Of Beowulf and Beasts

A Round-table Discussion


In response to the interview with Tristanne Connolly, Beowulf Revisited,” several scholars have offered intriguing comments on the Christian-pagan dynamic in the medieval epic and on the fantasy-reality dichotomy in general. Professor Harold Bloom thinks “it is a pagan poem by a Christian writer.” According to Dr. Wiebke Kuhn, the author is definitely “Christian, possibly even a monk. Anyone with a craving for knowledge during the Middle Ages had to become a religious person.” Professor John Burrow sees Beowulf neither “Christlike” nor “culpably pagan.” Does Richard Wilbur’s poem of the same title imply that the medieval poet represents a culture that was perhaps overly mesmerized with monsters and fantasies of the pagans? Professor Chauncey Wood thinks that Wilbur’s poem reflects the “unknowableness” of Beowulf the man and the epic. Wilbur himself explains that his poem uses the epic to make the argument that a hero, to preserve his world, “must in a sense kill or evict the child in himself.” Professor Nicholas Ruddick notes the tension between a Romantic perspective and a Realist perspective that Wilbur’s doubled structure suggests. Professor Bruce Michelson thinks Wilbur “in some dimension” explores “an imaginative predicament.” Highlights:



 “Is Beowulf a Christian poem?” Professor Harold Bloom asks in the introduction to his e-book on the medieval epic: “God’s glory as a creator is extolled in the poem, but nowhere are we told of God’s grace. Instead, there are tributes, despairing but firm, to fate, hardly a Christian power. Though the beliefs of the writer of Beowulf doubtless were Christian, his poetic sympathies pragmatically seem to reside in the heroic past.”  It seems to me that Beowulf praises two types of heroism: Christian and pagan. Do you think that Beowulf is Christ-like although, as Connolly notes, “the heroic code is an inadequate substitute for Christian enlightenment and salvation”?


Dr. Wiebke Kuhn, Auburn University: I do not see Beowulf as a Christian poem, as Tristanne seems to take it on a certain level (not like the overdone Christian interpretations high-school students get, of course). My reading of it is that the writer who undoubtedly is Christian, possibly even a monk, is remembering the “good old days” fondly—and the great stories that come out of it. I think an aspect that is often overlooked is that anyone with a craving for knowledge, for exploration during the Middle Ages had to become a religious person—the only way to be an intellectual. That does not guarantee perfect faith, something too many people assume in monks.


John Burrow, Professor Emeritus, Bristol University: Yes, the Beowulf poet was certainly Christian and possibly even a monk--remembering that Anglo-Saxon monasteries were not greatly monkish, given their connection with aristocratic society. And yes, he is looking back to pre-Christian times—almost archaeologically, when he deals with their disposal of the dead.


I don’t see much sign, though, of “two types of heroism.” The poet seems to me to credit Beowulf etc. with loyalty, courage, etc. of a kind not superseded by Christianity—and still there, alive and well in The Battle of Maldon [an old English poem about the English people’s failure to defend their country against a Viking invasion in 991]. I can’t see Beowulf as Christlike, myself; but neither do I see him as culpably pagan. He suffers the vicissitudes of life, as we all do, including Christians—but admittedly can hope for fame and a glorious memorial barrow after his death. I would settle for that, as a pagan myself!


Professor Harold Bloom, Yale University: I think it is a pagan poem by a Christian writer. Think of King Lear, which is a pagan play for a Christian audience. All I ever remember in the poem are Grendel’s mama and Grendel. Beowulf himself is much less interesting than the monsters.


Professor Burrow, I have watched the DVD that features your discussion of Beowulf. You seem to share what Professor Bloom has just said about Grendel and his mother. You note that the epic seems to be a book of monsters, so the monk who had chosen to copy it—otherwise the surviving manuscript might not have existed--apparently was interested in monsters. By the same token, could the writer of Beowulf be fascinated with monsters too? Or could he have reflected a culture that was perhaps overly mesmerized with monsters or fantasies, as Wilbur’s poem might have implied?


