Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Beowulf Poet Knew Homer


Bowra teaches us more through his insights on Homer than through his insights on Beowulf, not only when it comes to Homer (of course), but even when it comes to Beowulf. Let's forget about the blunder that made Hygelac and Beowulf, or as Old Norse would have them Hugleik and Bjoulf, Danish Kings rather than Geatish ones. Of course they ruled in Westrogothia, around Gothenburg, probably including areas that in early historic times (history begins with Latin alphabet and Christianity being introduced 800-1000 in Scandinavia) belonged to Norway and Denmark north and south of Gothenburg. The poem after all begins with the genealogy of Hrothgar (Hroar) who is quite properly speaking a Danish King.

But let anyone having read J. R. R. Tolkien's short but masterly essays about the Anglo-Saxon poem recall it very minutely before reading farther. You did? Fine.

Bowra says of the structure of the Iliad:

The poem is built on a plan at once simple and majestic. The crescendo of the opening is paralleled by the diminuendo of the closing books.


O. K. - for my part I think I read that in either of Tolkien's essays when he wrote about the Beowulf poet too.

But Tolkien had said that the Beowulf poet was in Theology more akin to Virgil than to Homer?

Yes, well that is Theology. Let us add that Virgil's frequent use of allitteration has become in Anglo-Saxon poetry a regularised one, just as Ovid's frequent rhyming became Medieval Latin and French poetry regular rhyming. Or as the metre of St Ambrose's Hymns has become the accentual metre of much Medieval Poetry.

That does not stop the Beowulf poet from following in the aesthetic plan of Homer. A crescendo followed by a diminuendo.

Actually Virgil too had used Homer to get a plan: 6 books to parallel loosely the 24 books of the Odyssey and 6 more books to parallel loosely the 24 books of the Iliad.

And the Beowulf poem too uses the Odyssey + Iliad scheme: the parts concerned with Grendel include Odyssean element sea voyage and Odyssean element hero telling of exploits. Plus the Odyssean element killing of a humanoid monster - Grendel paralleling Polypheme and Grendel's mother paralleling Poseidon.

If you remember Tolkien's first essay, he is deeply unsatisfied with the Odyssey for allowing Polypheme to be mourned by a god after he had been behaving like a devil. For implying that the gods cannot be relied on as standing for humanity against monstrosity. And Tolkien adds that the Beowulf poem does that better. That could have been precisely the poet's intention.

Elvis Presley wrote a song with the line "are you lonesome tonight" used as a pick-up line and I wrote one in which it is a reconciliation line spoken by a husband to his wife (via cell phone misnamed "mobile phone" at the time and answering machine - rightly named before I looked it up). Shakespear wrote about a forest walking but in reality only branches used as camouflage "walked" along with the human soldiers. Tolkien and C S Lewis both wrote books in which tree spirits did the walking. Homer wrote about a maimed monster mourned and avenged by a god. The Beowulf poet wrote about a maimed monster mourned and avenged by - a monster. Maybe he too had generally enjoyed one book but felt a need to correct one of its perspectives.

But this is not all.

εccεται ημαρ oτ' αv πoτ' oλωληι Iλιoc ιρη
και Πριαμoc και λαoc ευμμελιωι Πριαμoιo

We can note that Bowra supposes the hexameter was originally a double verse, first four dactyls the last of which always remains so and does not go spondee, then dactyl and spondee, the dactyl of which seldom becomes a spondee either. These two verses are impossible to recite in such a more primitive metre, because there is no word ending after eÿmmeli- and because -ole is a spondee. So, if such a simpler metre existed, it may have been for these two lines that the earlier metre was remoulded to hexameter.

More seriously, the impending doom of Troy and its destruction are prefigured in the pyre of Hector who had said this:

When he dies, the city bewails him as if it had already fallen and were weeping for its own doom (X 411).


That is about how Tolkien resumes the pyre of Beowulf, King of Geats but without an heir. After Beowulf Nordic legend knows of no more Geatish kings. In clearly historic times - that is better documented than the legendary ones, though these may be sufficiently documented - their territory is the Western outskirt of Sweden, which in their times was ruled by the rival, Odinian, Yngling dynasty.

