30 September 2012
“The Wheel that Turns”
In Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic poem, Beowulf, the reader is thrust into the Scandinavian culture of seventh century A.D. Through the old English poem, historical evidence is gathered about the Scandinavian culture, which is relatively unknown to scholars due to lack of literature within the Anglo-Saxon culture from this era. Beowulf is unique because it is one of so few puzzle pieces to this time period, which makes it a very important piece of work among historians worldwide. When broken down into its three parts, Beowulf reveals issues within the culture of the Danish peoples, which are solved by the protagonist, Beowulf. Beowulf, in essence, serves as the “balance,” who has the ability to eliminate impediments in a culture’s growth. The cultural observances made especially in the second division, or agon, of Beowulf prove to be extremely problematic among the Danes, presenting an endless cycle of revenge and murder that cannot cease.
The cycle of revenge that persists in the Scandinavian culture can be accredited to a life of continuous invasion and war. Northern people lived to fight, and ironically died to fight in Valhalla as well. By valuing war, a general pessimism was promoted regarding life. With a diminished value of life and a heightened value of war, revenge becomes a predominant part of the Anglo-Saxon culture. Articulated in Heaney’s intro, “Vengeance for the dead becomes an ethic for the living, bloodshed begets further bloodshed, the wheel that turns, the generations tread and tread and tread.” (Heaney xiv). The Scandinavian people believed bloodshed was only repaid by taking another’s life or, for those who could afford it, settling with money. As Heaney describes, this process becomes an unending cycle that cannot be altered through generations. Beowulf, who is supposed to be the balance, demonstrates the problematic ethic perfectly when he says, “Wise sir, do not grieve....