The Construction of Masculinity in Beowulf
1 Simon Thomson The construction of masculinity in Beowulf: h? le? under heofenum or seler? denne? As it opens, Beowulf appears to leap confidently, taking audience with narrator into the shared world of story with wit and certainty: Hw? t! We gardena in geardagum (l. 1) Listen! We of the Spear Danes in the past days… 1 Immediately, however, this certainty becomes qualified: we are not part of an admiring audience to the glittering past, and have not heard of the gardena themselves but “hu ? a… ellen fremedon” (l. 2 ‘how they… displayed courage’). Once the poet drills down into the common xperience, it becomes complex and difficult to grasp: a network of subtly shifting relationships. The closing lines, with their opaque eulogy, perform a very similar function by simply listing – not even what the poet thinks – but the words that his followers cw? don (l. 3182 ‘spoke’) about their king. As an audience, we are persistently at a distance, never permitted to fully connect with characters and action, never part of what’s taking place, but always watching and reflecting upon it. The poet never shares an experience with us again: from line 1 onwards, the formula is always “ic gefr? gn” (‘I have heard’).
This does not make the narrative world irrelevant to us. As Scyld Scefing’s body floats away, covered in gold, from his adoptive homeland, the poet’s shift from past to present forces upon us that, now as then, 1 Unless otherwise stated, quotations from Beowulf are from Kiernan’s Electronic Beowulf 2. 0, including his line numbers. I have removed punctuation showing questionable MS readings, and where it may be unclear inserted | to show line breaks. Translations are my own, but with reference to Bradley (2000) and others where explicitly noted. 1 men ne cunnon secgan to so? e seler? denne, h? le? under heofenum, hwa hl? ste onfeng. (ll. 50b-52) Men – hall counsellors or heroes beneath heaven – cannot know, or say for certain, how that cargo was received. As when the Geats arrive in Denmark, when Grendel bursts into Heorot, when Beowulf wrestles in the lake, or when he is broken by the dragon, the audience are standing back, watching, incapable of participation. 2 Lack of certainty seems to have been resonant with the poet or his audience: here placed emphatically at the end of the first (unnumbered) fitt, and recurrent through the text, even to the very end where Beowulf “seolfa ne cu? e” (l. 3069b ‘himself did not know’) how he would die.
It features, too, in Exodus, where God Himself points out that men with all their wisdom “rim ne cunnon” (l. 436b ‘cannot know the number [of the descendants of Abraham]’). 3 The figures, narrator, and audience of Beowulf are all experiencing an unstable and complex world, in which common points of identification are rare and valuable. One of the few aspects of this world that has appeared to be in no doubt since Tolkien’s seminal 1936 lecture is the importance and significance of male identity within it. For Tolkien himself, a man who fought at the Somme, the central figure’s masculinity “is sufficient tragedy” to explain he ‘meaning’ of the hero, and Earl sees this theme pervading the whole 2 Passive observance (of atrocity) is connected by Wulfstan with shame in his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, where he pictures a man “on loaca? ” (l. 118 ‘looking on’) as women are raped, and connects this with a loss of pride; this bears worthy comparison with Beowulf’s powerless watching of Grendel, and the emasculated warriors at the mere. In stark contrast, feminist criticism usually argues that “the gaze functions to define the masculine subject by objectifying others and arrogating to itself the power of looking” Lochrie (1994) p. – commenting on Judith ll. 46-54. 3 All references to poems other than Beowulf are to the relevant volume of Krapp and Dobbie’s Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and are given by poem title and line number. Translations are my own, with reference to Bradley (2000). 1 text, calling it “distinctly a masculine poem”. 4 More recently, the centrality of male experience to the poem has invited comment on the marginalisation – or otherwise – of female experience; this despite the fairly general acknowledgement that “the poem’s alternation between combative exploits and manly mead-hall camaraderie offers little space or women”. 5 The assumption of stark gendered opposition persists: at a recent conference, Gillian Overing spoke approvingly of a student made film of the text which saw the eponymous figure moving from “cold masculinity” before dissolving into “self-loathing, delicate femininity”. 6 Interest in male identity as gendered (rather than merely being Other to the female) has been minimal – so much so that in Bjork and Niles’ 1996 A Beowulf Handbook , the Gender studies chapter is focused on female roles offered in the world of the poem, only considering masculinity when it “overlaps” with femininity. This enables some fairly broad and, I would suggest, unacceptable generalisations to be made about men and their gendered experience – unquestioned assumption, for instance, of “masculine fantasies of rape and violence”. 8 It is indeed strange that so little attention has been paid to this aspect of Beowulf and literature in general;9 the tide may now be turning, however, and – fittingly for this supremely anxious, uncertain poem – “‘anxiety’ has been the watchword in men’s studies”. 10 This anxious world has been characterized, in a study of male conversation, by very little “self-disclosure”, few “female protagonists or Tolkien (1936) p. 18 & Earl (1994) p. 39. Also Cf Klaeber (1950) p. xxix and Hanning (1974) p. 99. 5 Morey (1996) p. 486 6 At KCL’s ‘Locating Gender’ conference, during the ‘Archaeologies of Medievalism’ roundtable discussion (January 2009). Sadly, I have been unable to locate the film on youtube. 7 Hennessey Olsen (1996) p. 324, and throughout. Cf Bennett (1994) p. 44: “we speak of feminist criticism but have no widely accepted equivalent to name the inescapable genderedness of the masculine perspective” . 8 Lochrie (1994) p. 14. This is symptomatic of wider cultural assumptions: consider the hinking underlying the statement that Myra Hindley et al “have come to embody a violent sexuality that is more appropriate to the male than the female” (Warner (1998) p. 384). 9 See also Lees (2006) p. 417 and Coates (2003) p. 3 10 Davis (2007) p. 6 1 even female characters”, and “a great deal of attention to detail… the detailed naming of objects”. 11 Overall, Coates’ data suggest that “the dominant values of masculinity [are] emotional restraint, ambition, achievement, and competitiveness”. 12 Unsurprisingly, this could be a description of conversations in Heorot and Geatland as reported by the oet. There is no space to examine the issue here, but I would go so far as to suggest that the Nowell codex itself is primarily motivated by the consideration of the performance of masculinity in a range of challenging circumstances. This explains some of the clearly identifiable ideologies at play when, for instance, the author of the Letter from Alexander can be seen “expanding his Latin source in a way which tends to shift the focus onto Alexander himself”, 13 and does not require Orchard’s slightly contorted construction of Holofernes as monstrous. 14 As I hope to emonstrate, such a focus exposes tensions that go undetected if masculinity is assumed to be an amorphous dominant whole rather than a delicate, problematic structure: “kings are more complex than monsters”. 15 The manuscript’s presentation and consideration of different forms of male identity could have informed Connell’s conception of masculine identity as a sequence of careful negotiations between varying ‘masculinities’, dominated by his useful notion of ‘hegemonic masculinity’: the male identity, collectively sustained by all in a culture, within which all who wish to be considered masculine must identify themselves. 6 This conception offers a picture of gender construction closer to a Venn diagram than the continuum onto which it is usually pinned, and it is the role of a hero to provide the hegemonic touchstone with which all of the 11 Coates (2003) pp. 44 & 45. She examines conversations between white, usually quite well off, heterosexual men already in friendship groups recorded voluntarily early in the 21st century. 12 Ibid p. 65 13 Orchard (2003) p. 25 14 In Orchard (1995), where he is attempting to demonstrate the teratological unity of the codex. 15 North (2006) p. 18 16 Connell (1995) throughout, esp. pp. 7, 77-78 1 variant masculinities can identify: “to give his audience new strength and a model”. 17 This role is made explicit in Exodus: Cu? e ? ghwilc m? gburga riht, swa him Moises bead eorla elo. (Exodus ll. 351b-353a) Each of them knew the proper place of the tribes, as Moses had told them the men’s lineage. Groupings and status come from the men within families, who knew who they were because a central male figure told them their genealogical origin. This creates the powerful army of the Israelites: a people who, knowing what they are and connected by a heroic leader, overcome the Egyptians.
