Prof. Eileen Joy
IS-399: Lord of the Rings and Medieval Heroic Poetry
Spring 2008

COURSE NOTES #1: The Heroic Tradition & Beowulf

Figure 1. still image from Beowulf and Grendel movie

*the following notes are a random pastiche of quotations taken from other sources:

Among the most moving and forceful statements of the heroic ethos is found in the late Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon (ll.103–109). The poem, which recounts a real historical event, is an excellent example of how history gets turned into heroic poetry. The disastrous defeat of the English forces is transformed by the poet's art into a moral victory. After Earl Byrhtnoth is slain by Viking invaders, the heroic ideal is expressed with classic simplicity by his retainer Byrhtwold. The kind of heroism these warriors embody is not based on superhero-like invincibility, but rather on their unswerving courage and loyalty in the face of inevitable defeat:

"Purpose shall be the firmer, heart the keener, courage shall be the more, as our might lessens. Here lies our lord all hewn down, good man on ground. Ever may he lament who now thinks to turn from war-play. I am old of life; from here I will not turn, but by my lord's side, by the man I loved, I intend to lie." (l.109)

[from the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1, 7th edition]

* * *

The Comitatus Group

"The chieftain of the comitatus, or small war band, is surrounded by noble warriors, his comites 'companions,' who have sworn to defend him with their lives. He, in turn, is unstintingly liberal in giving them gifts and weapons. . . . Their virtues were those of reckless and absolute personal courage, loyalty to one's chief; and on the chief's part, generosity and protection. The aim was glory--the fame of 'a good name' after death.

"In Old English heroic poetry, the chief was often called 'the gold-giver' . . . . [It] indicated the Germanic custom of taking the symbolic measure of a man's worth by the amount of gold he could win through valor. Thus, the chief, by his large-handed generosity, was asserting his confidence in his man's daring and courage in combats to come; and his follower, by accepting the chief's gift, was vowing an equally perfect fidelity. Tacitus* quite rightly emphasized the bloody-minded ferocity behind the comitatus oath, but it was still a noble bond between men and not very far from what we now call brotherly love."

*The Roman historian Tacitus described this heroic ideal in his treatise Germania, written in 98 A.D.; go here for excerpts to get a unique set of descriptions of German military culture at the end of the first century.

Revenge and the value of kinship

"Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, as in some Latin countries today, a man's kin were his strongest support in everyday affairs. If a man was killed, it was the duty of his kinsmen, however remotely related, to avenge him in kind. Naturally, this system led to long-standing, self-propelling vendettas. They might lie dormant for a generation or two and then erupt in a new rash of slayings.

"While blood for blood was the most satisfying form of repaying the wrongs done one's kin, an equally respectable and more customary method was a money payment called the wer-gild 'man-payment.'  This could be accepted by the kindred of the slain man without loss of face because each man's life had a set money value according to his standing in society."

The value of fame

"A man's good name on others' lips—in Old English lof  'fame, praise,' or dom, loosely 'the good judgment of others,' related to the verb 'deem'—was the final goal of the heroic life. It is no accident that the last word of the poem should be lof-geornost 'most eager for fame.'

"To achieve a place in such a world, a nobleman had to rely on his own personal strength, which is always an ambiguous force for others' good. . . . The Anglo-Saxons believed that life was a struggle against insuperable odds and that a man's wyrd or 'lot' would be what it would be. . . . . Even in early pagan days, they do not seem to have believed in a supernatural conception of Destiny. Wyrd originally meant simply 'what happens' . . . . Perhaps it was precisely because. . . life was potentially meaningless, that they looked to the heroic notion of personal fame to find the strength to resist wyrd. The Anglo-Saxons had an incomparable sense of the transience and pointlessness of mortal life. Only a man's name lived on, and then only in the mouths of others, usually the poets."

[from the commentary in Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition, by Howell D. Chickering, Jr.]

* * *

“. . . the virtues which Tacitus finds praiseworthy in the Germanic warriors were those virtues he found lacking in the Romans of his own day. Thus the Germania must be read as a work with a political and moral bias and is an unreliable guide to ‘historic’ details about either contemporary German barbarians or their post-migration descendants.”

