The Depiction of the Human Condition in Beowulf
The peoples to whom Beowulf, a poem of the migrations, belongs, came to England in the fifth century. The early Angles and Saxons knew nothing of any civilization existing in Britain. They discovered it for themselves in the fourth century, and the sea-rovers pronounced it a good land, rich in booty.
Soon little kingdoms grew up, first Kent, then Essex and East Anglia and Northumbria. The pirates, changing their modes of life, turned settlers and farmers, and for six hundred years literature is Anglo-Saxon. What did they carry with them into England, these newcomers? What poetry or history in which no mention is made of England, but which preserved the earlier traditions of the race? The only indisputable specimens of that literature are Widsith, The Lament of Deor, Brunanburh, Waldhere, Finnsburh, and the incomparable Beowulf.
In Beowulf, human beings become poetic voice for all lonely and innocent victims of fate, and an apt symbol of the weakness inherent in the human condition. Beowulf faces hostile invasion of the natural world: the overwhelming, unrelenting, nonnegotiable attack of the dragon. He cannot immerse himself and escape unscathed: engulfed by the dragon’s mouth he suffers mortal wounds.
In last battle, the inescapable human condition finally reasserts itself so that Beowulf becomes yet another victim of the natural world. One could even argue that, in the end, Beowulf loses his distinction as a conqueror of the natural world’s power and is redefined to be the same as everyone else; despite his heroic stature, he, like all human beings, finally must succumb to human condition.
When ancestors came to these shores they were polytheists, whose gods, not omnipotent, though powerful deities, dwelt in Asgard, where Odin, chief of the twelve mighty ones, had his Valhalla, whither he summoned all warriors who fell in battle (Kiernan 68). The constitution of the Saxons was a species of free monarchy.
Kingship was of the patriarchal type and the monarch the friend and shepherd of his people. The chief or earl had his followers. Outside the comitatus stood the nation of freemen. An emotional though fierce folk, warriors all, they were little given to agriculture or the peaceful arts; of many tribes probably, but tribes not inhabiting for long any fixed geographical area. These tribes met and mingled or fought, separated into new groups, for ever in unrest. They were plunderers, when plundering was possible. These men knew no towns – no city or town is mentioned in Beowulf.
Thus far the poem is about human condition. In Beowulf readers have vivid pictures of matters familiar in the heroic age of our forefathers, their daily concerns, the things that happened in every hour of their lives. Their ships and seafaring, their offensive and defensive armour, their political methods and international civilities, their social doings, their streets and houses, their domestic habits, their arts of decoration in hall or on sword or flagon-these are all spoken of with the utmost simplicity, truth, and distinctness (Kiernan 134).
Beowulf recreates for readers a society which endured for centuries side by side with the Roman empire. That was a northern society of the aristocratic military type, a society whose chief business was war and plunder. Yet it made its way towards civility and the arts, and knew the worth, despite its heathen ferocity, of magnanimity and self-sacrifice.
The battle with Grendel strikes a new note, the note of pure imaginative work. “Then from the moor, from under the misty heights came Grendel, striding” (Chambers 104). The fire-forged hinges of the door give way before him. He seizes a sleeping warrior, tears and devours his flesh, and advancing grasps at Beowulf, the hero himself. But a hand-grip, fiercer than any he had ever known, meets his own, and he would fain have fled to his den of darkness.
Then upright sprang Beowulf and straightway grappled with his foe, The struggle grim and great overthrows the ale-benches and the hall resounds with the uproar. Panic seizes the Danes as they hear the din and the terrible cries of the monster. But the unrelaxing grip of the hero at length bursts sinew and bone, tearing Grendel’s arm from the shoulder, and the demon, sick to death, flies to his den beneath the fells.
With dawn the victory is bruited abroad, and the young warriors ride to Grendel’s lair, the demons’ mere. There wondering they gaze upon the gloomy waters, seething with blood, proof of the beast’s joyless end. Then was there great rejoicing and praise of Beowulf. The youths, light hearted, race their horses on the smooth ground. He chants the lays of Sigemund and of Heremod, songs of far journeys and feuds and many battles.
