Welcome back to the discussion of what's fantastic in everyone's favorite Anglo-Saxon monster story, Beowulf. If you read March's column, you'll remember that we covered a bit of the story's background—remember the Nowell codex, and the Migration Age? We also looked into the background of the story's first big-name monster, Grendel, who is mysteriously linked to the cursed descendants of Cain as well as elves and ogres, and has been roaming the fens of Iron Age Scandinavia and killing warriors in their sleep. This month, I'd like to get deeper into a few aspects of the weirdness, magic, and heroism in this excellent thousand-year-old tale.
But before that, I'd like to address a quick point: what, after all (one might ask), is this Anglo-Saxon epic doing in an SF magazine in the first place? That's because Beowulf—like so many of the old stories that I've written about here, and hope to write about in future—is not only a cornerstone of the English literary tradition, but also a rollicking tale full of monsters, heroes, and magic. I figure we're all interested in the English tradition of reading (or we wouldn't be reading a fiction magazine in the first place, right?) And since, I further figure, some of us must have a fondness for magic and monsters, I conclude (actually this is subjective, but I'm immovably convinced of it) that it is pretty darn interesting to think and to talk about how the stories we like to call "the classics," which are the building blocks of all the realistic and respectable and "grown-up" stories we tell each other in our funny old language, have their roots in tales of wizardry and wildness and the supernatural. Personally, I find those origin stories totally fascinating. And I'm hoping some of you folks do, too.
Also, I really, really wanted to talk to you about how Beowulf worked its way into Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, because I am that type of geek. So here we go!
To return to the story at hand: in the last column, I mentioned a few things about the background of the Beowulf story. Set in Iron Age Scandinavia, it was first written down in early Christian England, which accounts for a few of the cultural self-contradictions. Near the beginning of the story, our hero Beowulf himself takes the stage. He's all you could want in a proto-Viking hero: a young nobleman of the Swedish Geat people, he is "high-born and powerful," as the poet tells us. "In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth . . . There was no one else like him alive" (lines 196-8).
Having heard about a monster wreaking havoc in the territory of King Hrothgar (which lies in what is now Denmark), Beowulf orders up one of his ships and, with fourteen trusted warriors, sails over to see. They get a hearty welcome from the Danes and are treated to a rousing feast, complete with meat, mead, and minstrels (really!). When night falls, Beowulf and his men set up in the mead-hall to wait for Grendel, the monster in question, to creep in for his nightly harrowing. When Grendel arrives, Beowulf gives him a nasty surprise—battling him without armor or weapons, and finally defeating him in a fatal arm-wrestling match that ends with Beowulf ripping Grendel's arm off with his bare hands, leaving the monster, terrified and defeated, to flee back into the marshes to die.
This is only the first of the three major battles in Beowulf: as anyone who's ever played a video game knows, the first boss is not the final one, and there are still two more battles and two more impressive beasts to come.
There's a lot more to the story Beowulf than just the monsters, though. And in this column I'd like to talk about three aspects of the story that I find most intriguing, especially with regard to later fantasy stories: magic weapons, boasting, and creepy landscapes. Without more ado, then, let's move on to Point the First:
So, for me, this is one of the major things that always evoke Tolkien when I'm reading Beowulf. I don't mean to say exactly that Tolkien cribbed his business from Beowulf (although, in some places, he did; but that's OK—when it comes from the classics, it's called "homage"). It might be more accurate to say that I'm always struck by how deeply Beowulf, and other stories like it, influenced Tolkien in his creation of his own mythical world. After all, Tolkien was a professor of Old English, and wrote very influentially about the literary and fantastic elements in Beowulf. He was, in his own way, a fan.
These days, anyone who's read any fantasy at all finds the concept of magic weapons and armor to be so commonplace as to be a given, practically a cliché. Those who are interested in genre writing and its discontents sometimes, I'm told, go so far as to refer to such things as "plot coupons."
If you are like me, your earliest exposure to magic items in stories may have been in Tolkien, or possibly in Dungeons & Dragons, or stories about Greek or Norse or Roman myths. (Of course, it might also have been a talking hat, or a Sorcerer Supreme, or a magical girl in a little skirt. I understand that times change; but for now, I'll stick to talking about what I know.)
