Beowulf: Between Pagan Heroism and Christian Heroism

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(The story of Misfit Press is inextricably linked to the story of Misfit Incorporated, which is inextricably linked to the story of AJ and Melissa Leon. These fascinating stories have been told at length on many other occasions – in newspapers, on TEDx stages, during numerous interviews and chance meetings in wine bars. If you want to explore the weird and wonderful company that is Misfit Incorporated, peruse our site. For the full backstory, check out this video interview.)

Misfit Press itself was established in 2014, with the publication of AJ Leon’s The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit. The little-known backstory to The Life & Times is that it was originally slated to be published by a major American publisher, who headhunted AJ after noticing the popularity of his blog, The Pursuit of Everything. About a third of the way through the writing of the book, AJ began to get twitchy about the compromises involved in traditional publishing: uncompromising editorial pressure, a lack of say on issues such as design and artwork. Not long later, AJ bailed on the contract, and decided to publish the book himself. The Misfit team created and ran a Kickstarter, aimed at raising $15,000 to cover publishing costs. By the time the fundraising had run its course, pledges totalled more than treble that amount. With the excess funds, AJ and Misfit decided to go one better than just publishing a book, and also founded a publishing house.

Since its founding, Misfit Press has steadily flourished. In 2015, we took under our wing Wolftree, the finest arts journal in the American Midwest; we released our 2015 Anthology, featuring the finest creative work we encountered over the preceding year; and The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit continued to find readers across the globe. In 2016 we published Destination Shakespeare, the debut poetry collection from esteemed Shakespeare academic Paul Edmondson; and we have more Shakespeare-related publications in the works for 2017, including Shakespeare On The Road, a tale of a Shakespearian adventure across the US.

Last  year was a big growth period for the Press, and there is lots more on the way for 2017. As you’ll see from our Forthcoming Publications section, over the next twelve months we will be publishing Saya Sayama: Three Years in Myanmar by incredible photojournalist Spike Johnson, a photonarrative account documenting a unique moment in Myanmar’s history: the violent shift from General Ne Win’s fifty-year dictatorship to the country’s first steps towards democracy. Also imminent is Tangentially Reading, featuring some of the most insightful, shocking, touching, and hilarious moments from the first 200 episodes of Christopher Ryan’s much-loved podcast, Tangentially Speaking.

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Beowulf: Between Pagan Heroism and Christian Heroism

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arlier this summer – as a sort of aesthetic counterpoint to the sunny west coast weather – I read a book about the things we are scared of. The book was Stephen T. Asma‘s On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (2011). An ambitious, ranging, packed work, On Monsters aims be a complete cultural and conceptual history of monsters, in every sense of the word.

On the whole, I found On Monsters to be kind of uneven. (I thought the definition of “monster” became so loose and all-encompassing in the final chapters that it came to encompass everything and nothing.) But when On Monsters was good, it was excellent. For me, the most fascinating section was chapter seven, titled “The Monster Killer.” The monster killer referred to is Beowulf, hero of the Geats (an ancient North Germanic tribe), and eponymous protagonist of one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature in the English language: Beowulf. (The earliest manuscript of Beowulf dates to “around 1100, but the story probably had existed in oral form for centuries before.”)

In Asma’s fascinating reading, Beowulf expresses a philosophical tension wherein the important pagan virtue of pride is the principal vice of Christianity.

  • Click here for Asma's full summary of the plot of Beowulf

    Beowulf is the name of a young warrior from the land of the Geats in southern Sweden, and his story unfolds sometime around the late fifth and early sixth centuries. He hears of a troubled Danish king, Hrothgar, whose subjects and feasting hall (Heorot) are being menaced by a monster named Grendel. Beowulf offers his services as a monster killer: “I have known much peril, grim death dangers. Grendel’s ravages came to my ears in my own homeland.

    Beowulf and his band of Geat warriors are welcomed with open arms and a feast by the Danes. A mischievous Dane, named Unferth, calls Beowulf’s ability into question by reporting a story of Beowulf’s loss in a swimming competition with his friend Breca. Beowulf sets Unferth straight and establishes his monster-killing credentials, explaining that he and Breca swam side by side for five nights until an “angry sea-flood broke out above us—blackening sky and freezing northwinds forced us apart, towering salt-swells struck between us. Strange sea creatures surfaced around me….To the deep sea-floor, something pulled me—hard gripfingers hauled me to sand with grappling tight claws. It was granted to me to reach this devil, rush him to sleep with sharp sword-point—swift blade-slashing, strong in my hand, haled him deathward.” Beowulf was then attacked by several more sea monsters, all of whom he “sent to hell.” So, Beowulf concludes, Breca may have won a simple swimming contest, but he never fought and triumphed over heinous demons of the deep.