More historically (and geographically) proximate, Charlemagne became the key heroic figure of the Frankish empire, recreated by successive generations “in the way most useful to them” – providing a dynasty with a similar focal point. 18 Texts which create central male figures “all invest in the moral orthodoxies of their age… engaging with cultural ideals of masculinity”, and those male figures are required to enable the identification of all participants in the culture with the hegemonic masculinity they need to perform. 19 Anglo-Saxon society had a range of methods of crafting this identification, nd, as with the opening of Beowulf, most collective identities are found in stories of the past. Nicholas Howe makes a compelling argument for this basic need as lying behind the Old English Exodus, and I have argued that the Junius 11 manuscript may have been constructed around the C? dmon story – itself both a combination of Germanic and Christian elements, and 17 Quoted in Frank (1982) p. 181, who cites Bloomfield (1966) in a Speculum 41 article. I have been unable to track this essay. 18 Wallace-Hadrill (1971) p. 129. I have argued elsewhere that this example also shaped the Alfredian construction of kingship (Thomson 2008). 9 Davis (2007) p. 11. She is writing on later medieval literature. 1 a conscious celebration of this commingling. 20 Particularly in a culture where narratives are physically received by a collective audience, “res gestae keep alive the social group’s sense of identity and of the values it shares across tribal boundaries”:21 narrative poems provide the closest we are ever likely to approach to the “friendly talk” of the Anglo-Saxon male – the kind of conversation (in Coates’ survey) obsessively concerned with a “reassertion of the norms of masculine identity”. 22 Guthlac A is usually read as encouraging “a clerical audience… o consider themselves able to emulate the manly and heroic attributes of the traditional Anglo-Saxon hero”;23 the period’s masculine norms are deeply encoded in the language and expectations of Germanic heroism, even for those – like clerics – whose lives are very different from the original subjects of such language. We know, too, that this heroic form of masculinity was not only accessible and attractive when (as in the lives of Guthlac) adapted to describe a way of life directly related to that of its audience: Alcuin’s famous letter to Lindisfarne, enquiring aggressively “quid Hinieldus cum Christo? (‘What does Ingeld have to do with Christ? ’) tells us that there were at least some monks who enjoyed hearing tales of this aggressive adventurer, and presumably found that he had something to do with their lives if not with Christ’s. 24 Those, then, who suggest that because Beowulf’s “hero and the other major figures in the poem are at the apex of their social world”,25 it can only provide a model for their social equivalents rather than for all are missing the whole intention of heroic narrative: that “the hero is an ideal type against whom men can measure their behaviour”. 26 Heroic narrative eflects contemporary concerns, and so stories about a shared past are often particularly useful at times of social change: they can “inaugurate a 20 Howe (1990) throughout; see especially p. 6, & Thomson (2007). 21 Hanning (1974) p. 78. See also Earl (1994) p. 122, who is explicit on the key importance of the heroic figure at the centre of such narratives. 22 Coates (2003) p. 41 23 Damon (2003) p. 146 24 The question is in the context of public readings at the monastery to which ‘Speratus’ belongs. Dummler (1895) p. 183. Translations from Latin are my own, sometimes with reference to Swanton (1975) 25 Hill (1990) p. 638 6 Earl (1994) p. 45; see also pp. 122 & 34. See Lees (2006) pp. 429 for the opposing view. 1 new time, institute a new charter, establish a new faith”. 27 In periods of uncertainty, they offer a focus which we have all gefrunon and through whom all men can connect with one another. However, while the text’s preoccupation with men and maleness is evident, the poet refuses to find or offer straightforward answers or structures: as the opening suggests, hard certainty is readily obscured by shifting perspective and events. This principle is supported by poetic variation. As Beowulf and his companions arrive in Demark, for instance, hey are successively beornas (211), secgas (213), guman (215), weras (216), li? ende (221), and Wedera leode (225). These different terms for ‘men’ may have resonances and connotations now murky,28 but certainly the last two nouns match immediate action – in these instances, the small company of Geats travelling across the ocean, and arriving in a foreign land (and so identified by their social origin). Similarly, the coastguard is weard Scildinga (229) when watching the ocean, and becomes ? egn Hro? gares (235) when he rides to challenge them on his lord’s behalf: what he does is who he is. The poet sees men “only from the outside”, 29 efined by their actions and the contexts in which those actions occur: “men’s sense of who they are has strong links with the public sphere”, and gender is “defined entirely on performance”. 30 That is, masculine identity is not stable, it cannot be permanently attained, it is always to be observed and hence debated publicly, and it has little to do with an individual’s intrinsic nature – its sole stability, in fact, is the thread that ties it to immediate circumstance. 27 Warner (1998) p. 97, who goes on to argue that this necessitates monsters to be defeated as part of this pattern, and cites Beowulf and Grendel as one such example.
This is precisely how Damon argues Guthlac functions for Felix, his Latin biographer, (2003) p. 90 28 See Thacker (1981) for a fine survey through the period. 29 Clark (1996) p. 275, referring specifically to Beowulf himself. Compare Powell (1994) p. 104 on Alfredian society in which men are “defined by function”. 30 Coates (2003), who found that “male narrators’ preference for settings outside the home” was overwhelming, with stories in conversation set at home by only 20% of men and 53% of women in her survey, p. 117 & Pollack (2006) p. 650 1 In Old English, the past shapes the present. Nothing epitomises this so learly as the interest in genealogical lists: they are “the linear matrix along which could be coordinated the disparate traditions important to the [West-Saxon] culture”. 31 It seems clear that kings, and probably by extension most high-born – indeed perhaps all – people perceived their circumstances as not only linked with, but as an aspect of, what has already taken place. 32 In Beowulf, this is particularly true of men. Women – Healfdene’s unnamed daughter; Wealhtheow, of whose origin much has been speculated; Freawaru whose name isn’t even mentioned by the poet; Hygd, whose identity is generated by her mother- and wife-hood ather than her past – seem not to be required to fit into this matrix. Even Grendel’s Mother has less genealogy than her son. Some may find this a form of misogyny, but of course it is simply an allocation of a different kind: being either included or excluded from a matrix is a form of cultural tyranny over the individual based on gender, from which neither male nor female is free. For a man, for instance, “it does not follow… that a man is necessarily a good warrior simply because he is born a noble… the ostensible privilege of high birth could thus be a ruthless tyranny of societal expectations”. 33
Like women, monsters have a shadowy history. Of Grendel, Hrothgar explains (in another instance of the ‘unknowing’ of the poem) that his “foldbuende no hie f? der cunnon” (l. 1357 ‘people dwelling in the land do not know his father’); even having faced and defeated the monster Beowulf calls him uncu? es (l. 959 ‘unknown’). The dragon, similarly, appears to have no firm parentage, simply appearing on the hidden treasure. Notably, Beowulf attempts to provide the dragon with a history, and to relate it to his own actions: once it has been placed, given context, it is comprehensible and perhaps controllable. 4 In a parallel effort to make himself ‘known’, in Denmark Beowulf repeatedly identifies himself 31 Davis (1992) p. 35, and Cf Wallace-Hadrill (1975) p. 211 who suggests that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles served a similar purpose. 32 Davis (1992) illustrates this clearly, his figure 1 showing the ruler of a nation at its centre and connecting directly with the folc ancestor. 33 van Meter (1996) p. 185-6 34 He assumes that the dragon is sent by God in reaction to his own unspecified violation of “ealde riht” (l. 2331 ‘ancient law’). This assumption is nowhere supported by the poet. 1 through his father, Ecgtheow.
