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. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death.” (1383-1388). Not only does this reveal the Scandinavian pessimism towards life, but it proves that revenge also served as solace. Hrothgar later proves that finding peace for those whom you love can only be gained through revenge.
The second agon in Beowulf, referring to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, embodies the idea of “problematic revenge.” After the showdown between Beowulf and Grendel, Grendel’s mother comes to Heorot to “avenge her kinsman’s death”, as well as “snatch [the Dane’s] trophy, Grendel’s bloodied hand” (1340, 1302-1303). The unending cycle begins. In the process Hrothgar, king of the Danes, witnesses Aeschere, his most esteemed warrior, die at the hand of Grendel’s mother. Hrothgar is provoked and sends Beowulf to avenge Aeschere. Even before Beowulf and Grendel’s mother clash the cycle of revenge has consumed both parties. In this section of the epic, references to the word “avenge” alone exceeds ten counts. Once Beowulf reaches the swamp where Grendel’s mother resides, he walks into a battle in which he should lose, according to the cycle of revenge. Shortly after the battle began, “[Grendel’s mother] pounced upon [Beowulf] and pulled out a broad, whetted knife: she would [soon] avenge her only child.” (1545-1547). The battle would settle the Blood price for Grendel’s death, however, Beowulf lives, breaking the cycle. In the end, Grendel’s mother loses the battle because “God in his magnificence favors [the human race,]” (1724-1725) rather than the demon that was Grendel’s mother. Agon two gains its significance by showing that the Anglo-Saxon people could only find solace in killing, not once thinking of forgiveness or the cycle that would continue after. Grendel’s mother took an eye for an eye, yet the cycle still continued because death simply provoked more death. Like the other Agons, the second division of Beowulf presents the reader with a valuable lesson, as well as an understanding of the complications faced in the Scandinavian culture.
The ethic of revenge shown through Beowulf reveals, historically, a problematic cycle that repeats through generations of the Scandinavian culture. This moral code, upheld by the culture’s pessimistic values towards life, is truly a lesson teaching that revenge only leads to endless hate and murder.