My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Creative Mythology (Vol. 4 of The Masks of God series), Joseph Campbell explains the meaning and connections to Beowulf’s name to that of other cultures:
”The name Beowulf itself, ‘bee-wolf,’ apparently meaning bear, suggests affinities with a widely known folktale figure of prodigious strength, the Bear’s Son, the distribution of whose appearances, in North America as well as Eurasia, points to a background in that primordial cult of reverence for the bear discussed in Primitive Mythology, and which is still observed among the Ainus of Japan” (p 123); and Campbell also explains the sea-monster Beowulf slays prior to the book ever beginning: ”The old Sumerian serpent-god Ningizzida is the ultimate archetype of this lord of the watery abyss from which mortal life arises and back to which it returns” (Creative Mythology, p 17).
Beowulf now tells of how he slew just such a water beast:
Wild were the waves; the temper of the sea-monsters was stirred. There did my shirt of mail hard-locked by hand stand me in good stead against foes; the woven battle-garment, adorned with gold, lay on my breast. A spotted deadly foe drew me to the depths…
[hints of the watery depths myths from King Sargon of Agade who is drawn from the water like Moses, and there is the Egyptian legend of Osiris and the pieces of his body collected from the Nile, and also Noah and the Great Deluge from Christianity, and especially Jonah and the Whale that swallows him whole]
…had me firmly and fiercely in his grip; yet it was granted to me that I pierced the monster with my point, my battle-spear. The rush of battle carried off the mighty sea-monster by my hand (p 23).
In John Gardner’s version of Beowulf called Grendel (1971), the villain tells the story. Grendel overhears Beowulf tell of his battles at sea:
The turmoil stirred up the sea-monsters. One of them attacked me, dragged me down to the bottom where the weight of the sea would have crushed any other man. But it was granted to me that I might kill him with my sword, which same I did. Then others attacked.
“They pressed me hard. I killed them, nine old water nickers, robbed them of the feat they expected at the bottom of the sea. In the morning, sword-ripped, they lay belly-up near shore. They’d trouble no more passing sailors after that. Light came from the east and, behold, I saw headlands, and I swam to them. Fate often enough will spare a man if his courage holds (p 162).
Grendel, as one might can well see, is a superb companion to the ancient narrative Beowulf.
And the climax of Grendel is but the first meeting with Beowulf, who rips the monster’s arm off and hangs it above the door.
Now from Grendel’s point-of-view of that meeting with our hero:
I step onto the brightly shining floor and angrily advance on them. They’re all asleep, the whole company! I can hardly believe my luck, and my wild heart laughs, but I let out no sound…
A shock goes through me. Mistake!
It’s a trick! His eyes are open, were open all the time, cold-bloodedly watching to see how I work. The eyes nail me now as his hand nails down my arm…
My whole arm’s on fire, incredible, searing pain–it’s as if his crushing fingers are charged like fangs with poison…
I feel the bones go, ground from their sockets, and I scream again. I am suddenly awake. The long pale dream, my history, falls away…
He has wings. Is it possible? And yet it’s true: out of his shoulders come terrible fiery wings. I jerk my head, trying to drive out illusion. The world is what it is and always was. That’s our hope, our chance. Yet even in times of catastrophe we people it with tricks. Grendel, Grendel, hold fast to what is true! (p 168-169).
It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Gardner’s Grendel, but now compare the monster in Beowulf:
Then from the moor under the misty cliffs came Grendel, he bore God’s anger. The foul foe purposed to trap with cunning one of the men in the high hall; he went under the clouds till he might see most clearly the wine-building, the gold-hall of warriors, gleaming with plates of gold…
A baleful light like flame flared from his eyes. He saw in the building many heroes, the troop of kinsmen sleeping together, the band of young warriors. Then his mind exulted…
Nor did the monster think to delay, but first he quickly seized a sleeping warrior; suddenly tore him asunder, devoured his body, drank the blood from his veins, swallowed him with large bites. Straightway he had consumed all the body, even the feet and hands…
A great wound was seen in his shoulder, the sinews sprang apart, the body burst open. Fame in war was granted to Beowulf. Grendel must needs flee thence under the fen-cliffs mortally wounded, seek out his joyless dwelling…
That was a clear token when the bold warrior laid down the hand, the arm and shoulder under the wide roof–it was all there together–the claw of Grendel (p 29-33)… [and much later, after Beowulf has descended into the underworld to follow Grendel and fulfill his oath to destroy the monster]…
”Then the prince of thanes, the man bold in deeds, made glorious with fame, the hero terrible in battle, came in to greet Hrothgar. Then Grendel’s head was borne by the hair into the hall where the men were drinking–a dread object for the earls and the queen with them; the men looked at the wondrous sight” (p 62).
