Beowulf and the Trinitarian nature of man

Just as so much of the literature of the ancient world stands out as an example of the ethos heavy, or, in Sayers’ terminology, “Son-ridden,” story, Beowulf is a notable example of the pathos heavy, or “Spirit-ridden,” story. On the surface of this medieval northern European epic is the story is a Danish hero defeating a series of monsters in succession. In this onslaught of conflicts, there are few pauses for contemplation or explanation such as might be found in the great epics of other civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, or India. When such do occur, they are generally terse and quickly forgotten. Below the surface and buried in the action, in fact conveyed almost solely through the action, is an attempt to Christianize the story of the pagan Danish warrior whose story is being recorded.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history. In one of the relatively few digressions from the action of the story, the narrator condemns the paganism of his ancestors as he explains that, in reaction to the attacks of Grendel, the Danes

prayed aloud, promising sometimes

on the altars of their idols unholy sacrifices

if the Slayer of souls would send relief

to the suffering people

Such was their practice,

a heathen hope; Hell possessed

their hearts and minds: the Maker was unknown to them,

the Judge of all actions, the Almighty was unheard of,

they knew not how to praise the Prince of Heaven,

the Wielder of Glory.

Ironically, however, the heroes of the story exhibit quite a different set of beliefs in their own words as the narrator frequently assigns to them anachronistic exclamations at the glory of a monotheistic and decidedly non-pagan deity. Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf, for example, exclaims, that Beowulf had been granted victory over his enemy by “God … the Master of Victories.” Similarly noteworthy is the genealogical link between Beowulf’s original enemy, Grendel, and the biblical story of Cain, a link that fits only with great difficulty into the overall narrative, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a demon, an evil and non-human entity, while any descendent of Cain must, of course, be at least partially human. Grendel’s father, notably, is unknown.

The author also calls special attention to the circumstances which incited Grendel’s murderous anger, apparently a musical rendition of the creation story of Genesis:

It was with pain that the powerful spirit

dwelling in darkness endured that time,

hearing daily the hall filled

with loud amusement; there was the music of the harp,

the clear song of the poet, perfect in his telling

of the remote first making of man’s race.

He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth

a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,

exulting established the sun and the moon

as lights to illumine the land-dwellers

and furnished forth the face of Earth

with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted

to each kind of creature that creeps and moves.

While the anachronism of this aspect of the story is obvious and the link between Grendel and Cain is tenuous, the narrator uses both to demonstrate to his audience that the heroes of their past were not bereft of virtue but were in some sense aligned with the God of their newfound Christian faith. If Grendel is a descendent of the biblical proto-homicide and in league with the devil of the Christian faith, he is an enemy of God, and Beowulf, by contrast, being an enemy of Grendel, is an ally of the Christian God.

The narrator presents Beowulf as a bridge figure who embodies the best of both the pagan and Christian worlds of northern Europe. At points throughout the work, he hints at an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code, and at Beowulf standing at the threshold between the two. In the final lines of the epic, for example, he describes Beowulf as “the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, / the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.” He is, in other words, a complex amalgam of Christian (“gentlest”, “most gracious”, “kindest”) and pagan (“keenest for fame”) virtues.

Ultimately, however, in spite of his efforts, the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great and his attempts are insufficient. In one scene near the end of the story, the narrator relates Wiglaf’s failed attempt to revive the dying Beowful by splashing him with water:

Wearily he sat,

a foot-soldier, at the shoulder of his lord,

trying to wake him with water; but without success.

For all his desiring it, he was unable to hold

his battle-leader’s life in this world

or affect anything of the All-Weilder’s;

for every man’s action was under the sway

of God’s judgement, just as it is now.

The symbolism here of Wiglaf’s desperate and defeated effort to “save” Beowulf and bring him “life” by baptism is an apt symbol for the epic of Beowulf as a whole. The author has attempted to retroactively save his ancestors from their heathenism by baptizing them in Christianizing anachronisms. The effort, however, is “without success.” Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, what emerges from the character of Beowulf is a confused conglomeration which is not quite pagan enough to be believable and not quite Christian enough to be palatable.

