Beowulf is a frightening and beautiful story. It is an Anglo-Saxon poem of heroic battles against monsters. The hero, Beowulf, goes to a kingdom that is being plagued by a monster named Grendel, who attacks the great hall only at night, killing and destroying. Beowulf, after a heroic struggle with sea monsters, arrives to bring battle to Grendel. After killing the gruesome Grendel, his praises are sung, but his work is not done. After her son is killed, Grendel’s mother attacks the great hall and in revenge kills the king’s rune-reader. Beowulf is then given a magical sword and sets off to kill the mother, whose lair is under a lake. He ultimately does kill her, but in so doing, the sword is disintegrated, leaving only the rune covered hilt. Beowulf returns to the great hall and presents the king with the hilt. The king seems melancholy, pleased that his kingdom has been freed of the menace of Grendel and his mother, but melancholy nonetheless. He counsels Beowulf not to succumb to the same fate as he did. Beowulf then returns to his own land and becomes king. After ruling for many years, one of his men steals a chalice from a dragon’s lair. The dragon awakes, and the aging Beowulf must do battle with the dragon. Ultimately, he succeeds in killing the dragon, but in the process he is mortally wounded and dies. Beowulf is a frightening and beautiful story of being within a frightening and beautiful world, among frightening and beautiful creatures.
Unlike most Anglo-Saxon poetry, Beowulf is, at its core, mythological. Not only in the motifs of the hero’s journey and fantastic creatures, but in the purpose it served for the people of the Anglo-Saxon culture, and, I would argue, for us today. There are many motifs in the story that deserve attention, and many ways the story, as a whole, can be interpreted. There is no doubt that Beowulf is a mythic story though, and as such, conveys an account of cultural and personal psychospiritual development. Unfortunately, much of the available scholarship is dry, stale, and unsavory; many of the interpretations are grossly inadequate. Along these lines, I would like to draw special attention to two elements of the story upon which I feel any interpretation must ultimately rest. These are foundational keys to understanding the story, but ones that most interpretations, for one reason or another, seem not to take into full consideration, robbing us of a complete, vivid, and relevant account.
The first of these points is the death of the rune-reader. Continue reading