Plucked Out of the Burning: Beowulf and Salvaging the Classics

“And ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning.”
          Amos 4:11

The October 1731 edition of the London Gentleman’s Magazine reports the following:

A Fire broke out in the House of Mr. Bently, adjoining to the King’s School near Westminster Abbey, which burnt down that part of the House that contained the King’s and Cottonian Libraries: almost all the printed Books were consumed and part of the Manuscripts.

“Mr. Bently” was Doctor Richard Bentley, a classics scholar and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and this conflagration was the famous Ashburnham House Fire. Among the manuscripts lost were the only copy of Asser’s Life of King Alfred and the Old English heroic poem, “The Battle of Maldon.” Among those saved were the Codex Alexandrinus, the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, though singed and water-damaged, the Old English epic Beowulf.

Yes, we almost lost Beowulf. There’s only one copy, you see, in a manuscript called the Nowell Codex, and the Ashburnham House Fire could have erased the poem’s existence forever. To make matters worse, the poem wasn’t transcribed from the manuscript until 1786, and prior to that was only known through a brief (and erroneous) catalogue description as a poem about wars between Denmark and Sweden. In other words, we would’ve lost the greatest work of Old English heroic verse and not even missed it. Thanks to the bravery and determination of Dr. Bentley and his household, we still have Beowulf.

If we asked the ancient Judean prophets Amos and Zechariah to describe Beowulf in this instance, they might use one of the metaphors they have in common: “a firebrand plucked out of the burning” (Amos 4:11) or “a brand plucked out of the fire” (Zech 3:2). For both prophets, this image describes something preserved from destruction by God’s kind providence. I’d certainly say that applies to Beowulf! What’s more, that image also captures a theme in the poem: the importance of recovering and preserving—of salvaging—treasures from the past for the good of both the present and the future.

I. Burnings in Beowulf

Beowulf opens with an account of the great Danish king, Scyld Scefing, whose name means (and is pronounced) “Shield.” King Scyld is a conquering warrior, a “good king” (l. 11),[1] and the founder of the Scylding dynasty. However, his own start was not grand: “he first was found a waif” (ll. 6-7), an orphan. How did the orphan come to be king? The Beowulf Poet[2] describes Scyld’s arrival among the Danes alongside his later burial, because the two events share a common element, a treasure-filled ship:

In the harbor stood a ring-prowed ship […]
There they laid down their dear lord,
Dispenser of rings, in the bosom of the ship […]
There were many treasures
Loaded there, adornments from many lands […]
With no fewer gifts did they furnish him there,
The wealth of nations, than those did who
At his beginnings first sent him forth
Alone over the waves while still a small child. (ll. 32, 34-37, 43-46)

Scyld was not only an orphan: he was a child found in a boat full of treasure. The salvage of wrecks is an age-old practice, and you can easily imagine some poor fisher-folk drawn to the boat stranded high and dry by the last tide, and finding in it gold, jewels, and a baby. Beowulf presents this moment without explanation, and never comments on it further. But an explanation is not hard to imagine: somewhere a kingdom fell and a fortress burned, and the last little prince was entrusted to the waves, bedded in royal wealth in hopes of assuring his welcome among strangers. The Danes did welcome him, and in saving Scyld, they find their own salvation. They had been a weak people, surrounded by powerful and predatory neighbors, and Scyld grows up to lead them. The Beowulf Poet wants us to see something more in this, though: divine providence:

He [God] saw their need,
The dire distress they had endured, lordless,
For such a long time. (ll. 14-16)

King Scyld was a “firebrand plucked out of the burning,” preserved from some unknown destruction by God’s kind intention, and by salvaging this treasure from a lost kingdom, the Danes receive solace and hope.

