Saturday, June 21, 2008

Saving Beowulf, or, Stories of Love and/or Loss?

by Mary Kate Hurley



Deep night lay over the three small buildings of the last steading of the Waegmundings. Three buildings. Even so, it was too big, thought Aelfhere, Elder of Cland Waegmunding. His clan was dying out.

It’s not a familiar beginning to Beowulf, but it is a beginning for this poem, particularly if you’re looking at the version by Welwyn Wilton Katz. The version is written with an audience of children in mind, and therefore isn’t quite the tale we’re familiar with through Heaney or Klaeber. Rather, Katz takes one of the most important characters – Wiglaf – and, in telling of Beowulf’s exploits, makes Wiglaf the central character. Essentially, Katz begins from an idea that, as Beowulf and Wiglaf are related through the Waegmunding line, perhaps there was what he calls a “genetic kink” that allowed Beowulf to perform all his feats. Wiglaf, then, is given the gift of “true sight” – which would of course account for his “vision” at the end of the poem.

Wiglaf hears the story of Beowulf from his grandfather – Aelfhere. Aelfhere seems to be a scop, called skald, in this story, singing the tale of Beowulf for his grandson. Then they go to meet the king, and of course, the fight with the dragon comes (as it must). But what’s interesting is when the poem-retold ends:
“Of men he was mildest and most generous,” sang Wiglaf with the rest. “To his kin he was kindest, and more than any other king, he was keenest for praise.

Aelfhere did not sing. Many skalds and later bards made stories of Beowulf and his fight with the dragon, but never Aelfhere. Of the ending of Beowulf, these were the only words Aelfhere ever said:

“You should know, oh, Geats, that when a man looks for praise, it is often love that he truly seeks.”

When people heard these words they did not understand. Beowulf of the Geats had been a great king and a great man. He had always had their love.

Always.
Now, I’ve got a long history of overanalyzing and collecting all modern remakings of everyone’s favorite Anglo-Saxon epic. But I think this last part is worth pointing out, particularly as it seems to engaging in some of the same moves some of the poem’s other modern incarnations have, and it raises a really important question.

To be precise: Is Beowulf about love?

I don’t mean romantic, although we could raise that point: think of how each of the more recent Beowulf movies creates a romantic pairing – Selma in Beowulf and Grendel and Grendel’s Mom (!) in Beowulf . And here we see a question of comraderie and caring, raised at the death of a king. To me it always seems a bit far-fetched – Beowulf as a character must be alone, for reasons I’m hard-pressed to work out, although I think it has something to do with his inability to play both the king and the hero of his story. If there is any kind of interest in love in Beowulf, it seems to me that it must be a modern interest. We’re the ones who are interested in who loves him, who cares for him – we’re the ones who are always trying to save Beowulf from being alone when we re-tell the story.

A possibility that only just now suggests itself to me is the similarity between lof and the modern love – this may somewhat explain Katz’s choice in Aelfhere’s explication of that final line of Beowulf, which is a brilliant way to think through the end of the poem in a way children can understand. But the question remains, and as we Beowulf lovers edged out other first lines by quite a bit in the last poll, perhaps this might be an ideal time to raise these questions: What is the point of the poem Beowulf? Do any modern re-tellings pick up on it? And more importantly – when we look into this poem, and perhaps the Anglo-Saxon past more generally – where’s the love?

cross posted at OENYC.

10 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

Oh my god, is this the mother-lode of all questions, or what? Did you really ask what the meaning of the poem is? Crikey! I've written reams and reams on just *that* and I still don't know. More tomorrow when I'm less tired, but all kidding aside, thanks for this very provocative post, MKH.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I had a moment of mortal fear - did I really just ask what the poem means? How unanswerable am I trying to be?

Luckily I didn't really ask for the meaning. Just the "point," which seems to me to be even more nebulous. Given who I learned this poem from, you'd think I'd know better than to think we'll ever get out in writing all that this poem can mean. :)

To clarify...what themes come out in Beowulf through its sequels, its retellings? Is it a poem about love? Is there any love in it at all? Or is that something we're adding in modernity? Why are contemporary interpretations not "okay" with a Beowulf who's alone? Or are they, or we? Or is the poem?

Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: you may be sorry you asked, but in my current [and way overdue] book project ["Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History"], I have thought of the question of love in "Beowulf," a lot, but mainly through the ideas/topoi of memorialization/acts of & desires for remembrance and the erotic. So, if you will indulge it, I am going to copy an extract here from a paper I presented in the past related to this project and directly related to your questions here about "Beowulf" and love:

*****

[the following except is from a paper I gave at Kalamazoo in 2002, "The Time of _Beowulf_ is Infinite in Every Direction"]

III. Marking/Loving the Dead

One of the most provocative and insistent questions of history is, “what do the dead want from us?” Suffice to say, there is not enough time in the world to adequately answer this question, but I want to suggest that it is that very question that resonates throughout "Beowulf," and lends to it a very modern insistency. The poem is infinitely complex with regard to the question, but one of the possible answers it provides is that the dead want to be marked–they want to be “written,” as it were, into the future. They want to matter in the present that follows after them. Beowulf himself represents what Walter Benjamin called “the secret heliotropism” by which “the past strives to turn toward the sun which is rising in the sky of history,” and he calls attention to the relationship between memory and “marking” (or, writing), when he conveys to Wiglaf, just before dying, his request that “the battle-warriors will command that a bright mound be built . . . high on the whale-cliffs.” (ll. 2802-05) Beowulf desires this not only as a "gemyndum" ("reminder") for his people, but also as a marker to future seafarers “when their ships drive from afar over the darkness of the flood” (ll. 2806-08) to keep Beowulf in mind. Beowulf’s desire to be marked with a memorial built high on a hill where it will be seen by travelers passing by on their ships, which ships can only come to Beowulf’s grave from a future that is now forever out of his grasp, can be seen as a desire to be kept alive as the marker of a particular historical moment, or memory.

Beowulf's wish for a memorial also calls to mind Levinas's erotic caress of the future, in which the hero, just prior to death, always glimpses a last chance. And this caress is erotic, not because, following Freud, it is a "grasping" or "possessing" that seeks power over the Other through fusion, but because, in the more radical way Levinas defines it, it is a reaching out toward what is always "about to come" ("a venir") and which the ethical hero recognizes he cannot actually touch, yet reaches for anyway. It is the heroic gesture par excellence--a reaching through death toward life--that signifies the desire to be with the Other in the future in a voluptuousness of Being.

But the memorial, seen from afar, is also blank, and accretes with time, not memory, but forgetfulness. The last epithet applied to Beowulf by the poet, that he was “eager for fame” ("lofgeornost"), has often led critics to assume that Beowulf’s greatest sin (in the eyes of the poet) was his pride, perhaps even, his too-great faith in himself at the expense of a faith in a Christian God or a “hereafter,” but I want to suggest that Beowulf was always focused on the “hereafter” of the always-present world, and his desire to be “marked” in that present world is also a kind of erotic longing for an embrace with that place -- more specifically, with what is vital and alive in it.

I want to consider here a juxtaposition of images of embraces with the dead that detail that embrace’s erotic nature, and also raise some disturbing questions about how we in the present can most properly remember the past and mark the dead, especially with relation to traumatic history. Stanley Spencer, one of the three most important English figurative painters of the twentieth century, along with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, spent a good deal of his life working on massive visionary canvasses that fused the everyday life of the English village he lived in, Cookham, with the spiritual and the erotic, and he believed that “true modernity necessitated reclamation of the past.” One of the recurring themes of his work was resurrection--the first of these, painted from 1924-27, was "The Resurrection: Cookham." Shortly after this, in 1932, he painted one of his most important works, "The Resurrection of the Soldiers," which was part of a monumental cycle of paintings commemorating World War I that was installed at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere.

The painting shows the soldiers climbing out of their graves bearing white crosses and reuniting with their dead comrades in all manner of embrace. The men are touching everything and also clasping each other--some men (in the background of the painting) are lying close to the mules, one man kneels at Christ’s side, his head in his lap, one man caresses a turtle, while another clasps a dove to his chest. Of the painting, Spencer, who was a soldier in the war, wrote, “During the war, I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree or form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it. These are the joyful inheritances of mankind.” On a more personal level, Spencer’s painting, "Welcoming Hilda," painted in 1953 after his first and estranged wife’s death from cancer, represented his reunion with her after death, as husband, father, and lover.

