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.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.
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.
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.