Hrothgar, standing at the entrance of the hall, receives the hero, giving him the thanks that are his due. Then song and the sound of feasting resound through Heorot, and Hrothgar’s queen herself, bearing the mead-cup to her lord and Beowulf, adds her words of praise, and gives to him gifts of price, a mantle and ring and collar of twisted gold.
Such briefly and omitting the episodes, which amplify but interrupt it, is the story of the English epic. This is a poem without parallel in the literature of the Germanic peoples. It is eclipsed by few in the narrative literature of the world. Apply the severest tests and Beowulf falls short of true epic greatness in a dozen essentials.
It is too short – hardly more than three thousand lines. Yet however and wherever preserved it has far outgrown the limitations of the ballad art and method. There is here style, not indeed the matchless style of Homer. This is not the language of every day but of makers (Chambers 156).
Though much is disputed, it is not disputed that in Beowulf readers possess an authentic heroic lay. It was worked over by a Christian poet, who clearly mirrored the life and mind of pagan Germany, “the very body of the time, its form and pressure” (Chambers 80). The story falls into three sharply defined parts, each of which is concerned with human exploit. In the first Beowulf slays a monster, which has terribly harassed a Danish king, Hrothgar.
In the second he slays a second monster, the mother of the first come to avenge her son. After these triumphs the hero returns to his own land, becomes the king of it, rules for fifty years, and in his old age, battling for his people, slays, but is slain by, a dragon who has ravaged his realm. Thus the third exploit, related in the third part of the poem, is widely separated in time from the first and second. The first and second are the feats of his youth, the third of his old age (Chambers 67-69).
The unity of the poem, it is at once apparent, is not a close-knit unity. It is a unity of the primitive type, achieved simply by relating all occurrences, otherwise unconnected with each other, to a single person. The unity attained in the Odyssey of Homer is of the same type, but there a much more complete story or series of stories is knit together with matchless art, an art beyond the skill of the English poet (Irving, 1992, 90).
The successive great incidents then in the career of Beowulf make the plot. To these others might with ease have been added without adding to the organic or artistic complexity of the narrative, but merely to its length. Yet while this is so, the selected incidents are similar in type and they are appropriate to discover human condition presented. There move continually across the stage kings, queens, and warriors; a mighty spectacle of vigorous and passionate life-wars, combats, domestic feuds, loves, treacheries, villainies – is revealed.
To the makers of Beowulf, and to its original audiences, its recital was something far different from a mere tale of superhuman prowess; it was an incantation which made memory leap from its couch of slumber, and revived for its hearers in all its names and phrases a well-known world in which they and their fathers had borne a part (Kiernan 234).
In Beowulf similes are few – the ship beginning her voyage is described as “most like a bird,” or the blade of a sword flashes “as when the sun, candle of the firmament, shines brightly in the heavens” (Irving 1968, 89). Metaphors – the “kenning” or poetic synonym – are on the other hand common – the sea is “the whale’s road” or “the swan’s path,” the ship “the sea-wood,” the sword “the battle-friend”. Still readers have journeyed far from the beginnings.
Beyond all this, the external elements of form, there is in Beowulf an intellectual wealth and a depth of reflection human condition. The world upon which this poet looks out is thronged and bustling as the street of a city. The hero foresees too the future, and looks to it with hope or with foreboding – “such is the deadly grudge of men, doubtless the Swedish folk will come against us when they have learned that our king is dead” (Irving 1968, 37).
The scene shifts easily from the hall to the galley under sail, from the shore to the moors, from day to night, from winter to spring. There is observation of nature and pleasure in good handicraft, and a Stoic creed of life and honor. In Beowulf the conscious poet emerges. But there is more than this, the high poetic dawn of insight and imagination.
Hard the poem of this hardness the interpolated Christian passages afford no real mitigation. “God, doubtless, can stay the fell ravager from his deeds,” readers read in one passage, and again “Him” (Beowulf) “hath holy God sent to us, as I trust, to us the West Danes, against the terror of Grendel”.