The ultimate failure of Beowulf is in its pathos-driven narrative. The framework of the story is itself a pagan framework, which prevents the death of Beowulf from being redemptive. The Christian tradition has, nearly from its inception, held that the contemplative life is superior to the life of activity. Beowulf’s life of action and adventure, and the action-driven narrative of the epic which bears his name, are a decisive step outside of this Christian intellectual milieu. Just as Wiglaf’s splashes of water onto the dying Beowulf in the dragon’s lair prove ineffective for reviving him, the author’s baptism of his pagan ancestors within the literary framework of a heathen epic is ineffective for redeeming them.

Fatalism in Gilgamesh and Sophocles

Literature of the ancient world is saturated with what can be succinctly described as fatalism. Throughout, there is a definite sense that man is being perpetually driven toward a fate over which he has very little, indeed perhaps altogether no, control. This fate, of course, is death. In death, for the ancient mind, there is nothing of a redeeming or edifying character. Rather, death is a final and inevitable end of all human beings. In David R. Slavitt’s translation of Antigone, Creon, having sent the maiden Antigone away to die, wonders aloud, “Wailing? Complaining? It won’t make any difference or postpone death for even a moment. Why do people bother?” This sentiment, indicative of the character of Creon, is indicative of the nature of ancient literature generally. In the terminology of Dorothy L. Sayers, this obsession with death and destiny, and the inescapability of both, is to be identified with a fixation on the Idea, the Father of the Christian Trinity, whose presence, if not mediated through Energy and Power, Son and Spirit, becomes overbearing and oppressive. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Antigone, and Oedipus Rex will serve as examples.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh first attempts to prevent the death of his friend Enkidu and finally tries to prevent his own death; both attempts, though heroic, are in vain. After a warning in a dream, Gilgamesh ventures into the forest to battle the terrifying monster Humbaba, who is slain as Enkidu repeatedly urges Gilgamesh to “finish him off, slay him, grind him up, that I may survive.” Enkidu, however, does not survive. Instead, he quickly begins to lament the arrogance of his actions in killing Humbaba, an act that challenged the authority of the gods and claimed for humans an undue equality with them. Soon after this, his hubris is punished by the gods with a fatal illness.

Gilgamesh reacts by desperately seeking to avoid his own death. “Shall I die too? Am I not like Enkidu?” he laments, “grief has entered my innermost being, I am afraid of Death.” He runs to Ut-napishtim, the only human who has been granted immortality by the gods, and begs Ut-naphishtim to help him avoid death to which one goes, according to Gilgamesh, “never to rise, ever again.” Ut-napishtim’s response to Gilgamesh, however, is to inform him that “Death is inevitable” for everyone. “Nobody sees Death,” says Ut-napishtim

“Nobody sees the face of Death,

Nobody hears the voice of Death.

Savage Death just cuts mankind down.

Sometimes we build a house, sometimes we make a nest,

But then brothers divide it upon inheritance.

Sometimes there is hostility in the land,

But then the river rises and brings flood-water.

Dragonflies drift on the river,

Their faces look upon the face of the Sun,

But then suddenly there is nothing

The sleeping and the dead are just like each other,

Death’s picture cannot be drawn.

The primitive man is as any young man.

When they blessed me,

The Anunnaki, the great gods, assembled;

Mammitum who creates fate decreed destinies with them.

They appointed death and life.

They did not mark out days for death,

But they did so for life.”

Even after this testimony to the inevitability of death, Ut-napishtim, at the relentless urging of Gilgamesh, offers Gilgamesh two tasks by which he may secure eternal life for himself. Both tasks, however, prove fruitless for Gilgamesh.

Before the conclusion of the Epic, Gilgamesh is given one last lecture on the unavoidability of death by the ghost of Enkidu. Enkidu’s words to Gilgamesh present a series of admonitions to avoid such activities as putting on clean clothing, putting on shoes, making noise while walking, and kissing a wife or a child. In the end, Enkidu’s advice to Gilgamesh is: the only way to avoid death is to not be human. Gilgamesh is drawn along toward death by a fate that is entirely out of his control and against his will, and there is nothing that even this greatest of men can do about it. To apply the terminology of Sayers and describe Gilgamesh in Christological categories, as the presence of the Son/Energy of this Epic, Gilgamesh is the Son who refuses to submit to the will of the Father. In spite of his struggle against death, Gilgamesh finds that, in the words of Slavitt’s translation of Antigone, “the power of Fate is strange and very strong. Neither wealth nor martial valor can stand against it.”

