Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Geoffrey Ashe: Beowulf

Geoffrey Ashe, Mythology of the British Isles (Methuen Publishing Ltd., 2002)

The English Inheritance: Beowulf [pp.295-298]

Like the Scots, the Anglo-Saxons had their own minstrelsy. But with them, too, the first hero of legend in the new lands came from the legacy of the old. And he was not even one of themselves.

Beowulf is the only long Anglo-Saxon poem drawing its inspiration from pre-Christian antiquity. Its setting is in Denmark and thereabouts. In unrhymed alliterative verse, it begins by telling how the Danish king Hrothgar built a splendid hall. He named it Heorot. But when he had assembled his court in it, a frightful, half-human monster called Grendel started a series of raids, killing and eating Danish noblemen. Grendel lived in a cave under a lake. Wandering over the fens, he had seen Heorot and conceived a hatred for its lights, music and revels. The raids were his response, and he carried them out with impunity, because a devilish spell made him impervious to weapons.

Over a stretch of years he invaded Heorot many times, always after dark, and the Danes became afraid to go there except in daylight. At last Beowulf, a nephew of King Hygelac of the Geats, arrived by sea with fourteen companions and offered his help. Tall and handsome, a swimmer of unrivalled prowess, he had already dealt with water-monsters and believed he could defeat Grendel by strength alone. Hrothgar gave him leave to attempt it. That night the Geats lay down in the hall and waited. Grendel entered, slew one of them so quickly that Beowulf could not stop him, and devoured the corpse. Then he turned to Beowulf. The prince seized him in a wrestling grip. A fearful struggle ensued. The other Geats could do nothing to aid their leader, because their swords were useless against the demon. Eventually, Grendel wrenched himself free, leaving his arm in Beowulf’s grasp. He staggered back to the pool and reached his cave, but the wound was mortal.

The Geats hung the severed arm from the roof as a trophy. When the Danes saw it they rejoiced. The king and queen rewarded Beowulf’s party with many gifts. No one, however, had reckoned with a second monster, Grendel’s mother, who also dwelt under the lake and now came out to avenge her son. She carried off and killed one of Hrothgar’s most valued thanes. Hrothgar asked for Beowulf’s further help, and rode with him along the water-hag’s tracks, with a number of Danes and Geats following. One of the Danes lent Beowulf a sword called Hrunting.

The lake was a sinister place, with serpents writhing in it, and the head of the recent Danish victim lying on its rocky bank. Beowulf dived in, going down and down. Suddenly Grendel’s mother fastened her claws on him and dragged him into the cave, a sort of huge bubble enclosed by rock and lit by a fire. He soon found that the sword Hrunting made no impression on her. He attempted a wrestling hold as he had with her son, but stumbled and fell, and she broke free and attacked him with a knife. His chain mail saved him. Springing to his feet again, he caught sight of another sword, a gigantic one, taken in some earlier combat. Against this weapon the ogress had no defence, and he snatched it and cut her head off. Exploring the cavern in the firelight, he found the corpse of Grendel and cut the head off that too, to take back to Hrothgar. The blade of the sword melted in the venomous blood and he returned with the hilt only.

Most of the group at the lakeside had despaired of seeing him again, but he surfaced at last. Amid renewed Danish acclaim he took his leave and went home. Time passed. Beowulf became king of the Geats, and reigned prosperously for half a century. When he was not far short of a hundred years old he perished with glory, defending his people against another monster. This was a winged dragon that lived in the chamber under a burial-mould, guarding treasure stowed there by the last of the family possessing it. A runaway serving-man had crept into the chamber while the dragon lay sleeping and stolen a cup. The dragon began making forays and devastating the country with its fiery breath.

Guided by the thief, Beowulf traced it to its lair and approached behind a specially made iron shield. He had eleven warriors with him. When the dragon emerged, however, they all fled except for a youth, Wiglaf. With his aid the old king managed to kill the beast, but he was fatally wounded, and, having no son to succeed him, presented Wiglaf with his own armour and weapons and a gold necklace. Wiglaf brought some of the treasure out of the mound, and Beowulf1ooked at it, but died a moment later. The young man decided that it had been won at too high a price and no one deserved to have it. When the cowards returned he upbraided them scathingly. Under his direction the king’s body was laid on a funeral pyre and cremated, and the treasure was buried with his ashes under a tumulus called Beowulf’s Barrow, visible from far out to sea. So ends the tale.

Unlike Finn [MacCool], Beowulf was never acclimatised in Britain. A transfer of his Grendel exploit to Hartlepool, in County Durham, did not find favour.

Beowulf survives in a manuscript of about 1000 AD. Its date of composition is a matter of controversy. The Anglo-Saxon poet, like the Welsh author of the Pryderi tales, shows a personal Christianity in various touches and asides. He cites Genesis and even makes out that Grendel was descended from Cain. But his subject is pagan, and if his descriptions of artefacts are compared with items at Sutton Hoo and elsewhere, it is clear that knowledge of pre-Christian craftsmanship, as of the early seventh century, has gone into the poem’s making. King Hygelac can be dated after a fashion and puts the action earlier still. He is one among a number of named persons who occur in other contexts, though Beowulf himself does not. They include (not as a contemporary) a certain Hengest, possibly the Hengist with whom Vortigern made his fatal deal. Scandinavian parallels confirm the authenticity of the background. It is by no means certain, however, who the Geats are. They are generally located in southern Sweden, but they are not Swedes.

Heorot means ‘stag’. The derived English word is ‘hart’. Its explanation here may lie in royal symbolism. The abortive Hartlepool transfer was prompted by the first syllable of the place-name itself, basically heorot, with an allusion to stages on the headland.

So far as documentary evidence goes, Beowulf stands alone. The Anglo-Saxons in Britain never developed a real mythology. When the eighth-century poet Cynewulf composed narratives he turned to Christian themes, such as St Helen and the True Cross. Even such borrowing was restricted in scope. No Anglo-Saxon took the slightest notice of Arthur or anyone else in Welsh tradition. It was not till after the Normans turned Anglo-Saxondom into a different realm, in a new relation to the continent, that the island’s heritage began flowing together in England.

The Anglo-Saxons did make a contribution to Arthurian folklore. This was the Wild Hunt. Originally a gallop among the clouds by Woden and his Nordic companions, it became, in Britain, a more elaborate affair. Among the new huntsmen were Gwyn ap Nudd with his white, red-eared hounds, and Arthur himself in some spectral guise. The Wild Hunt spread to the continent as the Chasse Artu. The huntsmen summoned ghosts of the dead and the souls of unbaptised infants. Their visitations, especially with hounds (Gwyn’s or others), could be portentous of doom.

While the substance of Arthur’s literary legend owed the Anglo-Saxons nothing, several of the poets who enlarged it in English did adopt the alliterative verse-form, as in Beowulf. Though modified, this is the essential metre of three masterpieces: Layamon’s Brut, his epic rehandling of Geoffrey of Monmouth; the marvellous fairy tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and a pre-Malory Morte Arthure. England’s annexation of the Celtic hero did not, after all, involve a total setting-aside of ancestral Englishness. That was still a presence in format if not in matter. Moreover it was Malory, not any French or German romancer, who gave the legend a definitive form and handed it on to future generations.

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