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Evan-Paul Marius Christensen

Block 8

The Anglo-Saxon Lyre Can’t Play Gershwin

In the analysis of Modernist literature, one key and defining element that pervades

almost all works in question is the occurrence of alienation. This facet, loosely put, is

caused by changes in scientific, philosophical, and political order. Contrastingly, the

alienation found in Anglo-Saxon works vies in a far different direction: that alienation is

caused by internal decisions made by the character or influences from peers (culture). In

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics, Tolkien dissertates that the

theme of Beowulf is man’s struggle and ultimate defeat – engaged “in a struggle which

he cannot win”; something I conclude is a major catalyst of the alienation of Beowulf as a

character. In his The Metropolis and Mental Life, George Simmel summarizes modernist

alienation, stating that the element "[derives itself] from the claim of the individual to

preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence…” – an argument that draws

viable context for discussion concerning the similarity of Beowulf in comparison to works

of the Modernist genre.

A marked difference between the alienation appearing in Beowulf and Modernist

literature is choice. Where modernist alienation is characterized by a circumstantial

environment (Nietzsche’s nihilism that “God Is Dead”, or other events beyond the

jurisdiction of human control), the alienation in Anglo-Saxon literature is a motive-

driven, active form of alienation. Beowulf makes it abundantly clear that he has made an

active choice to embark on his campaign in lines 416-17 and 425-26 stating, “…my

people supported my resolve to come here to you [Hrothgar]…[and] I mean to be a match

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for Grendel, settle the outcome in single combat.” Throughout Beowulf, Beowulf

consistently makes choices that, though predestined for him by wyrd, will see to

guarantee his immortality in the eyes of his people. Alienation for Beowulf is not

governed strictly by self-imposition to further immortality, but also by influence from

cultural dogmas and peers. This idea is exhibited plainly when Hrothgar conscripts

Beowulf to slay Grendel’s mother as retribution for the death of Aeschere, telling

Beowulf to “seek it [Grendel’s mother] if you dare. I will compensate you…with lavish

wealth…if you come back” (lns 1379-1382). Beowulf is epic, and his struggle is so

colossal, his actions so unparalleled and unmatchable, that they thrust him above all

others onto an island formed by the eruptions of his renown.

The “paradox of defeat inevitable yet unacknowledged…is in Beowulf that [the]

poet has devoted [the] whole poem to the theme…that we may see man at war with the

hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time.” This again comes from Tolkien and

critically accentuates the fact that, in order to gain immortality – to be alienated by

unique accolades – Beowulf must die. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the

King, Theoden amasses his Rohirrim to answer Gondor’s call for aid during the Battle for

Pelennor Fields. Theoden’s act runs parallel to Beowulf’s slaying of the dragon, in that

two things, neither of which can exist without the other, are guaranteed: glorious death,

and lasting immortality. The dragon is to Beowulf what the forces of Mordor are to

Theoden: the confirmation of their legacy, but also their sacrificial death to attain it. Fate

and wyrd also pervade Beowulf – differing from Modernism’s evidential absence of God,

in that humankind is left to resolve conflict via its own devices. Beowulf himself is aware

that he will be “overthrown in time” when the scop narrates that Beowulf “…was sad at
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heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death. His fate…would soon claim his coffered

soul…” (lns 2419-2424), yet still will attain immortality; the ultimate goal as prescribed

by his culture.

Beowulf and modernist characters both contend toward alienation with their

struggle for radical individuality. When Nietzsche published his nihilism, it shattered

preexisting foundations of thought, and those that attempted to adhere to those

foundations were lost in the flood progression and change, left behind, circumstantially

thrust into alienation. On the other hand, Beowulf actively strives toward reaching an

epic status, instead leaving the “common” and “inadequate” – those that settle for being

ordinary – behind. While modern characters are volunteered by the rest of the group

taking a step back, Beowulf volunteers by taking a step forth.

Beowulf follows an archetype that is established in Anglo-Saxon and Tolkien

literature; that of the ultimate hero, the ultimate warrior, who struggles epically toward

guaranteed loss without hesitation. This death knell utterly alienates Beowulf from his

Anglo-Saxon peers because of his choices – quite differently from the circumstantial

alienation of modernist literature. The fervent ardor with which this alienation is striven

toward likens to a contention for radical individuality on the part of Anglo-Saxon

literature and Modern literature. The whole work, all of Beowulf, circulates around the

theme of “man alien in a hostile world, engaged in a struggle which he cannot win.” After

all, in The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien says, “It is an heroic-elegiac poem; and in a

sense all its first 3,136 lines are the prelude to a dirge: one of the most moving ever