We have heard of the thriving of the Danish kings,
How they flourished in days long past,
How those royal athelings earned their glory!
With this adjuration to ‘Listen!’ begins one of the most important stories in English letters. Any serious student of literature will have spent a great deal of time living and breathing this poem, as will a whole range of other bookish types – historians, archaeologists, philologists and so on, but it’s not this experience of Beowulf I’m really talking about. Sure, it’s important as the genesis of storytelling in English, for its verifiable glimpses of the material culture and mentality of Dark Age Saxons, and for the understanding of the language we all speak and write, but to my mind, these are really its least important aspects.
The most important thing about Beowulf is that it tells the oldest and most fundamental story of humanity. It is a tale of civilisation’s light against the dark of the ancient wild, of the hero, the cost of that heroism, and of the ‘lacrimae rerum’ π the tears of things: the tragedy inherent in inevitable death and decay. For a storyteller, an author of fiction, there are few stories it is more important to understand. For what story worth reading is not about heroes, order against chaos, the search for meaning as we hurtle toward oblivion?
The poem can be a little daunting to those uninitiated in the study of literature, and who therefore see reading as an enjoyable activity rather than a kind of intellectual self-flagellation. It begins with a genealogy, and the story of a magical child found without clothes, taken in by a kind family, who rises to become king. This may seem irrelevant, but it is important for establishing the relationships later in the story. More than this, however, it lays down the essence and core of what the whole tale is about. Of Scyld Shefing the poet declares, ‘Þæt wæs god cyning!’ He was a good king! It is in the exploration of what makes a ‘good king’ that we find inquiries into what it is to be a good man, of what consist the good things in life, and of our absolute duty to fight the darkness that lives beyond the light of the hearth – the evil which dwells at the edges of our minds.
This evil takes the form of Grendel, a descendant of Cain and hater of human works – of light and conversation, of built things and of the songs in which history and memory are preserved. Grendel is the ‘feond en helle’, the fiend of hell, and he stalks the marshes, the fell and fen – the wild places unsettled by man. But it’s not his otherworldliness which is Grendel’s most horrific feature – it is his familiarity. He is a liminal creature, the personification of our own beast nature, and of the edges of civilisation within our own selves. The war between Beowulf and Grendel is emblematic on every level of the core struggle of humanity over its entire time here on Earth.
After Grendel comes Grendel’s mother, an inverse portrait of a fundamental human instinct. Feminine imagery abounds in this section, and we can see that old warrior-cult dread of the female ‘other’, with our hero diving into deep caves and piercing the monster with a magical sword. But beyond this archaic misogyny is a progression of responsibility. The defeat of Grendel is a fine, pure beserk frenzy – power over power – as Beowulf rips off the creature’s arm. But here, at the cave of Grendel’s mother, the hero is required to plunge, cold-minded, into the pool of his probable death. This is our middle age, where we become aware of the costs and risks of what we do and, if we are worth anything at all, go on to do it anyway. Beowulf teaches us with what grace and good cheer we may face our fears, and our doom.
And then finally, with a strange skip in time, the poem takes us to old age, where Beowulf himself has risen to be a ‘god cyning’, a good king, his kingdom menaced by a dragon. As he eases his creaking body into his armour we feel the deep sadness of his predicament. He knows he rides to his death, but he is determined to do so with courage. And, immolated in the dragon’s fury as he is, he meets his end not with vainglory, but with a grim determination to protect that which is good – his works, kingdom, and people. And if the dragon represents death, what more powerful image than that of old Beowulf, clutched in its jaws, stabbing his knife deep into its heart even as it kills him?
It’s classic stuff. In fact, it is the classic tale. Anyone can string pretty words or a complex plot into a more or less unified whole. Any idiot can place a thrilling sequence of events into line, and many do. But the most valuable stories are those which resonate with our deepest selves – which feel real at the most important level: the one which has nothing to do with objective detail, and everything to do with a recognition of our deepest nature and inmost struggles. Which is why I think it’s compulsory for every author or would-be author to study old myths like Beowulf, and thereby understand the root and branch of storytelling: what it is, what it’s about and, most importantly, what it’s for.