Beowulf was not a revolutionary but a guardian of all that is good and sacred, not a killer in love with blood and the cries of men but a protector of that which is right and proper.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Beowulf: on Heroism
All ages, yours no less than mine, need heroes. And, though the types and natures of those heroes tend to shift from culture to culture and generation to generation, there does exist a core of heroism that I would like to discuss with you in this letter.
What first attracted me to Beowulf as a timeless embodiment of heroism was his supreme yet humble confidence. Here was a man who knew who he was and what his mission was in life. Here was a warrior who could boast of his triumphs without bragging, for the pride he took in his accomplishments was pure and well-deserved, free from the taint of vanity and bravado. Here was a ruler who sought to rule for the sake of his people and not for his own greed and ambition.
After his king, Hygelac, died, Beowulf could easily have seized the throne. Indeed Hygelac’s widow preferred Beowulf to rule in place of her son. Nevertheless, Beowulf turned over control of the kingdom to its rightful prince. Only after the prince was killed did Beowulf take up the crown and rule with justice and loyalty.
That’s a heady combination, my friends of the future: absolute confidence in one’s own prowess and abilities mingled with absolute obedience to rightful authority and the rules of succession and hierarchy. Beowulf was not a revolutionary but a guardian of all that is good and sacred, not a killer in love with blood and the cries of men but a protector of that which is right and proper.
I was attracted to him for the same reason I was attracted to Hercules and Theseus. Like those Greek heroes of old, my Beowulf was a beast slayer; he cleaned up the highways and the byways so that civilization could flourish. Indeed, he even cleansed the sea of its monsters so that trade between nations could be carried out, free from the fear of the creatures that lurk in the deep. Alas, like Hercules, Beowulf, having killed the last beast, the dragon in the cave, was in turn killed by the poison in its blood.
Your age is no longer plagued by monsters, but that does not mean you have lost your need for heroes. The monsters who ever stand against goodness, justice, and civilization have simply moved within the human breast. And that is why you still need heroes like Beowulf who have a purity and clarity of vision, who can separate their own egos from the task that must be done.
Heroes like that not only identify the danger and interpose themselves between it and their fellow man; they change those around them, transforming their bitterness and despair into the rudiments of a lesser, but still real heroism.
Consider the boastful Unferth, who envied Beowulf and did all he could to tear down his pride and soil his glory. My Beowulf put Unferth in his place, as was necessary, but he also treated him graciously and with magnanimity. As a result, Unferth grew into a better man, even giving Beowulf his sword to use in the fight against Grendel’s mother.
Or consider King Hrothgar. When the devastations of Grendel all but destroyed his hall, Beowulf both rescued the hall and restored hope and courage to its despairing lord. And yet, though Hrothgar had to depend fully on the young hero, Beowulf treated him with the respect due to an elder and learned wisdom and honor at his feet.
Such heroes are needed in every age, for they not only defend and defeat, they preserve and restore. They change the moral climate around them, making a space where order and beauty can thrive.
I said at the start of this letter that the essential nature of heroism does not change. I would like now to qualify that statement. For all their similarities, there is a distinction between the pagan heroes of Greece, Rome, and the Nordic lands and the Christian heroes who followed in their wake.
Although I write to you as a Christian monk, as one who believes in grace and redemption, in the promises of heaven and the hope in the resurrection of the dead, I denied that revelation to my pagan hero. Beowulf must fight and work and die without possessing the ultimate consolation of spending eternity in the presence of God.
Where my world, and yours, has knowledge of God’s mercy, the dark, Nordic world of Beowulf is finally fatalistic. Instead of the wise and loving sovereignty of God, Beowulf must make his way in a world where fate and destiny are finally unavoidable.
Oh what pity I felt for Hrothgar and Beowulf and the Danes when they turned, impotently, to their pagan idols for help against Grendel. Yet still, there is a dignity and a purity in the soul of Beowulf that helps him to rise above the cold fatalism that surrounds his age. He does not know Christ, but he himself becomes a messianic figure who brings release for those in fear and torment.
He cannot conceive of eternity; yet, he finds a surrogate for it in the prizes that he wins and the grand funeral that he receives. He has no sons, but he leaves a rich legacy of heroism and honor behind him. Such things should not be despised or patronized.
In his own way, Beowulf, too, is a monk, a lone man with no family who stands as a watchman and guardian on the margins of civilization. Heroism like his is needed in every culture and every faith. Your age, as much as mine, needs men like Beowulf who will stay at their post no matter the cost, putting public service above personal happiness.
None of us, pagan or Christian, can escape the grave, but we can go to our deaths with honor and glory. We can resist, to the end, the forces that destroy community and restore hope and life to those who have abandoned the fight.
Only let us, like Beowulf, remain human to the end, remembering that glory is fleeting and that the battle, at least on earth, is never really won.
—A humble monk
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The featured image is “Sigurd and Fafnir” by Hermann Hendrich, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.