Much depends in Beowulf on not merely acquiring treasure from the past, but receiving it fittingly and worthily. Treasure merely gotten is only crude wealth, but treasure received rightly is a gift and a heritage. The importance of this distinction is central to the final battle between old King Beowulf and the dragon. The hero fights the monster alone, only to be overwhelmed by dragon-fire; his warrior companions, sworn to defend him in dire need, have all fled to the woods for safety. They are, for the most part, only treasure-receivers, and Beowulf’s generosity was wasted on them. But one young warrior, Wiglaf, regrets his flight, and though he has never fought in battle before, he returns to Beowulf’s aid. Why? Wiglaf “recalled the honors he had received from him, the wealthy homestead […], every folk-right that his father had possessed” (ll. 2606-2608). Beowulf had been generous to Wiglaf, and not only in the conventional way of kings to thanes: his king made sure Wiglaf inherited his dead father’s legacy. In this moment of memory, Wiglaf “drew his old sword” (l.2610) and then the poet spends fifteen lines explaining how this young warrior comes to carry an old sword. This sword is part of his inheritance from his father, a storied blade bound up in his father’s own exploits—it is, in fact, a physical symbol of the heritage of heroism to which Wiglaf stands the heir. The poet ends the excursus by making the link between sword and character explicit: “His [Wiglaf’s] courage did not melt, nor did his kinsman’s legacy weaken in war” (ll. 2628-2629). Wiglaf, though an untested warrior, is armed with a warrior’s legacy, and in standing, he inherits.

But even this moment of small triumph is not enough: though the loyal Wiglaf is at his side, Beowulf is still mortally wounded as he slays the dragon. Because, you see, his death is inevitable: even before Beowulf’s fight with the dragon begins, the Beowulf Poet makes it clear that the old king is going to his doom. This is not the first time in Beowulf that momentary triumph is shadowed by coming defeat. It happens within the first hundred lines of the poem, as King Hrothgar builds his mead-hall, Heorot. Even as this greatest of halls is being raised, we are told that “it awaited hostile fires, the surges of war,” that “sword-hate of sworn in-laws” would bring it down to ashes (ll. 82-85). The burning will come and must come, and not only for the purposes of the poem’s theme: the burning of Heorot is part of the common story heritage on which the Beowulf Poet draws. Beowulf’s exploits are overlaid by this inexorable fact, that the Danes he saves will in time be lost, as he and his own Geatish people will be lost. As Tolkien puts it, when “the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night.”[3] No matter how great the heroes, all kingdoms—baby Scyld’s, Hrothgar’s, Beowulf’s—will fall. It is the way of things to end in burning.

II. Wisdom in Ruins

The Beowulf Poet’s perspective might strike us as grim, but we need to understand the times in which he wrote. In the sophomore literature survey I regularly teach, we read Beowulf immediately after Virgil’s Aeneid, and the contrast between the two is helpful to consider here. That great Latin epic was written in the triumphant early days of Augustan Rome; for its hero, Aeneas, the time of Augustus is a future glorious, golden climax to Roman history, “the gift of empire without end.”[4] Romans began to call their city Urbs Aeterna—the Eternal City. But Rome did end, and with it a whole world-order. The end was slow, centuries slower in the eastern Byzantine Empire, but in western Europe, little kingdoms arose where there had been imperial provinces: kingdoms of barbarians. This time of decay and tumult gave rise to theological and philosophical explanations for such catastrophe. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God was begun as a Christian perspective on the sacking of Rome in 410 AD, and ended up explaining God’s work in all of history. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written by an imprisoned Roman official in 524 AD, is a meditation on how to think and feel wisely in the wake of fortune’s violent changes. Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, also from the early 500s AD, is one British cleric’s jeremiad as fallen Roman Britain suffers divine judgment for her sins. Christian contemplation of fallen kingdoms was mainstream at least a few centuries before the Beowulf Poet came on the scene, and the Anglo-Saxons of Britain inherited this scholarly bequest when they converted to Christianity.

But the Anglo-Saxons, and the Beowulf Poet, weren’t only drawing on late classical Christian sources in such contemplation. The Old English elegy, a genre of poetry, is devoted to such meditations on death, loss, and ruin. Some of these focus on literal ruins, the architectural remains of past civilizations, with which Britain abounded even in those days: Stone and Bronze Age megalithic structures, Iron Age hill forts, Roman ruins. One fragmentary elegy, called “The Ruin,” describes what seem to be Roman Bath, now crumbling. The poem’s speaker is awed by Roman engineering and imagines these ruins as they were in their heyday:

Bright were the city halls, many the bath-houses,
Lofty all the gables, great the martial clamour,
Many a mead-hall was full of delights
Until fate the mighty altered it.[5]