If your worldview was shaped by Tolkien, then it probably seems very natural to you that magic swords and talismans exist in the world. In Tolkien's world, and the worlds of his contemporaries and his imitators, such objects had usually been made by dwarves or elves, a Very Long Time ago; or by someone who used to be a dwarf or elf or angel before he turned bad—you know the drill. When a person who likes to read fantasy gets old enough to learn a little bit about folklore, shee discovers interesting parallels. For example: in the old European myths, insofar as the gods and demigods had awesome stuff that they used in their day-to-day deity-ing, their gear had usually been made by people legendary in their own right. Among the Norse gods, for instance, Thor's magic hammer Mjölnir and Freyr's magic ship Skidbladnir were forged by the dwarves (or dark elves, the Svartálfar). For the Greek gods, Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, did this work, furnishing Hermes' shield and winged sandals, Apollo's sun-chariot, and a laundry list of other fabulous items.
At some point, reading these tales, it's possible that, like me, you started to become interested in the connections between stories and history. Did the people who told these ancient myths believe there really were magic objects in the world? If so, where did they think they had come from? Reading Beowulf—which is, in many ways, something that lies right between a myth and a made-up-for-fiction's-sake story — one finds some very interesting takes on objects of this kind. For instance, Beowulf's armor. The Beowulf poet puts tremendous weight and importance on this. When the hero is ushered into King Hrothgar's mead-hall, for example, the poet tells us that Beowulf stands "on the hearth / in webbed links that the smith had woven, / the fine-forged mesh of his gleaming mail-shirt, / resolute in his helmet . . . " (ll. 403-406). This sort of thing comes up over and over again. Similarly, there's a lot of metonymic talk about "bristling boars" glittering over men's faces, when what the poet's actually talking about are the boar-shaped ornaments that adorned the helmets of warriors in this culture—boars being, according to my edition of the tale, "an emblem of ferocity in war" (p. 21).
Clearly, armor is very important in such a heroic (read: violent) context as Beowulf's. Later, we'll hear how his chain-mail shirt has been the only thing standing between him and death when he waged battle against sea monsters in the open ocean; and it will save his life again when he battles the epic's Monster #2 down in a slimy pool. In this world armor had a real, obvious protection value, one that's easy for us to overlook in these days when we're so rarely called on to battle men—or monsters. "[H]is mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail / . . . would keep the bone-cage of his body safe: / no enemy's clasp could crush him in it, / no vicious armlock choke his life out" (ll. 1443-1447).
But Beowulf's armor has something extra about it, something even more special than the standard bone-cage protection option. His chainmail coat ("breast-webbing," or a "byrnie," as translator Seamus Heaney likes to call it) was purportedly forged by the legendary Weland, a master smith. Weland is not just anyone. According to John Niles, the illustrations editor of my edition of Beowulf (I discussed my rhapsodic pleasure in this edition in my previous column), "the equivalent figure in the Old Norse tradition, Völundr, was king of the elves." In case that weren't interesting enough, my book shows a photo of an eighth-century ivory doodad called the Franks Casket, on which Weland appears at his forge receiving a visit from some ladies. "A detail of the carving," the book points out, "shows the decapitated torso of one of his enemies lying before him" (pp. 28-29). Clearly this is not a smith to mess with.
After the supernatural weaponsmiths, my favorite thing about Beowulf's weapons are the named swords. In Beowulf's world, everyone needs a sword, but not all swords are created equal; the best ones have names of their own. One of the swords Beowulf uses when he confronts Monster #2, for example, is loaned to him by a fellow named Unferth (remember his name, because it'll come up again!). Unferth hands to Beowulf
. . . a hilted weapon,
a rare and ancient sword named Hrunting.
The iron blade with its ill-boding patterns
had been tempered in blood. It had never failed
the hand of anyone who hefted it . . .
it had been called on to perform heroic feats.
Later, doing battle in the monster's underwater lair, Beowulf spots and seizes a sword still more special—this one is "an ancient heirloom / from the days of the giants, an ideal weapon" (ll. 1558-9). Plus, this sword has special powers: it can slay a monster where other swords fail. What's more, it has runic markings on the handle to announce to the world for whom it was first made.
A sword wrought by giants, in an earlier age of the world, and inscribed with the runic writing that carried such overtones of magic and power to these people . . . that's a powerful and wonderful artifact indeed! And, if you know Tolkien well, it evokes all kinds of things from his books. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of elf-wrought swords, with benign powers and bearing their own names; coats of mail forged by the dwarves from mystical metals that save the wearer from what would otherwise be certain doom; and objects inscribed with rune-like words of power that only show up under certain lights, or in the presence of certain magic. Beowulf also has many scenes of kings giving away golden rings to their loyal warriors, and, of course, Tolkien also had a certain interest in rings . . . but let's not get started on that.