This has the additional advantage of being someone ‘sponsored’ by Hrothgar: the Geat is not such a stranger to Danish shores after all. His parentage is enough to permit an appearance before the king in Heorot: it enables access to the hegemonic circle dominated by the Hrothgar’s presence. Later, as king of the Geats, Beowulf prefers to identify himself with Hygelac; he knits his own identity into the social matrix of the people with whom he dwells. A king in his own right, and still capable of mighty deeds, his identity comes from the past: and, as the poem almost obsessively shows, past certainties are ften more reliable than present or future actions. It is not even enough to be born noble. Although Hrothgar suggests that Beowulf was simply “geboren betera” (l. 1705 ‘born better’) than others, Beowulf has to have past deeds to report to claim the right of facing Grendel. He tells Hrothgar “H? bbe ic m? r? a fela | ongunnen on geogo? e” (ll. 407-8 ‘I have undertaken many deeds in my youth’). It is on this key point that Unferth questions him, and it is probably the lack of these that make Beowulf’s earliest days in Geatland ‘inglorious’: he could not be a man until he had proved himself. Linked with this is Wiglaf’s emory of receiving arms from Weohstan when he ‘became a man’: 35 masculinity is about proven performance, and a man becomes the culture’s notion of male only by weaving a web of personal history. This is why it is so important for Beowulf, as his story nears its end, to offer “a resume of his career to date”:36 he is ? rgod (l. 2342 ‘good in the past’), which to modern ears sounds almost like ‘past it’ – but in Beowulf constructs the individual as masculine. Similarly, Scyld’s key success in the opening lines is to be weor? myndum (l. 8 ‘well thought of’), and the following lines (ll. 9-11), beginning o t (‘until’) may imply that as a result of this the surrounding tribes paid him tribute. That is, once he had proved his prowess, he did not need to enforce it. The same principle seems to apply to friendship: if a leader proves himself when young, then 35 Wiglaf was given his weapons once he was able “eorlscipe efnan” (l. 2623 ‘to perform manliness’). 36 Orchard (2003) p. 260 1 “on ylde eft gewunigen | wilgesi? as” (ll. 22-3 ‘when old, willing companions will again remain with [him]’). There is no such thing as potential in the poem: a man is capable of something because he has already done it.
If he hasn’t, he is not justified in claiming that he can. 37 There is, of course, a contradiction inherent in this, like the agony of seeking one’s first job when all adverts demand experience, which Beowulf’s society may have addressed through sponsorship and ritualised rites of passage. The achievement of deeds, then, is key to constructing oneself as a masculine subject. This comes broadly under what might be termed ‘heroic’ action in the most traditional and sweeping sense: physical action, usually combative. For all of the kings represented in the text, it is this martial, ‘hypermasculine’, prowess which holds the key to their ascent nd power. The extraordinary sequence of lines 2355b-2391 (most of fitt 33) recounts Hygelac’s death and Beowulf’s flight from it; his support for Heardred’s short reign and death as a result of supporting Eadgils and Eanmund against Onela; and Beowulf’s eventual ascent to the throne. Throughout this, and as the narrative is resumed with Beowulf’s ellenweorca (l. 2400 ‘deeds of courage’) in continued support of Eadgils, all deaths in battle are – as Tacitus would have expected – attributed to the nation’s king and, although all of this death and destruction brings about “cealdum cearsi? um” (l. 397 ‘cold sorrowful journeys’), entirely praiseworthy. 38 Indeed, his “ t w? s god cyning” (l. 2391b ‘that was a good king’) which concludes the section could refer to any of the kings mentioned, with the possible addition of Ongentheow. The text as a whole has been read as praising violent behaviour. 39 It is the immediate present of a deed which is admirable, and its future possible consequence does not figure. This is not an ever-present in Anglo-Saxon literature – Cynewulfian poetry often attacks it. In Juliana, for instance, showing 37 Perhaps this is why Beowulf will “gylp ofersitte” (l. 529 ‘abstain from boasts’) against the dragon, although this remains obscure. 38 Tacitus chapter 14, p. 113 in Mattingly (1970) 39 Most comprehensively by Earl (1992), who reads the poem as celebrating and coming to terms with the passing of this kind of heroism and the society it represents. 1 active strength by being a hildfruma (l. 7 ‘war-chief’) is directly connected with the h en (l. 7 ‘heathen’): those who demonstrate it are often “despicable men”. 40 There is no such concern in Beowulf: the hero’s first appearances in his poem are marked out with precisely this capacity: “se w? s moncynnes m? genes strengest” (ll. 96 ‘he was the strongest of mankind’). This would seem to be similar to the quality identified by the coastguard, who observes: n? fre ic maran geseah eorla ofer eor? an ? onne is eower sum (ll. 247b-249) I have never seen a greater(? ) man on the earth than is one of you. As a comparative of general quality rather than a specific attribute, maran is difficult to translate here. Given, though, that the coastguard has decided this simply from looking at the man, it has generally made sense to translators to see Beowulf as a larger man than those who accompany him – to be physically ‘greater’. The coastguard may be ware of the same issue that Beowulf identifies before his voyage: Hrothgar is “manna ? earf” (l. 201 ‘in need of men’). The implication is that among the Danes there are no ‘men’; or at least not any with the physical prowess needed by the immediate situation. Beowulf’s focus is shown by his selection of companions: cempan gecorone, ara ? e he cenoste findan mihte (l. 206-7a) 40 Schneider (1978) p. 112 1 he selected champions, the best he could find. Cempan seems to connote physical prowess: the fighting skills which Beowulf assumes this situation demands. 41 Indeed, Hrothgar himself says that he is unable to “snyttrum besyrwan” (l. 41 ‘contrive the wisdom’) to defeat Grendel: this opponent, like the Swedes later in the poem, requires force. It is a quality, of course, which Beowulf holds in abundance: during the fight with Grendel, the poet echoes his own initial character portrayal, telling us that heold hine f? ste, se ? e manna w? s m? gene strengest (ll. 787b-8) he who was the strongest man [Beowulf] held him fast. There is something inhuman and inevitable about Beowulf here: it is Grendel who is humanised in terror and pain. Before fighting the dragon, the poet explains r he ? y fyrste forman dogore wealdan moste, swa him wyrd ne gescraf ret hild (ll. 2574-76a) that day he had to wield it [either his weapons or body] for the first time, as fate had not allotted him glory in battle. This occasion aside, when fighting Beowulf is an agent of inevitable fate rather than an individual. His wrestling skills could provide a metaphor for the brutal, crushing and unstoppable force that he is capable of being. It is fitting, then, that after destroying Grendel’s Mother, Beowulf is “helm 7 41 DOEC gives numerous examples of it being used to gloss milites and gladiatores. 1 byrne | lungre alysed” (ll. 1631b-32a ‘swiftly unloosed from his helmet and ail’). In a reversal of the Homeric trope of arming for battle, he is released (probably by his men) from the costume of war and the military role it constructs. He is able to become what is necessary for combat: but is also able to step away from it. This is critical in his masculine formation, because Beowulf, despite his h? le? appearance and most famous actions, reveres the men who act as r? dende. 42 His admiration is clearly marked when the young hero tells Hrothgar of his earlier success: his abilities were noted by the Geatish “snotere ceorlas” (l. 415b, ‘wise men’). Perhaps with some deference to