To get a time scale, Hrothgar's son Hrothulf (Hrolf) once is captive with his Swedish stepfather Eadgils (Adils), but escapes him (Gesta Danorum). At the time Sweden tried to be overlord over the Nordic lands. Adils himself starts the Swedish colony in the S E corner of Finland and is killed by a Finnish wife he captured there (Ynglinga Saga).

In the second part Beowulf faces someone behaving somewhat like Achilles - a dragon. Unlike Achilles, Beowulf's tragic fault is not anger, but ofermod. A generous but vaunting form of pride. He took an unnecessary risk, and not just for himself, but also the people he ruled. He and Wiglaf both represent Hector - but Wiglaf in the capacity of a soldier simply doing his duty.

Otherwise everyone human behaves much better than in the Iliad or Odyssey. On stage that is.

Beowulf's pious behaviour with Hrothgar and with his uncle Hygelac is supposed to contrast favourably with Achilles' impious quarrelling with Agamemnon. If Beowulf once does use words reminding of the "eyes of a dog, but heart of a hart" it is towards Unferth, a person reminding of Thersites in his pessimism which amounts to defeatism. Unless, indeed, he comes closer to Odysseus vs Thersites or Agamemnon vs - precisely - Achilles, when adressing Unferth. The name is clearly a translation of oυλoμεvoc or rather oυλoμεvια.

I think I have proven that the Beowulf poet knew both Homer and Virgil, at least the epics. We can therefore conclude that he was a man who had learned Classical Greek, either in the monasteries of England or before coming to England in the first place.

If you want any farther proof, just look at the way his minstrels in Hrothgar's hall parallel Demodocus and Phemius. Or how the brutality of Grendel in Hrothgar's hall parallels the brutality of Odysseus to the suitors (a monk would not find fit that a man should do so to men) and at same time how Beowulf delivering the hall parallels Odysseus delivering his faithful wife, slaves son etc.

The only thing that could prove me wrong in my own eyes now, would be to be contradicted in this theory after actually myself reading the complete epics. Which I confess I have not done with Beowulf yet, nor the last decades of years with the Iliad.

One consequence of this is of course that Beowulf cannot due to scale be used as an example of "primitive poetry" just because it is shorter than Layamon's Brut. After all, the epyllion was an Alexandrine thing in historic certainty quite as much as it was possibly a pre-epic thing. And a monk would possibly not have wanted too long recitals of profane literature.

If someone knows of some Byzantine cleric who disappeared from history before he died, I am not sure the Beowulf poet in England can be excluded from being that person later in life.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Mairie du III, Paris
St Lucy Virgin and Martyr
13-XII-2012

PS: Look at this here:

ευτ' αcτηρ 'υπερεcχε φααvτατoc 'oc τε μαλιcτα
ερχεται αγγελλωv φαoc Hoυc ηριγεvειηc
τημoc δη vηcωι πρocεπιλvατo πovτoπoρoc vηυc

"Just when appeared the brightest star which foremost comes with tiding of dawn's light, the ship of the sea came to the height of the island."

It is about the morning star, it is called brightest and bringing tiding (αγγελλωv), that is it is nearly called an angel. What would brightest bearer of tidings or brightest angel by in English?

"Eala Earendil, engla beorhtast"

Yes, that line too must be by one who knew Homer in Greek./HGL

5 comments:

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

The three lines of the PS are from Odyssey, XIII, 93-95.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Unferth's name can be understood in a number of ways. A common reading, by Morton W. Bloomfield among others, is to see it as un + frith, "mar peace". Another reading, by Fred C. Robinson among others, is to see it as un + ferth, "no wit".

From wiki.

Oddly enough no-one looked at a Nordic Etymology. "Ofärd" is Modern Swedish for illhap. Until I checked this, I thought this was so in English too. As said: Ουλομενια.

Note that I have not read the actual words of Beowulf when adressing Unferth. Will when time and peace allow it, I hope.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

English = Old English, of course.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

As for Swedish and Ofärd, here are a few glosses:

fara, for, farit - vehor, vectus sum
fordon - vehiculum
färd - iter (vehiculatio, non iter pedibus factum quod gång, neque iter equo factum quod ritt)

välfärd - (bonum iter vel potius) bona fortuna (pax, salus, opulentia)
illfärd, ofärd - mala fortuna

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"Of course they ruled in Westrogothia, around Gothenburg,"

That is around areas that much later became such.