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Beowulf: …We All Fall Down Feraco Search for Human Potential 13 January 2012.

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1 Beowulf: …We All Fall Down Feraco Search for Human Potential 13 January 2012

2  Much, much darker than the first portion  This part’s about the pain and exhaustion of fighting, aging, and inevitable defeat  Moments of triumph remain, the dragon fight chief among them  But we now face numerous setbacks (as opposed to a single one): Beowulf only assumes the throne after a brother accidentally kills another – before that brother is killed in war  The poem ends on a downbeat note, with a woman wailing to the sky in grief  There’s also a terrifying note of uncertainty hanging over everything: How long can Geatland survive? The Poem’s Second Half

3 Another Lineup  Most of the characters seem pretty similar to those in the first half – although we do learn some interesting things about them  For example, Hrothgar will die of old age in the future  Once, long ago, I asked you “what’s in a name?”  Remember, Hrothgar’s name – his identity – means “spear’s glory,” and this was still a time when kings fought alongside – or at least behind – their subjects  Is Hrothgar’s death a good way for a king to go out, or should he go out on the battlefield, dying in a way that honors his name?

4  Beowulf is unable to save Hygelac in the Geats’ war with the Franks  He becomes king of the Geats because Heardred, Hygelac’s son, is killed  The old hero serves out the rest of his days preserving what he has  When he goes to fight the dragon, he does so without expecting to survive  A bitter imitation of the Geats’ brave sea voyage to the land of the Danes Our Hero at the End

5  Wiglaf – The only man (out of twelve) to remain by Beowulf’s side during the climactic fight with the dragon  Wiglaf’s courage outweighs his prowess as a warrior – the dragon torches his shield almost instantly – but he lands a few strikes against the beast anyway  He provides Beowulf with some final comfort and reassurance, as he goes into the treasure hoard and returns with goods  He tries to show Beowulf that his fight wasn’t in vain, and that Geatland now has treasure Our Hero Who Remains

6  Wiglaf is an interesting study – honorable and wise, but the last of his kind and line  Something like our hero, who’s also the last in a line – look at how paltry the Geats’ family tree appears compared to the Danes’  On first blush, he appears to carry on the heroic tradition that Beowulf adhered to for years  His father returned arms and armor to the family of a man he killed, but they rewarded him by allowing him to keep the goods (more on that later)  He is even able to enter the dragon’s hoard and emerge without being cursed because his intentions are pure  However, Wiglaf is decidedly pessimistic about the future now that Beowulf is gone  After all, the country’s “finest men” showed their true colors by fleeing the fight with the dragon What Does This Portend?

7  We get a chance to know some old characters better – particularly our kings – and meet some new ones  Hygelac turns out to be “young” for a king – which probably indicates he’s in his early fifties  Remember, Hrothgar was extremely young when he took the Danish throne  Hygelac will die during a war with the Franks/Frisians (although his thane and in-law, Eofor, will avenge him) New and Old

8  Hygd – Hygelac’s generous queen and Haereth’s daughter  She offers Beowulf the throne once Hygelac is slain, but he agrees instead to train her son while he learns the intricacies of rule  Heardred – Son to Hygelac and Hygd, he dies before he can rule for long at Onela the Swede’s hands  Onela’s the one who married Halfdane’s daughter New and Old, Part II

9  The Swedes are an interesting bunch  Ongentheow is the head of the line, and while it is his sons who lead the initial skirmishes against the Geats, he is credited as “Hygelac’s killer” (although he is not actually the one to land the death-blow)  Hygelac is avenged by Eofer, one of his thanes, who strikes Ongentheow down New and Old (Swedish Version)

10  His sons, Oethere and Onela, have an odd relationship with the Geats  Oethere’s son, Eanmund, is killed by Weohstan, Wiglaf’s father – yet Eanmund’s uncle (Onela) rewards Weohstan’s honorable behavior by allowing him to keep his nephew’s armor  Beowulf kills Onela in order to avenge Heardred’s death, ending the fighting between the Swedes and the Geats  Beowulf also supports Oethere’s other son, Eadgils, while he lives in exile Swedes Cont’d

11  The Danes basically disappear during the second half of the poem  Once Beowulf returns to Geatland, there’s no reason to talk about them!  Instead, we meet “traditional” powers that threaten the Geats at poem’s end  The Franks/Frisians, who hail from Finland/Friesland  The Swedes/Shylfings, who hail from Sweden What About the Danes?