Hrothgar himself, or even to his court which must consist primarily of men of words rather than of action, Beowulf uses the first half of the line about these counsellors to introduce them as “? a selestan” (l. 415a ‘the best’). This is an attitude more naturally (and also) found in the Colloquies of ?lfric, where the Monk, asked to identify the most important of his companions, asks “quomodo potest congregatio sine consiliario regi? ” (‘how could our community be directed without a counsellor? ’). 43 This role is then, for Beowulf as for ? lfric, highly significant. But the Geatish counsellors see the young man’s achievements only “? ic of searwum cwom” (l. 418 ‘when I [Beowulf] returned from battle’): they see him when he returns from battle and have no experience of it themselves. This apparently entirely passive role – waiting at home for the warrior to return – does not tally with Tacitus’ notion of Germanic heroism;44 nor is it what many critics assume. Hrothgar’s inability to fight in old age has earned him much criticism, and some have assumed that his weakness in this regard is so self evident and significant that the assertion “? at w? s god cyning” (l. 862 ‘that was a good king’) is, when used to describe him, 2 The manuscript, and Kiernan’s faithful edition, show r? denne at l. 51; where not a direct translation, I have silently corrected to r? dende. 43 Garmonsway (1978) p. 38 ll. 209-10. Garmonsway’s main text is the Anglo-Saxon gloss: “hu m? g ure gegaderungc buton ge? eahtynde beon wissod? ” 44 Conflict is Tacitus’ focus throughout, but see esp. chapters 6, 13 & 15 (pp. 106, 112, 114 in Mattingly 1970) 1 either ironic or desperately defensive. This is not consistent with how this role is regarded by the hero, the poet, or others in his culture. Event Beowulf’s initial offer of heroism is not one of force and action, but f counsel: arriving in Denmark, he asks the coastguard to “wes ? u us larena god” (l. 269 ‘give us good advice’) and offers “r? d gel? ran” (l. 278 ‘to teach advice’) in return. Puhvel argues with some force that this is “diplomatic guile”: a concealing of his true ambition lest it seem too arrogant or unlikely. 45 This is not unpersuasive, but as I have suggested above, Beowulf’s internal thought processes are largely irrelevant to how male he is. What matters is how he strikes his audience, and the coastguard is impressed – identifying Beowulf as worthy to bear arms (by implication at lines 249-50).
To fit his argument, Puhvel has to assume that the coastguard thereby – without saying so – guesses Beowulf’s bluff. It seems more reasonable to assume that giving and receiving advice is in fact an acceptable, indeed praiseworthy, masculine action: that Beowulf is demonstrating his belief in the value and heroism of Hrothgar’s court, and claiming his own capacity to work on those terms. In that court, Wealhtheow shows that she too values lar, asking Beowulf to provide it for her sons at line 1222, and, as the reward for defeating Grendel is distributed, the poet observes for? an bi? andgit ? ghw? r selest, ferh? s fore? anc (ll. 1058-59a) therefore understanding is best everywhere, forethought of mind. Beowulf has not used much fore? anc in defeating Grendel, and the remark seems strange, but the focus here is actually on Hrothgar and his wisdom expressed by distribution of treasure among the Geats – specifically the 45 Puhvel (2005) p. 3 1 treasure being offered for Hondscio’s death, “? one ? e Grendel ? r | mane acwealde” (ll. 1053b-54a ‘the one whom Grendel in his wickedness first killed’). Despite the apparent contradictions in role, the world of Beowulf requires men to be both heroic warriors and wise counsellors.
Hrothgar’s care in paying compensation for Hondscio is only one instance of his quite extraordinary generosity. His hall is typified as a place where he “beagas d? lde | sinc ? t symle” (ll. 80b-81a ‘shared out rings, riches with feasts’). Before Beowulf has even set foot there, Hrothgar has decided ic m godan sceal for his mod? r? ce madmas beodan (ll. 384b-5) I shall reward the good man for his daring, offer him treasure. The poet explicitly regards this as masculine behaviour: after the rewards have been distributed, he comments swa manlice m? re ? eoden hordweard h? le? a, hea? or? sas geald earum 7 madmum (ll. 1045-47a) So in a manly way the famous prince, guardian of heroes, paid for the storms of war with horses and treasures. It is important, though, to note that the positive attribute is not the possession of wealth. Although some archaeological investigation suggests that “conspicuous consumption” of food and equally conspicuous display of wealth were practised by Anglo-Saxon nobility, this 1 does not appear to be approved of in the world of Beowulf. 46 Indeed, Hrothgar strongly implies that it was one of Heremod’s major failings; the hypothetical proud man of his ‘sermon’ (ll. 702-87) emerges directly from recounting that failed reign, and one of his key markers is that “wuna? he on wiste” (l. 1738 ‘he dwells in luxury’). 47 Similarly, on his final (probably needless) campaign, Hygelac “sinc ealgode” (l. 1206 ‘defended treasure’). In this same segment of the narrative, focused around the amazing Brosings necklace which Hrothgar awards to Beowulf, alliteration links the very glory of the object with negative behaviour: “sigle 7 sincf? t. Searoni? as… ” (l. 1202 ‘jewelled and precious setting. Cunning enmity… ’). It is difficult to evaluate the precise impact of this bonding, and impossible o ascertain how intentionally the poet brings them together – but certainly a strongly negative note is introduced which clashes harshly with the item itself. The poet seems profoundly anxious to connect desirable objects with negative consequences (as the curse on the dragon’s treasure finally demonstrates). It is not, therefore, admirable to own anything: behaving manlice is giving it away. “ t is his weor? scipe t he swa giful is” (‘his honour is that he is generous’), as the Alfredian Boethius has it. 48 It does not even have to be treasure that’s shared: Unferth seems to acquit himself of any blame or dealing badly by Beowulf with the (intended) gift of Hrunting; returning it earns Beowulf the approbation “ t w? s modig secg” (l. 1815 ‘that was a brave man’). Beowulf is later profoundly generous with his friendship – offering freondlarum (l. 2378) to Heardred rather than seeking the throne, and being a freond to the feasceaftum (l. 2394 ‘destitute’) Eadgils, leading him to share “wigum 7 w? pnum” (l. 2396 ‘men and weapons’) in the latter’s campaign against Onela. It is even possible that a similar virtue is presented when Onela “let ? one bregostol Biowulf healdan” (l. 2390 46 Hagen (2007) p. 46 & Wells (2008) finds “the ornamental patterns and motifs that jewellers created on Dark Age fibulae… designed especially to grab and hold the viewer’s attention” p. 149 47 The marvellous image in Judith of the “eallgylden fleohnet” (l. 46-7 ‘all-golden fly-net’) around Holofernes’ bed may connote this along with much else (Chance, intriguingly, uses it to read Holofernes as “slightly effete”, 1980 p. 163). 