There are utterances, pathetic and penetrating, moving reflections on human condition and destiny that vibrate with truth learnt in the harsh grip of experience. The themes are ancient, no more than the brief glory of man’s strength, the relentlessness of fate. “Now is theflower of thy strength lasting a while–soon shall it be that sickness or the sword, or the clutch of fire, or wave of the flood, or spearthrust, or flight of arrow, or blinding age shall take away thy might” (Irving 1968, 437)
Or again: “Now that the leader in war has laid aside laughter, revel, and song, therefore shall many a spear, cold in the dawn, be grasped by the fingers, raised in the hand. No sound of harp shall rouse the warriors, but the dark raven, busy over the fallen, shall send his frequent cry, telling the eagle how he sped at the feast when, with the wolf, he spoiled the slain” (Irving 1968, 49).
Trite reflections no doubt, but not more trite than those of Homer. For the epic form, as here, envisages human condition; it perceives wide spaces filled with human interests and human figures. The community bond has overpowered that of the family; men and the doings of men, nations and the affairs of nations are the interests of this literature.
The epic hero is always a fighter, a soldier in some good cause. In Beowulf he is engaged in a no less holy war with the powers of darkness, the enemies of the whole human race. This is not a war of heroes with other heroes, it is a conflict of man with powers hostile to man. Nothing can be clearer than that Beowulf belongs to an age in which nature was felt as unsubdued, unfriendly. His race inhabited the narrow lands, the ridge of unceasing war – the unexplored ocean before him.
The forest had not yet been cleared nor the protecting walls of the city built. Northern Germany in the pre-Christian centuries can hardly have been a more kindly region than the Central Africa of to-day. The hero in Beowulf stands at bay with Nature, exposed to the attacks of strange, uncouth, silent foes. Neither Grendel nor his dam nor the dragon by whom he is slain make use of any speech.
Everywhere in this poem readers have the sense of a savage and menacing world. Heroic poetry of this order has small concern with ideas. Unlike the chivalric epic, it is desperately occupied with doings. Life is wholly strain and pressure, governed by the simplest emotions, the desire of food and drink, of treasure and good weapons.
There is no room for love-episode or protracted courtship, no place for gentleness. It reads throughout like a stern record of a painful human condition. In this society each group is supporting itself with difficulty against famine, the untamed forces of nature (Irving 1992, 289-290).
To the readers are far nearer the elemental conditions of life, the opening days of human history, than with Homer. The nerve of the narrative, the heart of its interest lies therefore in the vivid presentation of a real struggle against deadly odds. Ringed round with enemies the hero proudly takes pleasure in his strength while his strength lasts, he sells his life dearly. When he dies, he would die like Colonsay’s fierce lord in Scott, pierced by the lance of De Argentine:
“Nail’d to the earth, the mountaineer
Yet writhed him up against the spear
And swung his broadsword round!
Stirrup, steel-boot, and cuish gave way,
Beneath that blow’s tremendous sway,
The blood gushed from the wound;
And the grim lord of Colonsay
Hath turn’d him on the ground,
And laugh’d in death-pang, that his blade
The mortal thrust so well repaid”( Irving 1968, 45).
The hero in this epic knows that the day will come when fate will be stronger than he, as it has been stronger than his fathers and kinsmen, when all will seem “too wide for him, the fields and the homestead.” And a natural melancholy tinges the poet’s mood when he reflects that if not to-day then to-morrow in the battle the chief goes the fated way, that the bravest must, in the end, sleep “den eisernen Schlaf des Todes,” the iron sleep of death.
The best that can befall, the heart of his desire, is to die the great death, as Beowulf dies, beside the dragon he has slain. A dark, capricious fate, whose decrees none can foretell, is the ruler of human destiny – “It is not an easy matter to escape it,” says the poet, or “Fate did not thus ordain for him.”
Yet courage may shield him from the impending blow, “Often does Wyrd save an earl undoomed when his valour avails.” The Beowulf temper is that of the born fighter, the man born never to yield, “the temper of the fighter who feels that the very Norns themselves must cringe at last before the simple courage of men standing naked and bare of hope, whether of heaven or hell or doom“ (Irving 1968, 48-56).
It was the temper of that long roll of Englishmen, soldiers, sailors, adventurers, explorers. To them retreat was more bitter than death, who, rather than turn back from the task undertaken, challenged the fates themselves. Beowulf itself does not end, as it is sometimes demanded the epic should end, upon a note of success and triumph. It is at best a losing battle in which mankind is engaged, and Beowulf is throughout his life the leader of a forlorn hope. Again and again he is successful in spite of odds, foot by foot he grapples with destiny unafraid, but he knows that there is but one way.
