A Dark Age Peter Principle: Beowulf’s incompetence threshold
Early Medieval Europe, Vol.18:1 (2010)
Many readers, recognizing the incompatibility of heroism with the duties of kingship, have argued that Beowulf tells a story of colossal failure. Drawing on anthropological theory, I propose that the protagonist is more Big-Man than king and that his heroism, far from a socially dysfunctional flaw, is in fact the leash by which society yanks him back from establishing himself as king. Beowulf thus speaks to an aristocracy disinclined to submit to royalty. The poem shines a light on Anglo-Saxons’ aversion to despotic rule: to protect its own decentralized political structure, society against the state foredooms King Beowulf to death.
Introduction: Beowulf is difficult material to work, especially for butter-fingered historians, accustomed to kneading less nimble sources than verse. On the one hand, one faces the opacity of the poem itself: there is so little we know with confidence about it – and so much of what each of us does know with any degree of certainty is flatly contradicted by what others fancy they do, no less securely. (One need only pick up the composite Toronto volume on The Dating of Beowulf to see how this particular song and dance goes. The subtitle of Eric Stanley’s concluding chapter says it all: ‘Some Doubts and No Conclusions’.) On the other hand, if J.R.R. Tolkien found it unprofitable ‘to read all that has been printed on, or touching on, this poem’ by 1936, the rate of publication in Beowulfiana nowadays literally makes it impossible to familiarize oneself with all of the secondary literature and (almost as literally) ensures that nothing really new could be said. On the third hand (even merely to gripe about Beowulf’s terrific complexity, one needs three hands), certain rules of etiquette have sedimented around the poem, setting limits to what can be ventured about it without offending against decorum. Ever since Tolkien issued a stern admonition against the practice, most readers have come to reject as Very Bad Form any analysis ‘that is directed [not] to the understanding of [the] poem as a poem’ but seeks, rather, to reduce it to a historian’s turnstile: a gateway into the early Middle Ages, which must be traversed, of course, but which hardly constitutes a destination in its own right. ‘Beowulf’, rebukes Tolkien, ‘has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art.’ Critics travelling in his wake have seen fit to heed his call and turn back from excavating the poem to reading it.
Another of these ubiquitous rules of etiquette states that any novel investigation must start out by acknowledging the seminal role Tolkien’s ‘Monsters and Critics’ essay has played in setting the current research agenda. Since I have already observed this particular custom, I shall for the rest of my paper take the liberty of flying in the face of propriety. I shall do so, first, by staying aloof from the kind of close reading that Tolkien made de rigueur and opting, rather, for the excavational mode. My concern is not so much with Beowulf the poem as with the historical reality which underlies it; nor do I balk at handling the specific literary artefact cavalierly, if need be, in order to get at this submerged history. Second, I shall impose on Beowulf’s historical specificity some unabashedly anachronistic matrices. In other words, in my quest for the Dark Ages, I import alien thought tools, enta geweorc, explicitly fashioned to make sense of other times, other places and other mores. I wear as my justification nothing more than the methodological eclectic’s traditional (indeed, only) ribbon: use whatever works. Finally, I shall offend by suggesting that one of the very few points of consensus we do have about this poem – that its subject matter is the resolute heroism of a bygone (perhaps fictive) era, that ‘great contribution of early Northern literature’ (to quote Tolkien one last time), ‘the theory of courage . . . heathen, noble, and hopeless’– is, if not outright wrong, certainly misleading. Let me begin, then, with ‘heroism’, which – together with ‘hierarchy’ and ‘honour’– is one of the watchwords organizing my discussion.