© 2015 By Bob Litton
Yesterday I received in the mail a book I had ordered. It was Fredrick Klaeber’s Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg. This book, the latest of four editions published since 1922, virtually immediately became recognized as the sine qua non of Beowulfian studies and has pretty much remained so to date, although many scholars have debated some of its premises since 1922. Even Klaeber continued to work on revisions for years afterwards. Nonetheless, much basic material remains in it that no one expects will ever be superseded.
I had to buy Klaeber’s book when I signed up for the course in Old English at Southern Methodist University in 1967. I no longer have that volume, for I sold it years ago to a used book store for a pittance of its actual value. (I have sold many of my books, read and unread, upon moving from one town to another.) When I first glanced at the Klaeber, I saw it as daunting, but later it appeared to me as simply challenging. Anyway, I had wanted to study Old English (also referred to as “Anglo-Saxon”), and that desire was strong enough to dilute any threat of difficulty. To take the course, however, one had to enroll in the English master’s degree program. Although I felt I could learn anything else about English literature on my own and was not really interested in pursuing another diploma, I signed up for the entire program. I concede, though, that this ol’ professional student still viewed academia as more enticing than the tax office at Dallas City Hall, where I was working at the time.
But I see I am straying from my topic. Pardon me, dear reader. I will return to Beowulf later.
As a child I hungered for heroes. You would waste your time asking me why, for I haven’t the faintest notion. I believe it all started in 1949 when Mama took me downtown to see the film Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. I’m not sure that was a very wise move on Mama’s part, because it depicted male-female relationships in a very negative light. Those definitely were not the years of women’s lib! Luckily, I did not have to contend with female barbers until well into manhood. However, being a young boy eager for a future of adventure and renown, I concentrated more on Samson than on Delilah…at the time. Most of you will be acquainted with the story, so I won’t recite it here; if you have not read the folk tale and are interested enough, check out chapters 13-16 of “Judges” in the Old Testament; it’s not long. After I saw that movie, I had to relate the story to my playmates and re-enact the part of Samson pressing against the temple’s pillars, bringing the whole place crashing down upon the Philistines. I even prayed to God that he would allow me to be a Nazirite, just like Samson, and, especially, as strong as my hero. Well, you can imagine how long that fantasy lasted.
Despite my disenchantment with biblical literature in general, there remain some parts of the Bible that I still admire or at least fondly recall: one of them is the story of Samson. You see, a more mature reading of the story revealed to me what a dunderhead, what a disappointment for his people Samson was. Yet, in the film (not in the Bible) Samson experiences a moment of recognition: Just before the Philistines blind him with a heated sword, he prays to God, saying, “My eyes did turn away from you . . . Now you take away my sight, so that I may see again more clearly.” I don’t recall how I responded to that line when I was nine years old, but it struck me as quite profoundly spiritual, even poetic, when I viewed the film on VHS recently. (I had bought a copy through a local video store.)
In fact, I now see that film in an even more favorable, though not as childlike, way than I did in 1949. The script seems almost as though it had been written for an opera, it is so concise and dramatic, both in the soft, romantic scenes and in the rousing action scenes. And I still love Hedy Lamarr. Samson’s film character, too, is more plausible, more sympathetic than the biblical one: in the latter, his numerous, mostly petty exhibitions of strength and the dimwittedness of his responses to Delilah’s repetitive cajoling reduce his stature as a tribal leader. My mature appreciation of the story, as Cecil B. DeMille told it, is on a higher level than the boy’s perception.
The story of Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) is very similar, but the Greek demigod is a bit more self-aware than Samson. His feats of strength are, for the most part, assigned to him; and his moments of weakness, such as when he gets drunk at Admetus’ house, just while—unbeknownst to our hero—his host is mourning the death of his wife Alcestis, are usually accidental or beyond Heracles’ control. After Heracles learns the facts of the case, he becomes remorseful and takes it upon himself to descend into Hades, wrestles Death into surrendering Alcestis, and returns the queen to her astonished husband. The late classicist Edith Hamilton summed up Heracles’ character this way:
“There is no other story about Hercules which shows so clearly his character as the Greeks saw it: his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone is dead; his quick penitence and desire to make amends at no matter what cost; his perfect confidence that not even Death was his match. That is the portrait of Hercules.” (Mythology, Chapter 11)
Heracles’ story, too, is more tragic than Samson’s; for he kills his wife and children during a period of madness brought upon him through a magic spell cast by Zeus’ wife Hera. Still, I think everybody agrees that Heracles was not very bright. He never was a hero for me.