12  The Geats have an overwhelmingly tragic family history  Hrethel, the original king, had three sons: Herebeald, Haethcyn, and Hygelac  Haethcyn accidentally shoots Herebeald  Hrethel dies soon thereafter, which leaves the country vulnerable  The Swedes attack, and Haethcyn dies  Hygelac is killed in a war with the Franks  Heardred, Hygelac’s son, is killed by the Swedes – leaving Beowulf as the king Try to Keep Track…

13  The bloodshed I just outlined leaves Beowulf as the sole survivor of his line  Hygd only had two children, Heardred and an unnamed daughter  As reward for avenging Hygelac’s death, Eofor marries the daughter – but they produce no offspring  Therefore, Beowulf’s death is really the “death” of the entire Geatish royal line – he has no heir of his own  This is why Wiglaf fears the other countries will attack – they have in the past, and the Geats are now vulnerable  The Swedes, in particular, want revenge – even though none of the people who “wronged” them are left alive The Secret Tragedy of the Family Tree

14  I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned that the second half is more downbeat  Beowulf defeats the dragon, saving his country and his subjects – but he leaves behind a broken shell of a nation, one which will be erased from the face of the Earth  After all, can you visit Geatland?  He dies defending a nation that can’t be saved, leaving behind a generation of men who aren’t as brave I Warned You…

15  This is why that ending is so perfect – it’s thematically appropriate and believable, yet it’s heartbreaking all the same  We watch everything Beowulf spent his life defending crumble before his eyes, even as he tries to hold on to hope in his dying moments – and even as Wiglaf tries to convince him that everything’s fine despite his own fears  The thanes’ betrayal is so vicious, but it’s inevitable – we know that Beowulf is special, and it’s his curse to be undermined by lesser men The (Un)Happy Ending

16  I mentioned that the Old English Poet/scop was fond of parallel structure  Queen Modthryth’s bloody tale is meant to show that Hygd is a nice queen, but it’s also a setup for later – when Beowulf warns that the arranged marriage between Ingeld and Freawaru is doomed  This story, in turn, is mean to underscore the inevitability of our hatred – that not even time, honor, or marriage can erase our thirst for vengeance (see Swedes)  A direct parallel of a parallel (Finn/Hildeburh)  Once again, we may become our own worst enemies So Many Parallels

17 Heremod Returns  Heremod’s backstory is fleshed out a bit  We see the difference between a good king and a bad king, as Heremod grows corrupt after long years on the throne  He grows bloodthirsty, sparking feuds  He hoards the spoils of victory, refusing to dispense rings to his warriors  Why is the “hoarding” of power so tempting?  It’s nice to see that fifty exhausting years on the throne doesn’t change Beowulf too drastically – he avoids Heremod’s fate  Yet he, too, is forced into a sort of exile at the end; his warriors abandon him during the fight with the dragon

18 More Fun With Themes I  Degeneration and Death: By the time Naegling shatters, everything about the Geats, and the state of the world, seems to scream that the End is coming  Beowulf doesn’t die by a sword – he’s dying of old age and poisoned, killed by what’s inside him (remember Kamala?)  It’s also fitting that both Naegling (Beowulf’s sword) and Hrunting (Unferth’s sword, which also failed) can’t do what they’re supposed to  They’re relics of the past, symbols of honor, love, and bravery – all hallmarks of the heroic age, which may die with Beowulf

19 More Fun With Themes II  Loyalty: We see warrior after warrior (from all sides) avenge the death of his kin and countrymen  Is this “loyalty well-spent”?  We also see Beowulf’s thanes abandon him  Hate and Revenge: We’ve alluded to this numerous times, from the myths the scop sings to the looming Swedish threat at the end of the poem  Heroism, Honor, and Sacrifice: Beowulf lays down his life for the Geats, but do the Geats deserve his sacrifice?  Is heroism in service of a lost cause still heroism at all?