Let's step on now to take a look at the curious phenomenon of
In Beowulf, boasting shows up quite as often as magic swords and is frequently just as entertaining. When you're reading the story, you notice that an awful lot of it goes on, mostly in the contexts of mead-hall feasts or when a person needs to introduce himself to a king; or, alternately, just before or after battling a monster. I find the boasts interesting partly because they often relate abbreviated versions of the hero's earlier adventures, thus setting us up for some of the tale's most astonishing, and exaggeratedly fantastic, moments.
Boasts seem to serve a more or less ritualistic purpose in Beowulf's world. Among other things, a hero's boast acts as his statement of purpose: his self-justification for being who and what he is, as well as a reiteration of any offers of help he may have made and of his certainty that he can do the job at hand. Our hero offers such a boast when he first appears before the Danish king; then he boasts again to the queen while they're eating, and then one more time after dinner, just before going into battle with Grendel—apparently for his own satisfaction.
I suspect that boasting is not the sort of thing we associate with today's conventional fantasy heroes. Not "real" heroes, at any rate. We see boasting as a sign of vanity, after all, and the conventional fantasy hero is modeled more after the ideal Arthurian knight, for whom modesty, like chastity, is a Christian virtue. But Beowulf is a pre-Christian hero, and his boasting seems to give him, and us, more confidence in his skill. Consider this rather fabulous statement to King Hrothgar as Beowulf stands before him in his hall: "Every elder and experienced councilman / among my people supported my resolve / to come here to you, King Hrothgar," Beowulf tells him, "because all knew of my awesome strength. / They had seen me bolstered in the blood of my enemies / when I battled and bound five beasts, / raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea / slaughtered sea-brutes" (ll. 415-422).
Pretty impressive stuff, huh? It's hard for me to imagine a standard contemporary fantasy hero announcing himself in such a way. In this cultural context, though, it seems to work like a well-designed resume or a good letter of recommendation: King Hrothgar is visibly impressed, putting his trust in Beowulf. And . . . oh, yes! As it happens, this boast also provides the opportunity for that guy called Unferth—remember him?—to stick in his oar.
Unferth, it has always seemed to me, is probably a model for the character known by Tolkien fans as Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings. (Wormtongue is a not-very-nice yes-man who lives in King Théoden's court and has designs on the king's niece Éowyn. Even if he's slightly forgettable in the books, I'll bet you haven't forgotten him if you've seen him played by Brad Dourif in the films.) In Beowulf, Unferth is introduced this way:
. . . From where he crouched at the king's feet,
Unferth, a son of Ecglaf's, spoke
Contrary words. Beowulf's coming,
His sea-braving, made him sick with envy:
He could not brook or abide the fact
That anyone else alive under heaven
Might enjoy greater regard than he did.
Sounds like a jealous coward, if you ask me, and a bad courtier. You can always tell the bad courtiers, because they crouch.
Jealous and vexed, Unferth asks Beowulf an uncomfortable question. He says—but here I will paraphrase, because otherwise it would go on too long:
"Aren't you the Beowulf I've heard about who supposedly held a swimming contest with a guy named Breca? Didn't he win? I heard you two went out in the middle of the ocean, in winter—which sounds pretty stupid if you ask me—and I heard he outlasted you and washed up in Norway."
Unferth further drives home the point that possibly Beowulf's boasts aren't worth as much as he thinks they are, and inquires whether he is not concerned that, if he insists on staying in the hall tonight as planned, Grendel might, you know, eat him.
Naturally, Beowulf is unflapped. What comes out next, in his reply to Unferth, is one of the coolest mini-stories in the poem. Beowulf first prefaces his answer by noting that he and Breca have been friends and rivals since childhood, and then:
Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say . . .
But it was mostly beer
doing the talking.
"The truth is this," Beowulf says:
I was the strongest swimmer of all . . .
Each of us swam holding a sword,
a naked, hard-proofed blade for protection
against the whale-beasts. But Breca could never
move out farther or faster from me
than I could manage to move from him.
Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on
for five nights . . .
Please note, at this point, a few things about this swimming contest: A) The sea is infested with monsters. B) Both competitors are carrying swords, and also wearing armor. C) They have been swimming for five days straight.
And that's just the beginning! On the sixth day, a howling wind and sudden nightfall drive the two swimmers apart. "The deep boiled up," says Beowulf,
and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild.
