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Beowulf

Beowulf
February 02, 2012, 04:58:08 PM
A summary: The background of Beowulf is endless tribal warfare driven by unbridled vengeance, blood lust, and avarice. As a cure to the epidemic violence, morality is fabricated with ligaments such as reciprocity, kinship, and peace-weaving, though all prove to be illusory. In the foreground of this amoral battleground stands Beowulf, the good king who fights fantastical embodiments of these aforementioned vices despite the fact that his fate is to be defeated in the end.

Quote
It is a great wonder
how Almighty God in His magnificence
favours our race with rank and scope
and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide.
Sometimes He allows the mind of a man
of distinguished birth to follow his bent,
grants him fulfilment and felicity on earth
and forts to command in his own country.
He permits him to lord it in many lands
until the man in his unthinkingness
forgets that it will ever end for him.
He indulges his desires; illness and old age
mean nothing to him; his mind is untroubled
by envy or malice or the thought of enemies
with their hate-honed swords. The whole world
conforms to his will, he is kept from the worst
until an element of overweening
enters him and takes hold
while the soul's guard, its sentry, drowses,
grown too distracted. A killer stalks him,
An archer who draws a deadly bow.

An absolute gem of ancient literature, I'm surprised that it isn't cited more often here. It's a handy reference for those interested in what it means to be a warrior, and how this is distinguished from being a brute.

Quote
For every one of us, living in this world means
waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.

Sometimes it seems like they is a very low moral bar by which men are measured, but this is often an insight into the greater motives as opposed to specific actions.

Quote
So ought a kinsman act,
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades.

Like most any old / good text, it requires a bit of decrypting in order to understand what is being implied. I'm interested to hear how others here have deciphered its meaning, or any general thoughts.

For those who haven't read it, here's an online translation: http://www.heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html. I'd recommend the Heaney translation, but I've only been able to find it as a scrbd doc: http://www.scribd.com/doc/20757289/Beowulf-a-New-Verse-Translation-Seamus-Heaney

Re: Beowulf
February 02, 2012, 05:45:53 PM
I don't think it needs to be read too much into.  It's a story told amongst soldiers about the things soldiers strive for, victory, wealth and fame.  It's probably based on a real person and was composed for that person's pleasue and a hit among his army.  It's major use is understanding what morals were important among the warrier class in relation to a king, but it could be dangerous to look at it in that way exclusively, as this could very well have been propaganda by a monarch to justify warfare that was of no interest to his people, during an age where expansion was beneficial to rulers.  It never reaches anywhere near the height of Homer or Chaucer, but it is a very exciting read when you are looking into Germanic peoples and there are some memorable pieces to it.  

Re: Beowulf
February 02, 2012, 06:42:33 PM
I'd highly recommend Tolkien's lecture "Beowulf: The Monster and The Critics" if your interested in a more literary reading of it, though historical perspective (as you have provided) as also key. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/21301124/J-R-R-Tolkien-Beowulf-The-Monsters-and-the-Critics)

It's probably based on a real person and was composed for that person's pleasue and a hit among his army.  It's major use is understanding what morals were important among the warrier class in relation to a king, but it could be dangerous to look at it in that way exclusively, as this could very well have been propaganda by a monarch to justify warfare that was of no interest to his people, during an age where expansion was beneficial to rulers.

The poem spends a lot of time criticizing frivolous warfare and hardly mentions Beowulf's military accomplishments outside of his fights with the monsters. With this in mind, I don't think that it makes sense to read these fights as "battles of expansion" in disguise. Each of the monsters have characteristics similar to those of the more reckless kings mentioned throughout, and Beowulf chooses to curb such traits by standing up to them in battle. Fighting the good fight, if you will.


