For most of the last ten years I’ve taught Beowulf. Back in 1990-1991 when Mr. Gordon was wowing us at TDHS with “The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived” I had a pretty traditional view on Beowulf and his tale. I thought it must be nice to be well-born, well-trained, and lucky. As I’ve been teaching it my thoughts on Beowulf have shifted. Blame fan fiction or fantasy stories or magical realism, but now that I know about the positions of Left Hand and Champion in addition to Right Hand, I have a very different take on Beowulf. Now that I’ve lived more and I’ve read more and I’ve had years of interesting discussions with seniors, I see how well Beowulf played the game.
Beowulf built a solid enough brand that his story was written down and has been taught generation after generation. Sure, it’s always a little awkward to read because it is translated verse and not all translators are equal. Earlier in my career I noticed a lot of the sexual overtones and undertones in the battles and interactions between characters. I mean, Beowulf jumps into Grendel’s Mother’s lake and tries to use his sword on her; Grendel’s mother then tries to knife Beowulf–thank Freud that I moved past that imagery in a year.
Strangely enough reading and teaching The Great Gatsby really moved me toward my current understanding of Beowulf. I will never love or like the character of Daisy Buchanan, but I have come to appreciate Jordan Baker. Jordan is a true socialite who plays her parts with specific goals in mind. I have no doubt she could be married if she had a mind to, but instead she’s raking in connections, money, and fame that will allow her to live a comfortable life when she decides to stop being a socialite. Jordan and Daisy are both playing specific parts for their peers and “friends”–the difference is that Daisy is a traditional sleeping beauty who reflects the most dominant male nearby whereas Jordan always has her own agenda.
I started (unsurprisingly) to make connections between Jordan Baker and the old-school PBs (Professional Beauties); I started to make connections between Jordan Baker and the Hilton sisters, Tinsley Mortimer, and the Jenner-Kardashian clans. Ever since fame became a commodity, people have played the part of “real people” to make money off of being famous for little to nothing. They can’t all be stupid, lucky, and good looking–there has to be more to them than what they allow the masses to see. As I taught more and more epic literature, I began to see some of the same patterns among the best known heroes of “ye ancient times.” I still think Agamemnon was an unforgivable, power hungry asshole and Achilles was a true idiot and brat, but Hector and Odysseus and Beowulf were something more.
Teaching The Book of Job from the Judeo-Christian Bible and taking a class that delved into the what Paul’s letters were really addressing in The New Testament reinforced the idea that we only see a small part of these heroes or c-level celebrities. Teaching high schoolers who each have rich internal lives and whose lives outside of school I know little to nothing about also helped reinforce my changing options about some of the old-school heroes of various epics.
Beowulf and Unferth both serve as their king’s Left Hand–they get the unknowable information, they do whatever they need to to protect king and kingdom, they play with other people’s ideas of who they are. Beowulf does this by being the acknowledged Champion of Hygelic which helps most people forget that Beowulf is smart enough to figure out from stories that Grendel can’t be killed by man-made weapons. Beowulf is charismatic enough to turn an enemy (Unferth) into a loyal ally. Beowulf sits at the kiddy table during the feast to celebrate him which is brilliant; those kids are being trained in the art of war and politics by their parents. Of course, they are going to try to outdo each other bragging to the Big Bad Hero Who Took Down Grendel.
Unferth goes from slandering Beowulf while in his cups (499-528) to soberly accepting that Beowulf is everything he claims to be (979-989) to proving his change of heart by exchanging Hrunting for Beowulf’s familial sword (1455-1472). That’ a big damn deal for a dude who killed his siblings so he wouldn’t have to share land or wealth after his father’s death. That’s a big deal for a guy who didn’t fight Grendel or Grendel’s Mother because his job protecting Hrothgar and Denmark was too important. Unferth lives in a society that takes pride in killing their enemies by any means, Finn versus Hengest (1070-1158), and thinks of Unferth as a righteous man (1164-1167). The Danes of Hrothgar’s era had a totally different moral compass from most of the peoples of their time, but Unferth can still see the value in how Beowulf plays the game of gathering information and acquiring allies. Being true to yourself doesn’t mean never changing–Unferth adapts as information becomes available and so does Beowulf.
I don’t much worry about Beowulf’s physical strength; I am impressed by his brain and that’s what I try to teach my students. I teach them to find textual support to agree or disagree with the traditional interpretations of Beowulf. I want them to see what’s going on between the lines. I want them to think about how many generations massaged the story before it was ever written down. I want my students to see the heavy-handed way the monk who first wrote it down made the story into propaganda. I want my students to question whether the Beowulf who fought The Dragon is the same Beowulf who fought Grendel and his mother–let’s be real, the connection seems pretty tacked during the final section.
It stretches even my ability to suspend belief for Beowulf to have refused Hygelec’s throne and to refuse to usurp Heardred’s throne only to take it after he’d hit forty, rule for fifty years, and then take on a dragon…I can’t be the only person who thinks there were at least two Beowulfs in Beowulf. I can’t wait to see how my understanding of the characters and the story will continue to change over the next ten years.