Spencer had betrayed Hilda on more than one occasion, and not long after divorcing her in order to marry the painter Patricia Preece-–a union that proved to be disastrous--he regretted his decision and spent years urging Hilda for a reconciliation. Only when she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer did she allow him back, in order to have him with her as she was dying. In the painting, everyone has been returned to a time before the initial break with Hilda--Spencer himself is a young man, and his two daughters, who were in their twenties when Hilda died, are children again. The tone is one of tentative, yet physical joyfulness in which all arms caress and embrace Hilda’s body, but tellingly, Hilda looks away as Spencer kisses her.

This image points to one of the more troubling aspects of what we might call the return of the departed, which is also the return of history, and of history’s Others in the present. In Toni Morrison’s novel "Beloved," the return to 124 Bluestone Road of the daughter, Beloved, who was murdered by her own mother, Sethe, in order to ensure that she would never grow up as a slave, is at first a somewhat joyous occasion for Sethe, who sees a chance to undo her earlier crime and reclaim her lost child, but Beloved’s entrance into the house as a physical presence (literally, from the stream behind the house) is at first preceded by a terrible haunting of that house, in which the ghosts of the past rattle the living out of their wits. One by one, from the time of the initial haunting through the arrival and then tenancy of “the fully dressed woman [who] walked out of the water,” all the members of the household, including Sethe’s sons (Howard and Bulgar), her lover, Paul D., and other daughter, Denver, are forced out of the house until it is just Sethe and Beloved, who continually insists to all the other members of the household who try to help and love her, “She [Sethe] is the one. She is the one I need. . . . she is the one I have to have.” And, as Morrison’s narrator puts it, Sethe was “licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes.” Beloved’s “wanting” of Sethe leads to a type of harrowing possession--both physical and psychic--where Sethe, finally alone in the house with Beloved, and cut off from the rest of her social community, becomes locked in what Dominick LaCapra, following Freud, would call the repetitive, compulsive “acting out” of the past, in which “the past is performatively regenerated or relived as if it were fully present rather than represented in memory.”

Beloved, waxing into grotesque proportions in her somewhat obscene pregnancy--for how can the dead give birth? [but this, of course, is also a metaphor: the present, or future, cannot be “born” out of the traumatic past without horror]--grows increasingly angry, accusing Sethe of having left her behind where “the dead men lay on top of her,” but when Sethe begs her forgiveness, Beloved won’t give it, and when Sethe herself becomes angry, Beloved turns violent, breaking plates and windowpanes, thereby keeping in motion the melancholic-manic cycle which, apparently, cannot be broken.

But what does Beloved want? At one point in the novel, Beloved, wishing to be pregnant, seduces Paul D. by telling him she wants to be touched “on the inside part” and for someone to call out her name. Paul D. resists at first, but when he does finally give in, he loses himself in the calling of that name, just as Sethe eventually loses her mind. In the end, all that is left of Beloved--and the same could be said of Beowulf--is her name, which both marks and fills her absence.

*****

dan remein said...

Why are contemporary interpretations not "okay" with a Beowulf who's alone?

Beautiful.

And, for both of you above, as much as I (as a poet) get all my feathers ruffled when people ask me about the point or the meaning of a poem (sure, a poem has a point, I think to myself, the one it uses to chop off heads, visa vis E. Dickinson's poem-test--a poem doesn't mean, it caresses, or smacks, or cuts, etc.), I must say that the kind of un-answerability you fear is not the kind you've produced. What beautiful questions, seriously, Mary Kate.

I like Eileen's concern here which seems to suggest that this question forces us to ask, that is, of Beowulf , as a thing with all its historical sedimentation--not what Beowulf was, but what the future of Beowulf will be [and here I just prefer a future tense more forceful than that of Mdn Eng., say French or Italian, ce qu'il sera ]--forces us to think the relationship between Love and Memory, Erotics and History, Community and Future:

Beowulf was always focused on the “hereafter” of the always-present world, and his desire to be “marked” in that present world is also a kind of erotic longing for an embrace with that place -- more specifically, with what is vital and alive in it.

