So I promised a set of posts on ‘Moral Fiction.’ Here is the first. My basic view on good fiction is that it ought be summerizable in interesting form in less than 500 words. I do not mean reducible to 500 words. I mean that in 500 words I should be able to explain why you should read it. Otherwise my glittering educational CV is a load of horse-shit.
So. Beowulf is a problem. On all levels. It in no way behaves as we desire epics to behave. It seems almost sui generis. But that is not the point, at least not for most readers. To most Beowulf is a drag, read only in excerpts: the fights. It is true that the three great fights are the salient moments of the narrative but excerpting them Norton style renders them flat. The fights are surrounded by culture and history. I admit that the culture, embodied by the great hall, is not one we readily identify with, nor is the history- that of the Germanic north- immediately familiar to us. And yet, Beowulf remains essential reading for one who wishes to be essentially human. What is Beowulf about? I submit that Beowulf is about what happens when the lights go out. The poetic style of Beowulf has aptly been described as ‘interlace.’ The analogy is a Celtic knot. There are really only a few threads but they are woven into a tightly knit fabric. I accept this idea, but I would perhaps describe the style as a contrapuntal chiarosuro. What I mean by that is this: darkness encroaches at all moments. The antagonists are monsters and not men precisely because the poet needs the apocalyptic fear brought on by their nihilistic malice. We do not talk of the motivation of the monsters. They are monsters. They hate humanity. Sure, there are triggers for their malice, but at root they are malevolent forces of evil. They exist at first outside and then finally in hellish houses. Beowulf stands first in opposition to the monsters, but then in opposing them becomes somewhat monstrous himself. This is the crux of Beowulf. When everything seems to fade, when evil lurks outside every door, when malice lingers inside the hall, how do you fight the monsters without becoming a monster? Ignoring the question of exact date, we must remember Beowulf was written in the shadow of the fall of Rome. The years from c. 300-1000 were terrifying. We reject the term ‘Dark Age’ now, but it is clear, the people of that era certainly saw themselves living in a dark world. The darkness is, quite literally, nothing. The fear of annihilation, non-existence. Woven between the fights are stories of other fights, but fights between men. These fights always end the same way: more suffering. Contrary to appearances, Beowulf is a stinging invective against the efficaciousness of violence in correcting societal wrongs, and yet it recognizes the need to forcibly oppose evil. Ultimately, I think Beowulf is about trying to do the right thing in a difficult world. Trying as a human being to live a life that matters and, if only briefly, works to stave off the encroaching night. That is why you should read it.
-Beowulf, ed. and trans. Seamus Heaney. Get the Bilingual one if you have a knack for languages and want to try the Old English
-J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Mosters and Critics,’ the seminal essay on Beowulf by the man himself, included in the Norton Critical Edition of Heaney’s text.
-Adrian Bonjour, The Digressions in Beowulf, the best explanation of all the little side stories
-Fred Robinson, Beowulf and the Appositive Style, the best discussion of poetic form and how it relates to content, esp. for a non specialist.
 Through out I will endeavor to introduce words/concepts that do not obtain in quotidian dialect and they shall be glossed as such. ‘sui generis:’ from itself, i.e. seeming to stand alone with neither precursor nor follower; ‘obtain:’ enjoy universal usage; ‘quotidian:’ daily.
 ‘salient’: essential, outstanding, etc.
 I would strongly recommend Seamus Heaney’s translation for the casual reader.
 ‘contrapuntal:’ adj. something made by counter-pointing; ‘chiarosuro:’ a word meaning alternating patterns of light and dark.
 ‘malevolent:’ desiring to harm others.
 ‘crux:’ most difficult part, most important part, etc.