John Burrow: On the monsters; yes, the poet is fascinated—and would not, I think, have regarded them as fantasies. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c891-924), a very sober text, records a dragon over Northumbria.


Chauncey Wood, Professor Emeritus, McMaster University: It has been almost 50 years since I read Beowulf, so I am reluctant to go into any detail in response. I shall say only this: Richard Wilbur’s poem seems to me to stress the unknowableness of Beowulf the man, and that in turn suggests to me Wilbur’s awareness of the unknowableness of the poem.

While I prefer to teach poems for which I can supply “good” readings, not all great poems can be analyzed to general satisfaction. Beowulf appears to be one of those.  As many times as I taught “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” I was never satisfied that I had a lock on the meaning of each part of it.  It is a very elusive work.


Richard Wilbur: Tristanne Connolly’s words about Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood” make me nostalgic for my graduate school days, when I was a willing member of Frank Magoun’s required courses in Anglo-Saxon literature.     


About my own “Beowulf” poem, what I remember is that it was written as part of a sequence of poems called “Notes on the Hero,” of which the only other surviving poem is “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” My “Beowulf” makes use of the old epic rather than interpreting it. My abandoned sequence argued that the hero sacrifices life, or fullness of life, for the preservation of his world, and that he must in a sense kill or evict the child in himself.


In State of the Fantastic (Greenwood 1992), Professor Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina, maintains that reality can be “consensual hallucination” and refutes that the fantastic is “a parasite upon the real.” His book Ultimate Island: On the Nature of British Science Fiction (Greenwood, 1993), which further advances this arguable proposition, is one of the best works on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, according to Joseph D. Andriano in his 1999 book Immortal Monster.


Isn’t the child’s fantasy monstrously overblown at the expense of reality in Wilbur’s “Beowulf”? Is Wilbur’s proposal to “kill or evict the child” in Beowulf himself potentially subversive?


Nicholas Ruddick: I have just read your very interesting interview with Professor Connolly. I fear my own acquaintance with Old English poetry is extremely rusty, so my comments on Wilbur’s “Beowulf” will lack the dimension that she so effectively brings to her reading of Wilbur’s poem.


I find Wilbur’s “Beowulf” interestingly ambivalent about the expulsion of the child, and perhaps this doubleness is reflected in the poem’s doubled structure, in which the child’s defeat by Beowulf occurs at the poem’s exact midpoint. On the one hand, from a Romantic perspective, the defeat and expulsion of the child by the mature hero may represent a loss of freshness, vitality, and imagination. On the other, from a Realist perspective, the child must be driven out if the reality principle is to be obeyed and maturity be attained.


On balance, though, the land seems reduced by the child’s expulsion: the lake must yield up the lark’s reflection, the flowers are now “wrong,” time passes more quickly, people are colder. Wilbur’s Beowulf as monster-slayer is not a fructifying principle: he dies without issue and “kinless.” Because his deeds were “heavy” (they have no independent vitality, and they weigh down like a borne corpse), his mourners don’t really appreciate his legacy.


In Ultimate Island, you argue that both H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness “deconstruct the white/black, civilized/primitive, rational/irrational duality.” Wilbur seems to agree with you in his poem “Ceremony,” in which he writes that “But ceremony never did conceal,/Save to the silly eye, which all allows,/How much we are the woods we wander in.”


Does Wilbur’s proposal to “kill or evict the child” reconstruct the civilized/primitive, reality-fantasy duality or does he imply that heroism is self-sacrifice because the hero must eliminate what is naturally a part of himself?


Nicholas Ruddick: I agree with your implication that Beowulf and the child are two aspects of the same entity. While Grendel is a “child” by virtue of being the offspring of his Mother, “Child” (via Childe Roland) also suggests an immature questing knight-hero who is seeking some form of self-validation.


I think that Wilbur implies that heroism of the type exhibited by Beowulf in his poem is ultimately a form of self-destruction (though it may masquerade as self-sacrifice), because, on balance, the expulsion of the child/defeat of the monster leads to diminishment.



