It has long been a clichéd truism that history is written by the victors; this assertion is often paired with the acknowledgment that a history written by those who lost major conflicts or were subjugated would be starkly different. The ubiquity of such sentiments clearly declares the paramount nature of considering perspective in approaching any historical account, whether that work is presented as non-fiction or fiction.
In the Old English verse work Beowulf, the question of perspective can be considered within the literary context of looking at speaker, syntax, and diction. One is meant, in light of the aforementioned modern sentiment, to look both at what that speaker aims to communicate about the events and individuals as well as at how and why the communication is thus structured.
That speaker, in historicizing the Geatish-Swedish Wars, actively obfuscates chronology, emphasizing the cyclical, muddy, and endless nature of feuding conflict so as to present the impotence of war, the tragedy of revenge, and the dependence of the two on a preoccupation with the past.
A Nonchronological and Bloody History:
The events in the wars depicted in Beowulf are presented in a confusing zigzag pattern, jumping forward, over, and back through generations. The first of two great chunks of the text wherein the speaker conveys the history of the Geatish-Swedish wars occurs shortly after the temporal jump of five decades, at which point the narrative transitions abruptly from Beowulf plotting to take troops in pursuit of the dragon to discussion of one of the wars: “[. . .] nor did [Beowulf] worry much about the dragon’s warfare, / his strength or valor, because he had [. . .] crushed Grendel and his kin, / that loathsome race. It was not the least / of hand-to-hand combats when Hygelac was slain [. . .] in the chaos of battle” (lines 2348-49, 2353-56).
Both the abruptness of this shift and the stepping back a generation are indicative of every swing in the historical narrative that comes thereafter. It is noteworthy also that the war is not painted as a noble, clean conflict, but as “the chaos of battle.” In this way, the speaker communicates the muddiness of battle, fraught as it is with peril for every participant, as a parallel for historical feuding overall; the implication in casting it as chaos is that Hygelac’s Frisian opponent could have died as easily in that conflict as did Hygelac.
At the next long historical section, the battles of Hrethel’s and Ongentheow’s sons are detailed, thus operating concurrently with the generation of Hygelac and back a generation from the depiction of Eanmund and Eadgils, the primary concerns of the preceding section. A fear for the future is presented by association to the reactionary deadliness of Ongentheow in the past: “Now this folk may expect / a time of trouble, when [. . .] the fall of our king / becomes widespread news. [. . .] Immediately the ancient father of Ohthere, / old and terrifying, returned the attack” (2910-13, 2928-29). Haethcyn strikes at the Swedes and is summarily cut down by Ongentheow, which indicates to the speaker of these lines that the Swedish factions are unlikely to forget the acts of violence which have gone unanswered.
The politics of the times, as presented nonchronologically and filled with vengeance, seem an inescapable mire of death traded for death traded for death. Interestingly, these sentiments are tempered or contradicted by the insistence that Beowulf seems exempt from the feuds in his lifetime.
The Uniqueness of Beowulf:
In the character of Beowulf, one sees the only character seemingly immune to the blood-feuds. As it says directly after detailing Onela killing Heardred for granting asylum to Eanmund and Eadgils: “[. . .] the son of Ongentheow afterward went / to seek out his home, once Heardred lay dead, / and let Beowulf hold the high throne / and rule the Geats — that was a good king” (2387-90). The epithet of “good king” is applied to many, yet only this good king is without political entanglement.
Indeed, Beowulf seems entirely independent of all attachment to the feuds. He is connected to the Geats’ royal family by his nameless mother, and is not raised by his parents; his name does not alliterate with any of his family; his most direct interaction to another group is in repaying a debt—rather than enacting a vengeance—with the Danes; and this much-gloried, much-celebrated title character does all of his fighting with threats to humanity, i.e. monsters.
Such thorough disassociation of Beowulf from the feuding culture, as well as idolization and fixation on him, paints him as the ideal ruler, protective of his people and broken from the never-ending cycle of revenge which could be, presumably, traced back to the first incitement of revenge, that of God avenging Abel.
It is no coincidence that Beowulf triumphs over a character directly related to Cain: Grendel, a character with whom none before Beowulf could in any way contend. Beowulf himself is set up as the counterpoint to the historicization of the Swedish Wars.
And, at the last, Beowulf, whose primary conflicts are with beasts representative of reasons for feuding to begin, is killed in his old age by one such beast. And with his fall, the world turns its attention back to politics, specifically to the unanswered death of Eadgils at the hands of Weohstan: “That is the feud and the fierce enmity, / savage hatred among men, that I expect now,” (2999-3000).
Presumably Wiglaf, Weohstan’s son, will be killed for that offense, thereby affirming that the cycle will not end. Even such striving as Beowulf accomplished could not free the future from the shackles of the past, nor could even his unique reign mark an end to the messy conflicts which result in tragedies like the Geatish-Swedish Wars.
The historicization of the feuding conflicts represented in Beowulf are portrayed by the speaker as being futile, cyclical, and unending. Neither time nor the temporary leadership of and individual beyond such battling’s scope is capable (within the narrative) of permanently distancing the world’s inhabitants from the lust for vengeance they harbor and enact.
In Beowulf, however, it is affirmed that an existence outside of that culture is possible, with Beowulf himself proclaimed at the last not the strongest of kings, but the “mildest of men and the most gentle” (3181). It would be unclear in what way Beowulf, a fierce and capable warrior in combat, is mild and gentle—if not in his pacifism toward, appeasement of, and protection for all factions of humanity. This too, it is implied, is a path to greatness and glory. Though the text ends with such a sentiment being impermanent, the limitless glorification of Beowulf implies that all are compelled to emulate such qualities to their utmost ability.
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