The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 3 of 5

Continued from Part Two.

3

Deadly Heirlooms

In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, there is an exchange that occurs when the poem’s hero, Beowulf, has just newly returned home to Geatland from his victory over the Grendels in Denmark (where those monsters had been destroying the human peace and happiness of Hrothgar’s kingdom). Beowulf tells his people about king Hrothgar’s daughter, the Danish princess Freawaru. Freawaru is betrothed to the king of the Heathobards, Ingeld. Hrothgar, king of the Danes, thinks that the imminent marriage will heal a feud between the Heathobards and the Danes, though Beowulf does not expect it to. The Danes apparently killed a prince of the Heathobards, and took many of their ancestral weapons and armor, the “birthright” of future Heathobard thanes. (Weapons have names in these poems, and bind generations of a household together in several ways — there is a reason they are called heir-looms, threading together generations in ways that we moderns can hardly imagine.)

Beowulf imagines the Danes’ future arrival at the wedding as guests, equipped in such gear as belonged to the Heathobards’ fathers, to turn out grim. “Generally the spear is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed, no matter how admirable the bride may be.” [Beowulf, transl. Seamus Heaney (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2001), lines 2029-2031] Freawaru, regardless of her beauty, cannot be a “peace-pledge between nations:” [Beowulf, line 2018] too great are the forces in play among the parties, forces working disunity, hostility and war. It will only take one “old spearman” to incite the latent divisions:

Then an old spearman will speak while they are drinking,
having glimpsed some heirloom that brings alive
memories of the massacre; his mood will darken
and heart-stricken, in the stress of his emotion,
he will begin to test a young man’s temper
and stir up trouble, starting like this:
‘Now, my friend, don’t you recognize
your father’s sword, his favourite weapon,
the one he wore when he went out in his war-mask
to face the Danes on that final day?
After Wethergeld died and his men were doomed
the [Danes] quickly claimed the field,
and now here’s a son of one or other
of those same killers coming through our hall
overbearing us, mouthing boasts,
and rigged in armour that by right is yours.’
And so he keeps on, recalling and accusing,
working things up with bitter words
until one of [Freawaru’s] retainers lies
spattered in blood, split open
on his father’s account. [Beowulf, lines 2041-2061]

The axis of unity is fundamentally familial and thus tribal and ancestral, creating a need for a bridal exchange that nevertheless cannot overcome the forces that separate and embitter. In the end, men are sorted by those allegiances about which they’re organized, and so are set against one another. Men cannot be united into one great family. Even within present families there is still the threat of lethal internal divisions, of the “bloodlust let loose amongst in-laws” [lines 82-85], so that not even in the haven of one’s household is one safe from the stirrings of violent disunity. The spiral cannot be broken with any ease — indeed it looks impossible, as the configuration of life and identity in the world of Beowulf is against unity and peace. Memory and identity are united, making any new and peaceful future, any future that might overcome the divisions of remembered injuries or the resistance of tribal identities to a more comprehensive coordinating harmony, so often unworkable.

In Bede’s (A.D. 672–735) Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he recounts the tale of a king who forgave his clan’s blood enemies, according to the precepts of Christ. This king was murdered by his own retainers for failing to act on the obligation they felt he had to take vengeance. (Were the pagan Roman Volusianus to see this episode from his early fifth century vantage point he would likely shake his head slowly and say, “I told you so.”) Escaping the orbit of these habits, these heirlooms, this tradition, is (to understate the matter) not easy — sometimes, one can only bear witness; sometimes, the accumulated historical “goods” become tyrants, and the weight of the dead ends up becoming not a blessing, but a tyranny that drives the world into a slaughterhouse that one can only witness against by refusing it, even if one is thus to be crushed by it.

5 thoughts on “The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 3 of 5

  1. Pingback: The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 4 of 5 | Into the Clarities

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