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‘A Surging of Sorrows’
A Warrior Be #7: Impressions of Beowulf
Lines 144-188 of John McNamara’s translation
For “twelve winters all-told” Grendel harried Heorot and humiliated Hrothgar, its king, who now knew “the sorrow of men.”
More than ever, thus far in the text, the tale of Grendel’s terror seems to be one of reactionary ethnic strife. For the monster refuses to accept tribute payment to stop his depredations, and:
Lines 159-163
“but the horrid monster, a dark death-shadow, [1]
harried the heroes, laid in wait to ambush
both warriors and youths. He held through the night
the moors thick with mist, and men knew not
where the hell-demon would glide in his wanderings.”
This reeks of a genocidal ethnic conflict, with youths targeted for death, night-time raids and ambushes speaking of an enemy still living by the hunt in a clearly asymmetric guerilla war of terror and demoralization. There is further the suggestion of religious conflict, as the sanctified throne of Hrothgar cannot be occupied by Grendel, for he is cursed by and not blessed by God.
Does this aspect represent a Christianized version of an ancient story, or an actual account of a heathen insurrection such as happened all across the New World in the Plantation Age? Perhaps it is a conflation of both.
The warriors sat in counsels rather than questing after their monstrous foe, much as modern civilized sissy governing bodies wring hands over crime and do nothing as the natural swing of the barbaric cycle tears down the shoddy edifice of Civilization. The Danes are chided by the poet for seeking out heathen temples and idols and praying to the gods of their ancestors embodied by this biting picture of Satan, “the Slayer of Souls” claiming that such heathens “bore hell in their hearts,” and knew not “the Judge of all deeds,” [God] the scald waxing pious and reminding the listeners [who would have been warriors] that it is better to die and find the Protector of Heaven’s approval after death, than to seek to forge one’s soul by ancient ways into heathen hardness.
These lines strike this reader not as sissy civilization encouraging death and salvation in defeat, but promising salvation after death to those who fail seeking victory in crusading zeal. In this light, Beowulf, the hero yet off stage, looms as a crusading figure such as El Cid, framed in ethno-religious tones of high honor and daring doings. Whether a memory or an overlay of Christian versus Heathen conflict, Beowulf’s saga screams of Aryan versus non-Aryan strife, with echoes of earlier struggles between hunter and farmer across the same ancient land. This writer sees Beowulf—and/or the conditions of heathen-occupied wilderness abutting settled lands—as the proximate font of American horror literature, down to such movies, including Deliverance and other tales which ever paint the dweller of uncultivated lands as a monster, which is the strongest anxious thread in the American popular consciousness to this day.
End Section 2
Notes
-1. Invokes the sense of elite horror and underclass antipathy in the fall of French San Domingo and the Rise of African Haiti
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