And a bit later, Beowulf proclaims his savior status over the other men of his culture and region:
”I avenged all that. Thus none of Grendel’s kin upon earth has cause to boast of that uproar at dawn, not he who lives longest of the loathly race, snared in sin” (p 76).
Ah! But we do know by the end of the story that Beowulf has told such a grand lie. Grendel’s kin in the form of a dragon comes to seek revenge and the death of Ecgtheow’s son.
More points to consider in Beowulf
In Joseph Campbell’s tetralogy The Masks of God, he lays out the basic formulation of two distinct cultures that is now considered the East and the West. The East was shaped into a Garden Culture (and here many scholars refer to this as the Eden Complex) and how women together as a whole unit gained power over the men and among their peoples by controlling a sustainable and diurnal crop that provided consistent sustenance, which later developed into animal husbandry and more complicated farming systems.
The West, however, created peoples who developed from caves and harsh winters and wild hunts devoted to the individual success nourishing the tribe. In many cultures around the world, made noticeable in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the boar culture established through the sacrifice and honoring of giant boars, which provided fresh meat rather than vegetables in the Garden Culture.
But one point one should consider is the main difference of sacrifices between the two cultures. Human sacrifices dominated the Garden Cultures early on. Human blood was thought to replenish the soil and create fertile lands, and we also see this in fertility statues of these same regions. And we do know that in Egypt, human blood after sacrifices flowed into rivers and washed downstream to help form a natural soap for washing clothes. The Boar Culture, which can also be found in southern regions as well as the north long ago, substituted boars for humans in sacrificial practices.
”The natives declare,” writes Campbell in Primitive Mythology, ”that their boar offerings have taken the place of human sacrifices,” (p 448) but this same tribe also reserved special human sacrifices for those special men who sought the paramount crown.
”That was seen, widely known among men, that an avenger, Grendel’s mother, a she-monster, yet survived the hateful one, a long while after the misery of war” (p 49).
”On that pyre the blood-stained shirt of mail was plain to see, the swine-image all gold, the boar hard as iron, many a chieftain slain with wounds. Many had fallen in the fight” (p 42-43).”The dread was less by just so much as the strength of women, the war-terror of a woman, is less than a man, when the bound sword shaped by the hammer, the blood-stained blade strong in its edges, cuts off the boar-image on the foeman’s helmet” (p 50).
”Speedily the wondrous wave-dweller was hard pressed in the waves with boar-spears [phallic symbols] of deadly barbs, beset by hostile attacks and drawn out on the headland. The men beheld the dread creature…And the gleaming helmet, which was to mingle with the depths of the mere, to seek the welter of the waves, decked with treasure, circled with diadems, as the smith of weapons wrought it in days long past, wondrously adorned it, set it round with boar-images, guarded his head so that no sword or battle-blades could pierce it” (p 55-56).
”Then the valiant one perceived the she-wolf of the depths, the mighty mere-woman” (p 58).
”Then he commanded to be brought in the boar-image, the banner, the helmet riding high in battle, the grey corslet, the splendid war-sword” (p 82).
References to Giants (also found in other ancient texts):
”Hrothgar spoke; he beheld the hilt, the old heirloom. On it was written the beginning of a battle of long ago, when a flood, a rushing sea, slew the race of giants; they had lived boldly; that race was estranged from the eternal Lord. The Ruler gave them final requital for that in the surge of the water” (p 64).
”There was no trace of the dragon there, for the sword had carried him off. Then I heard that one man rifled the hoard, the old work of giants in the mound, laid in his bosom flagons and dishes at his own will; took also the banner, brightest of beacons” (p 103-104).
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 275,000+ followers