Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Old darkness

As the summer term begins I’ve started teaching Beowulf, which means while the chestnut trees are towering with blossom we're meeting again the darkness in that poem, not only a world edged by monsters but one in which people, facing monsters, ask what their own lives are. It’s possible to see the poem as an archetypal story of man against nature. Hrothgar builds his glorious hall and draws the anger of the monster Grendel who comes to kill at night, ‘of more under mist-hleoþum’ (off the moors, under mist-cliffs). Of Grendel and his mother we learn

… They dwell apart

among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags

and treacherous keshes, where cold streams

pour down the mountain and disappear

under mist and moorland.            (Heaney’s translation)

 … Hie dygel lond

warigeaþ, wulf-hleoþu,            windige naessas,

frecne fen-gelad,             þaer fyrgen-stream

under naessa genipu            niþer gewiteþ,

flod under foldan.

Walls can’t keep them out and trusted swords won’t kill them. When Beowulf sails across the sea to drive this darkness out of Hrothgar’s home not only does the poet repeatedly blur the identities of his hero and the monsters by using the same words to describe them, we also learn that the society he comes to save will be destroyed by human treachery and feuding. Ultimately the hall whose hinges and joints were forged in fire will be destroyed by fire. And at the end of the poem theft of cursed gold buried by the last survivor from a massacred community wakes the dragon. Again Beowulf’s sword will not kill it, and again we learn that this battle will be followed by the destruction of a kingdom tangled in a blood feud (this time it's Beowulf's kingdom). This is why the darkness Beowulf fights in the poem can’t be nature or even wildness, but something more difficult to name, at home in human society and the human mind.

In the poem's landscape people build their halls and bury their gold surrounded and driven by forces they can’t control, barely understand, but always know. For being so stark a vision the figures loom larger within it, which is why we remember Beowulf’s wise, regretful bravery going to face the dragon he understands will kill him. Tolkien described the poem as ‘a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo’, moving us, ‘until the dragon comes’.

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