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Hrothgar's ‘sermon’ in Beowulf as parental wisdom

  • Elaine Tuttle Hansen (a1)

Until fairly recently modern commentators seem to have agreed that the gnomic sayings in Beowulf carry us away from the main current of the poem into the ‘doldrums of didacticism’. Now, however, at least two critics have suggested that these apparently trite old saws are in fact central to the epic and that they reflect a way of thinking about the aims and methods of literary composition that we no longer share. Instead of merely cataloguing their appearances, as earlier readers had done, Robert B. Burlin has persuasively shown us how the Beowulf poet uses at least some of the gnomic sayings effectively and skilfully to ‘give both shape and scope to his utterance…relating the actuality of his fiction to familiar universals in the appreciation of which his audience can easily concur’. Burlin himself does not set out to question the prevailing assumption that the gnomic sayings are ‘not in the same artistic league with the obliquity of the “digressions”’, but T. A. Shippey has gone on to point out that ‘they have power and beauty in their own right’. He also argues that the Beowulf poet was not especially original in his use of the gnomic sayings but in fact depended on their traditional function: ‘the poet was rightly but only exploiting…qualities incomprehensible to those who see them as linguistic phenomena devoid of social content’. Building on his own earlier work and on Burlin's analysis, Shippey suggests that the maxims in Beowulf reflect cultural ideals and that ‘they bind the characters, the poet, and the audience together in common assumptions too precious to be threatened, establishing what Professor Burlin calls “societal interdependence”, a theme very close to the heart of the poem’.

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1 The phrase is Lawrence's, W. W. in ‘The Song of Deor’, MP 9 (19111912), 23.

2 Burlin, Robert B., ‘Gnomic Indirection in Beowulf’, Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for Join C. McGalliard, ed. Nicholson, Lewis E. and Frese, Dolores Warwick (Notre Dame, 1975), p. 42.

3 Ibid. pp. 41–2.

4 Shippey, T. A., ‘Maxims in Old English Narrative: Literary Art or Traditional Wisdom?’, Oral Tradition Literary Tradition, ed. Hans, Bekker-Nielsen et al. (Odense, 1977), p. 31.

5 Ibid. p. 42.

6 Ibid. p. 30.

7 Ibid. pp. 45–6.

8 Cox, Betty S., Cruces of Beowulf (The Hague, 1971), p. 143.

9 For the original suggestion that the term ‘wisdom literature’ should be used to describe a number of didactic and ‘minor’ Old English poems, see Bloomfield, Morton, ‘Understanding Old English Poetry’, Annuale Mediatvale 9 (1968), 525. T. A. Shippey first uses the term ‘wisdom literature’ in ch. 3 of his Old English Verse (London, 1972), pp. 5379, and further explores the topic in Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (Cambridge and Totowa, 1976). Other recent articles concerned with the social function of poetry in the Anglo-Saxon period, with or without specific discussion of the concept of wisdom literature, include Creed, Robert P., ‘Widsith's Journey through Germanic Tradition’, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. Nicholson, and Frese, , pp. 376–87; Stanley B. Greenfield and Richard Evert, ‘Maxims II: Gnome and Poem’, Ibid. pp. 337–54; Gruber, Loren C., ‘The Agnostic Anglo-Saxon Gnomes: Maxims I and II, Germania, and the Boundaries of Northern Wisdom’, Poetica 6 (1976), 2247;Isaacs, Neil D. ‘Up a Tree: to See The Fates of Men’, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. Nicholson and Frese, pp. 363–75;Opland, Jeff, ‘“Scop” and “Imbongi” – Anglo-Saxon and Bantu Oral Poets’, Eng. Stud. in Africa 14 (1971), 161–78; and Remly, Lynn L., ‘The Anglo-Saxon Gnomes as Sacred Poetry’, Folklore 82 (1971), 147–58.

10 My discussion of gnomic poetry in general is indebted to P. L. Henry's work in ch. 5, ‘The Gnomic Manner and Matter of Old English, Irish, Icelandic, and Welsh’, of his The Early English and Celtic Lyric (London, 1966), pp. 91132.

11 All quotations from Beowulf are from Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Klaeber, Fr., 3rd ed. (Boston, 1950). All other Old English quotations are from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (New York, 1931–42).

12 ‘Thus should the young warrior do good, with splendid dispensing of treasure, while under his father's care, so that in his old age dear companions will still stand beside him, his people support their chief; with praiseworthy deeds, in all races, a man shall [should] prosper.’ Cf. Maxims II 14–15: ‘Geongne æþeling sceolan gode gesið as / byldan to beaduwe and to beahgife.’ Maxims I puts it more succinctly: ‘gold mon sceal gifan’ (155a); ‘Dom biþ selast’ (80b). See also Widsitb 11–13.

13 Another possible interpretation of this ironic reversal of heroic expectation and justice is suggested by Robert W. Hanning's brief discussion of the rôle of time and perspective in early medieval narratives in The Individual in Twelfth-Century Romance (New Haven and London, 1977), pp. 140 ff. Hanning argues that ‘The Beowulf pott is attempting in his epic to recapture the virtues of the heroic age while putting it in perspective as a time when men were ignorant of God's purposes’ (p. 143). He illustrates this argument with a discussion of the poet's ‘digressions’ when Beowulf is given the necklace (1192–1214a). Similarly, we might say that through his use of a plot whose outcome denies in some senses the validity of the gnomic commentary, the Beowulf poet attempts to give us a ‘double perspective’ on the heroic values of lof and dom. From the limited point of view of Beowulf and his age the hero's behaviour is exemplary, admirable and right, while in the poet's age the inevitability of betrayal and death suggests the need for a higher perspective on human existence. This deployment of the gnomic commentary with respect to the plot would further illustrate, then, Hanning's theory of ‘the inevitable…disjunction between the characters’ involvement in time and our own, larger involvement’ (p. 144). A similar argument for the poet's double perspective on the heroic past is offered by Patrick Wormald, ‘Bede, Beowulf and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy’, Bede and Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Farrell, Robert T., BAR 46 (1978), 3290. In Wormald's words (p. 67). ‘As a member of the warrior-classes himself, the poet must have admired — perhaps he even imitated – the virtues in which his work glorifies. As a Christian, he knew, and perhaps he lamented, that heroic virtues are not enough.’