Re: Beowulf
February 02, 2012, 08:26:45 PM
Obviously if it were truly propoganda, it would make Beowulf not look like a foolish king who fights frivolous warfare, but you must step back and look at the bigger pictue.  This poem glorifies a king leaving his land to go fight a battle in another land that is of no concern of his own people and battles with a monster that plagues another kingdom that is too weak to face it on its own.  This is the language of conquest if you look at history.  Caesar justified his conquering of Gaul as claiming that he was attempting to defend weaker tribes from smaller ones when they came to ask for his help. After helping them, he kept the land he defended.  This is the exact way the Saxon's who wrote Beowulf conquered England.  They were supposedly defending the Celts from Barbarians after the Romans left the island to defend their own realm, and then the Saxons proceded to move their families there and dominate the land that they were defending, stealing it from the Celts who came to ask for protection.  Today, the United States uses this same logic to perform preemptive strikes, by claiming that we are liberating one group from another. 

This poem was written during the Mirgration era where Kings justified warfare by backing underdogs.  I think the poem is a representation of that as well as anything else.  Its value is that the pagan structures and values were not yet decayed and it can be used a window of these structures.

Re: Beowulf
February 02, 2012, 11:09:32 PM
I only read portions of Beowulf in college.  Petrarca - what translation are you quoting from there?
His Majesty at the Swamp / Black Arts Lead to Everlasting Sins / Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism / Oath of Black Blood / Privilege of Evil / Dawn of Possession / In Battle There is No Law / Thousand Swords / To Mega Therion

Re: Beowulf
February 03, 2012, 05:19:05 AM
Quote
This poem glorifies a king leaving his land to go fight a battle in another land that is of no concern of his own people and battles with a monster that plagues another kingdom that is too weak to face it on its own.

It's worth noting, also, that Beowulf does not come to the aid of the other town while he is king, but rather many years before. It was an act of reciprocity to the Danish king, Hrothgar, for the assistance he had given to his father. My reading of it is that it is a glorification of honoring such a relationship, and also a means for Beowulf to begin his ascent to heroic status.

This poem was written during the Mirgration era where Kings justified warfare by backing underdogs.  I think the poem is a representation of that as well as anything else. Its value is that the pagan structures and values were not yet decayed and it can be used a window of these structures.

This very well may be true, my knowledge of such historical factors is not sufficient to debate. Regardless, the poem muses on so many other topics that I think it'd be a waste to cut off inquiry here. In addition to the pagan values it displays, it is also interesting to see the amalgamation of these values with Christian thought and how they were each acknowledged in their own way. Coupled with the overall theme of "the death of heroism", I think that there is a great more worth excavating.

Re: Beowulf
February 03, 2012, 05:28:07 AM
I only read portions of Beowulf in college.  Petrarca - what translation are you quoting from there?

That'd be Seamus Heaney's, an Irish poet who is apparently fairly renowned in his own right

Re: Beowulf
February 03, 2012, 05:44:10 AM
I agree that Heaney's is the best and most faithful to the original meter of the poem without it being a obstacle.  He is a quality poet for sure.

Re: Beowulf
February 04, 2012, 07:52:03 PM
It's a good thriller that is beautiful in the right translation, but compared to Homer or Virgil it's nothing remarkable. I was particularly pissed at the lack of any religion or mythology - this is precisely what makes the Odyssey so memorable, but the (almost definitely) Christian author of Beowulf just cuts it out.
Der Mensch ist etwas, das überwunden werden soll. Was habt ihr getan, ihn zu überwinden?

Re: Beowulf
February 04, 2012, 11:12:45 PM
It's been argued that the author was a pagan, but that a Christian monk had, upon translation, edited out the paganism and threw in a bunch of stuff about Christ in its place.  There is nothing to back this up, but who knows.  Maybe calling Grendel the son of Cain, was actually orginally written as son of Loki or something like that.

Re: Beowulf
February 05, 2012, 01:52:08 AM
What I like about Beowulf is that it has a more modern sense of narrative structure and feels more complete than a lot of other European epics, which makes it easier for the modern reader to actually read. As much as I enjoy works like the Iliad or an Táin, the structure is just so far from what we normally expect as modern readers that it can often become tiresome. For instance the repetitive formulations of the former or the clumsy narrative progression of the latter. If I was going to recommend an antique or early/high medieval European text to a beginner, it would have to be Beowulf for that reason. Beowulf also has the further stylistic advantage of some of it's original poetic features surviving the translation process, which just isn't going to happen with works writ in Latin, Ancient Greek or Old Irish etc.
"creation in order to subdue the torment of perception" - Wilhelm Worringer
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