I can say the same for Richard Wagner’s romantic hero Siegfried, whom I introduce in this essay partly because I love hearing the late Anna Russell’s satirical description of him. In this third music drama of Wagner’s magnum opus, Ring of the Nibelungen, “Siegfried”, our hero is the lover of Brunnhilde, one of eight Valkyries (those armored equestrian women who flit about over a battlefield, gather up dead heroic warriors, and tote them up to Valhalla). There is a huge difference in the character of Siegfried when compared to either Samson or Beowulf, for Wagner presents him from the beginning as stupid, in fact so stupid that he cannot feel the emotion of fear: he doesn’t know what fear is, but he knows it exists and he has an overwhelming desire to understand it so that he can feel it. In other respects, he is pretty much like Samson and Beowulf.
In her hilarious “analysis” of The Ring of the Nibelungen, Anna Russell describes Siegfried this way: “He’s very young, he’s very handsome, he’s very strong, he’s very brave…and he’s very stupid. He’s a regular Li’l Abner type.” Here is the current URL to Ms. Russell’s performance; I, of course, cannot predict how long it will be active: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m69aPAo1rXE
Now let’s return to Beowulf. This epic, believed to have been composed sometime between the 6th and the 8th centuries, is similar to the Ring cycle in that it is at least partly derived from Germanic mythology, especially with its inclusion of an extraordinarily strong hero, a dragon, and a heavy emphasis on gold and the lust to possess it.
A different Weltanschauung pervades the Beowulf, however, a primitive mixture of the Germanic warrior code and Christianity. I won’t go into the world-view element in detail here; I will simply point out that it is exemplified in two kings: Hrothgar and Beowulf. Both kings battle enemies to protect their peoples, rule justly, generously reward their faithful followers with gold rings and gems, are sympathetic toward the sufferings of others, and are magnanimous. And, in accordance with the code, Beowulf urges Hrothgar not to mourn the loss of his favorite retainer but to avenge his murder: revenge is more effective than grief.
Unlike Hrothgar, though, Beowulf has been gifted with super-human physical power: he allegedly possesses the strength of thirty ordinary men. In the poem, he wins a long-distance swimming match with a companion named Brecca and kills two troll-like water monsters in his youth and then a dragon in his old age. The whole epic is considered by most critics to be a mirror of what a good ruler should aspire to be; we might contrast it with Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Comparing Samson, Heracles, Siegfried, and Beowulf, I note the over-weening self-confidence of all four: Samson was certain he could ward off the Philistines even after his hair had been cut; Heracles had a contempt for Death, which he eventually had to force upon himself; Siegfried’s over-whelming lust for learning how to fear is one of the most comical depictions of stupidity I have ever read; Beowulf lost some of his warriors to the maws of Grendel and Grendel’s mother because he had led them to Heorot even though he intended to combat the demon unassisted.
There are numerous insights one can pull from these stories, the most obvious one being that physical strength without modesty, humility and common-sense is not ultimately admirable. Yet we still look up to such heroes because we have an eternal hunger for a deliverer–someone who will eradicate evil beings and cleanse our communities, even the world as a whole–of all the faults which we are too weak to conquer ourselves. I faintly recall a movie during the 1970s of one of two films–either Walking Tall (1973) or Death Wish (1974)–in which the reviewer likened the main character to Beowulf. Both films’ protagonists were basically vigilantes, although Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) in Walking Tall was a sheriff, and Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Death Wish was simply an angry citizen. Both men were out for revenge, the old Germanic warrior code tenet.