48 Sedgefield (1899) p. 119 l. 31 1 ‘allowed Beowulf to hold the throne’). It may of course be the case that the desertion of Beowulf against the dragon demonstrates the ultimate ailure of this generosity, but that is not the same as condemning the sharing itself. Like aggressive deeds and wisdom in counsel, generosity is a masculine characteristic in the poem, regardless of its consequences. To those outside of his social matrix, however, Beowulf shows the reverse of this generosity. 49 Lying down in Heorot as Grendel approaches, the hero “bad bolgenmod” (l. 708 ‘waited enraged in mind’). He is similarly gebolgen (l. 1541 ‘enraged’) when meeting Grendel’s Mother: the poet arguably attributes Beowulf’s success in throwing “heo to flet” (l. 1542 ‘her to the floor’) to this emotion by preceding it with ? , which can mean a change in circumstances: i. e. ‘since he was enraged… she fell to the floor’. ?a is similarly used just before the dragon fight: Let ? a of breostum, a he gebolgen w? s, Weder-Geata leod word ut faran. (ll. 2551-52) Once he was enraged, the leader of the Weder-Geats released a word from his breast. Becoming gebolgen makes Beowulf ready for combat. Against Grendel’s Mother, once he is “m? r? a gemyndig” (l. 1532 ‘mindful of fame’), Beowulf becomes “yrre oretta” (l. 1534 ‘the angry warrior’). This recollects the same movement in the fight with Grendel, where, once he has “gemunde his]… fenspr? ce” (l. 757-8 ‘remembered his evening speech’), Beowulf becomes yrre, and wins the final gripping phase of their match. Later, he proudly asserts to Hygelac that Grendel could not put him inside the glof with Hondscio “sy an ic on yrre upprihte astod” (l. 2095 ‘since I in fury stood upright’). Rooted in a social context, Beowulf is able to become the 49 And see Biggs (2003), who suggests that the poet “implicates” Beowulf in the thief’s predicament (p. 66) 1 berserkr on demand. 50 Towards the poem’s conclusion, an old king, he walks to meet the dragon “twelfa sum, torne gebolgen” (l. 402 ‘as one of twelve, completely enraged’). Again, embedded in a social system, Beowulf is possessed by anger. Fury doesn’t necessitate furious action: he remains in this heightened state of mind even once Grendel’s Mother is dead, walking through the underwater hall “yrre 7 anr? d” (l. 1577 ‘angry and focused’) examining other weapons on the walls before finding and desecrating Grendel’s body. Some critics have struggled with these displays of anger. Puhvel, in a not uncharacteristic structure, starts with his reading of Beowulf as “cool and collected”, and then has to reject his gebolgen moment as “indebted to ome tradition strongly enough echoed to take supremacy over psychological realism” in order to ensure that the poet’s hero matches the critic’s. 51 Not unreasonably, Cohen claims that “the maintenance of order in a warrior society is achieved only by the repression of those impulses Grendel embodies”: Orchard offers a more nuanced version by making it clear that heroism requires the same impulses Grendel embodies, but requires them to be controlled. 52 Those arguing that the monsters’ and Beowulf’s rage are distinct have to construct “a model of self-restraints” which the hero is demonstrating for us – one which successive analysts ave failed to come to construct adequately. 53 If the poet is attempting to show that masculine rage is qualitatively different from monstrous rage, then he seems to have (for modern readers) failed. His Anglo-Saxon audience were, I would suggest, somewhat less averse to wrath. Byrhtnoth provides a clear instance of an heroic figure acting under these impulses: he is “yrre and anr? d” (l. 44 ‘angry and 50 Grettir’s mistake may be his failure to find such secure footing. 51 Puhvel (2005) p. 25 & p. 26 52 Cohen (2006) p. 371. In an instance of breathtaking poetic daring, Beowulf is a “w? lreow wiga” (l. 27 ‘warrior fierce in slaughter’) when receiving the cup from Wealhtheow. Social bonding and berserkr rage are not incompatible in this world. 53 Wymer & Labbie (2004), who are also interesting on the berserkr attributes of Beowulf, which there is no space to revisit here, and see John Niles, Rewriting Beowulf: The Task of Translation, College English 55, 1993, 858-878 to which (among others) they refer. 1 single-minded’) and gegremod (l. 138 ‘enraged’) in a highly positive and productive manner. 54 Men must, it seems, be capable of this rage, because “gu? sceal in eorle,| wig geweaxan” (ll. 83-4 ‘in the man, martial arlike arts must grow’). 55 Three hundred years before the battle of Maldon, peace is persistently disparaged by Bede who, for instance, admires Trajan who “nobiliter ampliatum” (‘nobly expanded’) the empire in 4069. 56 It is only in some intensely Christian pieces – sermon texts – that rage is implicitly or explicitly condemned, such as Blickling Homily 16 where rich Garganus is forbealh (‘enraged’), takes rash action against an independent minded (divinely inspired) bull, and is killed by his own arrow. 57 Wulfstan’s attack on “mistlice entas 7 strece woruldmen” (‘various giants and violent men of the earth’) seems borne out of the ame mindset. 58 Guthlac moves explicitly from pagan wrath to Christian peace when the young soldier, having won a series of victories against his oppressors, returns a third of all he had won because “mid gastlicre lufan his heorte innan gefylled” (‘his heart within was filled with spiritual love’). 59 Less earnestly Christian pieces, however, do not share this impulse: led by their heroine into battle, the Israelites of Judith are yrre (l. 225 ‘enraged’) as they mercilessly slaughter the Assyrians. There is a possible distinction between expectations in poetry and prose to be xplored here – but it is certainly clear that (for Anglo-Saxon poets as for modern critics) it is those who wish to quell rage that have to argue their case more strongly: to be bolgenmod is a positive quality in Beowulf and elsewhere. In stark contrast to a warrior’s aggression, the poem’s masculinity includes a passive acceptance of the inevitability of death. It is worth briefly pausing to note that this does not seem to apply to women. As 54 In the Battle of Maldon. This depiction may, of course, have been influenced by Beowulf: but this does not diminish the evidence of an audience cognizant with an appropriate and masculine rage. 5 Maxims I 56 According to the Greater Chronicle’s entry for 4069, Jones (1977) p. 500 l. 1120 57 Morris (1880) p. 199 58 In his Sermon on false gods, Bethurum (1957) p. 222 l. 37 59 Goodwin (1848) p. 14 1 implied above, I do not think that the poet opposes the genders, but the female lot is usually to stay behind, to mourn, to endure – while the men die: death is the “collapse of linear time… [whereas] women’s time… is cyclical and non-linear”. 60 There is no space here to explore why this might be: the fact remains that Beowulf, and Beowulf, are deeply accepting of death – they inhabit “a warrior society… eath-possessed”, and the only female figure who dies is the monstrous Grendel’s Mother (who has arguably entered the masculine world through her decision to engage in a feud). 