February 01, 2011

Keenest to win fame

Goat Rope is all about Beowulf these days, although you will also find links and comments about current events. For more, click on earlier posts.

The Beowulf poet and the society he or she (or they) came from knew nothing about Greek tragedy, but it doesn't take much looking to find some tragic themes there. For many people, especially those influenced by Aristotle, tragic art involves a noble character brought low by some flaw or mistake of lack of insight. That kind of works for Beowulf, although the flaw in question is as much a part of the society it came from as it was of the hero.

Beowulf as a young man was all about winning fame. Hence, the trip to the land of the Danes to kill the monster Grendel. Before all that,

...He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.

He got fame alright, but never quite lost the thirst for it. He eventually became king and ruled well over the Geats for fifty years until someone stirred up the wrath of a dragon, which he vowed to kill single handedly. As the last lines of the poem go,

They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

You could say that the tragic flaw of Beowulf was the conflict between the first part of the sentence and the last four words. Had he been less keen to win fame, he would have delegated the dragon slaying to younger men and continued to rule justly over the Geats and kept them in safety. Instead, he died in the effort, leaving his people to the nasty fate anticipated by a grieving woman, who

...sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement.

As Dylan pointed out in a song, sometimes it's either fortune or fame, though neither are what they claim. Beowulf chose fame. I think I prefer fortune.

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