As the Church celebrates the feast of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, my series of comments on the nature of Biblical wilderness [see part 1 and part 2] reaches its discussion of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, and its titular hero, who also emerges from a wilderness in order to liberate a spiritually beleaguered city.
Because the world is still, largely, a fallen one, corrupt cities are far more common than righteous ones, but Heorot—Beowulf’s incarnation of City—is best located in transition between the two. Heorot is the golden mead-hall of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. Hrothgar is known the world over as a valiant warrior, noble ruler, and a good man, and his mighty hall stands as a bastion of goodness and dominion in a cold, dark, wild country. Nevertheless, there is hidden sin in Heorot, and Hrothgar’s righteous rule is tainted by a long inherited history of kin-slaying. So, while a good king sits enthroned in the City, and evil is confined to the murky fringes of that country, a house divided against itself cannot stand and the presence of sin—especially the sin of brother killing brother—leaves man’s cultivated realm open to attack from the darkness.
In Beowulf, this attack comes in the form of the demonic creature, Grendel. Hrothgar, an aged and waning king, spent his youth winning peace and power for the Danes, and for many years they lived happily and feasted in their great golden hall,
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he has dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward. (101-114)
Grendel is a product of the first murder; kin-slaying is born into him and what, for Cain, was a momentary sin, in Grendel is a strong and enduring hatred for all of Adam’s sons. He shares in the “curse of exile” that was placed upon Cain and lives as an excluded wanderer. If we take the Beowulf poet’s word for it, this sheds some light on Cain’s city-building. After murdering his brother he went out and founded a “city” of sorts, but it was an act of accepting the Wilderness and making it his home rather than cultivating a new un-wilderness in which he and his offspring might live like civilized men bearing the image of God. Thus that divine image was greatly marred in Cain’s race and they became permanent citizens of the Wilderness and, by virtue of that citizenship, enemies of the righteous citizens of the New Edens scattered through the world.
The kin-slayers did not all live outside the mead-hall, however. Remember that Heorot was vulnerable because of sin inside the “city.” Hrothgar’s herald and trusted retainer is a man named Unferth, and while he ultimately proves himself a faithful friend, he and Beowulf do not hit it off right away. Unferth questions Beowulf’s reputation for bravery and prowess, but Beowulf has better insults picked out for the herald—he accuses Unferth of being a kin-slayer:
You killed your own kith and kin,
so for all your cleverness and quick tongue,
you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell.
[Grendel] knows he need never be in dread
of your blade making a mizzle of his blood
or of vengeance arriving ever from this quarter. (587-597)
Beowulf effectively tells him, “You killed your own relatives; you’re no better than Grendel.” The curious thing is, the accusation sticks. Unferth has a sharp tongue and a clever wit, but he doesn’t speak again for hundreds of lines. The herald’s silence says more than enough. He has indeed been guilty of kin-slaying; the shoe fits and he wears it. But Unferth is not the only one connected to a kin-slaying. Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf because he once knew his father. How did they get acquainted? Beowulf’s father was exiled for killing a man and he took refuge with Hrothgar, who smoothed things over by paying the wergild, or blood price, for the murdered man. Not even the hero, Beowulf, is untouched by the shadow of brother-murder. The fact that the setting and paying of a wergild is an established practice indicates that the society at large is not free from that shadow either.
Heorot is not a den of iniquity—it is still more like an Eden than a Sodom or a Babylon—and a righteous man still sits enthroned there, but he has stopped weeding his garden, and when the grass gets tall the serpents creep in. Heorot is a good City that has become vulnerable to attacks from the Wilderness. It is situated prominently in the midst of dark forest, fens and murky moors, a golden beacon of civilization shining like an island of light in the dark sea of Wilderness. But unlike conquering Israel carrying out the ban or King David subduing the nations, Hrothgar has established Heorot and then gone no further; his Eden has not spread to the four corners of the earth and the Wilderness circles it ‘round. As Cain’s sin has been permitted within the mead-hall, so also Cain’s race has been given free reign outside of it, and for a while
…that doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant. (83-85)
In time that doom and gathering darkness did come to Heorot. Grendel,
…a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved. (86-98)
Grendel couldn’t stand hearing the songs of Creation and “man’s beginnings,” nor of the earth’s Edenic glory before the Fall and before the Wilderness. Like Milton’s Satan, already Heaven’s outcast, jealous and infuriated by the sight of love and joy between Adam and Eve, so the seed of the serpent and descendent of Cain hated the men of Heorot.
So, after nightfall, Grendel set out
for the lofty house, to see how the Ring-Danes
were settling into it after their drink,
and there he came upon them, a company of the best
asleep from their feasting, insensible to pain
and human sorrow. Suddenly then
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses. (115-125)
The Danes were powerless to defeat Grendel or keep him out of Heorot, and they grieved that he could not be dealt with like a civilized man. Grendel would never parley or make peace, and he would never pay the death-price—the wergild—for the warriors he murdered. Grendel would never act, toward his crimes, the way civilized men did. He has no part or place in the cultivated society of men; his attack was not against the Danes alone, but against civilization at large, the very idea of City.
All were endangered; young and old
were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.
So Grendel waged his lonely war,
inflicting constant casualties on the people,
atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot,
haunted the glittering hall after dark,
but the throne itself, the treasure-seat,
he was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast. (129-169)
The weakened Heorot falls to the fiend from the Wilderness. Grendel has made this “city” his own, and may come and go as he pleases. Interestingly, though, he was kept from approaching the actual seat of power in Heorot—Hrothgar’s throne. Surely it wasn’t the Danes who kept him from it; he carried them off thirty at a time and could crunch their bones like so many soda crackers. No, it was God Himself who set a guard over the throne, as a reminder that even though Grendel ruled over Heorot he would never belong in Heorot. Though he was in the City, he could never be an Adamic ruler and cultivator. He could never be of the City. Nevertheless, things were bleak for the Danes.