This puts Beowulf, his longing for to be named, the absense his name marks, in a whole web of relations to the World (as in the horizon of his mortal life, wer-earld), to Language, and to history, which depend on the gravities of Love to move them around and keep them going. Love would seem to be the theater in which all this happens.

And yet, additionally, this is all just built into the problems of language. This is the beauty of the Lucian Freud quote Eileen provides: “true modernity necessitated reclamation of the past.” The line between lovingly caressing the chalk-outline of an absence/loss marked by a name, and a religious attempt to resurrect the past is a fine one. And, this shows us just how much we are contemporaries (we queer-heterotopian free-spirit medievalists) at times with even the most chilling of Modernists (the medievalists Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, for example).

So, Mary Kate, I love how you demand that we ask about what event stirs when Beowulf is named now. All of this is to say that Beowulf may not be about love, have love in it, or anything like that. The play of being alone, being present, being dead, being human (etc) and being in time seem so related here. Beowulf appears so often, in the 'present' narration of the poem to actually be in Heorot, in a boat with his men, etc. But the temporal dimension of being alone emerges most clearly in those moments in which he approaches that state of a something in the past which, eventually, will reach out to us from the future: when he goes to Grendel's mother, when he is in that swimming-race.

The poem now, for us, has the effect of forcing us to ask to what extent love and language might be better yolked in our own thinking and loving, mourning and writing.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I wrote a very long response to this last night and as I sent it in, my computer ate it! I'm attempting to remember it all now, but the coffee buzz I have from working on my dissertation all morning might make it a bit incoherent. Here goes.

First, Eileen, beautiful response in your long comment. I'm particularly interested in this part:

The last epithet applied to Beowulf by the poet, that he was “eager for fame” ("lofgeornost"), has often led critics to assume that Beowulf’s greatest sin (in the eyes of the poet) was his pride, perhaps even, his too-great faith in himself at the expense of a faith in a Christian God or a “hereafter,” but I want to suggest that Beowulf was always focused on the “hereafter” of the always-present world, and his desire to be “marked” in that present world is also a kind of erotic longing for an embrace with that place -- more specifically, with what is vital and alive in it.

What is to evocative (and useful) here is what you imply -- that what is vital and alive in the hereafter in which Beowulf is interested is not only the voyagers he envisions when he commissions the monument, but rather those who are vital and alive in the present of the poem, as Dan outlines in his comment.

I'm also intrigued by your comment at the end of the piece:

In the end, all that is left of Beloved--and the same could be said of Beowulf--is her name, which both marks and fills her absence.

It reminds me a bit of Lytton Smith's poem in Monster Theory, "Annuls the Space/Time Continuum" -- "what's tragic, goat: we've fallen for our absents / and this is then the dream of language / of those that left, and left us with their absence." That kind of resonating void in which the articulation of a name becomes the only sound to fill it -- well, I think what I'm noticing in the quoted passage is that that space is the future. It's a bit like something I found in the Allen Mandelbaum collection, an article called "Taking Across", which suggests that translation is itself a crossing of time -- a "taking across" of something dead in the original language to something living in its translation, or more positively, a "taking across" from one life to another."

Which connects to how Dan ends his thoughts, So, Mary Kate, I love how you demand that we ask about what event stirs when Beowulf is named now. All of this is to say that Beowulf may not be about love, have love in it, or anything like that. The play of being alone, being present, being dead, being human (etc) and being in time seem so related here. Beowulf appears so often, in the 'present' narration of the poem to actually be in Heorot, in a boat with his men, etc. But the temporal dimension of being alone emerges most clearly in those moments in which he approaches that state of a something in the past which, eventually, will reach out to us from the future: when he goes to Grendel's mother, when he is in that swimming-race.

The poem now, for us, has the effect of forcing us to ask to what extent love and language might be better yolked in our own thinking and loving, mourning and writing.


I'm reminded here of deCerteau in The Mystic Fable, where in a beautiful passage on Angelus of Silesius, he notes that in spite of the fact that the mystic seems to know that what he's waiting for will never come (the paternal word-of-the-father which would name him son), he is left "with the substitute consolation of musical strophes, forever repeating an aspiration while lulling a mourning to sleep." There is a sort of mourning act in the writing, almost as though the future that wrote Beowulf (different from our own future where we interpret the poem critically) mourned him too.