Of the arts of peace Beowulf says little. The skilful craftsman twists collars of gold or bracelets or other personal adornments, but the warrior’s weapons are the subject of his peculiar and affectionate regard. The sword, to which perpetual reference is made, is jewelled, carved with runes, often personified and given an individual name.
The helmet and coat of mail too, the spear and shield, are wrought with a care and skill lavished upon no other possessions. So much are they a part of himself that a warrior is known by his arms. This is true epic feeling. In the true epic manner, too, Beowulf does not await the tide of war, he goes out to meet it, and against an enemy of unknown strength, unknown haunts, and unknown resources.
The landscape assists to create an atmosphere of the dim and marvellous. A hidden and perilous place is it, the haunt of the mighty stalkers of the mere, and there is none of the sons of men so wise as to know its depths. “Thou knowest not yet the spot, the savage place,” says Hrothgar, “seek it if thou darest.” The Athelings follow to the misty mere, “over steep slopes of stone, a narrow and single path, by many an abrupt cliff, the homes of sea monsters, an unknown road.” The dragon of the last combat watches its hoard in a high burial mound, “beneath it a path unknown to men” (Irving 1968, 98-100).
In the foreground of the Beowulf landscape are the shore, the bold headlands, the wind-swept sea rising clearly before the eyes as in a picture. Beyond is a vague region of enchantment-not mountain country, but romance in which there is neither sunshine nor warmth, in which terror overpowers beauty. In Celtic story one meets with delightful experiences.
There are no such pleasances in Beowulf. In Homer the divine shapes of gods and goddesses, the holy splendours of Nature and of a world fairer than man’s, are discerned through the dust and smoke of mortal battle. What a life, behind all its courtliness, the grace and chivalry the poet imparts, what a life in the ages before his own this epic pictures. Nor, as in Homer, is the spectacle of life enriched and graced by scenes of domestic happiness. Beowulf is the story of men and men’s work, the pioneer work of the world (Chambers 200-205).
Yet there are no tears in Beowulf as in Homer, the man of the North does not shed even such tears as angels weep (Brodeur 67). And to his folk of the European races, however widely separated in time and circumstance the unflinching temper in Beowulf still calls with resistless power.
The motives by which he is governed, desire of fame, of honour, the gratitude and esteem of his kinsfolk and friends, still stir their nerves. Rude as is the society depicted in Beowulf, savage as are the features of its daily life, bleak and dismal as are its climate and many of its surroundings, crude as are its superstitions, it expresses a certain magnificence of human condition (Brodeur 98). The unshaken hardihood and fortitude which made the future England utter themselves in every line. In every line there is the ring of iron.
Beowulf, but few and fragmentary remains. None of the arts save that of poetry were sufficiently advanced to depict human condition. And though for many a century in their own northern lands the German races must have climbed from primitive savagery to a civilization that contained noble elements, the long and painful progress is a matter of inference rather than of recorded facts.
It is for this reason that Beowulf, even were it not an epic of high dignity and poetic worth, must rank as priceless. This is a picture about human condition, the only picture extant, of a world long departed and irrecoverable. It illuminates the vast dim tract of an unknown human story, ages of lives. It recreates for the modern man the world of Northern Europe in the pre-Christian era.
It gives meaning and content to such bare outlines as are provided by historians and chroniclers. From this poem alone, taken with the remains of ancient German civilization, is possible at least the partial reconstruction of a society which endured many a hundred years. It is otherwise almost wholly beyond our ken, a society whose features are still represented in the political and social order of these our islands. Here is race in the vigor of its early prime. In this mirror readers catch reflections of their own national features, for a moment the curtain is raised upon scenes of a forgotten life shared by millions through centuries of time.
Brodeur, Arthur G. The Art of Beowulf. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1959.
Chambers R. W. Beowulf: An Introduction. 3d ed. with supplement by Charles L. Wrenn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.
Irving Edward B., Jr. A Reading of Beowulf. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.
Irving, Edward B. Rereading Beowulf, University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1992.
Kiernan, Kevin S. Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1981.