    We can already see that this is a man’s story, told by men, about men, and celebrating manly virtues. Even before the encounter with Grendel we have heroes in chain mail, emptying mugs of beer, and trading stories of violent victories against formidable enemies. The testosterone level only builds as the story progresses.

    The monster Grendel, who regularly breaks into the large feasting hall at night to kill and eat the sleeping Danes, is probably the most famous monster descendant of the biblical Cain. He is described as the “kin of Cain,” underscoring the medieval tendency to tether monsters to an already established hereditary line of evil. Grendel, like his banished biblical ancestor, lives outside the region of normal society, like a phantom that seems to materialize only in the black of night. He lives in the “cloud misted moors” and “no man can follow where God’s enemies glide through the fog.”

    As night falls, Beowulf and his Geat warriors prepare to ambush the monster by lying quietly in the feasting hall. “Not one believed they would leave Heorot (the hall), take ship once more, seek out their homeland, the known meadows of their native country. Too many stories of that tall wine-hall, emptied of Danes by dark night slaughter, had found their ears.” In the quiet black of night, Grendel, “craving a blood feast,” suddenly bursts into the hall, ripping the iron doors off its hinges with ease. The beast snares a victim immediately; he “tore frantically, crunched bonelockings, crammed blood-morsels, gulped him with glee.” When the beast grabs his second victim, the victim grabs back. The monster is astonished to feel Beowulf’s awesome grip upon him. Beowulf’s iron fingers pin the beast and prevent any escape. A horrible battle ensues, but Beowulf doesn’t let go. It was long established that swords had no effect upon the scaly fiend, but no one was prepared, least of all Grendel, for Beowulf’s mortal grip. “Then that giant ravager—rejected by God, marked with murder, measured by his sins—finally conceived in his fiend’s mindthoughts that his loathsome body would bear no more.” As the monster pulls away in anguish, Beowulf, still refusing to let go, rips off its arm. The defeated monster, “a great death-wound gap[ing] in his shoulder,” runs back into the darkness.

    The following night Beowulf is presented with many precious gifts in gratitude and the whole hall rings out with drunken celebration. But it turns out that even monsters love their children, and waiting for that night, “slouched through the shadows, searching for revenge—grim murder-fiend Grendel’s hell-mother…mourned for her child. She was damned to hide in a dark water home, cold wildwood stream, since Cain murdered his only brother-kin, beat down to earth his father’s son-child. He was sent for that, marked with murder, from man’s company—banished to wasteland. Then woke from his loins misbegotten monsters.” Grendel’s mother turns out to be an even more dreadful foe, and Beowulf must fight her in the hall and then follow her to her watery lair. In an underwater cave Beowulf tries to crush the “sea hag,” but she is too strong. Finding a huge sword in the monster’s cache, he manages finally, “with rage in his heart,” to slay the creature. Waiting anxiously above water, the Danes and Geats watch “a welling of blood, waves of death gore, rise to the surface.” Beowulf emerges victorious, carrying the hilt of the successful sword; the sword itself has melted from the monster’s vitriolic blood.

    After much celebration Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes the king of the Geats, living happily for many years as a noble ruler. But after fifty years the peaceful interval is broken and Beowulf must rise again to meet a monstrous enemy. A wandering fugitive incurs the wrath of a horrible dragon when he steals a golden cup from the creature’s hidden treasure. The dragon takes his vengeance on all men, “spewing flame-murder, blistering mead halls—mountains of hate-fire moved through the land, he would leave no creature alive on the earth, lone night-flyer.” After the serpent blasts and sears the land of the Geats, Beowulf “called for a shield.” His warriors abandon him out of fear, but a young relative named Wiglaf stays to fight alongside the aging hero. Together the two manage to defeat the giant serpent after a difficult battle, but not before Beowulf is bitten badly by the venomous dragon. “Murderous poison welled within his breast, baleful serpent gall pushed toward his heart. The proud one wandered slowly by the wall—sat by the barrow-stone, lost in life-thoughts.” Beowulf finally dies, is cremated, and is buried on a cliff overlooking the ocean.”

