Culture is what the heart is oriented to. What the heart is oriented to is what it loves. And what one loves will become the cornerstone of culture. And the heart, love, is a major theme in “Beowulf.”
“There was song, and the voices of men gathered together before the leader of the host of Healfdene, there the harp was touched to mirth, and many a lay recalled.” After slaying Grendel, Beowulf, the Geats, and the Danes under Hrothgar, gather for song and a sumptuous feast. The bards gather, the ladies and children assemble, and old tales of memory are sung where joy and tragedy bind generation to generation.
What is culture and why is culture important? Culture is from the Latin word cultus, meaning care and praise. It is apt, then, that the cultural memory of the Geats and Danes manifests itself in songs of praise in which their songs of memory highlight the care given to their sacred history and noble ancestors. Cult is also something associated with the heart; it is what the heart is oriented to. And the heart, love, is a major theme in Beowulf. In fact, it is the overriding theme of the war epic. Without anything for the heart to be oriented to, without anything for the heart to care and praise, and without anything the heart can feast and sing to, there is no possibility of culture. What the heart is oriented to is what it loves. And what one loves, what one cares and praises, will become the cornerstone of culture.
In this sense culture and memory—stories—are bound together. Without memory there can be no songs of praise. Without memory there can be no stories. Without memories and stories there can be no joyful feasting after a hard day’s labor or struggle. Memories escape the confines of objects and finality too. The Geats, far away from their native homeland, still sing songs of their ancestors from places faraway. That living legacy means Geatish culture survives as long as the memory survives. The Geats can be driven far and wide, scattered across the four corners of the earth, forced across rocky seas and isolated islands, but as long as the mystic songs of memory survive and are sung their culture not only survives, but grows.
The reality of culture, rooted in memory, escaping the finality of objectification, is when the song turns to the bleaker side of life and history. “Consumed were their heads, their gaping wounds burst open, the cruel hurts of the body, and the blood sprang forth. Flame devoured them all, hungriest spirits, all that in that place war had taken either people: their glory past had passed away.” Yet the memory of those heroic ancestors and ancient glory had not passed away in the living cultural memory of the Geats. In singing their song the lives of the ancient dead lived in memory as an everlasting story, a story told and retold down through the generations. At the table was the lady of the Scyldings along with “her sons, Hrethric and Hrothmund, and the children of mighty men, young warriors all, were gathered together.” The generations of dead, living, and future were all together in the song—the song of living memory and culture which nourished and drove the Geats onward.
The song is about “[t]he people of the Geats [being] left upon the field of slain.” The song they sing, and therefore the cultural memory of the Geats, does not sugarcoat the tragic reality of life and the world with some bland escapism or fleeting ecstasy. The songs that the Geats sing embrace the hard reality of life in the world. In embracing this tragic reality and ensuring the living continuation of all their generations, the Geatish culture born of memory and song sanctifies and redeems these tragedies and hardships. Though their heroes are dead in a physical and material sense, though they have been driven from the field, and though their glory in war has passed away, the ancient heroes of the Geats live on and their glorious and heroic deeds are now something to emulate for the next generation thanks to the legacy of memory.
After Beowulf kills Grendel’s Mother and returns home there is another feast and merry day of singing to welcome the triumphant return of the Geatish king. The return to song and feast after a hard struggle and pilgrimage is the recurring image (and theme) in Beowulf, and it is important to recognize the role that this plays in the continuation and enhancement of Geatish culture and memory, “Now Haereth’s daughter down that high hall passed for the pouring of the mead, cherished the good men there, bearing the cup of strong sweet drink to the hands of mighty men.” The first song of memory was with the Danes in their hall and recounted their sad, sorry, trials and misfortunes. The second song of memory, a tall tale of Beowulf’s heroic deeds, is not about the long ago past but now something newly added to the cultural treasure of the Geats.
As Beowulf accepts the request to tell his new story—which will be added to the consciousness of the people and therefore to Geatish culture—he also pays homage to others beside himself. He honors the young knight who was killed in Grendel’s jaws. Beowulf says that the knight who lost his life was one whom “we loved.” In recounting the battle with Grendel, Beowulf has added to the treasure of Geatish memory which adds to the newest chapter of the Geatish people and the latest wellspring of Geatish culture.
Stories are among the most intimate and personal things we have. Stories touch the imagination and are deeply implanted in one’s psyche and consciousness. Without stories there can be no culture. Without stories there can be no imagination. Without an imagination there is no vitality to human existence. Without that vitality humans are mere robots to be programmed, pacified, and subjugated into parasitic consumers.
The song of Beowulf slaying Grendel and Grendel’s Mother is not just the newest chapter in the unfolding story of the Geats. It is a story of binding ties since it includes the Danes as well. It is the story which binds people together because the story is intimate and personal in a way that abstract notions of rights are not. The Geats and Danes were brought together to defeat Grendel and Grendel’s Mother. They shared a hall, meat, and drink together. The culture of the Geats and Danes are now enriched because of this intersecting story which includes both tribes, Beowulf and Hrothgar, and their children who were in the feasting hall with songs of memories and the defeat of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother firmly implanted in their minds.