“There has always been a conflict between the individual heroic ethics (in the pursuit of valor and reputation whatever the cost) and the requirement for prudent aggression from an established army. The daring risk (for example, Beowulf’s beot [boast] to fight Grendel without a sword) brings praise, reputation and treasure when made good, but is a problematic subject for verse when the hero is less obviously successful. The dramatic problem which the Maldon-poet had to treat was the simple and well-known fact that the English lost. Within the heroic tradition, the composer of a praise poem had limited options when his subject died in the middle of the battle and had part of his army run away in the process.
     Virtue was found in the necessity when the Maldon-poet chose for his commemoration a heroic idiom pressed to its extreme. Its austerity and remoteness from the realities tenth-century English military obligation provided a model of nobility in defeat . . . . The realm of the heroic lies apart from the mundane, and the poem locates the nobility of the English precisely in their excess,” but such “excess must necessarily involve for us a paradox. His [Byrhtnoth’s] noble decision to engage the enemy ultimately led to his death, but it is in his death, in part responsible for the following defeat, which ensures his glory. The heroic excess of Byrhtnoth’s men lies in their choice of death in battle. For them too, death transforms the army’s defeat into personal victory.”

[from Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, “Heroic Values and Christian Ethics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge]

* * *

A Comparative Context: Ancient India

Dharma, or "duty," is at the center of the Hindu way of thinking; with its stress on personal responsibility, the concept gives to Hinduism its particular stress on the centrality of humanity in the universe. The word comes from the Sanskrit word, dhri, which means "to sustain." It is dharma that sustains the cosmic order (Rita) of the universe.

Explicitly allied with the doctrine of samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth, is the concept that each action (karma) one takes causes other actions one takes in the future and has been caused by actions in the past. The life into which one is born has been caused by actions one has taken in the past; this is how Rita operates in the moral world. The life which one is born into can be related to other people's lives in terms of social position (the "four colors" or castes), occupation (jati), or stage of life or maturity. Each of these—social position, occupation, stage of life—has prescribed duties and obligations associated with them. Since one assumes this life as a necessary consequence of previous lives and previous actions, it follows that one should perform the prescribed duties of your life unflaggingly. Therefore, social organization and the functions and obligations of each social group has in Hinduism a broader justification than mere efficacy; one's life and the specific obligations incumbent on it are all manifestations in the physical and moral world of the moral order of the universe itself.

In the Bhagavadgita, Krishna teaches that one performs one's duty whether one intends to or not; dharma in this dialogue takes on a broader meaning to include knowledge. Although the actions one takes are predetermined by previous actions (which makes each human being somewhat like an automaton), one can still choose the manner in which one takes those actions. In the Gita, the manner in which one can take action is divided into three sets: dark inertia, passion, and lucidity. While duty is predecided, the individual relation to that duty (dark inertia, passion, lucidity) is within each person's control.


* * *

Tolkien on Beowulf the hero and the heroic tradition:

“Beowulf is not . . . the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy.”

“Let us by all means esteem the old heroes: men caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to the wall.”

“[Courage] is the great contribution of early Northern literature. This is not a military judgment. I am not asserting that, if the Trojans could have employed a Northern king and his companions, they would have driven Agammemnon and Achilles into the sea . . . . I refer rather to the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North. We due reserve we may turn to the tradition of pagan imagination as it survived in Icelandic. Of English pre-Christian mythology we know practically nothing. But the fundamentally similar heroic temper of ancient England and Scandinavia cannot have been founded on . . . mythologies divergent on this essential point. ‘The Northern Gods,’ [W.P.] Ker said, ‘have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, only it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason’—mythologically, the monsters—‘but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat no refutation.’ And in their war men are their chosen allies, able when heroic to share in this ‘absolute resistance, perfect because without hope.’ At least in this vision of the final defeat of the humane (and of the divine made in its image), and in the essential hostility of the gods and heroes on the one hand and the monsters on the other, we may suppose that pagan English and Norse imagination agreed.”

“But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.”

Tolkien on Beowulf the poem:

“So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts (such as the date and identity of Hygelac) that research has discovered. . . . The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctual historical sense—a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object. The lovers of poetry can safely study the art, but the seekers after history must beware lest the glamour of Poesis overcome them.”

“In Beowulf we have . . . an historical poem about the pagan past, or an attempt at one—literal historical fidelity founded on modern research was, of course, not attempted. It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels  in them something permanent and something symbolical.”

Tolkien on the criticism that Beowulf lacks a coherent, streadily advancing narrative:

“But the poem was not meant to advance, streadily or unsteadily. It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting’ an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death.”

