Ruminations on “Beowulf”, Treasure, and Generosity

My OE prof was personal friends with Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and told him to his face that she hated his translation. It is, naturally, the only translation I've read all the way through.


Today, I feel like talking about Beowulf.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Beowulf is that it is essentially a pagan heroic epic, yet it was written by a Christian for a Christian audience.  Naturally, there is an unmistakable contrast between the pagan themes inherent in the story and the Christian themes that are worked into the grain by the poet.  The theme of wealth, in particular, is one which both Beowulf and other Christian theological texts of the time period speak frequently about.

Christianity, by its very nature, focuses attention on the afterlife.  What we do on earth is important insomuch as it pleases God, works His will, and prepares our souls for Heaven. Especially in medieval Christianity, the presence of wealth was often seen as a distraction from spiritual things and a promoter of greed.  The monastic orders forsook all but the basic necessities of life in order to focus their minds and hearts on God, and the Protestant Reformers would later note how the luxuries of the papacy had perverted the office to something that was spiritual only in name.  Material wealth is of little use, said the Christians, for it cannot accompany you after death and is troublesome in life.  As Boethius pointed out,

“Money has no inherent property such as to stop it being taken away from those who possess it, against their will.”

The poet of Beowulf might consider Boethius’ statement a point well taken, as the poem is filled with battles in which the loser’s treasures invariably go to the one who defeated him.  Prowess in war is the most prized virtue, and it is assumed that the stronger man has earned the right to take whatever his strength allows him if the battle was justified for any reason.  Yet wealth serves another, vastly more important role in the society and Beowulf – it enables generosity.  Noble kings and thanes are often called ring-givers, because aside from valor in war, their honor and reputation is built on the hospitality they show to others and the ways they reward their loyal followers.  When Beowulf saves the hall of Heorot from Grendel, King Hrothgar not only lets him loot Grendel’s lair, but also heaps numerous other treasures on him and his soldiers to show the magnitude of his thankfulness and the greatness of his soul.  The poet remarks consistently how this giving of gifts marks the greatness of Hrothgar’s honor.  Beowulf then proceeds to reward his faithful followers with more gifts, not even neglecting the man who stayed on the coastline to watch their ship the whole time and was not present at any of the fights.  And when he arrives home in Geatland, Beowulf shows his appreciation to his king at home by giving him some of the treasure as well.  By such generosity, as well as fighting prowess, are men considered great in this world.

Wealth is seen as something to be used, not hoarded, and, I think, as a sort of vindication that the battle was worth it after all.  If the victor does not reward those who have helped him, he will reveal his arrogance and end up with enemies.  Those who do hoard wealth in this world inevitably lose it – in a curious affirmation of Beothius’ rule.  Grendel and Grendel’s mother have apparently raided and looted human settlements for centuries, and they lose all to Beowulf.  The dragon, too, has a hoard of treasure that does not belong to him, and so he too loses it to Beowulf.

Yet neither can Beowulf keep his winnings in the afterlife. Dying from the dragon’s wound, he commands his servant Wiglaf to find the monster’s treasure hoard for him, saying, “My going will be easier for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go of the life and lordship I have long maintained” (Heaney, 185). Why? Not for himself, but for his people. His wealth is only good so long as it strengthens the people of his kingdom, and the hero recognizes that it is to his honor to leave his loved ones better off after his passing.

Easter Sunday – Anglo-Saxon Poetry Review: “The Dream of the Rood”

Title: “The Dream of the Rood”
Author: Anonymous 8th century Anglo-Saxon, likely a member of a religious house.
Length: 158 lines
Synopsis: The nameless narrator dreams of the Cross (or “Rood,” for the archaic term) on which Christ was crucified. The Cross, finding its voice, relates to him the experience of the Crucifixion, and how it feels itself to be a fellow-participant in the event.
Version: I had the pleasure of translating The Dream of the Rood from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) while at university, and it was the assignment I took the most pleasure in. While I’m proud of that effort, I’ll be using here Prof. Glenn’s translation, mostly because of convenience. It seems to be a good one, preserving the alliteration of the original as well as a fairly literal sense of the words.
Recommendation: T.G. Duncan, a professor at the University of St Andrews, believes this to be one of the finest religious poems of any language, and from my limited experience of that genre I agree. It is passionate, inspired, rich in symbolic imagery, and, especially for a Christian, can be quite emotional. The poet was a true artist, and The Dream of the Rood is wonderful.

Read it here in translation by Jonathan Glenn of the University of Central Arkansas! You can read more about the historical and cultural background of the poem here, as well as read the original Old English side-by-side with a modern translation, and on Wikipedia. If you want to hear the Old English read aloud (very cool!), listen here.

Key Thoughts

The poem is structured in four parts:

  1. Lines 1-27 are the Dreamer’s introduction, describing the glorious appearance of the Cross.
  2. At lines 28-77 the Cross takes over and tells of how, as a tree, it was cruelly cut down and fashioned into an instrument of death, only to be co-opted by the hero Christ as a vehicle for his victory over Death.
  3. In lines 78-121, the Cross then preaches a sermon of salvation to the Dreamer, which,
  4. in lines 122-156, the Dreamer repeats to us, the readers.

The imagery and metaphors can be difficult to decipher at times; this was the style of Old English poetry, to revel in the obscure and dreamlike, to delight in riddles. The poet here finds as many different words to refer to the Cross as he can: “wondrous tree” (“syllicre trēow”), “beacon” (“bēacen”), “gallows” (“fracodes”), “victory-beam” (“sigebēam”), and “glory’s tree” (“wuldres trēow”). Likewise he has many ways of referring to Christ: “Healer” (“Hǣlendes,” which can also be translated “Savior”), “young hero” (“geong hæleð”), “Man” (“guman”), “God of hosts” (“weruda God”)…you get the idea.