Mr. Wilbur, does Grendel resemble the beasts in your poem devoted to them?



Richard Wilbur: My poem “The Undead” is indebted to great horror movies such as Lugosi’s Dracula and the first Frankenstein. Such monsters have profound and moving things to say. The middle section of my poem “Beasts” is reminiscent of a sequence in Lon Chaney Jr’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.



Nicholas Ruddick: I concur entirely with Wilbur that these movie monsters do have profound and moving things to say. I find his position reaffirmed by his poem “Beasts.” The significant contrast in the opening section seems to me to be between the unselfconscious animals who sleep in harmony with nature, and the human who reverts to beast in the night time—literally in dreams, figuratively in the form of a werewolf.


The werewolf in “Beasts” is a close relative of the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” Grendel in “Beowulf” less close.






Nicholas Ruddick: The wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” is indeed a werewolf, an embodiment of predatory male sexuality who is activated, so to speak, by the arrival of the female protagonist at puberty. She must learn quickly defeat, or at least outwit, the wolf (who will use her own sexual desires against her) if she is to survive into womanhood. I don’t think that Wilbur engages these themes directly in either poem, as he has slightly different fish to fry. 



You are currently working on Darwinism and 19th-century science fiction. Do you think Wilbur’s poem “Beasts” challenges Darwinism and in fact all theories, including yours, whether they are scientific or literary?


Nicholas Ruddick: I don’t think that the poem “challenges Darwinism,” unless by this you are alluding to Tennyson’s insistence that the “ape and tiger” in us must be stamped out. Darwin himself, always insisting on the animality of our human heritage and the close kinship between ourselves and animals, may have understood the legend of the werewolf as an attempt to demonize, rather than negotiate with, the natural animal within us.


I’m not sure quite how to read the “suitors of excellence” that are invoked toward the end of the poem. Are they poets, who imaginatively restore the needful monsters to the city? Or are they utopian rationalists, whose appetites for the transcendent bring down real monsters upon men (as with Goya’s etching, “The Dream of Reason Begets Monsters”)? Probably both, and more besides. 



Professor Bruce Michelson, University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign: As I said in Wilbur's Poetry (University of Massachusetts Press,1991), I think his “Beowulf” is in some dimension about an imaginative predicament, the predicament of the artist “hero,” in a war between the conscious and the unconscious mind, between wakefulness and dreams--the kind of war that has been going on in the arts of the West at least as far back as Blake. I think “The Undead” is about that predicament too, and also (among some others) “Merlin Enthralled,” and “Walking to Sleep,” and the recent, spectacular poem “All That Is.”   In Wilbur’s “Beowulf,” the kingdom that the lone and lonely hero comes to save has dreamed too deeply and fallen into the thrall of its own nightmares; he is welcomed as a savior, yet misunderstood and suspected for his comparative cool-headedness.  After he slays Grendel, he becomes unwelcome there in a different way, as an outsider with too much imagination, in a place which has now abandoned the imaginative faculty entirely.  He dies “mourned as one/Will mourn for the frozen year when it is done,” because the difficult and dynamic imaginative life he represents is just too hard for most people to understand, in an age which wants to whip-saw between abject Dionysianism– “destructive transcendence,” as Wilbur calls it in one of his Poe essays -- and Appolonian refusal.   In “Merlin Enthralled,” Merlin’s dreams have created and sustained Arthur’s Camelot, but the wizard has fallen too deeply into his own unconscious, and the realm he has made grows “still and woven,” like a tapestry or some other medieval artifact, a relic of its former self. “The Undead” suggests the consequences of a taste for dreams over truth, sleep and darkness over daylight, things as they aren't over things as they are. None of these poems spurns the imagination; they ponder the artistic and personal balances that must be worked out, again and again, between the unconscious and the wakeful states of the mind. I don’t think it's too hard to imagine the personal stake of the poet in each of these poems.


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