wield effectively so massive a sword. Like Grendel bursting open the door of Heorot with a touch, it is not only unusual muscle or sinew that accounts for the warrior's superhuman strength, but rage.
In other contexts as well, the forms of hreoh seem to suggest a more elemental, savage, and desperate kind of rage than those of belgan. As "hreohmod" the word describes the rage Hrothgar feels (l. 2132) as he begs Beowulf to take vengeance on Grendel's dam after she killed his favorite retainer. This is undoubtedly the context for which Klaeber came up with the alternative "troubled in mind," but such a reading neglects the fact that Hrothgar is a warrior in the situation of having been mortally offended while being helpless to accomplish a warrior's moral obligation to exact revenge. Such a man would not be merely troubled; rather his frustration would account for the more desperate, even frenetic, rage he feels, as indicated by "hreohmod."
Another form of this word seems to imply a rage that is mindless when it is applied to the waves, "hreo wæron yþa" (l. 548), that beset Beowulf in his swim with Breca. And this sense of desperate, frenzied rage is also attributed to the dragon when Beowulf first wounds it (l. 2581)--the dragon, already enraged, responds to the wound with this higher level. The application of this word to Beowulf, the force of a violent sea, and the dragon, therefore, reveals that this form of rage, like that denoted by the forms of belgan, implies a natural force that can be employed as a weapon in the service of both good and evil, either to restore and maintain or to destroy order. Indeed, it is this extreme rage that enables the dragon to fatally wound Beowulf.
But Beowulf knows rage well, both its uses for good and its uses for evil, and it is an indication of the significance of this word that catastrophic destruction can be seen as the result of divine rage. Thus in the last third of the poem, when there is no explanation for the disastrous destruction of his own hall, he fears it may be God's work.
Þa wæs Biowulfe broga gecyðed
snude to soðe, þæt his sylfes ham,
bolda selest, brynewylmum mealt,
gifstol Geata. Þæt ðam godan waes
hreow on hreðre, hygesorge maest;
wende se wisa þæt he Wealdende
ofer ealde riht, ecean Dryhtne
bitre gebulge; breost innan weoll
þeostrum geþoncum, swa him geþywe ne waes.
Then to Beowulf the terror was announced,
quickly, in truth, that his own home,
the best of houses, the throne of the Geats,
was melted in fire. Then felt that good man
great agony in his breast, the deepest sorrow.
The wise man thought he had bitterly enraged
the Lord, the Eternal Ruler,
broken the ancient law; his breast surged
with dark thoughts not customary to him. (ll. 2324-2332)
Beowulf believes he must have somehow broken the "ancient law," done something that "bitterly enraged" God, not simply angered or offended him, as most translators have rendered it. Nothing less than divine rage, it seems at this point, could account for the terrible destruction of his home, his very throne, more literally his "gift-chair." In addition to revealing one of the many moments in the text where it is evident that the transition from paganism to Christianity is indeed a struggle and a battle for cultural significance and conformity, Beowulf's sense that he has "enraged" God in this passage reveals a human God who, like the Old Testament Judeo-Christian God, is capable of wrath. The assumption of God's goodness and status as "above" anger, rage, or revenge on humans has not yet entered into the rhetoric of the Anglo-Saxon cosmology. Rather, God as an early representation of a monotheistic deity, remains one who has the properties and characteristics of pagan gods. In this sense, Beowulf's fear of divine rage mimics the general approach to battle found in classical epics and pursued throughout the 16th and 17th centuries in epics such as Paradise Lost. In fact, it may be posited that the epic genre depends on a notion of a God capable of anger.
This possibility inspires dark thoughts, uncustomary feelings to such a hero, but what is especially significant is that Beowulf cannot at first respond to this very personal injury with his accustomed rage precisely because he does not know the source of that injury. Moreover, since such near apocalyptic devastation might be an act of God, and, as we have argued, since appropriate rage is directed against rage that is evil and out of control, rage against God is certainly inappropriate--in fact, it is just the sort of response that had characterized Grendel. Beowulf, however, is able to reflect upon his many good deeds, his fairness to his lords and kinsmen, his valor in battle, and he finds no basis for guilt . Still, he seems paralyzed until he learns why the dragon burned his lands. Only then can he act: "Gewat þa twelfa sum, / torne gebolgen, // dryhten Geata / dracan sceawian," "Then went the king of the Geats, deeply enraged, one among twelve, to find the dragon" (ll. 2401-2402). Beowulf, in other words, is able to act decisively in this crisis only when he is able rationally and appropriately to invoke, direct, and release his rage.