Notice the theme of strength and victory – this is a poem about a great battle, won when Christ voluntarily sacrificed Himself for a sinful mankind, and then conquered death through his resurrection. The poet views this as something so mighty and beautiful that it alone has the power to buy true life for mankind and all of creation.

Modern Christians may not recognize this Cross, whose appearance wavers between being encrusted with jewels and gold, and drenched in blood and gore.

Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold ongytan meahte
earmra ærgewin, þæt hit ærest ongan
swætan on þā swīðran healfe. Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrēfed,
forht ic wæs for þære fægran gesyhðe.  Geseah ic þæt fūse bēacen
wendan wædum ond blēom; hwīlum hit wæs mid wætan bestēmed,
beswyled mid swātes gange, hwīlum mid since gegyrwed.

“Yet through that gold I clearly perceived
old strife of wretches, when first it began
to bleed on its right side. With sorrows most troubled,
I feared that fair sight. I saw that doom-beacon
turn trappings and hews: sometimes with water wet,
drenched with blood’s going; sometimes with jewels decked.” (lns. 18-23).

The change from bloody to bejewelled proclaims the preciousness of Christ’s blood, a central Easter theme. Of course, such blood would not likely be precious if the story ended with death, but the fact that the blood is expected to become a figurative cleansing agent for men’s souls makes the wearing of it a sort of badge of honor for the Cross.

I also find Christ’s portrayal quite interesting. The gospels affirm Christ’s identity as the Passover lamb of the Jewish seder; that is, the meek and humble sacrifice. But there is another element to the Crucifixion that is often overlooked – Christ’s power, even in death. Read the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and you will not find a Jesus that is a victim, but rather one who is always in control of events. He gives the Romans permission to torture Him, He chooses to go to the Cross, and He voluntarily gives up His spirit to the Father (that’s right, Christ wasn’t killed, as though some outside force robbed Him of life; He gave up His spirit before the natural moment of death, displaying His self-control and strength of will). And The Dream of the Rood very consciously depicts this. Jesus is a great hero, the greatest, “strong and resolute” (“strang ond stiðmod”), and described with royal terms: He is “heaven’s Lord” (“heofenes Dryhten”), the “Wielder of Victories” (“sigora Wealdend”), the “Prince of glory, Heaven’s guardian” (“geweorðode, wuldres ealdor”).

Ongyrede hine þā geong hæleð, (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),
strang ond stīðmōd. Gestāh hē on gealgan hēanne,
mōdig on manigra gesyhðe, þā hē wolde mancyn lysan.
Bifode ic þā mē se beorn ymbclypte. Ne dorste ic hwæðre būgan tō eorðan,
feallan tō foldan scēatum, ac ic sceolde fæste standan.
Rōd wæs ic āræred. Āhōf ic rīcne cyning,
heofona hlāford, hyldan mē ne dorste.

The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty),
strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, there, [since] he wished to release mankind.
I trembled when the man embraced me. However, I dared not bow down to the earth,
fall to the surface of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was raised [as a] cross. I lifted up the mighty king,
the lord of the heavens; I dared not bend down. (lns. 39-45)

This is no execution! Christ is preparing for battle, like a mythic hero of the pagan traditions. No man puts Him on the Cross; He mounts it Himself.  No man kills Him; He eagerly relinquishes His own life.

Yet it is not only mankind that benefits, for the poet understands Christ’s resurrection to be so mighty that it redeems all of creation from the deathly effects of Adam’s sin (as enumerated in Genesis 3) – even an inanimate object such as the Cross.  Notice that the Cross is relating its own conversion experience. As mankind was seduced by the devil in Genesis to become sinful creatures, so the Tree was cut down by evil men and made into an instrument of torture and death. Then, the Cross is washed over completely in Christ’s blood; in its own words,

…eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,
Begoten of þæs guman sidan, siððan hē hæfde his gāst onsended.

I was all drenched with blood,
covered from the man’s side, after he had sent forth his spirit. (lns. 48-49)

This is as literal a baptism as you can get.  God promises holiness to Christians when He says ‘You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine’ (Leviticus 20:26), and likewise the Cross of the poem is become holy through its baptism.  It exults in its salvation:

Iu ic wæs georden wita heardost,
leodum laðost, ær þan ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde reordberendum.

Formerly, I was the most fierce of torments,
most hateful to people, before I opened the right
path of life to them, the speech-bearers. (lns. 87-89)

Like all Christians, the Cross of the poem has taken part in Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s a unique way to portray the wonderful theological truth that all of creation is wrapped up in God’s plan. In Genesis, all of creation fell with Adam’s sin. In Christ, all of creation is redeemed because of His death and resurrection. Be not proud, O death, for where is thy sting now? You are conquered, overthrown, and cast out – the Lord of Life has done so!

Se sunu wæs sigorfæst on þām siðfate,
mihtig ond spēdig, þā hē mid manigeo cōm,
gāsta weorode, on godes rīce,
anwealda ælmihtig, englum tō blisse
ond eallum ðām hālgum þām þe on heofonum ær
wunedon on wuldre, þā heora wealdend cwōm,
ælmihtig god, þær his ēðel wæs.

The Son was triumphant on that expedition,
mighty and successful, when he came with the multitude,
the host of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the Lord Almighty, to the delight of the angels,
and of all the saints, who in the heavens before
dwelled in glory, when their Ruler, the Almighty
God came, where his homeland was. (lns. 150-156)

Happy Easter to you all! I pray that your day be bright, beautiful, and full of joyful love.

Also, if you read and liked the whole poem, I myself wrote a short story inspired by it, on a similar theme, that you can read here. Let me know what you think of it!