Ethics and Moral in Bēowulf: the Paroemial Approach.   Richard L. Harris
"The Currency of Proverbs," a Session of the Early Proverb Society, at the 50th ICMS, Kalamazoo, MI, 15 May 2015.

Today I will talk about a paroemiologically based approach to an understanding first of the values in the narrative world of Bēowulf and second, its composer’s likely purposes in telling the story as he does.

            For the last year or two, I have been somewhat preoccupied with the literary critical implications of the view that the proverbs we notice in the Íslendingasögur might be studied more accurately as partially extant evidence of the early existence of a much larger and more complex oral repository of wisdom pertaining to the ethics and mores of pre-literate North Germanic culture. Such a repository was so deeply embedded in the consciousness and of such profound psychic impact that it informed the cognitive patterning of the literate and in some cases highly educated 13th-century composers of the sagas, as well as that of the characters whose utterances and undertakings they described.  It was of such a paroemial background, I believe, that Carolyne Larrington wrote in 1993 contending of early Germanic culture “that there was a body of folk-wisdom, not yet in metrical form, a body which can be sensed as a living, pulsing, gnomic background to all Germanic poetry—not just verse specifically intended as didactic.” [18]  [HANDOUT]

            Like Bēowulf criticism prior to Tolkien, studies of the Old Icelandic sagas did not pay a great deal of attention to the values operative in the stories, or what, if anything, their composers meant by writing them down in the ways they did.  However, in a dissertation-book on Ethics and Moral in Icelandic Saga Literature, 1955, M.C. van den Toorn begins by establishing terms—ethics, “the delimitation of the conceptions of good and evil, and the application of those standards in daily life.” Moral, on the other hand, designates “the clearly recognisable intention which an author incorporates in his work in order to edify his readers or hearers.”[1]  Despite critical reluctance to accept the existence of such authorial purpose in Old Icelandic narrative, however, by 1970 T.M. Andersson would observe, “To my knowledge no one  has asked what the point of a saga is.” [576]  And in succeeding decades much of the literary critical approach to the sagas has been consumed with consideration of that question, which had been broached fifteen years earlier by van den Toorn. 

            The affinities of Bēowulf with the Old Icelandic corpus are too numerous to begin recounting here, but its characters and story are pretty well universally acknowledged as having at least analogous counterparts in the sagas and some of the northern Germanic poetry.  Like the Old Icelandic sagas it reached the written page in a time when its culture was still on the cusp of literacy, its audience and its composer undoubtedly aware of a broad, lively, and continuing pre-literate body of knowledge and narrative.  And so it seems to me reasonable that this paroemially structured body of communal wisdom which readers sense in saga literature as well as in the Germanic corpus more generally is used also by the composer of Bēowulf, whether consciously or not, as he tells his story and pursues the purposes of his narrative.  I am assisted in this endeavour, first, of course, by Susan Deskis’ book on overtly expressed proverbs in Bēowulf, and then also by the work a year ago of two of my proverbs seminar students, Aaron Thacker and Brendan Swalm, who read the poem with keen eyes, seeking points where an implicit underlying paroemial pattern might be detected in the surface of the text.  I should add that at this Congress last year, in a different venue, a similar study, but without reference to the supportively informing paroemial background, was undertaken by Melissa Mayus, doctoral candidate at Notre Dame, on “Agency and Social Constraints in Laxdœla saga,” a project of which it is to be hoped we may hear more eventually.

            When the young Bēowulf, newly returned to the Geatish court following his triumphant stay among the Danes, recounts for Hygelac his experiences and observations from the journey, he touches upon the unlikelihood that the marriage arranged between Hrōþgār’s daughter Frēawaru and Ingeld of the traditonally hostile Heaðobards will still for long the enmities it is meant to resolve: “But generally the spear/is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed,/no matter how admirable the bride may be.” [ll.2029b-2031.]  This concern--embedded as it is in a society whose political stasis is maintained, yet also constantly threatened, by the conduct of feud as maintenance of face--of obvious import to the welfare of the Danes and their neighbours, is expressed by comment or allusion elsewhere in the narrative and was clearly central to in the composer’s agenda.  Indeed within the first hundred lines of the poem, at the completed creation of Hēorot, that hall’s destruction is associated with the eventual catastrophic failure of this very alliance to bring about permanent reconciliation between the two nations: “The hall towered, its gables wide and high and awaiting a barbarous burning. That doom abided, but in time it would come: the killer instinct unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.” [ll. 81-85.] 