The same theme of the Son refusing to submit to the will of the Father is discernable in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. Upon learning that his fate was to “lie with my mother and bring forth children the world would hate to look at, and that I would be the murderer of the father who sired me,” Oedipus “left Corinth at once, … getting as far away as I could to prevent such terrible predictions from coming true.” It was through this self-imposed exile, however, that Oedipus stumbled into doing precisely what he had tried to avoid. Not realizing that either was his parent, he killed his father and married his mother. In running from his fate rather than confronting it, Oedipus had unwittingly run directly into it.

A different variation of the same theme is shown in Sophocles’ Antigone. Here, Sophocles presents a willing Son, “Antigone,” with a domineering and oppressive Father. Throughout the play, Creon, the Father-figure of the play, remains unwilling to waver in his stern decree that Antigone should be put to death for performing funerary rites for her brother, contrary to Creon’s desires. In his hubris, Creon even usurps the power of the gods in his claim that his decrees “apply both to the living and the dead.” Creon’s son, Haemon, attempts to reason with him, but Creon refuses to accede to Haemon and instead only hardens his determination to punish Antigone. The end result is the suicide of Antigone, Haemon, and Creon’s wife. Through his own despotism, Creon brings his entire family to ruin.

The eponymous character Antigone is the “Son” of the play, whose attitudes and activities contrast sharply with those of Creon as well as with Gilgamesh and Oedipus. Antigone chooses to do what is morally right by rendering the proper honors to her deceased brother and willingly faces the consequences of her actions. She knows full well before she disobeys Creon what the penalty will be and accepts it; speaking to her sister Ismene, who refuses to take part in Antigone’s plot, she acknowledges her responsibility and voices her willingness to submit to the consequences which will inevitably follow:

I am not trying to persuade you. No,

even if you were willing, I would not let you

join me in this now. Be what you are.

You have made your choice, as I have made mine. I will

bury my brother, and if I die, it shall be

with honor. He is my own; I will lie with my own,

not guilty of any crime, but pious, holy.

We are dead for a long time, and to death’s demands

there is no ending ever.

This willingness to submit to death and the inevitability of fate contrasts sharply with the fitful acquiescence of Gilgamesh and the nearly frantic attempts at escape by Oedipus. Antigone’s willing submission to the will of the Father lends an air of dignity in death and even works to, in a sense, redeem death.

There is a paradox in Antigone’s death in that while it remains dreadful and an object of antipathy, it nonetheless loses some of its ugliness and becomes a source of hope. Whereas the deaths of Gilgamesh and Oedipus invoke little else but terror, Antigone’s death invokes awe, a feeling which combines terror with wonder and even veneration. Both feelings are expressed, only a few lines apart, by the Second Chorister present for the condemnation of Antigone. Noting the sublime nature of Antigone’s death, the Second Chorister describes her to herself:

You go in honor and strength and your full beauty,

admired by all. No diminution by sickness

or disfiguring wounds of battle will have touched you.

Of your own free will you make your stately descent.

Only a few lines later, the same chorister verbalizes the dread and sorrow of death as well as the sense of helplessness in the face of its inevitability in another statement directed to Antigone:

You have braved all human limits and now confront

the lofty altar of Justice. Poor suffering girl!

You are punished perhaps for the crimes of your famous father.

Even this statement lamenting the demands of a fate beyond Antigone’s control, however, reveals the redemptive nature of her death. Antigone has “braved all human limits and now confront[s]” the final and mysterious end of all human life. She has, in the words of William F. Lynch, completed her “passage through the totally human.” In so doing, rather than allowing death to rob her of meaning, as did Gilgamesh and Oedipus before her, she instead imbues death with new meaning and becomes a source of meaning even in death. It is only because she is “punished perhaps for the crimes of [her] famous father” that this is redemption is possible. She is an innocent who willingly suffers for the sins of others. What St. Paul once asked might also be asserted of the death of Antigone: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.” Antigone chose to fulfill the law and to willingly face the punishment brought on by the transgressions of the law committed by her forebears. In so doing, she transformed and redeemed death. In Antigone Sophocles has transcended his Father-ridden world and offered a glimpse, however slight and incomplete, of the time when “Death is swallowed up in victory.”