The appropriateness of Beowulf's rage is clear because his actions are a response not only to the dragon's destructive act, but to its rage. When the theft from the dragon's hoard was first described, we were told "þæt sie ðiod (onfand), // b(ig)folc beorna, / þæt he gebolge(n) wæs," "that the people, the neighboring folk, discovered that [the dragon] was enraged" (ll. 2219-2220). In the subsequent, more detailed narration of that theft and its consequences, the dragon, as it seeks the thief, is described as "hat and hreohmod" (l. 2296), indicating its frustrated rage and desire for revenge, much like Hrothgar's at the death of his most loyal retainer. The poet goes on,
earfoðlice, oð ðæt æfen cwom;
wæs ða gebolgen beorges hyrde
wolde se laða lige forgyldan
The treasure-keeper waited
impatiently until evening came.
The barrow-guardian was swollen with rage,
the hated one wanted vengeance by fire
for that precious vessel. (ll. 2302-2306)
Acting in a manner consistent with evil (the dragon is variously described as "ðeodsceaða" (l. 2278), "guðsceaða" (l. 2318), "mansceaða" (l. 2514)--the last of these epithets is twice applied to Grendel (ll.712, 737), once to his dam (l.1339)--meaning "scourge or enemy of humanity") the dragon expresses its frustration by venting its rage indiscriminately. Beowulf, therefore, sets out to meet the dragon in a state of rage equal in power to the dragon's, but produced through control.
Signifying the difference between good and evil, human and animal, Beowulf's control is evidenced in his speech. Whereas the dragon's breath emits only noxious poison and fire, Beowulf's breath must produce proper language in the form of a battle speech. Before the actual encounter, therefore, as he stands on the seashore before the dragon's barrow, a more elaborate spiritual and emotional preparation remains necessary to achieve a controlled, consciously ordered, and full state of rage. Speaking to his men, he remembers the many trials, sorrows, and battles of the past which he has led and survived. Beowulf's boasting, his "beotwordum" (l. 2510), reaches a kind of culmination in his declaration that he will still "fæhðe secan, // mærðu fremman," "seek battle, win fame" (ll. 2513-2514). Nevertheless, a continuing part of his boast is his explanation of why he is fully armed.
Nolde ic sweord beran,
wæpen to wyrme, gif ic wyste hu
wið ðam aglæcean elles meahte
gylpe wiðgripan, swa ic gio wið Grendle dyde;
ac ic ðær headu-fyres hates wene,
[o]reðes ond attres; forðon ic me on hafu
bord ond byrnan.
I would not bear a sword,
a weapon against the worm, if I knew how
I might otherwise grapple honorably
with that dragon, as I did once with Grendel;
but I think of [the dragon's] hot battle fire,
of [his] breath and venom; therefore I have on me
shield and coat of mail. (ll. 2518-2524)
He can still boast, in other words, that he is meeting this foe, as he did Grendel, on equal terms. Having completed his boast, Beowulf is almost prepared for battle, but not quite. His spirit is not at full battle readiness. He is not yet in a state of full battle rage, that intense emotional state which will indicate his readiness to meet the dragon, for we know the dragon is enraged--indeed, once aroused, in a continuing state of rage much like Grendel. Beowulf's rage, however, emerges in a more disciplined manner. He leaves the beach, moving toward the dragon's barrow as his rage swells to its apex of battle readiness, and the passage describing this transformation is among the most stirring in the poem. It begins,
Aras ða bi ronde rof oretta,
heard under healm, hiorosercean bær
under stancleofu, strengo getruwode
anes mannes; ne bið swylc earges sið!
