On Musing about Beowulf and Its Culture

This morning, while I was listening to Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition and waiting for the coffee to kick in, I saw that a friend posted a question on Facebook about Beowulf.

No, not the Robert Zemekis film. The Anglo-Saxon epic poem on which the Zemekis film was based.

What, he wanted to know, was the significance of Beowulf’s cursed treasure. In symbolic terms.

I admit, I had to turn to the Googles. I didn’t remember a “cursed treasure” in Beowulf, but, with the help of sites like this, twenty-plus-year-old memories came flooding back.

To make a long story short, Beowulf dies fighting a dragon. His companion Wiglaf discovers that there’s a curse on the treasure that Beowulf gave his life to acquire, so when Beowulf is placed on his funeral pyre, the treasure is left entombed where it is of no benefit to anyone that Beowulf ruled.

I’m not going to name the friend who asked the question; it’s not really a secret, but I also don’t feel like outing a friend on the completely random chance that he pilfers from my theories for a paper. :)

I did devote some thought to Beowulf, though. First, as the coffee was oiling the synaptic gears. And later as I was driving through the back country. This is (roughly) what I posted as comments to the Facebook thread:

In my view, applying lit-crit techniques to Beowulf is madness; the poem wasn’t written for that purpose. It was simply an heroic epic, meant to be recited to entertain an illiterate audience. (The scene that makes Reign of Fire worthwhile is the heroic recitation of The Empire Strikes Back in the post-dragon-apocalypse hold.)

In narrative terms, there is no symbolism to the cursed treasure. To the Anglo-Saxon audience that would have heard Beowulf in recitation, they would be familiar with the practice of treasure burials. Look at Sutton Hoo. Or look at the recent discovery of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon bed burial.

But what made the treasure “cursed”? I have to be honest, that nagged at me. Then it came to me.

The text we have of Beowulf is a tenth century Anglo-Saxon text, written down by a Christian copyist, that relates events that probably happened in the fifth century or before. (As Christopher Tolkien notes in his introduction to his father J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Beowulf makes reference to the Volsungs, and the Volsung Saga is itself based on historical events that happened in the Rhine Valley in the early fifth century.) Thus, our Christian scholar is five hundred years removed from the events that are described in the poem he’s transcribing. Henry VIII’s reign is as close to us in time as Beowulf was for him.

We know that treasure burials are common in the time period and culture that Beowulf describes. How do we know this? Archaeological finds like Sutton Hoo. Records in historical texts. In short, we have evidence that there was nothing unusual about a king being buried with his treasure (or treasury). Two centuries of research has given us a perspective on the time period of Beowulf that the intervening centuries did not have.

Our tenth century scholar doesn’t have that perspective. What he has is a story that has, in his view, an unusual feature — a king is immolated and his treasure is buried. Why? That’s not how burials are handled in his time. Wouldn’t his people benefit from the hoard? Since they didn’t, there must be a reason…

Our scholar is a creative man. He must be; he’s literate in a time of illiteracy. “The hoard must be cursed! If it is evil, then its curse would taint the people. Therefore, it must be buried.”

In short, burying Beowulf with the cursed treasure is a tenth century retcon of a not-at-all-uncommon fifth century treasure burial.

And I suspect that this is the first time that the word “retcon,” in the fannish sense, has ever been applied to the first great epic of English literature… ;)

One thought on “On Musing about Beowulf and Its Culture

  1. You get some of that same issue with studying ancient Celtic myths of any sort. A lot of these things were oral, and weren’t written down until the Christian scholars took them down. So sometimes sorting through what’s “true” and what was edited by early Christian sensibilities can be difficult. Thankfully for me, I’m not a religious reconstructionist. Otherwise I’d probably go batty.

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