Beowulf: savage seduction and tantalising testosterone

Rant!’s DELECTABLE DUDES OF DISCOURSE Series

Rant! swoons unashamedly over literature’s hottest hunks – and it’s all subjective of course.

Unbridled ferocity and unfettered desire; there is something about barbarism that ignites a fire of perverted pleasure in the soul of the self. And there is nothing more seductively savage, more deliciously degenerate than a Viking. Rape and pillage – it’s H.O.T. A Viking’s lewd lust for land, ladies and laud is unashamed and unabashed. Titillating and tantilising. ‘Viking’ is a manner of being; an uncouth and emancipated existence that breathes contempt for all things ‘civilized’. A Viking’s unrestrained ambition attracts the innate animalism that drives human interaction.

Beowulf, the protagonist of one of literature’s most ancient sagas, is testosterone personified. He is all beast, brawn and brute. Brain is a severe afterthought – not that the luscious lad lacks one; just that in the face of monolithic muscle no-one really cares. Although Beowulf’s Viking allure is implicit rather than explicitly stated in the Beowulf poem, it coincides with history. The poem survives in a single manuscript copy that was made in ca AD 1000. This manuscript is often stated by modern critics to be a copy of a mid-8th century Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Old English) original, now lost. Vikings – warriors, explorers, merchants and pirates – raided, traded, prospected and settled in wide areas of Europe and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century. So the timeline coincides but more importantly, Beowulf’s written character IS the archetype of all things Viking and Hero, making him one distinctively divine delectable dude of discourse.

The Beowulf poem was composed for entertainment and does not separate between fictional elements and real historic events. The story uses the assimilation of fantasy and reality to birth an Anglo-Saxon ideal; Beowulf – the magnificent youth, fearless warrior, resourceful leader and reliable King aka Hero. It matters not that Beowulf ‘bigs himself up’ a tad; the reader easily buys into the illusion.

Beowulf’s identity is enveloped in heroism. He is described as;

…truly noble. This is no mere
hanger-on in a hero’s armour.
(244-251)

To emphasise his identity as behemothic in strength, spirit and sass, Beowulf boasts his various accomplishments with insolent self-importance;

So every elder and experienced councilman
among my people supported my resolve
to come here to you, King Hrothgar,
because all knew of my awesome strength.
They had seen me boltered in the blood of the enemies
when I battled and bound five beasts,
raided a troll-next and in the night-sea
slaughtered sea-brutes. I have suffered extremes
and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it
upon themselves, I devastated them).
Now I mean to be a match for Grendel,
settle the outcome in single combat.(
415-426)

And the reader swoons at his valor. Having told who he is by explaining what he has done in the past, Beowulf stakes his identity on what he is going to do in the future.

I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
in the fiend’s clutches. And I shall fulfil that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death here in the mead-hall.
(632-638)

In the poem, driven by his reputation – “his name and fame” (1530)  –  Beowulf battles three antagonists: Grendel, who has been attacking the resident warriors of the mead hall of Hroðgar (the king of the Danes), Grendel’s mother, and an unnamed dragon. Beowulf makes his battle with Grendel more than a simple slay-the-monster task. By announcing that it will be a hand-to-hand combat, thus turning the contest into a feat of strength as well as fight against evil, Beowulf gains extra glory for himself.

I have heard moreover that the monster scorns
in his reckless way to use weapons;
therefore, to heighten Hygelac’s fame
and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce
sword and the shelter of the broad shield,
the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand
is how it will be, a life-and-death
fight with the fiend.
(433-440)

And Beowulf does not disappoint. He proves his strength by ripping Grendel’s arm out of its socket, and so defeats the daring ‘demon’ with an impassioned show of bestial brutality;

The monster’s whole
body was in pain, a tremendous wound
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split
and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted
the glory of winning; Grendel was driven
under the fen-banks, fatally hurt,
to his desolate lair.
(814-820)

Next on Beowulf’s hit list Grendel’s Amazonian mother, who withers under the mighty mass of her opponent.

She came to Heorot. There, inside the hall,
Danes lay asleep, earls who would soon endure
a great reversal, once Grendel’s mother
attacked and entered. Her onslaught was less
only by as much as an amazon warrior’s
strength is less than an armed man’s
when the hefted sword, its hammered edge
and gleaming blade slathered in blood,
razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet.
(1279-1287)

Not even age can compromise the physical authority of the magnificent man. Even after the vitality of youth has run dry, in Beowulf’s final battle with the dragon the narrator explains that the hero is just too strong for the untrustworthy blades of the swords forged by men. This is just one more hint that Beowulf’s strength is more than human but mythic in its proportions.

Inspired again by the thought of glory, the war-king threw
his whole strength behind a sword-stroke
and connected with the skull. And Naegling snapped.
Beowulf’s ancient iron-grey sword
let him down in the fight. It was never his fortune
to be helped in combat by the cutting edge
of weapons made in iron. When he wielded a sword,
no matter how blooded and hard-edged the blade
his hand was too strong, the stroke he dealt
(I have heard) would ruin it.
(2677-2687)

All that manly manoeuvring, bold battling, sword swinging, tendon tearing, limb lacerating, sinew slashing, demon devouring is perfectly dreamy. Beowulf is like Bruce Willis on steroids – he is the mythic poster boy for the guy who ‘simply kicks ass’ – and not just human ass but monster ass as well (an automatic oh baby! status upgrade). Yet the image of wild-haired, dirty savages ia a Viking conceptualisation propagated by popular culture. The ironically sexy scenario that paints Vikings as violent brutes and intrepid adventurers is, according to many historians, a myth that has taken shape in the 20th century.

But who wants to believe that Vikings weren’t all that bad?

Viking animalism is deeply attractive. It satiates a need for liberation; a need that is lived vicariously through Viking escapades. Women want to be ravished and men want to ravish – not just sex but life; we want to ravish life. We have an all-consuming urge to defile all things sacred by exerting brutal bestiality on that which is ‘civilized’. William Golding called it Sin, Sigmund Freud called it Nature and Charles Manson called it Fun – whatever the reason; the urge exists. The mores and values of social living force human beings to deny their true essence – their animal urges and innate barbarism. Society only condones savagery within the strictest of parameters. But Viking’s not only engage in savagery, they encourage it. And we are jealous.

And so… we turn to art. Human nature is validated through artistic expression; although art is a reflection of society, and thus an emotionally embellished depiction of the heart of man, it is nonetheless able to conscript immorality. Rape and pillage is wrong but Vikings are constructs and Beowulf a fabulous fantasy. We drink the blood from the skulls of our enemies and revel in the orgies and carnage of Valhalla – but only in our minds. Corrupt in thought but not in action. A necessary hypocrisy emphasised by the beautiful brute that is Beowulf.

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