My armor helped me to hold out . . .
a fine, close-fitting filigree of gold,
kept me safe when some ocean creature
pulled me to the bottom. Pinioned fast
and swathed in its grip, I was granted one
final chance: my sword plunged
and the ordeal was over.
But only for a moment!
Time and again, foul things attacked me,
lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
gave as good as I got with my sword.
My flesh would not be for feasting on,
there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating
over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.
And then—as if he doesn't have everyone's eyes on him by this point, as if everyone in the mead-hall right about now isn't either afire with jealousy or weak-kneed with lust for him—Beowulf delivers the coup de grâce: "Now I cannot recall / any fight you entered, Unferth, / that bears comparison" (581-3).
And Unferth goes down!
I love this little story for several reasons. One is that it's so hysterically, hyperbolically oversized. Sure, Beowulf and Breca swam for seven days and nights to settle a bet—isn't that the kind of thing young guys are always getting up to? Then there's the sense of logical practicality that leads from the bet directly into the adventure. Of course they have to carry swords if they're going to swim across the North Sea. Everybody knows there are sea monsters there!
And then, finally, there's Beowulf's delightful precision about the details. He was in the water for exactly seven nights. He can tell us where he washed ashore (Finland), and, as he specifies to his listeners, he killed no fewer and no more than nine sea-beasts (ll. 574-5). The exactness of the detail, run together with the extraordinary hyperbole of the situation, makes for one of those story-moments I most relish, in which you feel caught and levitating, suspended between the sense of the pedestrian and of the fantastic. The limbo of the real, if you like. It's a kind of feeling that you don't get from tales of the gods, or from fantasy novels, but that you do sometimes get from stories that are rooted in history, telling us about people who might have been real people. These are the stories that make you wonder, maybe a little sheepishly, in your rational and modern heart: was the world really like this once? Did humans do, and believe, such things? It's one of the reasons I love stories like this. It's one of the reasons, I think, reading old things is wonderful.
While we're on the topic of swimming (this is a segue, in case you hadn't noticed), I'd like to make a few observations about landscapes in Beowulf. Specifically, I'd now like to draw your attention to
THE SCARIEST LAKE IN THE WORLD.
On the surface (ha! Get it?), landscapes may not seem all that relevant to a heroic saga. After all, it's battles and monsters that really matter, right? But to the Beowulf poet, landscape did matter, a lot. And it matters to the editors of my excellent edition of the book. Niles and Heaney have spent much time and care in selecting photos to evoke the creepiness of Beowulf's terrain: images of tangled tree-roots and knotted branches, narrow wooden footpaths leading through marshes, hills and black forest-fringe at dusk. The tale is very much one that sets the terrors of the outside world—the old, dark world, from before humans came—against the firelight and protection offered by civilization. In a world like this, the way you know something's gone horribly wrong is that creatures from the outer night invade human houses and bring the dark inside.
I don't suppose that, here, I have to recap here who Grendel is. You read about that in the last column, right? Similarly, you already know where he comes from: Grendel is part of "Cain's clan," dwelling in misery "among the banished monsters." He "haunt[s] the marches, marauding round the heath / and the desolate fens" (ll. 103-107). And you've already read about Beowulf's roof-shaking battle with Grendel—a bare-handed, terrible combat that nearly knocks Heorot hall off its foundations, and concludes with Grendel fleeing back to the swamps, mortally wounded, with Beowulf triumphantly gripping the bloody arm that he's ripped off at the shoulder.
In the narrative, the Danes, naturally, greet this with much awe and joy. Beowulf is acclaimed, Hrothgar loads him with gifts, and a new era of freedom and prosperity is heralded for the Danes. But, as anyone reading might guess, the first battle is not the last. This story has two more chapters; and in this case, Monster #2 turns out to be—of all people—Grendel's mom. How exactly this is revealed, and what it suggests, is a story better left for the final Beowulf column (and enough space to do it justice). Here, let it just be briefly mentioned that, as the Danes sleep in what they think is their newfound safety, the mead-hall is invaded one more time by Grendel's terrible mother, who snatches one of King Hrothgar's counselors and carries him off to her lair.
In the morning, among distress and sorrow, Hrothgar's warriors track Grendel's mother back to her lair: a mere, or lake, where she lurks below the water. The men cannot follow her down there. Beowulf alone among them will be bold enough to dive in, armor and weapons and all, to fight her underwater.
This watery lair is described with considerable detail, and more than a little creepiness:
[A] frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by sons of men.