            In his briefing of Hygelac, the hero alludes to a paroemial element found in the rhetoric of feud narrative, the promptness of the spear to retaliation, its urgency typically overriding factors of delay and restraint which might quell violent retaliation.  Saga readers will be reminded of a proverb on the tendency to swift vengeance in feud culture, the foremost, “Bloodnights are hottest (or most furious)” used for instance in Vatnsdœla saga, where Hrolleifr’s mother, when he tells her he has killed the great leader Ingimundr, warns him to get away fast, but to return later when things are quieter.  The saga composer here emphasizes the post-homicide moment when the pre-disoposition to restraint is most easily overcome, with emotions at their peak.  Bēowulf’s observations shared with Hygelac touch on the likelihood of the brutal workings of blood vengeance eventually overcoming any good that might have been hoped for from the Frēawaru-Ingeld marriage alliance.  In Njáls saga, much later of composition but examining some of the same problems with feud as Bēowulf, we see the central thematic notion that “blood vengeance is not a definitive resolution of conflict,” epitomized with the proverb “The hand’s joy in the blow is brief,” and in both narratives we find that attempts to heal rifts in society by arranged marriages lack lasting efficacy. [Cook, Intro.]

Moral 1.         The weakness of marriage alliances seems likely to have resulted from the artificial kinship of the bonds they established, of understandably less strength than those of blood kinship: which demanded the loyal support of, and the taboo against killing, relatives.  Most familiar from the North is Grettir, in his death scene, reminding his brother Illugi of the traditional responsibilities of fraternal support: “Bare is the back of a brotherless man.” He employs here a proverb found also in Saxo and used in Njáls saga by Kári Solmundarson to praise the courage of Bjorn the White, who helped him take vengeance for the burning at Bergþórshvoll.  In the Poetic Edda, Sigrdrifa warns Sigurðr, “That I advise you firstly, that towards your kin you should be blameless; be slow to avenge although they do harm.” [Sdm. 22]  It seems consistent with such thinking when Bēowulf, dying, comforts himself that “because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind/need never blame me when the breath leaves my body/for murder of kinsmen.” [ll. 2741-3a.]  A part of Wīglāf’s obligation to stay with Bēowulf lies in their family relationship: “But within one heart/sorrow welled up: in a man of worth/the claims of kinship cannot be denied.” [ll. 2599b-2601.]  The comments of the poem’s narrator when describing Bēowulf’s transfer of Hrōþgār’s gifts to his own king seem especially pertinent: “‘So ought a kinsman act,/instead of plotting and planning in secret/to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange/the death of comrades.’” [ll. 2166b-69a.]

            And at the end of the “Finnsburh Episode,” with its tragedy of a failed marriage alliance and broken oaths, Wealhþēow, concerned that her husband might leave the kingdom to the foreign hero, comes to sit between Hrōþgār and his nephew Hrōðulf, “each of whom/still trusted the other,” with Unferþ, “admired by all for his mind and courage/although under a cloud for killing his brothers,” reclining nearby. [ll. 1164-5a.]  In this environment of dubious good will and incipient treachery she will then assure her husband, wrongly, as the audience knows, of their nephew’s continued loyalty to the family, “‘I am certain of Hrothulf./He is noble and will use the young ones well./He will not let you down. Should you die before him,/he will treat our children truly and fairly./He will honour, I am sure, our two sons,/repay them in kind when he recollects the good things we gave him once,/ the favour and respect he found in his childhood.’” [ll. 1180b-7.]  Expressing concern over Beowulf’s possible intrusion into the family, she urges the aging Hrōþgār to place his trust where it should not be placed, the nephew who will eventually kill their son, Hreðric, and the resultant dramatic irony is thus obvious to the poem’s audience.  The audience, aware of Unferth’s presence, must here recall Bēowulf’s earlier observation, “You killed your own kith and kin,/so for all your cleverness and quick tongue/you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell.” [ll. 597-9.]  The paroemially related admonitions to kinship loyalty took into account a strong current of internecine treachery in a real world of the audience, as well as in the narrative world of Bēowulf.  By the end of the story the ethics associated with obligatory bonds of kinship, like the other values rhetorically prized in the poem, and echoic of recognizable paroemial patterns in the North Germanic pre-Christian world, prove to be of discouragingly little use in maintaining the order.