Arose then with his shield the famed warrior,
brave under his helmet, bearing his battlemail
under the stone cliffs, the lone man,
tested in his strength; this was no cowardly trip! (ll. 2538-2541)
As we noted earlier, Donaldson most frequently translates the forms of belgan as some form of "swelling," swelling with rage or swelling with anger. He does so apparently in part in deference to Klaeber, whose gloss includes the note, "Orig. 'swell'; cp. b(i)elg 'bag'". This translation not only reflects the word's root, it captures something of the way in which rage properly fills the warrior. The poet likewise suggests this by beginning this consummate description of the fully ready warrior with the word, "Aras," which functions as an elaborate pun: as he strides forth toward battle, he rises in the sense of moving up from the beach to the cliff face and the entrance to the dragon's cave; he not only raises his shield, as the Anglo-Saxon warrior customarily does before battle, he rises with it; and finally and most important, Beowulf rises up inwardly, swells in courage and strength as he completes that final step of soaring into full battle rage. This becomes an ascent into a spiritual and emotional state that explodes in a burst of energy:
Let ða of breostrum, ða he gebolgen wæs,
Weder-Geata leod word ut faran,
stearcheort styrmde; stefn in becom
heoðotorht hlynnan under harne stan.
Then from his breast, for he was swollen with rage,
the king of the Geats let a word go forth,
shouted strong-hearted; his voice rose,
the ringing battlecry under gray stone. (ll. 2550-2553)
To translate the familiar phrase, "ða he gebolgen wæs," as "for he was angry," as so many have done, almost travesties an emotional state that is significant and fundamental to the text and its analysis, indeed, to the Beowulf poet and his audience we believe, so magnificent. As there is preparation of arms for battle, there is preparation also of the mind, the spirit, thus reinforcing a hierarchy of mind and body. Having thoroughly constructed his rage, Beowulf's readiness bursts forth in a verbal challenge to the Dragon (an act that also declares the value of proper rage): "stearcheort styrmde" reinforces the fact that this cry surges up "of breostum," from the warrior's breast or heart, which this culture believed to be the center of emotions.
In his essay cited earlier, Eric Jager (1990) explores the poetic analogy between Beowulf's breast and the dragon's barrow, showing how Beowulf's cry "is reified into a weaponlike object traveling independently away from its source in the warrior's chest," a cry analogous to "the dragon's utterance [which], of course, is a weapon" (Jager's emphasis). This analogy, he argues, is further "complemented by a psychological [analogy]: the fact that Beowulf speaks in anger (ða he gebolgen wæs), as though his pectoral word expresses this anger, is figuratively represented as the hate that his utterance stirs up in the barrow" (Jager 1990, 850-851). Jager's analysis is further supported and extended by our reading of Beowulf's cry as carrying with it a force that matches the dragon's fiery roar; Beowulf's response from his heart or chest is, however, a force not of anger but of battle rage. Moreover, Beowulf's "anger" does not "stir up" the dragon's hate--the dragon is already enraged; rather Beowulf's cry represents psychological and spiritual weapons meeting just prior to the physical encounter, rage meeting rage.
The pattern we have seen of distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate displays of rage in Beowulf and the monsters respectively is further developed in incidents that contrast Beowulf's behavior with that of other human beings. Such incidents more clearly reveal the impact of appropriate and inappropriate rage on the social order. As we suggested earlier, the most inappropriate contexts in which the warrior might fly into rage, those most threatening to the social order, are in company with his own kin or hearth companions, especially in his own meadhall. It is in just such contexts that the negative side of this kind of rage is repeatedly revealed in the poem. Interkin conflict, especially kinslaying, is in fact a constant topic. Unferth is known to have killed two brothers, the commonness of which is suggested by its being little more than a mild embarrassment to him. Wealhtheow is worried about her nephew Hrothulf opposing her son Hrethric's succession, which in fact will be the source of internal division that finally destroys the Scylding dynasty of the Danes. Among the Swedes, Onela's nephews rebel against their uncle, a conflict only one of the nephews will survive. Another manifestation of interkin conflict emerges as a result of marriages arranged to settle feuds. This tactic is, of course, based on the expectation that people will be less likely to fight with their own kin, an expectation which is treated more with irony than anything else in the poem. Beowulf asserts (ll. 2028-2032) that marriages to settle feuds are rarely successful, and the examples that emerge bear out his judgment. In the past the marriage between Hnaf's sister and Finn failed to make peace between Danes and Frisians, although that between Onela and Hrothgar's sister seems to help maintain peace between Swedes and Danes. Nonetheless, Hrothgar's Heathobard son-in-law Ingeld will attack and burn Heorot.