14 ‘It is better for each man that he avenge his friend, rather than mourn him greatly. Each of us must live to see the end of worldly life; let him who may endeavour to win glory before death; that is to dead warriors afterwards the best.’ Cf. Precepts 7 and 47. Widsitb 142, The Seafarer 72 ff., The Battle of Maiden 258–9 and Havamal, stanzas 77–8.

15 ‘Thus should a man do, when he expects to obtain longlasting praise at battle; not be anxious about his life.’

16 ‘Death is better for each warrior than a life of disgrace.’ Cf. the Irish proverb Ferr bás bitbanim, ‘Death is better than a blemish’, cited by Smith, Roland, ‘The Senbriatbra Filbail and Related Texts’, Revue Celtique 45 (1915), 27.

17 As Hanning notes (The Individual, p. 143), ‘The nature of oral culture is such that all deeds can only be evaluated by comparing them with the legacy of stories about past deeds. Thus the measure of tribal reality in such a culture is not the individual but the body of tradition into which the individual and his deeds must be fitted.’

18 Burlin, , ‘Gnomic Indirection’, p. 42.

19 Again, for a discussion of the historical relationship between the Beowulf poet and the heroic past of which he writes, see Wormald, ‘Bede, Beowulf and the Conversion’. Wormald argues that the ambivalent attitude of the poet towards pagan heroes (see above, n. 13) reflects the domination of aristocratic values in the English church and he concludes (p. 67) that ‘the baffling discrepancy in the poem between pagan practice and Christian sentiment is decisive evidence that, although the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was willing to accept a new God, it was not prepared to jettison the memory or the example of those who had worshipped the old…Literature like Beowulf was important to Anglo-Saxon noblemen not because these Scandinavian tales described any part of their real past (so far as we know) but because they encapsulated, and indeed identified, the social and cultural values of the class.’

20 Cox, Cruets, p. 143.

21 Ibid. pp. 151–2.

22 See Smith, Roland M., ‘Tie Speculum Principum in Early Irish Literature’, Speculum 2 (1927), 411–45, and my discussion of this genre, Precepts, an Old English Instruction’, Speculum 56 (1981), 116.

23 Hrothgar is called snotor hœleð (190b), snotor guma (1384a), snot(t)ra fengel (1475a and 2156a), and se snotera (snottra) (1313b and 1786b); he is also referred to as Frod (279a, 1306b, 1724a and 2114a) and þone wisan (se wisa) (1318a and 1698b). In Precepts the father-speaker is called modsnottor (2a), þoncsnottor (21b) and Frod (1a, 15b, 53a and 94a); he speaks wordum wisfœstum (3a). The speaker in Vainglory tells us that he learned snottor ar (2a) from a Frod wita (1a); the speaker in The Wanderer is snottor on mode (111 a).

24 Cox, Cruces, p. 132.

25 ‘It is a wonder to say, how the mighty God through his great spirit distributes wisdom, land and rank to the race of men: he has authority over all.’

26 ‘Although the mighty God had furthered him with the pleasures of power, with strengths above all men.’

27 In Vainglory the arrogant man (introduced to us in a sum clause, 23 b) is metaphorically wounded by evil weapons: ‘Bið þæt æfþonca eal gefylled / feondes fligepilum’ (26–7a); a little later it is observed that in his ignorance he lets these inwitflan of the devil pierce his spiritual armour: ‘laeteð inwitflan / brecan þone burgweal, þe him bebead meotud /þæ he þæt wigsteal wergan sceolde’ (370–9). Hrothgar's example finds him in much the same loathsome predicament: his pride grows until the watch (’ sawele hyrde’, 1742a) sleeps; then a nearby murderer shoots him with a bow (‘of flanbogan’, 1744a) and he is struck in his heart ‘biteran strade’ (1746a), identified as ‘wom wundorbebodum wergan gastes’ (1747).

28 ‘Protect yourself from such wickedness, beloved Beowulf, best warrior, and choose the better, eternal counsel; do not care about pride, splendid hero.’

29 ‘Now is the renown of your strength for a little while, but soon it will be that sickness or the sword will deprive you of strength, or the grasp of fire or the whelming of the wave or the bite of a weapon or the flight of a spear or terrible old age, or the brightness of your eyes will fail and grow dim; presently it will be, that death, hero, overcomes you.’

30 As Klaeber points out (Beowulf, p.192), the specific use of swa by a speaker moving from a generalization to his own experience, as Hrothgar does here, parallels the usage of swa in The Wanderer 19a.

31 ‘Much shall he experience of the beloved and the hateful, he who lives for a long time here in this windy world.’

32 Ed. Klaeber, p. 190.

33 Opland, Jeff, ‘Beowulf on the Poet’, MS 38 (1977), 448.

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Anglo-Saxon England
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