Tuesday, 28 May 2013

"Blundering Toward the End in Beowulf," Mary Kate Hurley

Before I begin, I’d like to make a couple of surprising assertions.[1]

Critics who study Beowulf as a career (and I see several of my fellow Anglo-Saxonists in the audience today) don’t agree on much.  This might come as a shock, but there it is.  Who wrote Beowulf?  Where?  When?  Do we care?  (the answer to that last is – of course, but for wildly different reasons).   We do all agree on one thing, however.
 The end of Beowulf, suggest a century’s worth of critics, is sad.  

Again: It comes as a bit of a shock, perhaps, but there it is.  This poem does not end happily.  Very few of its characters live through the last battle, and those that do are destined to destruction as the result of a feud they did not begin and will not live to finish.  If there were a moral to the poem, it might be, simply,[2] “everybody dies.”

Blunder might just be the best word for it, and appropriately, blunder seems to imply something catastrophic.  Think, for example, of Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  Ever intent on the linearity of his thinking (so that P would lead inevitably to Q), his inability to penetrate the secrets of his scholarly world leads Ramsay to repeatedly cite that most catastrophic of blunders, The Charge of the Light Brigade.  “Into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell, rode the six hundred.” With Ramsay, then:  someone, indeed, had blundered.

 And yet, a gentle stroll through the OED and MED suggests a slightly less harsh origin for the term.  Indeed, in the pre- and early modern periods, blunder had somewhat less emphasis on the familiar “to move, act, or perform stupidly or blindly.”  Rather, its earliest meanings – mostly obsolete now – have to do with confusion, but not in the sense merely of something not-as-it-should-be.  The definitions include ideas of mixing and mingling, of “stirring up.” It is in this sense that I wish to consider blunder today: as an act that operates in a non-linear logic.  I would suggest that in the blundering plunder of the thief who steals a cup we might also identify a wayward act of connection through which we can reimagine Beowulf.  No longer only a sad poem, then (although it is that), Beowulf becomes a meditation on interconnections – of past and present, of thieves and gold and earth, and even -- yes – of humans and dragons.

 And so, we blunder toward the end of Beowulf.  

The central events of the final third of the poem revolve around the various uses of treasure – for men, for monsters, even for the ground that holds it.  But before we’ve even seen the treasure, heard its story, or seen it interred in that most elegiac of laments – the Lay of the Last Survivor – we see it put to use, and not just by a man. 

The hoard is buried, and the path to find it is not, we presume, well marked:
          stig under læg
eldum uncuð.  Þær on innan giong
nið[ð]a nathwyl(c, se ðe n)eh g(eþ[r]on)g
hæðnum horde; hond (eðe gefeng)
(searo) since fah.  (lines 2213b-2217a)

(the path below lay unknown to men. Some sort of man went inside there, found his way to the heathen hoard — his hand [...] inlaid with jewels.)[3]

The state of the manuscript here is pretty clear from the divergences between the two edited versions of the Old English text.[4] Initially, at least, the specifics of what the thief stole, and why, are difficult to apprehend.  What is clear, however, is that this is not an easy hoard to find – when this thief – or servant – or some sort of man (niðða nathwylc) – stumbles into the hoard, the path below lay “eldum uncuð” – unknown to men.  It’s important here that we note the location of this contruction as part of the alliterative line – the primary stresses fall on eldum,  uncuð, and innan – and the primary positioning, of course, is on eldum – the dative form of the noun. The path is unknown to or for men.  Keep that in mind: to or for men. Like everything else in Beowulf, it comes back later, perhaps catastrophically.

And so the thief blunders into the hoard, but what he does there is simultaneously carefully calculated and a terrifying mistake. 

Nealles (met ge)wealdum wyrmhord a[b]ræc
sylfes willum, se ðe him sare gesceod,
ac for þreanedlan þe(o) nathwylces
hæleða bearna heteswengeas fle(a)h,
ærnes þearf(a), on ðær inne (f)eal(h)
secg syn(by)sig (…)  (lines 2221-2226a)

(Not for his own sake did he who sorely harmed him (the dragon) break into that worm-hoard, or by his own will, but in sad desperation some sort of slave of a warrior’s son fled the savage lash, the servitude of a house, and slipped in there, a man beset by sins.) 