An example of destructive internal conflict not involving kin occurs in Hrothgar's use of the ancient Danish king Heremod as an example of what he hopes Beowulf will never become. Heremod "breat bolgenmod / beodgeneatas," "killed in rage his table companions" (l.1713), and thereby brought down on his people slaughter and destruction. The sole reason given for his rage is "him on ferhþe greow / breost-hord blodreow," that "in his spirit his heart grew bloodthirsty" (ll.1717-1718). Indeed, his name, which translates as "battle-spirited," suggests in this context that a state of mind appropriate in battle came to pervade his being. His rage, in short, was uncontrolled and therefore as little motivated and as mindlessly destructive as Grendel's.
In fact, viewed in terms of this problem of uncontrolled rage, Grendel is much less a monster than simply an extreme example of the very human problems of the poem's warrior culture. Grendel lives in a kind of exile, sharing in Cain's punishment: "feor forwræc . . . mancynne fram," "driven far . . . from mankind" (ll.109-110), for what the poet calls a "fæhðe," "feud" (l.109). This word can apply to conflicts between peoples, but at least as often and more tragically it is applied to those between companions and kin, a situation not at all uncommon among northern European warriors. Indeed the exile is a character type who appears frequently in northern European epic and saga, long recognized in the critical literature as well (Brown 1989). Sometimes he is a survivor of a people whose lord has died, like Deor, or one all of whose people have died, like the warrior in Beowulf who hid the treasure that the dragon will find. More often the exile is a man who has fallen out with his own people because of some kind of feud. That feud may be politically based, like the rebellion described in Beowulf against the Swedish king Onela by his nephews, or it is occasioned by the exile having killed one or more of his fellow warriors. Textual examples of the latter type of inter-kin or civil feud consistently reveal that the exiled character is so because he could not control his rage. Grettir the Strong, the subject of the Norse saga by the same name, is an especially good example of the latter kind of exile; he typically ends up killing several of the hearth companions of anyone who hosts him.
Sometimes, most tragically, exile is occasioned by the warrior's having killed his own kin. The Beowulf poet reminds us of this kind of situation briefly when Hrothgar's herald first greets Beowulf and his men, noticing respectfully that by the look of them they have come, "neallas for wræcsiðum, / ac for higeþrymmum," "not as exiles but as greathearted men" (ll. 338-39). Grendel, however, is such an exile, and one whose separation from the human community, the social order, is rooted not simply in his behavior, but in his ancestry: his kinship with Cain links him with the first murder, the archetypal act of kinslaying and a clear intersection between the moral systems of Christianity and northern paganism.
Moreover, it is because Grendel is the embodiment of uncontrolled rage that his rage is so extreme and seems so little motivated: it is directed against Hrothgar's people, we are told, in response to the light and sounds of joyful feasting and poetic song coming from Heorot. However, Grendel's rage existed long before he noticed those lights and sounds; they become a special magnet for his rage because they and Heorot embody the joys of comradeship and social order from which his rage and God's consequent anger, "Godes yrre" (l. 711), have made him forever exiled. Directed against Heorot, Grendel's uncontrolled rage will continue unabated for years until it succumbs to the heroic form of rage displayed by Beowulf. It should be no surprise, therefore, that Grendel is "(ge)bolgen," "enraged" (l. 723), as he enters Heorot for what will be the last time. It is also in keeping with his function as the type of uncontrolled rage that he, an exile, commits his depredations within a meadhall, and in so doing violates order enough to make all the inhabitants of that hall themselves, at least for a time, exiles.