. . . [T]he hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
It sure sounds creepy to me. It sounded creepy to me the first time I read this story, too, for my freshman Survey of English Literature class in college. What's more, it rang a bell: it got me thinking of—you guessed it! He's back for one more visit—Tolkien.
I recently went back and looked at the passage from The Lord of the Rings that Grendel's mother's mere brings to my mind. Now, I won't assume that everyone reading this is such a huge Tolkien dork that you can call to mind, off the cuff, the description of the pool of water in front of the gates of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. (I mean, just because I am . . .) But I'll beg your patience to quote a few lines from the passage, and you can make the comparison yourself.
This section comes shortly after the group of adventurers have left Rivendell; bad snowstorms prevented them from making the mountain crossing over Mount Caradhras, so they're taking the low road to pass under the mountain, via the gates of Moria. Here they're approaching the mountain gate.
Behind them the sinking Sun filled the cool western sky with glimmering gold. Before them stretched a dark still lake. Neither sky nor sunset were reflected on its sullen surface . . . Beyond the ominous water reared vast cliffs, their stern faces pallid in the fading light: final and impassable.
. . . As Sam, the last of the Company, led Bill up on to the dry ground on the far side, there came a soft sound: a swish, followed by a plop, as if a fish had disturbed the still surface of the water. Turning quickly they saw ripples, black-edged with shadow in the waning light: great rings were widening outwards from a point far out in the lake. There was a bubbling noise, and then silence. The dusk deepened, and the last gleams of the sunset were veiled in cloud. (pp. 314-316)
I dunno—what do you think? Maybe it's just me. But remembering how into Beowulf Tolkien was, I kept finding myself thinking that he must have had Grendel's mom's pool in mind.
Consider, then, too, that in Beowulf King Hrothgar's men, looking into the mere, find it infested with water-monsters—a sort of miniaturized version of the sea serpents Beowulf described fighting earlier on.
The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles.
There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes by the cliff,
serpents and wild things . . .
Down they plunged,
lashing in anger at the loud call
of the battle-bugle. An arrow got one of them
as he surged to the surface . . .
He was swiftly overwhelmed in the shallows,
prodded by barbed boar-spears,
cornered, beaten, pulled up on the beach,
a strange lake-birth, a loathsome catch
men gazed at in awe.
Hmm! Very interesting. Now, what happens in Tolkien again?
Frodo felt something size him by the ankle, and he fell with a cry. . . . The others swung round and saw the waters of the lake seething, as if a host of snakes were swimming up from the southern end.
Out of the water a long sinuous tentacle had crawled; it was pale-green and luminous and wet. Its fingered end had hold of Frodo's foot, and was dragging him into the water. Sam on his knees was now slashing at it with a knife.
The arm let go of Frodo, and Sam pulled him away, crying out for help. Twenty other arms came rippling out. The dark water boiled, and there was a hideous stench.
The party barely manages to flee up the stairway and through the gates into the mountain before, "with horrible strength," "many coiling arms" writhe out of the water, slam shut the doors behind them and barricade the gates with boulders and trees. "With a shattering echo they slammed, and all light was lost. A noise of rending and crashing came dully through the ponderous stone" (322).
It's an effective scene, I think—one that stays with you, whether you're reading the story or seeing it in full slithery CGI animation onscreen. Of course, I can't say for sure whether Tolkien had Beowulf's beast-infested mere consciously in mind when he came up with his own dark lake, and the tentacled creature he called only the Watcher in the Water. But the latter scene had made a strong enough impression on me to make me greet the writhing lake in Beowulf with a shiver of recognition. And I suspect (and hope) it's been the inspiration for many another uncanny mere, in stories of the past and yet to come. Because, really, it's just too good an image—too creepy, too archetypal, too classic— not to be echoed and touched back on by other writers. Isn't that, after all, the best part of the legacy that our classic stories bequeath to us? Isn't that why they last in the first place?
Next month: the third and last part of the discussion of Beowulf, with word-hoards, sneak thieves, and—best and worst of all—the dragon. I'll see you all then!
 For more information on Tolkien's influential lecture and article, entitled "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," consider consulting this Wikipedia page, or this review at the Medieval Forum hosted at San Francisco State University. The full essay is collected in Tolkien's The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays (HarperCollins, 1997).
For further reading on plot coupons, consult Nick Lowe's witty and scathing (and not very pro-Tolkien) original essay from Ansible.
Heaney, Seamus (translator). Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. Illustrations edited and with an afterword by John D. Niles. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Book Two, "A Journey in the Dark." Boston and Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin and The Riverside Press, 1965.