As Klaeber articulates, “the slave of an unknown person attached to the Geatish court (þe(o) nathwylces), driven by sore affliction (for þreanedlan), steals a costly vessel from the dragon’s hoard, presenting it to his master to obtain his pardon” (Fulk et al, p. 237).  (to the left, note how many of the major words in the section are extremely hard to read; below, note how the word “þe(o)”  is almost impossible to read.) When the thief steals the cup from the dragon, he does so with a clear purpose.  He brings it to his lord, in order be granted a favor (bene getiðiad, 2284). The cup is used as a price for entrance into human community; however, the cup bears other associations with it that are not centered in or on humans, including one with the hoard, and the dragon that guards it.  

The dragon, who begins burning the countryside as a result of this theft, is simultaneously imagined as a threat to humans and a natural – or at least naturalized – creature.  The logic of the poem itself allows for this reading:  a shift in tone accompanies the dragon’s arrival in the hoard, and the fantastic creature is treated with a stunning familiarity. In lines reminiscent of the gnomic verse of such texts as Maxims I and II, or even the strange likenesses proffered by the riddles, the lines neutralize – or at the very least least, naturalize – the dragon’s actions:

He gesecean sceall
(hea)r(h on) hrusan, þær he hæðen gold
warað wintrum frod; ne byð him wihte ðy sel.  (2275b-2277)

It is his nature to find a hoard in the earth, where, ancient and proud, he guards heathen gold, though it does him no good.

The final line – which can be more directly translated as “he is not a whit the better for it” – at first seems a damning interpretation of the dragon’s ill use of treasure.  The judgment passed on the dragon is, however, very clearly situated  anthropocentrically—and a human frame is not the only view-point from which such action can be perceived in Beowulf, a poem where monsters live alongside the humans who shun them. The dragon’s non-human uses for hoard treasure, then, and the consequences for humans who act in ignorance of its possession, serves as a powerful reminder that for all the actions of human heroes, the erstwhile backdrop for such action is far from inert.

The narrative juxtaposition of the thief’s action with the dragon’s rage highlights the insufficiency of a purely human vision of community.[5] The disparate events by which the hoard, the dragon, the thief, and the Geats are linked bring to light a larger network of associations, which includes humans and human communities but is not limited to them. The poem articulates this network most explicitly, perhaps, in its final lines.  As Wiglaf and the Geats bury Beowulf: “forleton eorla gestreon eorðan healdan, / golde on greote, þær his nu get lifað / eldum swa unnyt, swa hit æror wæs” ((they) let the earth hold the treasures of earls, gold in the ground, where it yet remains, just as useless to men as it was before, 3166-68).  The most important part of this statement is the final line: “eldum swa unnyt, swa hit æror was,” as useless to men as it was before.  In this line, both the alliteration and the primary positioning emphasize  eldum – the dative construction (again) meaning “to men” or “for men.”  The suggestion, then, is not that the treasure is not useful—rather, it is only not useful to men.  As we have seen, men are not the only, and in some cases not even the primary, entities that matter in Beowulf.

Blunder might thus be imagined as an organizational principle:  the blundering plunder of a thief in a hoard leads not only to the destruction of the Geats, but also to the revelation – for Beowulf’s audience and more tragically its characters, that humans cannot escape the world that surrounds them.  It can be a motivator for rethinking Beowulf’s world, but also our own: an ethical injunction to acknowledge, live with – and sometimes, die with – life’s most basic fact: we are not alone.   

[1] This paper is culled from a couple of sources:  A. my job talk, which is on “Beowulf’s Collectivities” (probably better as “Beowulfian Ecologies,” but I hadn’t gotten there yet when I wrote it, and B. the massive hole in my dissertation chapter on Beowulf, in which I managed to talk about everybody but the thief and everything but the manuscript.  I may have made a very lame joke about the session title when explaining this in the panel.  Thankfully such ephemera are not preserved.
[2] insert Dr. Who “Everybody Lives” reference.
[3] Text is from Klaeber’s Beowulf, 4th ed.  Translations are from Roy Liuzza’s Beowulf, 2nd ed.
[4] This was a fun blunder of my own: I’d gotten the MS page in question, but not saved my powerpoint.  Some very quick searching on my computer (and Roy Liuzza’s fantastic 2nd edition of his translation of Beowulf) saved me.
[5] In the longer version of this argument, I also examine the Lay of the Last Survivor in a sustained reading of the ecologies implied by the poem’s sustained examination of the hoard and its environs.

1 comment:

  1. @MKH: This was (is) a great paper! Excellent reading of the dative construction "eldum" throughout. Love footnote 2 by the way. And it's kind of great that the spell-check function puts those lovely red squiggly marks underneath almost every single proper name and single Anglo-Saxon word in those slides!