The thematic pattern of contrasting appropriate rage in battle and inappropriate rage in social contexts is especially important in that it anticipates the later transformation, as Elias describes it, of the feudal nobility "from a class of knights into a class of courtiers" (Elias 1982, 2:20). This transformation is first adumbrated in Beowulf in the hero's exchange in Hrothgar's court with Unferth. There rage is conspicuous by its absence. A less self-controlled, less intellectually adept, less socially aware and courteous warrior would have responded to Unferth's challenge, which borders on outright insult, with violence, but not Beowulf. He maintains his dignity and his temper and defeats Unferth verbally, a performance that wins Hrothgar's approval and Unferth's grudging respect. Indeed, Hrothgar's praise of Beowulf after his conquest of Grendel could apply as well to his handling of Unferth: Beowulf's achievement is not only in his "blæd," his "power, glory, or renown" (l. 1703), but because he "geþyldum healdest, / mægen mid modes snyttrum," "holds [that power] steadily, with wisdom of spirit" (ll.1705-1706). This is praise that Hrothgar directly relates to Beowulf's restraining from inappropriate rage when, a few lines later, he uses the contrasting example we noted earlier of Heremod, who did not control his power, but killed his table companions in rage, defiled, in effect, his own court. The true warrior seeks, in contrast, to maintain the meadhall, this early version of a court, as a center for civilized discourse. In other words, Hrothgar is lecturing on the rudiments of courtly behavior. Courtliness is, of course, presented in a limited sense meaning here avoiding drunkenness and suppressing one's rage in social contexts along with cultivating one's capacity for rage in order to employ it appropriately in battle. As such it embodies the special sense of social responsibility imposed on the warrior gifted with great strength and skill, a responsibility that Beowulf has clearly accepted and internalized.
The importance of Beowulf's courtly behavior, as well as the problem of its lack in most warriors in these Germanic and Scandinavian warrior cultures, is suggested again in one of Beowulf's dying boasts about what is evidently a rare virtue, that he can die happy, "forðam me witan ne ðearf / Walend fira // morðorbealo maga, / þonne min sceaceð // lif of lice," "For the Creator of men cannot lay to my charge the heinous murder of kinsmen, when life departs from my body" (ll. 2740-2742). By then Beowulf's physical vigor has gradually diminished with age, but his awareness of social order and his resolve to maintain that order have never diminished, have indeed been practiced resolutely and continuously throughout his life. His courtly virtues had also been demonstrated earlier when Beowulf, the ideally loyal warrior, supported his kinsman by refusing the throne after Hygelac's death, even when it was offered by the queen herself, committing himself to backing the succession of his cousin Heardred, Hygelac's son. Beowulf serves also as the example for avoiding internal violence on a broader scale than among kin. Earlier in this second half of the poem, in language that recalls Hrothgar's comments about Heremod, the poet praises Beowulf for "nealles inwitnet / oðrum bregdon // dyrnum cræfte, / deað ren(ian) // hondgesteallan," "not weaving nets of malice for others in secret plots, preparing the death of companions" (ll. 2167-2169). The point is made again a few lines later, applied to unpremeditated crimes:
Swa bealdode bearn Ecgðeowes,
guma guðum cuð godum dædum,
dreah æfter dome; nealles druncne slog
heorðgeneatas; næs him hreoh sefa,
ac he mancynnes mæsta cræfte
ginfæstan gife, þe him God sealde,
So Ecgtheow's son showed himself,
a man famous in battle for good deeds,
acted with [good] judgement; never, drunken, did he slay
his hearthcompanions; not his was the savage spirit,
but, fierce in battle, he guarded that greatest strength,
the ample gift that God gave him. (ll. 2177-2183)
Beowulf has clearly followed Hrothgar's advice, maintaining the wellsprings of his rage for use in battle while restraining it among his kin, his friends, and his allies. Here too the language of the text reveals contrasting forms of rage: (1) the savage spirit, "hreoh sefa," which can lead to the slaying of one's hearth companions and which Beowulf did not display except in the fitting context of that desperate moment with Grendle's dam, and (2) the battle-fierceness, "hildedeor," which is appropriate in battle and which Beowulf amply displayed. Moreover, the language of these three passages, describing what Beowulf is not, so aptly describes what both Heremod and Grendel are that the monster is again revealed as the archetypal exemplar of uncontrolled rage. This view of rage also helps us understand the poet's view of the order of Anglo-Saxon society:
Metod eallum weold
gumena cynnes, swa he nu git deð.