61 Men in the poem have to die. During Beowulf’s fight with the “ides agl? cwif” (l. 1261 ‘monstrous woman’), immediately before the yrre which enables him to throw her down, his acceptance of this is explicit: “na ymb his lif ceara? ” (l. 1538 ‘he did not care about his life’). Understanding, and accepting, one’s masculine role as including death is so critical that Hrothgar’s ‘sermon’ is rudely interrupted by a fitt division, llowing the 27th section to open with a vision of the disasters caused when oferhygda (l. 1743 ‘arrogance’) grows inside a man. The danger, elaborated for 27 lines, is of forgetting that “? ec, dryhtguma, dea? oferswy? e? ” (l. 1771 ‘you, man, will be overpowered by death’). Dryhtguma is an unusual compound – bringing together two words meaning, more or less, ‘man’,62 and enabling Hrothgar to hammer his point home: masculinity includes death. By the time he meets the dragon, Beowulf’s internalisation of this concept is absolute: sat on the headland, he is “w? fre 7 w? lfus” (l. 2421 ‘restless and eager for death’) – nd it is this which inspires him to tell the tale of his life as he sees it. 63 His fus here could be connected with the boat awaiting Scyld’s body in that remarkable opening: it stands “isig 7 utfus” (l. 33 ‘icy and eager for the journey’). Like the hl? st it is to bear, its destination is unknown, but the journey is yearned for. The image is almost oxymoronic – icebound but thrilled; frozen but ready for action – emphasizing the not entirely 60 Bennett (1994) p. 52 61 Puhvel (2005) p. 42, and see Chance (1980) p. 156 on Grendel’s Mother. 62 The only other instances cited by DOEC are where it is used to gloss paranymphus very roughly, ‘best man’), with all that role connotes. 63 It is worth noting that “much of Beowulf’s thoughtful discourse throughout the poem revolves in vivid detail around death”, Puhvel (2005) p. 21 1 natural point: death is not something to be feared, or even shunned, but embraced. In fact, the hero’s final words are of the kinsmen who have died before him: “ic him ? fter sceal” (l. 2817 ‘I shall follow them’). 64 Fully united with his society, with the other men whom he has known and emulated, he is ready and eager for death. Some twentieth century editors, perhaps too acquainted with death on a cale only achieved by modern society, have found this fus so conflicting with their vision of heroism that they have inserted an entire word into the manuscript: at line 2590, the text states that Beowulf will die “sceolde willan” (‘as he should wish’). As with Hrothgar earlier, the poet is so focused on this point that he expands it: the hero must die and “swa sceal ?ghwylc mon | al? tan l? ndagas” (ll. 2591-2 ‘so shall every man abandon his loaned-days’). Klaeber, followed by Dobbie, Swanton, Jack, and the most recent revision of Fulk, Bjork and Niles, inserts ofer, making this take place “ofer willan” (‘against the will’) of Beowulf.
It is, though, abundantly clear that being deathbound is no bad thing in Beowulf: as in the prose life of Guthlac, it falls to the ideal man to explain that “of ? isum lichaman sceal beon se gast al? ded” (‘the spirit must be taken from this body’) and to comfort their mourning companions (respectively Wiglaf and Beccel). 65 Death is, indeed, a fulfilment of masculinity: as his father’s mourning rends the heart, the hanging son “? urh dea? es nyd d? da gefondad” (l. 2455 ‘through the compulsion of death finished his deeds’). 66 Hrethel’s sense of desolation at his son’s death, which inspires Beowulf to the imile, at the end of fitt 34, closely parallels that felt by the Geatish nation at Beowulf’s death two generations and three kings later. This would suggest that the overwhelming majority of commentators who find the Geatish nation condemned by their king’s death, and the heroic system “unworkable” and failed, are not reading consistently with the rest of the 64 Cf the convention expressed in The death of Edgar, where the king “ceas him o? er leoht” (l. 2 ‘chose the other light’ – i. e. decided to die). 65 Goodwin (1848) p. 80; the comforting is on p. 82. 66 Compare death as neidf? rae (l. 1 ‘necessary journey’) in Bede’s death song. poem. 67 Heroism and the society it supports is not undermined by death, but completed by it. I have outlined above some (and by no means all) of the traits which seem to me to be presented as aspects of ideal masculinity in Beowulf, all of which are symptomatic of Beowulf’s actions and speaking. 68 It should be apparent that a number of them place very different demands on an individual. This tension has enabled critics from Tolkien in 1936 to Dockray-Miller in 2006 to plot the poem along lines of diametric opposites – the former finding “a balance; an opposition between two halves”, and the latter “oppositional absolutes”. 9 This reading, and particularly the presentation of them as “self-destructive contradictions”, is not, I think, an accurate reflection of what men are asked to achieve, nor is it terribly useful: “a binary opposition… cannot be productive”. 70 Men do not tread a delicate balance, mediating between different binaries and seeking moderation in all – but adjust behaviour, self presentation, conversation – sometimes quite radically. Like the language of the poem, with its predilection for compounds, masculinity brings different attributes together and requires them to be performed as independent roles by the same figure. 1 Strangely, there is a general tendency to reject this complexity and flatten out any distinction between the masculine roles represented by Scyld’s mourning retainers, the h? le? under heofenum and seler? dende. Bradley qualifies “those men who dispense wisdom” with “worthies here below the heavens”; Heaney also represents h? le? as aged and 67 Clark (2006) p. 621 68 I have not considered fatherhood, regarded by both the poet and Beowulf as highly significant (see e. g. ll. 12-14a & 2730-34b respectively). As well as being a highly complex issue which could not be reasonably represented here, I am not convinced that his is intrinsic to masculinity, rather than specific to the royal role chosen by the poet to represent the achievements of ideal masculinity. See also Biggs (2003) and Dockray-Miller (2006). 69 Tolkien (1936) p. 31 on the poetic lines & Dockray-Miller (2006) p. 461 on masculine identity. 70 Earl (1994) p. 186 & Pollack (2006) p. 646. He is specifically focused on the pagan / Christian dichotomy in Beowulf. 71 O’Brien O’Keeffe (1997) pp. 92-3 demonstrates the density of compounds, second only to Exodus in the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. 1 respectable, translating them to a single “weathered veteran”; Kevin
Crossley-Holland prefers his men to have high social status, as “mighty men” and “rulers”. 72 This elision of quite a sharp contrast offers at best a clumsy reading. The twin roles open up the poem’s vision of masculine identity, which is based on not who but where they are. Scyld’s mourning retainers may, after all, be both h? le? and r? denda: one when under heofenum, and the other when in sele. One of the many hapax legomena in the poem is seldguma, at l. 249b. 73 It is used by the coastguard, who observes (of Beowulf) “Nis t seldguma, | w? pnum geweor? ad” (‘that is not a hall-man adorned with weapons’).