But I wanted to stress what I made implicit in the title but never quite got around to articulating in the body of the post -- the idea of "saving" Beowulf. I guess the way I interpret the modern readings of the poem, which add love, or at least lust, stories for the main character(s), are trying to, in effect, "save" Beowulf from the very thing that proved his undoing -- the seeming fact that as a hero, he had to act alone, and as a king, it was his responsibility, which he failed, to act with his men. It's an affective response.

Because the question is always, as you articulate Eileen, What do the dead want from us?, I wonder what happens when we re-interpret Beowulf, rewrite the story so he isn't quite so alone -- do we shirk our ethical responsibility to the past? Or is the repeated reading, the repeated being-with of the scholar with the poem, somehow its own response?

This was so much more articulate the first time around.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Argh, I left something out, I knew this would happen:


Because the question is always, as you articulate Eileen, What do the dead want from us?, I wonder what happens when we re-interpret Beowulf, rewrite the story so he isn't quite so alone -- do we shirk our ethical responsibility to the past? Or is the repeated reading, the repeated being-with of the scholar with the poem, somehow its own response?

Add in this question between those two -- is an affective response enough? Or is the repeated reading...

Eileen Joy said...

MKH [and also Dan!]: thanks so much for the further comments here, especially as regards the difficulties many modern interpreters seem to having in letting Beowulf be left *alone*. Of course, on one level--if we're talking Hollywood--you can't have an action movie without a "girl," so that's just an inevitable given. You might recall that, during his death-speech to Wiglaf, that one of the things Beowulf laments is that he has no son upon whom he could bestow his war-gear. I never noticed this line until Roy Liuzza pointed it out to me once [which also makes me reflect that, every time we read this poem, we sometimes do so with predispositions that makes us see certain lines and not others]. In Beowulf's lament, we can see a gesture, following Levinas, that signifies the desire for fecundity, in which "paternity is not simply the renewal of the father in the son and the father's merger with him, it is also the father's exteriority in relation to his son, a pluralist existing" ("Time and the Other," p. 92).

But of course, heroes also have to be alone, they have to be singular, they have to go their own way, unattended [although there are always attendees, of course: Wiglaf]. This also calls to mind Levinas's favorite line from his favorite book by Dostoevsky, "The Brothers Karamazov":

"Each of us is responsible before everyone and for everyone, but I am more responsible than the others."

To understand how this is the dictum par excellence or the "mantra" for the hero is to really understand why the hero is always solitary, even when is with/for others.

Eileen Joy said...

Another way this line of Dostoevsky's is translated, perhaps more properly, is:

"Each of us is guilty before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others."

This is Alphonso Lingis's translation on p. 146 of "Otherwise than Being."

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Thanks for a very rich post, Mary Kate, and such full comments, everyone. It's been a pleasure to read through it all and to see what I missed by taking off for Orlando.

The only thing I have to add -- and it is admittedly a very small observation -- is that solitude haunts the poem: monsters that brood upon their own exclusion; a father he witnesses the corpse of his son hanging and gives up on the future; a last survivor so grief stricken at the vanishing of his people that all he can do is to seal the objects they've left behind in a tomb; a wife and mother who must imagine life beyond the death of a king, and who knows that life brings danger to her and her children because she may well be without support; a God who exiles Cain to unbearable wandering; and so on. No wonder the poem seems to have such a hard time with love -- except, as Eileen says, the love of place and memory, the desire to leave something enduring behind.

Welwyn Wilton Katz said...

Hello, to Mary Kate Hurley, who has read my book! Thank you. I appreciated your thoughtful analysis. Of course I loved the original poem, but it was so hard to write it so that an average ten year old would love it. I did take liberties, so that Wiglaf could be the "hero", but I felt good about it. On the whole, anyway. I know you had this conversation two years ago, but I only just discovered you. I'm a woman, by the way. Pics on www.booksbywelwyn.ca. Visit if you like. I'm working on the site and would love a section where people can talk freely about the books. Best wishes, Welwyn