24 January 2012

Beowulf's Attitude to Crises, in Youth and Age

I've been thinking about whether Beowulf's attitude to danger has changed between his earlier victories over Grendel and his mother and his struggle with the dragon more than fifty years later.

In the earlier contests, he was not completely inexperienced, as he tells Hrothgar. He had bound up five giants, killed sea monsters, and "Unnumbered times/I avenged the woes that Weders suffered,/struck down the aggressors" (lines 420-425). However, as with any job interview, the applicant (Beowulf) puts the best face on his experience and skills. He tells Hrothgar that "the wisest carls" all "understand the strength I possess./They saw it themselves...." (lines 418-419). He does not mention that Hygelac's officers had little respect for him. In fact,
                                  He had borne distain;
the sons of Geats regarded him poorly.
Not much of honour on mead-benches
was allowed him by warriors' lords.
They called him lazy and lax in his ways,
no bold noble.
(lines 2183-2188). Here is the reason why Beowulf chooses "war without weapons" against Grendel. He needed to prove himself to a doubtful court. In fact, he almost admits just that to Hrothgar, saying
I have also heard the horrid being
in reckless fury fears no weapons.
I too forswear them, so Hygelac,
my high-born prince, will be proud at heart
that I bring no sword nor a broad shield
trimmed with yellow, but will try my grip
when I face this fiend, fighting for life,
foe against foe."
(lines 433-440). Fortunately, this worked, and Beowulf became celebrated at home. "Now all that changed," we are told, "for the man among men, each misery cancelled" (lines 2188-2189).

Beowulf, in the first contests, attributes victory to fate (which is personified as Wyrd) and to God, who can override fate, as much as to his strength. He admits God's role to Hrothgar: "Faith will be needed/for God’s will guides who goes with death" (lines 440-441). Also, Wyrd's: "Wyrd does as she must” (line 455). He also offers this observation: "Wyrd often saves him/whose doom has not come, if his courage lasts" (lines 572-3). The difficulty with this, of course, is that one does not know when one's doom has come. In one's last moments, it is near, but invisible. As a result, Beowulf automatically couples every statement of his intention to kill Grendel or his mother with a statement of what should be done if he dies. Before the fight with Grendel, he tells Hrothgar to "So make no provisions/for funeral offerings...But if I sink in death, send Hygelac/the wonderful armour worn over my breast..." (lines 450-454). Similarly, before he enters the water to fight Grendel's mother, he makes out an oral will: If I die, he says, look after my men, send the gifts I have won to Hygelac, and let Unferth keep my sword (lines 1479-1490).

So, how have decades of fame, rule, and aging altered Beowulf? His first thought, after the news of the dragon's depradations reaches him, is that he is to blame. He must have angered God by breaking some "ancient law." Later, he discovers the link between the dragon's anger and the theft of its cup, so his thought is focussed on revenge for the dragon's attack rather than atonement for his own sins, whatever they might be. This time, the habit of victory has made him confident that he will not disgrace himself in the fight.
                          He felt no concern,   
nor did he dread the dragon's fire,   
its power and courage because often,   
in desperate straits, he still survived
clashes of arms that came after he   
had cleansed Heorot for Hrothgar's sake   
with a killing grip for Grendel's clan,   
the loathed family line. 
(lines 2347-54)

That passage seems to state that Beowulf is confident that he will win his fight. However, it is more likely that his history of facing danger has made him confident that he will not disgrace himself with fear when he faces the dragon. If he were confident of victory, then certainly the confidence had eroded before he faces the beast. He senses his death.
The king sat on the cliffs, accustomed to war.
and welcomed his hearthmates with wishes for health,
the Geats' gold-friend, now given to sadness,
fretting and fierce, his fate beside him,
ready to greet the grey-haired man
to seize his soul's wealth, sever the link
of life and limb. No long time would
the noble's breath be bound in his flesh.
Unlike before, however, he does not directly speak of the possibility of his death. Instead, he reflects on his life and the death of lords before him: how Hrethel (now departed) had taken him in at the age of seven and treated him like one of his own sons. How one of those sons, Haethcyn, accidentally killed another, Herebeald. He then speaks an epic simile often called "The Father's Lament" (lines 2444-2462), which tells how the pain of a loved one's death is intensified if no justice can be found. He has clearly not recovered from the uncharacteristic gloomy thoughts that filled his mind when he heard of the dragon burning his home (lines 2331-2332).

Then Beowulf tells his men that they should not interfere in the fight and that it is in God's hands. In Benjamin Slade's translation of lines 2556-2557, Beowulf says it will "happen at the wall as Fate allots us,/the Creator of all men." He helps himself to his feet with the aid of his shield and calls out the dragon to fight.

Some facts indicate that Beowulf may have considered his own death was the most likely outcome in his fight against the dragon.
  1. Unlike before, he does not make a formal boast that he will win.
  2. Unlike before, he does not directly mention his possible death.
  3. Unlike before, he speaks at length about others' deaths.
  4. Unlike before, he speaks about the pain of not being able to have one's revenge.
  5. Like before, he indicates that God will determine who wins.
Against this is the fact that he makes no "will" to say what should happen if he dies. Nevertheless, I believe that his main concern was not achieving victory, but maintaining his custom of personal courage, so that he will not tarnish his reputation in this, most likely his last fight.

No comments:

Post a Comment