20 More Fun With Themes III  Fleeing and Exile: There’s a powerful drive to return home that runs through Beowulf – or at least to protect one’s own nation and kin  Exile is the flip side of this same urge – and is the scop’s preferred “method of punishment”  To be divorced (or banished) from one’s homeland is to live a walking death  Without the place of your birth, the place where your forefathers lived and died, you’re cut off from everything that makes you…well, you  Even Grendel is driven by that insane urge – to return to or defend what’s rightfully yours at any cost

21 More Fun With Themes IV  Power: Hrothgar discusses the corruption that seeps into the heart of anyone who holds power long enough, but we also see power failing in the face of changing times and old hatreds  There’s also divine power, but we cover that in Divine Will  Grief, Hope, and Fear: There’s an odd tension between hope and fear in the poem  Beowulf represents the best of us, and we cheer when he saves us – but what if he’s the last of our best?  Kings weren’t supposed to die, at least not at the rate we see them perish – the throne is divine  The Geat woman crying out at the end, screaming to God and the souls of the kings who defended her forefathers as fire burns and “heaven swallows the smoke”, is the most haunting image in the entire poem ( )

22 A Bit of Advice  Remember, just about everything from the first half of the poem carries over into the second  After all, the poem isn’t actually divided; I just split it up to highlight the tonal shift that’s tied to Beowulf’s aging process  I also didn’t want you to try studying a fifty-slide presentation  Since this is an artificial division, it only makes sense that the work is unified  Don’t just look for certain themes in one half or the other – they’re everywhere, and the parallels serve as proof

23 Digging, by Seamus Heaney Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun. Under my window a clean rasping sound When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: My father, digging. I look down Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds Bends low, comes up twenty years away Stooping in rhythm through potato drills Where he was digging.

24 The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked Loving their cool hardness in our hands. By God, the old man could handle a spade, Just like his old man.

25 My grandfather could cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner's bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, digging down and down For the good turf. Digging.

26 The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head. But I've no spade to follow men like them. Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I'll dig with it.

27 Beowulf, by Richard Wilbur The land was overmuch like scenery, The flowers attentive, the grass too garrulous green; In the lake like a dropped kerchief could be seen The lark’s reflection after the lark was gone; The Roman road lay paved too shiningly For a road so many men had traveled on. Also the people were strange, were strangely warm. The king recalled the father of his guest, The queen brought mead in a studded cup, the rest Were kind, but in all was a vagueness and a strain, Because they lived in a land of daily harm. And they said the same things again and again.

28 It was a childish country; and a child, Grown monstrous, so besieged them in the night That all their daytimes were a dream of fright That it would come and own them to the bone. The hero, to his battle reconciled, Promised to meet that monster all alone. So then the people wandered to their sleep And left him standing in the echoed hall. They heard the rafters rattle fit to fall, The child departing with a broken groan, And found their champion in a rest so deep His head lay harder sealed than any stone.

29 The land was overmuch like scenery, The lake gave up the lark, but now its song Fell to the ear, the flowers too were wrong, The day was fresh and pale and swiftly old, The night put out no smiles upon the sea; And the people were strange, the people were strangely cold. They gave him horse and harness, helmet and mail, A jeweled shield, an ancient battle-sword, Such gifts as are the hero’s hard reward And bid him do again what he has done. These things he stowed beneath his parting sail, And wept that he could share them with no son. He died in his own country a kinless king, A name heavy with deeds, and mourned as one Will mourn for the frozen year when it is done. They buried him next the sea on a thrust of land: Twelve men rode round his barrow all in a ring, Singing of him what they could understand.

30 Some Final Thoughts  I have quite a few reasons to love Beowulf  I love its bold sense of action and its broad strokes of honor, love, and sacrifice  I’m astonished by (and jealous of) Heaney’s skill  Hopefully, I’ve given you some sense of just how difficult it is to write 3,000+ lines of poetry – words that work as well orally as visually, words that echo ancient emotions and stir them anew in our hearts  Even though he’s working with someone else’s material, this translation is just a titanic achievement  I love the way it brings a completely alien world so vividly to life – and how that alien world has some striking similarities to ours  I love that its themes remain relevant to this day

31 Some Final Final Thoughts  Yet the reason I reread this poem is not to get my “blood stirring,” or anything  It’s not even because I love parallels!  Beowulf is about the loss of everything a person can love, about the ways our lives crumble before we do, and about the inevitable decline of things we never really feel will disappear  Yet it’s also about enduring in the face of over- whelming adversity, and about conquering im- possible odds through sheer force of will and spirit  Beowulf’s thanes may abandon him, but Wiglaf turns around – because he remembers the value of friendship, security, honor…and love.  To read Beowulf is to be reminded that life is precious – big, bold, and beautiful – and that it’s important to value what we forget to appreciate – to love what you have, and what you can lose


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