Moral 2.         The composer ofBēowulf introduces into his poem the traditional Germanic reverence for the public, sacred oath, or boast promise, the bēot, with its Old Icelandic counterpart, the heitstrenging.  Thus at the start we read that Hrōþgār, once Heorot was built, did not forget his oath, but “dealt out rings, treasure and banquet.” [ll. 80-81.]  The taboo of the broken oath is proverbially encoded in Sigrdrífumál, when the valkyrie warns Sigurðr, “that I advise you secondly, that you do not swear an oath unless it is truly kept; terrible fate-bonds attach to the oath-tearer; wretched is the pledge-criminal.” [v. 23.]  In the Old English Wanderer, we are warned “A man must wait, when he speaks oaths, until the proud-hearted-one sees clearly whither the intent of his heart will turn.” []  The seriousness of this ritual oath is remarked at several points in Bēowulf.  Hrōþgār, bemoaning his retainers’ failure to halt Grendel’s depredations upon his drinking hall, comments on how, when his “seasoned fighters got flushed with beer/they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot/and wait for Grendel with whetted swords,” while the next day, “the floor of the mead-hall where they had feasted/would be slick with slaughter.” [ll. 480-4.] And Bēowulf, summoning his stength and resolve at a tough moment with Grendel recalls his evening speech, which included a boast promise to kill him, and continues thus with renewed vigour.  The full force of these sacred oaths is brought home to the reader when Bēowulf’s faithful retainer, Wīglāf, reminds the comitatus, hesitant to join in combat with the dragon: “I remember that time when mead was flowing,/how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall,/promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,/make good the gift of the war-gear,/those swords and helmets, as and when/his need required it.” [ll. 2633-38a.] And when they return, shamed, from their hiding place, after the battle with the dragon has ended, he scolds them for dereliction of their oaths of loyalty:  “Anyone ready to admit the truth/will surely realize that the lord of men/ who showered you with gifts and gave you the armour/you are standing in . . . was throwing weapons uselessly away.” [ll. 2864-71.]

            It is within this context of the ethics of bēot that the primary moral of Bēowulf may be established.  In the last speeches of the poem, those of Wiglaf to the returning deserters of the hero’s comitatus and of the unnamed Messenger to the Geats, announcing the death of their leader and delineating its implications, the results of the comitatus’ cowardice and infidelity to their commitment are presented in tragic epic terms.  And it is for this that the Geats will find their demise: “often, repeatedly, in the path of exile they shall walk bereft, bowed under woe, . . .  Many a spear dawn-cold to the touch will be taken down and waved on high . . .” [ls. 3018-9, 3021-3]

Moral 3.         Most readers of Bēowulf nowadays accept, too, a moral embedded in that king’s apparent decline when faced in his old age, with the nemesis of the dragon.  As the composer marks the downward progression of the Geatish hero, he does so by including details of his state of mind and moments of leadership which run counter to what we might expect of the ideal monarch, the “gōd cyning” of the poem whose various traits are exemplified by gnomic passages and royal models of behaviour from earlier times.  Such wisdom as the gathering and care of a comitatus, the consideration with which subjects must be treated, the avoidance of pride once recommended by Hrōþgār, seems lost to him.  The dragon’s attack “threw the hero into deep anguish and darkened his mood . . . his mind was in turmoil, unaccustomed anxiety and gloom confused his brain.”  “Too proud to line up with a large army . . . he had scant regard for the dragon as a threat.”  As Wīglāf notices, speaking to the Geats, “Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt. This happened to us.”  “Nothing we advised could ever convince the prince we loved . . . not to vex the custodian of gold.”  Beowulf’s prideful anger and overweening, unheeding imposition of his will have led to his death and to the annihilation of his people.

            The paroemially encoded communal wisdom built through successive layers of oral traditions in northern Europe, the observations that were most apt, the concepts that were most true, are tested by this poem and found wanting in the milieu the composer studies.  Bēowulf, with all his courage, integrity and magnanimity, eventually succumbs also to the flaws of the pre-Christian north Germanic human condition.  Pride and the anger it induces lead him, despite Hrōþgār’s forgotten warnings and a paroemial set of admonitions against such weakness, to unwise combat with the dragon, and the Geats suffer for this failed leadership in a man of otherwise acknowledged excellence, whose deeds of courage have brought together competing tribes as well as cleansing their societies of external evil.