Otherwise, here is a very short version: Beowulf is a hard-as-nails, beer-drinking, monster-slaying warrior who goes to help a Danish king named Hrothgar. Hrothgar’s people are being menaced by a monster named Grendel, a monster descendant of the biblical Cain who lives in “cloud misted moors” as one of “God’s enemies.” That night, Grendel bursts into the hall and eats one of the men, before Beowulf kills him by ripping off his arm. The next night the hall is a scene of drunken celebration. But then Grendel’s “hell-mother” turns up, and Beowulf is forced into another battle. Finally, “with rage in his heart,” Beowulf slays the creature. More celebrations ensue, and Beowulf lives happily for fifty years, before another beast appears, this time a dragon breathing “mountains of hate-fire.” While everyone else cowers, Beowulf kills the dragon, but not without suffering a mortal wound. Beowulf finally dies, and is buried on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

 

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. R. R. Tolkien, as Asma reminds us, argued in a now-famous 1936 lecture that summarising Beowulf  totally misses the point, that it is the “actual poetry of Beowulf,” its line-by-line beauty, where its greatness lies. On top of this, as Asma relates,

Tolkien [also] weighed in on the substantive debate as to whether the poem was a work of Christian or pagan imagination. The poem is ambivalent about its hero, making him an inspirational figure, but also tragic. His strength and reliability make him a champion, but his pride and conceit make him flawed. Moreover, the poem mixes pagan tropes (e.g., the culture of fame and honor is celebrated, and Beowulf is cremated like a pagan) with Christian tropes (e.g., monotheism is sometimes intoned, and Cain is referred to explicitly). Traditionally, scholars read this ambivalence as a sign that the poem itself was a mongrel offspring, written by a northern pagan steeped in Norse legend, but copied and interpolated by a Christian monk who baptized the text with minor Christian additions.

The idea that “Beowulf is a pastiche of Christian revisionism mixed with Norse paganism” leads Asma on to the chapter’s fascinating central thesis:

The relationship between heroes, monsters, and gods can be said to experience a sea change in Beowulf if we realize that the important pagan virtue of pride is the principal vice of Christianity.

Asma goes on:

Monster killers and heroes have been celebrated in pagan culture as the strong men of action that are needed to save the family or tribe or village… Hero pride was a favored impulse in the pre-Christian era, even if it came with flaws of excess and immoderation. But the biblical tradition brought a new ethic: “Blessed are the meek.” One could argue, in fact, that the main theme of the Old Testament is submission to Yahweh, and the New Testament resounds with the call to humbleness. The hero of Christianity, Jesus, even ends in the ignoble position of suffering on a cross. This is not exactly fertile cultural ground for growing manly monster killers. Norse he-men of Beowulf’s era would not have understood this new kind of “victory through humility.”

As Asma puts it, “a new kind of hero was invented in Christianity,” one whose suffering is their heroism:

Victory no longer comes when the hero is standing over the slain monster; it comes in the next life, after one has lived humbly and proven oneself by accommodating large amounts of unjust suffering. Traditional heroes such as Beowulf, Hercules, and Odysseus can be acknowledged for their strength and ability, but their prideful humanism, their attempts to personally bring justice to the world, must be devalued in the new Christian paradigm. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we don’t need monster killers when we trust in the Lord. After all, God, not man, punishes the wicked. Heroic faith replaces heroic action.

In Tolkien’s reading, the old Norse ethic of “absolute resistance” was “properly tamed in England” by Christianity. Beowulf (and Beowulf) are suspended between these two overarching worldviews: “Beowulf is both the last gasp of pagan hero culture and an important breath in the rise of the Judeo-Christian humility culture.”

In closing, Asma references Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who “unlike Tolkien, who was happy to see such will-to-power tamed by Judeo-Christian virtues… missed the old days and wished we would bring back a little bit of our monstrous selves.” Asma quotes Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886):

In honoring himself, the noble man honors the powerful as well as those who have power over themselves, who know how to speak and be silent, who joyfully exercise severity and harshness over themselves, and have respect for all forms of severity and harshness… A faith in yourself, pride in yourself, and a fundamental hostility and irony with respect to “selflessness” belong to a noble morality just as certainly as does a slight disdain and caution towards sympathetic feelings and “warm hearts.”

Asma closes with a summary of his fascinating chapter:

Pagan heroes want to be publicly recognized for their acts of heroism; they want honor as payment for their monster-killing services. Beowulf himself says he wants fame… Judaism and Christianity, on the other hand, demote public honor in favor of private honor. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, prideful men misidentify their proper audience: ‘They act out the drama of their lives before the audience of their contemporaries rather than before the all-knowing and merciful eyes of God.’ This mistake makes them prideful giants, impressive in the short term but ridiculous from the point of view of eternity.


Which is heroism to you? The Pagan way or the Christian way? Are you with Nietzsche, or Tolkien?

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MattMatt is Chief Editor at Misfit Press. Alongside overseeing all activity at the Press, he is in the latter stages of a PhD, working on a thesis examining the intersections between literature, neuroscience and the philosophy of consciousness. Soccer, snowboarding, prog metal, Dostoevsky, a good Chianti and strangers' dogs all rank amongst his favourite things.

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