These were hard times, heart-breaking
for the prince of the Shieldings;
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope… (170-179)
Heorot had fallen to Grendel; the City had fallen to Satan.
Notice the alteration that occurs in the natures of the Wilderness and the City. The city that stood as a light in darkness, ruled by a good king, has now been plunged into the shadows it once stood against and become a place of deathly danger. On the other hand, the terrible Wilderness is now the place from whence Heorot’s only salvation will come. In this case, the wilderness is more than the immediate marshes and moors of Denmark. Beowulf, a Geat, must cross the ocean to reach Denmark, and the north seas of Beowulf are as untamed, treacherous, and teeming with wild beasts as any fen or forest. There are a few important things to note about the hero’s voyage:
Over the waves, with the wind behind her and foam at her neck, [his ship] flew like a bird
until her curved prow had covered the distance
and on the following day, at the due hour,
those seafarers sighted land
It was the end of their voyage and the Geats vaulted
over the side, out on to the sand,
and moored their ship. There was a clash of mail
and a thresh of gear. They thanked God
for that easy crossing on a calm sea. (217-228)
Beowulf immediately exhibits a measure of dominion over the wild by making the sea crossing with exceptional speed and ease. In addition, the Geats all give thanks to God for the easy passage. The inhabitants of Heorot have turned to Satan worship and the man with prayers on his lips is the stranger in the Wilderness.
Beowulf comes like a Moses or a Judge, out of the Wild, to deliver a beleaguered people in a city ruled by the enemy. His arrival bears particular similarity to the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, herself a home to corruption and long-time victim of spiritual siege. Fierce and fearless, Beowulf battles the demon of the swamp and rips his life away as easily as he rips his arm off. The fiend limps away to die in the marshes and Heorot is rid of him forever. With Grendel defeated, Beowulf is showered with gifts and named the Guardian of the Golden Hall. The celebrations, however, do not last long. It turns out that Grendel’s old hag of a mother is still alive and doesn’t take it will when her only boy stumbles home and dies. She too hears the praises and revelry rising out of the mead-hall and when the men had fallen into the sound sleep that so often accompanies wine and joy, she stole into the hall and wrought her havoc. Significantly, the mother does not stand her ground like her son did. When the men discover the new attacker, they take up arms and she flees.
The hell-dam was in a panic, desperate to get out,
in mortal terror the moment she was found.
She had pounced and taken one of the retainers
in a tight hold, then headed for the fen. (1292-1295)
This is a sure sign that the condition of Heorot has undergone another essential shift. The “city” of the mead-hall has been put to rights and once again Grendel’s kin have no power there. If Grendel’s mother means to fight and win, her solitary hope is to lure the good man out into the Wilderness. Unfortunately—though only for her—she is unable to recognize the larger themes at work in this circumstance. She lacks the eyes to see that when a city is put to rights and a good man rules over it again, the next step for faithful cultivators is to turn their attention outward toward the wilderness. Beowulf is going to pursue Grendel’s mother all the way to her deep lair and begin to unmake the forces of the wilderness at their core.
No matter how many times the city is saved and redeemed though, what Beowulf communicates so effectively is the near-certainty of the serpent’s return. Israel could be delivered time and time again, but sooner or later she had returned to her bronze serpents and fallen back into the hands of her enemies. Beowulf may return alive from his harrowing of the wilderness, and one day become a great king in his own right, but threats will always arise to test the borders of his city and challenge his dominion. We see from the banishment in Genesis 3, the appearance of the Beast and Dragon in the Apocalypse, and Satan’s temptation of Jesus, that the Serpent arises and makes it attack from outside the city. It is in the wilderness that fiery serpents make war on the nation of Israel, and it is in the wastes beyond the city that the dragon—Beowulf’s final enemy—awakens. And yet, the dragon’s barrow is also a picture of a fallen city; “heaped inside with exquisite metalwork,” it is the product of human labor, now reclaimed by the culture/dominion-erasing wilderness.
Again Beowulf exhibits the behavior of a true Adam, actively opposing the Wilderness and its citizens. He succeeds, in fact, where Adam could not, and slays the serpent that threatens his city. And yet, the victory in the barrow only ensures another defeat.
This would be the last of his many labours
and triumphs in the world.
Then the wound
dealt by the ground-burner earlier began
to scald and swell; Beowulf discovered
deadly poison suppurating inside him,
surges of nausea, and so, in his wisdom,
the prince realized his state and struggled
towards a seat on the rampart. He steadied his gaze
on those gigantic stones, saw how the earthwork
was braced with arches built over columns. (2712-2719)
Beowulf has done all he could, but he realizes that he has left his people and his city vulnerable; in spite of all his victories, defeat is still coming. Notably, the first thing he does when he realizes his remaining moments are few is to gaze at the craftsmanship of the barrow. He has redeemed a marked out and cultivated site from the clutches of the fiery serpent, but that “ground-burner” has left Beowulf’s land scorched. There can be no present victory over such damage. The earth has been wounded and Beowulf begins to realize that he is only a lesser Adam and incapable of healing certain hurts. In the end, we as readers are exactly where the Beowulf poet wants us to be: waiting for a greater Adam to arrive, survive his brush with the serpent, and unmake the Wilderness in a single, definitive, infinite victory.