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(some interesting facts to read before the show)
By Matthew Sergi
Assistant Professor of English
Wellesley College

Then the worm woke; [the] cause of strife was renewed: for then he moved over the stones, hard-hearted...

That’s a quote from the poem Beowulf,* which you’ll hear intoned by one of the academic scholars who act as narrators during Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage.  But she’ll pronounce the quote very differently: “þa se wyrm onwoc; wroht wæs geniwad: stonc ða æfter stane, stearcheort...”  In these lines you’ll get to hear a piece of the poem in Old English: the earliest version of English, spoken by the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain over a thousand years ago.  Most of the play is in present-day English, of course:


Welcome to our mead-hall, Heorot—pull up a broken chair!


The first half of Beowulf (the play and the poem) unfolds around Heorot, a once-great mead-hall that, when the Danish King Hrothgar commissioned its construction, was impressively “larger than the children of men had ever heard of.”  A mead-hall—in Old English, a medoærn or meduseld (like “Meduseld” from The Lord of the Rings)—is, most simply, the hall where you drink mead, a spiced and fermented honey-drink with enough alcohol content for the Danes to “go get lit,” as Hrothgar puts it (in the play, not the poem).


A mead-hall is also where Danes go to get literary—twice during the poem, a scop (a court poet, pronounced “shoh-p”) stands up in a hall and performs, from memory, a tale in verse about the deeds of warriors.  These two poems-within-a-poem offer us enticing (if unreliable) clues about how the Beowulf­-poet[s] might have envisioned the earliest performances of Beowulf: recited aloud before lords and warriors, with no written component, accompanied by music and by drinking.  (The A.R.T., teamed up with medieval scholars at Harvard and nearby schools, will hold a Beowulf Reading on April 25 that will try to recreate such a performance of the Old English poem.)


But a mead-hall, because it’s where the Danes go get lit, is also the central seat of the lord’s power.  The poem depicts rituals in which Hrothgar’s queen bears the cup between allies, as well as more informal toasts that accompany the giving of gifts and praise between lord and warrior.  By sharing drinks and gifts, early medieval Scandinavians formed and affirmed bonds of friendship and loyalty without which a tribal lord like Hrothgar could not govern.  All this partying and festivity was essential to maintaining social order, especially the fundamental commitment between a lord and his warriors.  And that is why an attack on Heorot is devastating to Hrothgar.  And that is part of why Grendel, not only a monster but an outsider (a mearcstapa—one who walks the boundaries) attacks Hrothgar’s hall, cutting short its bothersome mirth and noise and keeping it empty for twelve years.


Oh dear God, I’m a f**kin’ mess...


So here’s our backstory—by the time the poem (and the play) begins, the displaced Danes have spent twelve years trying to come up with plans to defeat Grendel, who can’t be harmed by weapons, and who kills and eats any Danes who draw near.  The Beowulf-narrator disdainfully tells us that these grieving Danes “vowed sacrifices at heathen temples (hærgtrafum, “idol temples”), with their words [they] prayed that the soul-slayer (gastbona) would give help for the distress of the people.  Such was their custom, the hope of heathens...”  The Danes pray to their gods, but the Beowulf-narrator sees those gods as soul-slayers—devils.  And yet when Hrothgar prays in lamentation or celebration, in both the poem and the play, he prays to the Judeo-Christian God, as does Beowulf, while his enemy Grendel is called the descendant of the biblical Cain.


Woven into Beowulf are historical events involving real medieval Danes and Geats, who lived around 500 A.D.  At roughly the same time, Celtic Britain was first being settled (read: invaded) by the Angles and Saxons, who would later become known as the Anglo-Saxons—the earliest English.  The early medieval Danes, Geats, Angles, and Saxons shared a common cultural history, with very similar languages (the forms of Germanic that would become Old English and Old Norse) and very similar polytheistic religions (the Anglo-Saxon belief in Tyr, Woden, Thor, and Frig lives on in the English days of the week).  England was Christianized during the seventh century; Denmark during the tenth—much later than 500 A.D. 


And thank you, men, for remembering / And for allowing me this view from above.


But it is the Christians who first start writing things down—so any written copy of a pre-Christian poem will be seen through Christian eyes.  Our earliest surviving copy of Beowulf was written down in the late tenth or early eleventh century, weaving together historical battles with the more mythic tales of Beowulf fighting three monsters.  Were those tales the work of real pagan scops, like the ones depicted in Beowulf, reframed—or entirely rewritten—by the Christian scribes who first wrote them down?  Or was the poem we know, with its idealized mead-hall, first composed by an Anglo-Saxon Christian poet, trying to combine his new-ish religion with a nostalgic vision of the already long-gone mead-hall days?