A man whose capacity lies in the hall is not suited to fighting weapons, but it is certainly not necessary – not explicit nor clearly implied by the context – that it would be shameful or even of lower status to be this kind of man: Swanton’s translation of ‘mere serving-man’ assumes too much, unless one brings to the poem the idea that it is shameful to be capable of behaving manlice in one context only. The author of the Anglo-Saxon Boethius sagely observes for m ne m? g nan mon habban gelic lof on ? lcum londe, for ? on ? e on ? lcum londe ne lica t on o? rum lica. For ?y sceolde ? lc mon bion on m wel gehealden he on his agnum earde licode no man may have similar fame in each land, because in each land the same things do not please what pleases in others. Therefore each man should be pleased that he is well held in his own land. 74 Beowulf constantly makes this kind of qualification for even its most heroic figures. Sigemund is 72 Bradley (2000), Heaney (2002) & Crossley-Holland (1973). Swanton (1997), by contrast, goes so far the other way as to insert a “nor” between the two noun phrases. 73 From Hill (1990) p. 637, and cited as such by the DOEC. 74 Sedgefield (1899) p. 43 ll. 25-27 1 wreccena wide m? rost ofer wer? ode, wigendra hleo, ellend? dum (ll. 897-9a) … of exiles the most widely known among nations, the warriors’ protector, for his deeds of courage. To modern ears, this doesn’t sound like very high praise, and may even undermine Sigemund’s achievements. For the poet, though, it seems more likely that the qualifications provide the contextual precision necessary to understanding Sigemund’s identity. The same is true of his assessments of Beowulf: in both instances used above where he is called m? genes strengest, the poet immediately qualifies “on m d? ge ?ysses lifes” (l. 197 & l. 789 ‘in that day of this life’).
Similarly, before he is named in his first appearance, he is noted as “god mid Geatum” (l. 195 ‘a good man among the Geats’). When, therefore, the poet announces that Lofd? dum sceal in m? g? a gehw? re man ge? eon (ll. 24b-25) In every nation, praiseworthy deeds shall win men honour its universality is strictly controlled by its truism: each nation will honour those who do what is, there, found praiseworthy. This is significantly complicated in the poem, at least partly because of the clash of m? g? a – Danish, Geatish, Swedish (and English), as well as the orcneas. The monsters are, in fact, to be considered as m a in their own right. There is no doubt that they are dangerous to humans, and profoundly opposed to the context of the poet, his characters, and his audience. But condemnation of them or their actions is carefully and strictly limited to 1 the moments when they enter human contexts. The first name Grendel is given in the text is elleng? st (l. 86 ‘mighty stranger’). Deeds of ellen are precisely what we are given at the outset of the poem (l. 2) as our shared heritage, and they are unequivocally impressive. Grendel’s abilities and way of life are not condemned – but his g? stlic interaction with humanity is.
There is nothing wrong with Grendel in the context of the fens and marshes which he rules. The moment he enters Heorot – built up to so dramatically, and described with breathtaking brutality – is when he becomes absolutely negative, intent upon destroying the “sibbegedriht samod ? tg? dere” (l. 728 ‘family-company gathered together’). Others – notably Orchard – have traced the tight parallels between him and Beowulf, which includes many of the traits proposed above as masculine (he is bolgen at l. 723, for instance – precisely how one should be before fighting). Grendel’s Mother’s role as a hall-guardian and Beowulf’s actions s an invader are also fully described by him. 75 The dragon, too, exists in a context which is Other to Beowulf, yet within itself consistent and acceptable: the poet’s ventriloquism enables him to speak with a gnomic voice when introducing the wyrm, introducing it with “he gesecean sceall… ” (l. 2276 ‘he must seek… ’). This places focus on the nature of the dragon: it is what it is, and not to be condemned. The poet seems intent on driving this home, paralleling the dragon’s experience with the humans’ by using phrases such as “feondes fotlast” (l. 2290 ‘enemy’s footprints’) and “dyrnan cr? fte” (l. 2291 ‘secret crafts’) of the escaped lave who is as much of an invader and destroyer as Grendel is to Heorot. Similarly, the dragon is a holdweard, has been treated sare, and even experiences hat pain in a manner similar to the great men of whom we hear. It becomes la? a only when determined to use fire against men at lines 2306 and 2316. I am not suggesting that the poet feels that the monsters should be somehow protected or reformed by the men in the poem, but that his notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are derived entirely from the context in 75 Orchard (1995) pp. 33-4 1 which behaviour occurs, and are intrinsic to neither individuals nor behaviours.
Beowulf slaying his nine sea monsters “gedefe w? s” (l. 561 ‘was appropriate’): when contexts clash, the conflict must be resolved. But it is the foreignness of Grendel and the others which makes them enemies to man, and not anything more profound: he “wi? rihte wan” only because he is the “ana wi? eallum” (l. 144-45 ‘fought against right, the one against all’); “the ‘conditions’ that pushed a person into another status… worked not so much at the level of the body, but at the level of social relations”. 76 Riddle 14 shows an awareness of the same contextually defined role, balancing between the natural world, the heroic all, and even thieving: as with all of the riddles, the game is to resolve different contexts, unsettlingly opposed to one another through linguistic register and vocabulary. 77 Where one’s behaviour is so strongly coded by context, it is critically important to remain strongly aware of and connected with that context. Beowulf is full of reminders of the social rituals which bind men together, not least among which are the telling of stories such as the poem itself, closely paralleled by the narratives of Sigemund, Hygelac, and Beowulf told by different speakers inside the poem’s world. Common heritage – nowledge of the past – binds men together, as the poem’s opening words enact. The threat is withdrawal from masculine contexts: the removal of self from the social matrix which it is every man’s responsibility to participate in and maintain. In all Anglo-Saxon literature, this withdrawal is closely connected with misery. Unhappiness so profound as to be properly understood as depression is almost endemic in the period, and is usually read as the cause and not the consequence of difficult situations, as when the relationship with Hagar emerges out of Abraham’s misery in Genesis. 78 Resignation says that 6 Clover (2006) p. 397. She is discussing gender roles in medieval Iceland; the principle, however, holds firm. 77 Consider also Riddle 5, which displays a characteristically vibrant willingness to flirt with the danger of clashing contexts, offering solutions of either a chopping board or a shield. 78 Anzelark (2000) p. 197 1 ne m? g s anhoga, leodwynna leas, leng drohtian, wineleas wr? cca, (is him wr meotud), gnorna? on his geogu? e, ond him ? lce m? le men fullesta? , yca? his yrm? u, ond he t eal ? ola? , sarcwide secga, ond him bi? a sefa geomor, mod morgenseoc. (ll. 89b-96a) or can a man on his own, deprived of the pleasures of community, a friendless exile, carry on much longer (the ordaining Lord angry with him); in his youth he grieves and at every season people patronise him and increase his poverty. He suffers all of this, men’s mockery, with his mind always mournful, his heart sick at the break of day. The manner of description here could be paralleled in any number of other texts (and a study of clinical depression in the literature would be fascinating). But what is of such interest here is that, unlike the elegies which “imagine a prehistory during which the subject could feel at home n his own body, at home in the world”, Resignation confronts the causes of the experience of exile. 79 The male figure here, even when he was in society, was profoundly unhappy and, like Heremod, the actions placing him outside society’s limits follow his misery and not the other way around. Depression is so dangerous because it pulls a man away from his context and immerses him in self. A man with no context is no man at all. Beowulf tells Hrothgar not to mourn for the passing of ? schere: selre bighw? m 79 Cohen (2006) p. 351, specifically commenting on The Wanderer. 1 t he his freond wrece ? nne he fela murne (ll. 1386b-87) it is better for anyone to avenge his friend, rather than to mourn greatly. This seems harsh – ? schere has been a close companion of Hrothgar’s since his youth. But mourning and its attendant inaction leads to withdrawal, whereas action sustains engagement with social contexts – it gives a man a role, which enables him to fulfil his masculinity. Alarmingly, Beowulf’s own “breost innan weoll | ? eostrum ge? oncum” (ll. 2332-33 ‘breast welled within with dark thoughts’) as he moves towards the dragon and death: he is himself about to die, to withdraw from the world.
