by Sucheto Nath
I had a funny idea before bed one night in late May, so I posted the following status on Facebook.
I was only half-joking, actually, because a connection had occurred to me; but what surprised me is how seriously people reacted. A friend who studies English said she’d slap me; a meme-maker said Beowulf was an anime; everyone else unironically mansplained the poem’s origin, or posted a picture of an otter saying ‘No’. Personally, I should be flattered, because I’ve been thinking that perhaps everything I say is misconstrued as a joke; it’s nice to be taken seriously by so many people for a change. Not only did they not realise that the emoji was there for irony, but, in all modesty, it is slightly disconcerting that about ten people who know me would think an almost-graduate of English wouldn’t know when Beowulf was written.
My last line brings us to my first line of argument. For virtually all works of literature that are studied in schools and undergraduate programs, we have a fixed, or at least approximate, date of composition. This is more important than is immediately obvious. Not only does knowing the date of publication or writing enable to us to understand the text better, we can actually pin down the work to a certain author. By declaring that one text is written by one author, within a certain time, and under certain conditions of life, we are able to say, and often do, that the meaning of the text (outer, inner, or whatever) must be understood by studying that author’s life and the time in which the book was written. When we can’t pin down a book to a certain time, things get complicated - or to put it in another way, a complicated matter becomes obvious.
Beowulf is one of these poems. All that is more or less certain is that it came long after the Germanic people described by Tacitus. It describes the coming of Scyld, which seems to be more legend than fact. It mentions Hengest and the Battle of Finnsburh, which happened around 450 CE. The extant text is in West Saxon, so the poem as it now exists was probably not written in the early years of Anglo-Saxon life in England. There are strong aspects of oral poetry and epic heroism, but also passages that were written by a Christian. Again, the depiction of Danes suggests that Beowulf may have been written after the establishment of the Danelaw. Even assuming that we can separate a core text from later interpellations by Christian scribes, when can we say it was written - or, as we must say, composed? In fact, can Beowulf be pinned down to a written text, or do we have to treat the poem as an amorphous object?
Now that’s enough of serious talk. Let’s see why Beowulf is clearly an American poem.
There’s an interesting expression H. P. Lovecraft had for the country the pilgrims had left: ‘Mother England’. Look at John Gast’s American Progress, and you’ll see Europe moving west, marching into the frontier. This idea figures prominently in American literature of all ages, as a guest lecturer at college explained to us once. American literature and film often features some kind of frontier. Think of The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, spaghetti westerns, or even space exploration movies. Then remember that Grendel came ‘In off the moors, down through the mist bands’ (quoting Seamus Heaney’s translation). Grendel and his mother are threats from beyond civilisation that attack the halls where heroes live. Again, Heaney explains that Beowulf’s death brings grief because there are enemies on the border of the nation waiting to strike. This is starting to sound a lot like cowboys and Indians - not to mention The Blair Witch Project. Beowulf ventures into the unknown, much as the Germanic races survived in the cold forests of northern Europe, or later ventured into England. The identity of the poem, however, is English, not Danish or German, just as American literature is not Scottish or British.
Wait, so a civilised race of people moved from Europe to a land across the sea, and brought memories of the old country with them? Where have we heard that before? That’s right - America. The language and orthography changed in England, and the same happened to a much smaller extent in America. So Beowulf, the old poem, was re-sung and re-written in changed circumstances. American pilgrims, too, tried to see the New World as a New Jerusalem. Later literature used Magic Realism as a means of expressing the particular condition of life in a place that is not Europe. Beowulf, too, has this combination of longing for the past, confusion in the present, and fear of the future. The heroes of old are recalled in a time of new troubles, just as Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about a Virginian Civil War veteran when the World War was coming.
But it doesn’t end there! In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby throws parties, hoping that Daisy will come. In Beowulf, Hrothgar throws a party in Heorot, and Grendel’s mother comes. Queequeg in Moby-Dick is given a coffin with his harpoon and ‘his little god, Yojo’; Beowulf, when he dies, is buried in a barrow with treasure. Ships figure prominently in Moby-Dick and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; in Beowulf, Scyld is found in a boat, and is buried in one. Many people in American literature are found drinking, and in Beowulf, too, drinking and feasting is a prominent part of heroes’ lives.
Thus, we see that Beowulf is clearly an American poem.