Tolkien on how other critics had treated Beowulf [poorly, in his view]:

Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; it was inspired by emulation of Virgil, and is a product of the education that came in with Christianity; it is feeble and incompetent as a narrative; the rules of the narrative are cleverly observed in the manner of the learned epic; it is the confused product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons (that is a Gallic voice); it is a string of pagan lays edited by monks; it is the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian; it is a work of genius, rare and surprising in the period, though the genius seems to have been shown principally in doing something much better left undone (this is a very recent voice); it is a wild folk-tale (general chorus); it is a poem of an aristocratic and courtly tradition (same voices); it is a hotchpotch; it is a sociological, anthropological, archaeological document; it is a mythical allegory (very old voices these and generally shouted down, but not so far out as some of the newer cries); it is rude and rough; it is a masterpiece of metrical art; it has no shape at all; it is singularly weak in construction; it is a clever allegory of contemporary politics . . . ; its architecture is solid; it is thin and cheap (solemn voice); it is undeniably weighty (the same voice); it is a national epic; it is a translation from the Danish; it was imported by Frisian traders; it is a burden to English syllabuses; and (final universal chorus of all voices) it is worth studying.”

Tolkien on the critics themselves [ouch!]:

“For it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum treet to another. Noble animals, whose burbling is on occasion good to hear; but though their eyes of flame may sometimes prove searchlights, their range is short.”

Tolkien on the monsters in Beowulf:

“I would suggest . . . that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness. The key to the fusion-point of imagination that produced this point lies, therefore, in those very references to Cain which have often been used as a stick to beat an ass—taken as an evident sign (were any needed) of the muddled heads of early Anglo-Saxons. They could not, it was said, keep Scandinavian bogies and the Scripture separate in their puzzled brains. The New Testament was beyond their comprehension. . . . .
. . . . And in the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or muddled business, but a fusion that occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion.”

Tolkien on the sense of time and history in Beowulf:

“As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night. . . . We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. . . . He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse. Grendel inhabits the visible world and eats the flesh and blood of men; he enters their houses by the doors. The dragon wields a physical fire, and covets gold not souls; he is slain with iron in his belly. Beowulf’s byrne [corslet] was made by Weland, and the iron shield he bore against the serpent by his own smiths: it was not yet the breastplate of righteousness, nor the shield of faith for the quenching of all the fiery darts of the wicked.”

[from J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95]

* * *

“What exactly is the hero an idealization of? Do I identify with him as a representation of my ego?—or what I would like to be, or what I should be, or even (the possibilities are endless) what I most fear or hate? What if the hero, like God, were an idealized parent figure, with all the conflicted feelings that could involve?”

“ . . . in this little formula, ‘The lord fights for victory, the companions for the lord’ [from Tacitus], we can see the deeper problems of Germanic heroism: there are two heroic codes, one for the lord and one for his companions; and whereas the ethical principles pertaining to the latter are perfectly clear . . . no principle at all is educed to explain why a lord fights—except to win, to prove his valor, and to acquire the wealth needed to pay his men. No wonder it looked like pride and avarice to Christians. Even Tacitus saw the self-perpetuating circularity of violence in the structure of Germanic society, for which war was an economic system requiring valor and obedience, but not necessarily nobility of purpose.”

“ . . . heroism is usually tested against death, because the real issue of heroic behavior is how to engage necessity with freedom. Epics as diverse as Beowulf, Njalssaga, and The Nibelungenlied, as well as the ancient cycle of poems in the Edda, all offer us primarily models of heroic dying. It might fairly be said that in identifying with these heroes . . . [one] could have learned little else than how to die well—that is, how to embrace [one’s] fate freely and without fear.”

[from James W. Earl, Thinking About Beowulf]

* * *

 “Beowulf is a bloody poem. It dwells on death and lingers on the tearing of vertebrae, the severed arm, the burnt body. Grendel relishes blood . . . . But Grendel is not alone in desiring blood, the ethos of the heroic world demands it. There is, however, a crucial difference between Grendel’s desire for aggression and that of the heroic world he attacks. Grendel’s desire is channeled into the production of death; warriors, too, produce death, but their desires are channeled into a social ethos that ritualizes desire as heroic choice, thus ensuring the preservation of that ethos.”

“ . . . the only good hero, after all, is a dead one.”

[from Clare A. Lees, “Men and Beowulf”]