The dating of Beowulf is one of the many points of contention debated over by Anglo-Saxonist scholars today.   Some set the date as early as 625, giving it strong roots in pagan tradition; most tend to place its date later, a few pushing it as late as 1025.  The scholarly debates rage on: which elements of Beowulf come from real pagan practice?  which lines are remnants of oral composition?  is the queen empowered by being the cup-bearer? is Grendel a humanoid representation of the Other? does Beowulf have homosocial bonds with his thanes? does the interlocking pattern of the poem reflects similar patterns found in archaeological digs? how many different ways can we translate half-line 2248b?  Don’t get me wrong: modern scholarly discussions of Beowulf (respectfully including the excellent ones to which I’ve vaguely alluded here!) very often unlock important and fascinating meanings.


And momma, he schooled me good / And momma, he battered me bad, so bad / And momma, I been misunderstood...


But it is the sheer bulk of our scholarly discussions, by 2013—a millennium after the earliest copy of Beowulf—that makes up the “thousand years of baggage” that the Beowulf play satirizes.  Academic critics have published countless articles and books on Beowulf—or, most often, we deliver our research and analyses at academic conferences.  The narrators of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, three scholarly critics sitting on stools drinking bottled water, are stereotypical presenters at an academic panel.  Such panels usually take about ninety minutes, with each presenter usually reading their newest work directly from the printed-out page, or sometimes (as in the play) hosting roundtable discussions.  The most famous conference on medieval studies, featuring 582 panels over four full days, is held each year in May in Kalamazoo: some of this year’s Beowulf sessions discuss, for instance, editing and translation problems, the arrangement of time and memory, the cultural significance of wine, and the sex of monsters.


He’s not an archetype! He’s a poem!


Sometimes, though, the poem itself, and its subject—the body of Beowulf and the body of Beowulf, in all their complex simplicity—seem to fall through the grasp of academic critics’ discussions, which are ostensibly about them.  At the same time, without academics, both bodies would disappear: it is only because of scholars that we can understand the poem’s layers of history and convention, or make sense of Old English, or know the poem exists at all.


Michael D.C. Drout, after listing examples of the many points on which Anglo-Saxon scholars disagree, asserts that they all can agree on only one thing: that one particular article, published in 1936, was “the single most important critical essay ever written about Beowulf.”   In that article, J.R.R. Tolkien—yes, that Tolkien—offers a critique of other critics, those who had reduced the poem to a “historical document” with no “literary interest.” Tolkien, by analyzing the way that the monsters in the poem balance each other out as opposites, argues in favor of reading Beowulf “as a poem... so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content.”  His article is called “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”—a title which resonates subtly and chillingly with certain moments in Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage.  Keep it in mind as you watch.


And thus, hence, and here, I uphold his father, and his father before that, forefathers further—


As the fictional critics in the play point out, Grendel—the first of Beowulf’s three monsters—is a fatherless outsider, “no mention of a father.”  That opposes him strongly to medieval Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon heroes, who are always known by their fathers.  The poem opens with a long description of illustrious kings of the Danes and their deeds: first Shield, son of Sheaf; then Shield’s son Beow; then Beow’s son Halfdane; that finally brings us to Halfdane’s son, Hrothgar.  We meet Beowulf as the son of Ecgtheow; after his heroic deeds in the poem, Hrothgar is all but ready to take Beowulf as an adopted son.   Grendel’s fatherlessness makes him seem to be even more of a mearcstapa, a solitary wanderer, alone. 


But by the warrior code I have sworn: it’s better to seek revenge than to mourn.


Both the play and the poem begin when Beowulf promises the devastated Danes to defeat Grendel and to restore Heorot.  In the poem, Beowulf urges King Hrothgar to leave off his lamenting and to seek action: “Sorrow not, wise warrior.  It is better for a man to avenge his friend (freond wrece) than much mourn.”  Medieval Scandinavian culture was held together—and often torn apart—by a valorized cycle of vengeance: the second of Beowulf’s three monsters, who appears in both poem and play with shocking suddenness, adds a disturbing twist to that cycle—a reminder that Grendel, a fatherless wanderer along the borders, isn’t completely alone.


And so begins Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage.  Enjoy it all well—as the Anglo-Saxons would put it, bruc ealles well!




*The translation of Beowulf quoted in this piece is the Norton Critical Edition of E. Talbot Donaldson’s Beowulf: A Prose Translation (2001, ed. Nicholas Howe).  Good collections of academic work on Beowulf, including the critical debates and historical data mentioned and cited above, can be found in the supplementary material to that edition (see especially Howe’s article), and to the Norton Critical Edition of Heaney’s Beowulf: A Verse Translation (2001, ed. Daniel Donoghue)—see especially the articles by Tolkien, Leyerle, Frank, and Hill.  For Drout’s discussion of Tolkien’s article, see Beowulf and the Critics (2002, ed. Michael D.C. Drout).

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