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‘The Misery of Men’
A Warrior Be #6: Impressions of Beowulf
Lines 115-144 of John McNamara’s translation
It is said by the poet that the thanes of Herot, the loyal and favored retainers of King Hrothgar, who kept company in his hall, “they knew not sorrow, the misery of men.”
It is already told how Grendel was full of sorrow and in many ways oppressed, especially by God. One should keep in mind that in 10th century Christendom God was believed to favor the noble, those who did not work, over lesser men, the invisible suffering sorrow-filled serfs who slaved away growing the grain and tending the livestock that made for the feasting and beer enjoyed by the thanes. These thanes were the social elites of their world. The typical laborer of the world of Beowulf could expect to die from exhaustion or malnutrition or accident by the time he was 24 years of age. Neanderthals had had a longer life expectancy.
Than with deep darkness of night came the terrible one:
Lines 120-125
“…The wicked creature,
grim and greedy, was at the ready,
savage and cruel, and seized in their rest
thirty thanes.” He then went from there,
exulting in spoils, to seek his home,
to find his dwelling, with his fill of slaughter.”
This has many parallels in literature, most recently horror movies from King Kong to The Hills Have Eyes and is natively coherent with Chriecton’s The Eaters of Men. What resonates with this reader is the picture of the type of war waged by stone age tribesmen, attacking dwellings at night and at dawn and then running off with captives and booty rather trying to conquer. That such an attack is committed against a centralized hierarchy of confrontational conquest warriors, reminds one of Apaches rising against Mexicans, Wompanoag’s against Puritans and Commanches against Texans. Closer to my soul this is the very picture of the Baltimore purge of 2015, when oppressed savages rose up to strike a cruel blow at the 8th largest police department in the nation and forever humiliate and afflict the paramilitary force that had been waging a war of occupation for decades.
Then came a second night of “horrid deeds,” yet deeds they were, the currency of the hero and the monster, the warrior and the king. This is primarily a tale of monstrous emasculation which very much seems to reflect the fate of second and third generation colonial garrisons once the victory has made them soft and the natives rise up. Could this tale represent such an age, perhaps the 1,500 or so years when hunters and agrarian Europeans faced each other across the lifeway divide? Or might it reflect these blended populations striking back in some remote regions against the Aryan invaders—perhaps all of these and more?
By the third night—perhaps representing merely a third raid, third rising, third season—social dispersal had set in, with surviving elites choosing to remain in their own domiciles rather than come to the central hall in concourse. This is exactly the fate of the modern sub-elite population [businessmen, lawyers, voters, home owners, with any home owner elite by Dark Age standards] who has fled the cities in the wake of savage uprisings. How different is it for King Hrothgar to have his thanes decline to come to his mead-hall than for a bar or restaurant to close every week for years in a place like Baltimore or Detroit, for ball games to go poorly attended rather than risk a trip into a savage city?
How different is this tale of dispersal and ending of social concourse out of mortal fear than our response to the 2020 Pandemic in March and April? Might this tale echo a story of an ancient epidemic?
Out of “hatred of this hall-stalker” and by “escaping the fiend,” the thanes of Herot deserted their king, who was unable to protect them.
Might we simply be reading the tale of many a fallen society, or a Revolutionary France in 1789 or Plantation Virginia in 1675-6, falling to the depredations of periphery heathens out of the “fastness?”
From what antiquity might Beowulf echo down to us down the overgrown stairs of Time?
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