He manages, though – perhaps by a supreme effort of will – to tell his long story, exploring how he got to where he is: re-establishing his own context and asserting his identity. And this is what enables him to continue. 80 Beowulf is always able to act gehwylce swa him wene? (‘in every way as he is expected to’) by any other man. 81 His arrival in Denmark leads to four encounters with very different men in swift succession: the coastguard, Wulfgar, Hrothgar, and Unferth. With the exception of Hrothgar, who has been described in the poem in considerable detail already, each of these men opens his exchange with the Geat, and in each nstance Beowulf responds in the tone established by the other. Perhaps most notable in this regard is the encounter with Wulfgar. On leaving the unnamed coastguard, the poet tells us that he indicates the way to the modigra (l. 312), and on meeting the next of Hrothgar’s guardians this impression is sharpened as the poet not only describes Wulfgar as wlonc (l. 331), but has him attribute the voyage of the el? eodige as for wlenco (l. 338 ‘due to pride’). He swiftly equates wlenco with hige? rymmum 80 Intriguingly, Wiglaf succumbs almost entirely to misery at ll. 2600-01 and 2633. This, long with his reluctance to allow Beowulf to die and lack of self-control at l. 2610 make his heroism more questionable, I think, than is usually allowed for and well worthy of more critical analysis. 81 Adapted from Beowulf’s demand of Hrothgar at l. 1398. 1 (l. 339), which makes it clear to the visitors that a display of wlenco here is not only acceptable, but highly positive. And the poet says that Beowulf leaps to the implicit stage direction, becoming wlanc for the first and only time in the poem (l. 341). The high mindedness Beowulf goes on to show is not unexpected, and it is not out of kilter with other encounters etween men in the poem. But wlonc (and its variant spellings) appears on only five other occasions in the poem, at lines 507, 1332, 1208, 2834, and 2954: respectively where Unferth implies it as a negative motivation; where Hrothgar imagines Grendel’s Mother exulting in the slaughter of ?schere; where the poet suggests it as a poor motivation for Hygelac’s final expedition; as the dragon’s typical attitude to treasure before its death; and as Hrothgar’s chief attribute in battle for the Geatish messenger bringing news of doom. Only the last of these instances could be read as positive (although the poet may be ambiguous towards the ragon’s behaviour when not interacting with man, as suggested above). Yet here, on meeting Wulfstan wlonc is (three times in ten lines) unequivocally positive. As demonstrated by Hrothgar’s use of it to describe Grendel’s Mother (let alone his ‘sermon’, which twice condemns oferhygda – usually identical to wlonc in translation), it is not an attribute he regards as desirable: similarly, “Aldhelm…clearly links Pride [as a sin] with both martial and heroic ideas”. 82 Wulfgar, however, clearly does both value and demonstrate it: and therefore, when talking with him, Beowulf (as the narrator perceives him) does too.
Puhvel identifies a similar trait in Beowulf’s differing reports to Hrothgar and Hygelac: in front of the latter, he emphasizes Hygelac’s role and status in victories. Equally significantly, having accommodated Hrothgar’s deocentric worldview in Heorot, when back in Geatland he does not “give God credit for His crucial help” in his battles. 83 Seemingly in contradiction to this lack of consistent selfhood, Orchard comments on the “self-absorption… typical of Beowulf’s discourse”, noting twenty eight first 82 Orchard (1995) p. 101, who also links this with Hrothgar’s sermon. 83 Puhvel (2005) p. 72 1 person references in 49 lines. 4 With Earl, though, one might use this as a basis of comparison with Hamlet, one of the most singularly self-absorbed figures in Western literature – but whose obsessive introspection actually results with him being overloaded with as many meaning systems as exist. Beowulf is not self-absorbed in this sense: he does not reflect on himself, or invite us to, and nor does he outwardly debate what he should do or what he has done. The self-absorption of his discourse is actually, I think, an indication of his use of his own identity and person to embrace all contextual needs: he makes himself ‘all things to all men’;85 like
Moses, “virtually without individual character”. 86 Beowulf adapts his persona with such success that he becomes “leofne mannan” (l. 297 ‘beloved man’) to the coastguard almost as soon as he arrives in Denmark. Fewer than a hundred lines earlier we’ve been told that “he him leof w? re” (l. 203 ‘he was loved by them [Hygelac’s counsellors]’), and this love seems undimmed as his people mourn his passing in the final lines. Beowulf’s ideal (truly hypermasculine) capacity is to adapt to all of the varying contexts in which he finds himself. This may even be fundamental to the poet’s interest in the story: set partly in Heorot, probably somewhat of a nautical crossroads of the world”, with a “hero, otherwise unknown… inserted into a known historical background” it exemplifies the efforts of Anglo-Saxon masculinity to perform differently in different contexts, and enables the poet “to attach his champion to as many peoples as possible – Danes, Geats, Swedes, Wulfings and Waegmundings – as if to make him the more authentically representative of the culture and traditions of central Scandinavia: an archetypal Northman”. 87 This is why Beowulf spends so much of his poem travelling – moving into a new environment where he is placed as Other and has to ery clearly perform the movement all men constantly seek to make towards the centre of hegemonic masculinity. At the opening of the text 84 Orchard (2003) p. 213 85 1 Corinthians 9:22 86 Irving (1974) p. 217 87 Puhvel (2005) p. 2, Dockray-Miller (2006) p. 457 & Frank (1982) p. 179 1 he is an absolute outsider – even to the audience an anonymous stranger arriving in a homeland with which we have become acquainted. By the end of the Grendel fight he has been embraced by that society, so the poet thrusts him outside and down the bottom of a lake where he can be unequivocally the g? st.
On his return to Hygelac, he is barely more integrated into Geatish society: indeed, his exclusion from it as a youth is brought up for the first time, and we are never shown his homestead. It is surprising how earnestly readers search for excuses for his absences from Heorot and Geatland when respectively invaded by Grendel’s Mother and the dragon given that these are evident absences of narrative convenience. But the point here is that the poet feels n