The shifting mood in that last line is the turn common to elegy, as visualization of old happiness passes into wondering how it was lost: “Slaughtered men fell far and wide, the plague days came, death removed every brave man.”[6] Another Old English elegy, “The Wanderer,” extends similar meditations into a world-encompassing vision of final desolation: “A wise man must fathom how eerie it will be when all the riches of the world stand waste.”[7] One Anglo-Saxon preacher uses an Old English word that neatly describes this meditation on ruins: dustsceawung, “a spectacle of dust.”[8] And what does a “spectacle of dust” teach us? To “love not worldly splendour, nor this world itself, too much; for this world is altogether decrepit, troublous, corruptible, and unstable.”[9] This lesson—a very Boethian moral—is echoed in “The Wanderer”:

Nothing is ever easy in the kingdom of earth,
The world beneath the heavens is in the hand of fate.
Here possessions are fleeting, here friends are fleeting,
Here man is fleeting, here kinsman is fleeting,
The whole world becomes a wilderness. […]
It is best for a man to seek
Mercy and comfort from the Father in heaven where security stands for all.[10]

In the Beowulf Poet’s burned kingdoms of Danes and Geats, we may also find a dustsceawung which declares, in Tolkien’s words, that “all glory ends in night.” But is that all a contemplation of the ruined past can give us?

III. Salvaging and Receiving the Past

There is one major note of difference between Beowulf and “The Wanderer”—a positive element in the epic that the elegy lacks. In common with the Roman Boethius, “The Wanderer“ has a strong sense of contemptus mundi: contempt for the world and its transitory pleasures. For “The Wanderer,” meditation on ruins reorients our thinking, cutting off our attachment from all that burns and turning us toward the permanence of heaven. The Beowulf Poet agrees with “The Wanderer” on the fact of the world’s transitory nature, but cannot quite cut himself loose from the long-dead heroes of long-dead kingdoms. He seems, in fact, to admire them, and even gives their triumphs theological weight. Though their time is past, the Beowulf Poet finds in them something worth preserving. But what?

First, answering that question would require a library of books. (In fact, already is a library of books!) However, I think we can isolate one big part of the answer. Yes, the Beowulf Poet says all will end in burning, and yet his heroes matter. Old King Scyld is not merely a foundling-turned-hero, but a sign that God had seen the Danes in their distress and acted for their relief (ll. 14-16). King Hrothgar regards Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel as God’s salvation for his suffering people (ll. 382-385, 928-931, 939-946). These victories are presented as moments of real importance, as signs that “the Maker ruled all of the race of mankind, as He still does” (ll. 1057-8, emphasis added). The old heroes and heroisms mattered as extensions of God’s kind providence in the present, even though the future might hold darker fortune.

They also mattered because they were humans acting well and nobly, by the light they had. Even if all kingdoms fall, the Beowulf Poet presents valor as the right choice: Beowulf’s Grendel-fight is right, even if Heorot will one day burn; Wiglaf’s turn to heroism is right, even if Beowulf is doomed. Tolkien calls attention to the poignancy of the Beowulf Poet’s admiration for his heroes:

[The Beowulf Poet] is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. […] The shadow of [this theme’s] despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. […] He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. […] The author of Beowulf showed forth the permanent value of that pietas which treasures the memory of man’s struggles in the dark past, man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned.[11]

To put it in terms we’ve already been using, the “memory of man’s struggles in the dark past” is the treasure that the Beowulf Poet has plucked out of the burning of old kingdoms. As an act of pietas, it also values the treasure as an inheritance. The Beowulf Poet is not only telling an entertaining story: he is salvaging stories and perspectives “preserved from a day already changing and passing,” so that his own time might receive them fittingly, like Wiglaf drawing his father’s sword.[12] In their own tumultuous times, the poet’s audience needed a share of the old pagan heroes’ courage, and the Beowulf Poet passes on that valuable legacy in a way his Christian contemporaries could embrace.