Beowulf was equally filled with much joy in returning home and adding to his peoples’ culture through his adventures, “His heart heaved within him, when he wise with many years recalled a host of memories.” Concluding his grizzly retelling of slaying Grendel’s Mother, something that would have been impressionable to all listening and its image-based language painting a lasting picture in the imagination of all the listeners—young and old—Beowulf ends his triumphant return by sharing the joys of adventure and story with all. The story of Beowulf slaying Grendel and Grendel’s Mother is not merely his possession. The story of Beowulf and his heroic deeds are for all the Geats. The story is not merely Beowulf’s joy, it is also the joy of the whole tribe.
The first song of mystic memory that the Geats dance to in the hall of Hrothgar was sung out of love for their ancestors. The second song of new memory that Beowulf tells upon his return home is done out of love for the living. The pulsating heart of love between the dead and living is therefore passed on and bleeds life into the next generation. The culture that emerges with the songs of memory grows only in the wellspring of love, that joyful and jumping heart, which burns with passion for other persons.
Beowulf’s sharing of his story is the perfect example of this self-giving love to his people. Though not yet king, the story is not meant to upstage Hygelac. Hygelac is just as much enriched as the rest of the Geatish peoples are in Beowulf’s heroic journey and deeds. Beowulf’s heart is not set inwardly to himself. There is no incurvatus in se to Beowulf’s pulsating blood of life. His heart is turned outward to others: To the Danes and to the Geats.
If people are the soil of memory, then the reception of history is the consciousness necessary for culture to sprout and flourish. In the Geats retelling their ancient tales—though not whitewashing the tragedy of those stories—they are engaged in the receptivity of history which is necessary for culture to grow. Receptivity, then, is like the hydration needed for culture to mature and flourish. Poor receptivity kills culture. Good receptivity nurtures and matures culture. Indeed, it is that which allows culture to grow and flourish to a greater level than among those who originally planted the seed of culture.
In this sense the war on memory and historical consciousness—historical receptivity—is part of the broader struggle over culture. Those who look fondly back upon the past, pass on those ancient stories, and therefore enhance those stories, till the soil of those stories, are engaged in the generational connectivity of the phenomenon of culture which is, primarily, a phenomenon of stories and songs as Beowulf makes visibly clear. History itself should make this clear as well. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the epics of Homer and the poetry of Hesiod, to anonymous Song of Roland, culture springs into the world through stories and gives life to the world.
The war against memory, the war against history, the war against positive receptivity of that memory and history, is part of the war to destroy culture. Culture is one of those dark superstitions that the so-called Enlightenment sought to do away with. For what is culture but the prejudicial love of particulars over universals, of the concrete over the abstract, and necessarily leading to a value hierarchy of judgement which strangles the idol of egalitarianism?
If the Geats suppressed their own stories—if they never told those stories of their heroes whose glory faded on the battlefields long ago—the memory and historical consciousness of the Geats would be deracinated to the point of not having a culture precisely because they lacked any stories to sing and drink to. By the fact that the Geats tell their stories, with all generations present, that mystic union between dead, living, and future is given life and the culture that grows from that mystic concord is enhanced over the generations.
Take Beowulf’s triumphant return as the pure example of this reality. The Geats had a history of mystic songs of memory that gave them a particular cultural spirit. However, Beowulf expanded to that memory and culture in his slaying of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother which enriched the culture of the Geats to have another particular story to tell within the pages of their unfolding universal story stretching as far back as the fields of battle of their fallen heroes of yesteryear to, eventually, Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother and then Beowulf and Wiglaf’s defeat of the dragon. (It is important to mention that it was Wiglaf’s love for Beowulf that caused him to abandon his fear and thrust himself into combat to help defeat the dragon of chaos even though Beowulf was mortally wounded in the encounter.)
Culture depends on stories, and stories depend on consciousness, which is informed by the reception of history, of memory. Those who understand this reality make the history wars more than just about empty and sterile “facts.” The reception of history, which impacts memory and consciousness, is the true heart of culture and at the crux of the culture wars. Without any songs to sing and dance to, without any songs to drink to, without any songs to pass on to the next generation, there can be no culture. Despite being, to the contemporary Whig, a primitive people, the Geats were far richer than most people and “cultures” today.
The Geats had stories. Their stories were filled with the beating and pulsating heart of flesh and blood. Most moderns have nothing by comparison. The Geats had mystic songs of memory which gave their culture something unique and special. Our culture, if you can even call it a culture, needs to resurrect the heart otherwise we will remain on the sideline like those soldiers watching their culture burn up in the flames of the all-consuming dragon. Only the heart of love which compels the heroic soul to insert itself into the drama of culture can add to those joyful songs and sumptuous feasts which culture depends on for its survival and growth. Only then, like Beowulf, can we reconnect with past, present, and future in the eternal chorus of praise which brings happy rest to the restless soul.
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Author’s Note: All citations from Beowulf are from J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is an illustration of Beowulf fight the dragon by J.R. Skelton (1865-1927), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.