Forþan bið andgit æghwær selest,
ferhðes foreþanc. Fela sceal gibidan
leofes ond laþes se þe longe her
on ðyssum windagum worolde bruceð!
The Creator rules all
human kind now as he ever did.
Therefore this understanding, mind's forethought,
is everywhere best: much shall he experience
of love and hate who long here
in these days of strife endures the world. (ll. 1057-1062)
The world of this poem's warrior culture is one of love and hate, one in which strife is endemic, war is as much a part of life as peace, and conflicts all too often can be settled only with violence. It is a world therefore in which the cultivation of the capacity for rage is both a necessity and a danger, a subject for glorification and for admonition, as well as an example of what Elias describes as:
the earlier sphere, where violence is an unavoidable and everyday event, and where the individual's chains of dependence are relatively short . . . .The life of the warriors themselves, but also that of all others living in a society with a warrior upper class, is threatened continually and directly by acts of physical violence; thus measured against life in more pacified zones, it oscillates between extremes. (Elias 1982, 2:236)
This is a world in which the wise warrior and leader is obliged not only to restrain his rage, but also to call upon it at need. It is this capacity, so clearly exhibited in Beowulf, that makes him anomalous, or better, uniquely heroic.
The poem however is tragic, depicting a world dependent on a heroic ideal that could not be maintained beyond the life of that hero. And here again Elias helps us understand why. The process of civilization, as he describes it, is a complex one in which economic and political forces move toward strong and stable central monopolies of power. These enjoin stricter forms of control that limit the savage joys of that earlier sphere, controls that are subsequently rationalized, moralized, and finally internalized through processes of socialization into self-control, which in turn feed back into the civilizing process. But that is a process that paradoxically requires leaders less scrupulous and more ruthless than Beowulf, more concerned with exerting and expanding power over others rather than the kind of self-mastery exhibited by Beowulf. Thus Beowulf fails to effect any lasting change on his society. Indeed, Beowulf's self-control is amply demonstrated throughout the poem, while his lesser control over others, which we might call a political more than a personal weakness (though the text does not seem to present it as a weakness in Beowulf), is demonstrated in his reluctance to assume the throne after Higelac's death and in the lack of support he receives from all his retainers except Wiglaf in his final battle.
Finally, the central significance of the forms of belgan in the poem is further demonstrated by the extent to which the translation of this word bears on some of the major debates that have occupied scholars for the last century. Translating it as we have, Beowulf emerges as an unmitigated hero, not the decadent king marred by hubris imagined by many readers. His death can only be conceived as a failure if one superimposes Christainized versions of classic Greek vices onto the pagan warrior culture that Beowulf exemplifies. All warriors must die sooner or later, and dying in battle or as the direct result of battle is in warrior cultures the best way to go; the fact that it happens so late in the life of a warrior as active as Beowulf is only more grounds for seeing this king as exemplary. What he lacks for us is perhaps the kind of lasting impact on his culture that we have come to expect of epic heroes since Aeneas. This is not so much a matter of weakness in the hero, however, as a condition of the moral and historical vision of the poet and his culture. His is a world characterized by change without any ultimate direction, either historical or escatalogical, except the change embodied in seeing in the past an epic grandeur forever lost.
The idea of cultivating a spirit of violent destructiveness, even temporarily, indeed of glorifying those who achieve that spirit, seems to run more deeply counter to Christian morality than simply killing. It managed to survive in this transitional piece--indeed its survival in a transitional piece is precisely what makes its treatment anomalous--but it became an idea ignored or suppressed in most subsequent literature as Christian values displaced pagan ones--Bertran De Born's twelfth century song "In Praise of War" is a rare and unsettling example of an ecstatic response to battle that bears some kinship with battle rage. The Beowulf poet, however, achieves an even rarer balance between the epic's admonitory theme about the control of rage and its glorification of appropriate rage, a balance which subsequent European culture abandoned as it suppressed the vision of rage as a positive attribute.