The Beowulf Poet was not the only Anglo-Saxon interested in salvaging treasures of the past for the good of the present and the future. King Alfred the Great, the ninth-century king of Wessex, took up a similar project of restoration and recovery. The treasures Alfred saw in danger of being lost were literary: the legacy of Christian wisdom preserved in Latin books, especially those of the Church Fathers. In his foreword to his translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Alfred explains how these treasures were almost lost, not only through destructive Viking raids but also through neglect:

Consider what punishments would come upon us on account of this world, if we neither loved [wisdom] ourselves nor suffered other men to obtain it […] When I considered all this I remembered also how I saw, before it had been all ravaged and burned, how the churches through the whole of England stood fill with treasures and books, and there was also a great multitude of God’s servants, but they had very little knowledge of the books, for they could not understand anything of them, because they were not written in their own language.[13]

Having failed to undertake the discipline of Latin literacy, Alfred writes, “we have lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not incline our hearts after [our forefathers’] example.”[14] Like Beowulf’s cowardly thanes, the cloistered and secular religious of Alfred’s day, the keepers of book-lore, had received great treasures, but had not made themselves worthy to make proper use of them.

Alfred’s solution is two-fold: an education project and a translation project. All those young men who were free for studies should be taught to read and write in their own Old English language; those interested in taking holy orders were to proceed from Old English to Latin.[15] In the meantime, Alfred selected Latin works that he felt the most vital for translation into Old English: Gregory’s Dialogues and Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Orosius’s Histories, Augustine’s Soliloques, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Psalter. Some of these he translated himself (Boethius, Pastoral Care, Augustine, the Psalter), and the rest were taken on by capable translators. Once the translations were complete, Alfred commissioned scribes to make copies of these translations for major ecclesiastical centers, especially the episcopal cathedral schools.

We should consider the meaning of King Alfred’s choice to translate, combined with teaching Old English literacy. It was not enough for him that some few scholars able to read Latin remained who could read these books. He wanted to revive this classical and Christian Latin heritage in a way that would effectively restore its wisdom to his people for the long term, not simply retain a token hoard of learning that was useless and inaccessible. Alfred thinks of this lore of wisdom in a way that the Beowulf Poet would appreciate: these books have been preserved as a gift of providence, but one which lays a responsibility on the receiver. Alfred was, by all accounts, a worthy heir of this legacy, and he was concerned that his fellow countrymen be so as well.

Conclusion

My colleagues’ articles in this series have put forward many ways to value and engage the classics, and the Beowulf Poet gives us one more. In particular, there is an urgency in Beowulf’s lesson: it is not merely good that we continue to learn from the classics, but essential. Like the characters in the epic, the burning lies behind us, before us, and around us. By contemplating the ruins of past eras, we are reminded of the transience of the world and the fragile contingency of our own moments of tranquility. Moreover, the forces that destroy individuals and cultures may not always be so obvious as a dragon or a Viking raider, but they are always there. The chaotic nature of our fallen world threatens to take those good gifts of the past from us, whether through censorship, persecution, social upheaval, or simply a burned library. (Remember the Ashburnham House Fire!) Perhaps more applicable to us here and now, our own sloth could render us unfit to receive the treasure and unable to make use of it. To receive Beowulf, Homer, Milton, the Holy Scriptures themselves, as a “firebrand plucked out of the burning” is fitting, for in salvaging them, we may save ourselves.


[1] All quotations from Beowulf come from Beowulf, trans. R. M. Liuzza (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2000).
[2] Since Beowulf is anonymous, its author is usually referred to simply as the Beowulf Poet.
[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 23.
[4] Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 13.
[5] “The Ruin,” in Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), 60.
[6] Ibid.
[7] “The Wanderer,” in Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), 51-52.
[8] “The End of the World is Near,” trans. R. Morris, in The Blickling Homilies of the Tenth Century (London: EETS, 1880), 112-113.
[9] Ibid, 114.
[10] “The Wanderer,” 52-53.
[11] Tolkien, 23.
[12] Ibid, 33.
[13] Alfred, King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, trans. Henry Sweet (London: EETS, 1871), 4.
[14] Ibid, 5.
[15] They, of course, did not call their language Old English, but simply English (Englisc).


About the Author

David Grubbs, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Literature and Program Coordinator for the Master of Liberal Arts at Houston Baptist University. Dr. Grubbs enjoys engaging students in writing and literature courses across the General Education core; his field of specialty is English literature of the Middle Ages, particularly of the Anglo-Saxon period. Dr. Grubbs is a regular host and panelist on the Christian Humanist Podcast, as well as a regular interviewer on the Christian Humanist Profiles podcast (available on iTunes U).

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