Beowulf: A Dramatic Translation
Excerpt: Alfred the Great and Beowulf

Who was Alfred the Great?
The first Viking raiders came to Anglo-Saxon shores in search of plunder, but later Danish armies wanted more. After decades of marauding warfare, a full-scale invasion began in 866—an assault that has rightly been called a blitzkrieg. Northumbria fell in 867, and, according to legend, its king was tortured and killed. East Anglia was next to go, with the martyrdom of King Edmund. And in 876, Mercia’s ruler fled to Rome, rather than face the Danish juggernaut. By 878, only Alfred’s kingdom, Wessex, remained.

xxBorn into this maelstrom, Alfred saw four elder brothers rise to power, only to die in the fight for survival. In the year 870, the young prince forestalled the Danes in battle; but the victory, sealed with oaths and a fortune in gifts, was short-lived. Eight years later, the Danish warlord Guthrum, in a surprise attack over Twelfth Night, captured Alfred’s royal hall at Chippenham. From that vantage, Guthrum had a base from which to secure control of Wessex, frightening and extorting the people into submission.
xxWith his nation in panic, Alfred retreated to a nearby marshy area, quietly regrouped his forces, and, in a surprise attack of his own, trapped Guthrum in the very same hall. Then Alfred did something radical: Rather than repeat the failed strategy of gifts and peace oaths, and rather than incite further violence by torture and execution, Alfred offered to spare Guthrum and honor his dominion in East Anglia, if the Danish warlord would convert to Christianity. And so The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Guthrum, with thirty ranking men, attended a twelve-day christening event, in which Alfred raised his enemy from the font as his own godson. If Alfred’s gesture was the Marshall Plan of the Dark Ages, the real miracle is: it worked. Though long notorious for oath-breaking, the Danes essentially honored the treaty forged with Alfred—affording Wessex just enough stability to fortify, rebuild, and flower in renaissance.
xxAlfred is rightly credited with preserving the unique legacy of Christian Anglo-Saxon culture; yet equally impressive were his contributions to that legacy. Aspiring to be the King David of his nation, Alfred personally translated key Biblical and theological texts into English (a legacy the English Reformation would later claim as precedent). These texts reveal much about this extraordinary leader. While Alfred the man is a figure masked in legend, Alfred the king vigorously argued that the affairs of this world, although apparently governed by Chance, were ultimately ruled by God. Thus, he based his writs of military, civil, and moral governance on Biblical wisdom, which was for Alfred the only sure foundation for nations and men. And yet, for all his piety, Alfred was a man of this world. While rejecting arrogance and avarice as the natural vice of the powerful, Alfred openly valued power: He honored the heroic virtues of loyalty and fortitude as essential for the realm’s defense; he valued wealth as a means of governance through gift-giving; and he found in humility the only right ambition, yoked to the service of God.
Alfred the Great and Beowulf

xxxWho might have composed this poem, and for what audience? Because the world of Beowulf is one in which men alone tell the stories, we can fairly deduce the poet was almost certainly a man. He was also learned and dazzlingly inventive: schooled in heroic lore, Christian theology, and very possibly classical literature. Not only was he a man of letters, he also possessed an ear and a sense for oral form no other Anglo-Saxon poet can rival. His composition in sound is a tour de force, a symphony of interlacing mood and voice. And he possessed a dramatic sensibility, preferring to shape his characters through speech and action, rather than narrative.
xxxThe Beowulf poet also possessed a keen historical consciousness. This we know because the subject of his poem is history. Its central story portrays the life of an individual named Beowulf and the national histories of Geats and Danes. More broadly, the poem treats the problem of destiny and doom, the convergence of historical cause-and-effect in the lives of men and nations. And on a theological level, Beowulf presents history through the Biblical perspective of eternity, a vision that finds inexorable decay in every monument to human glory.
xxxThis historical sensibility may be our best clue to the poem’s origins. For all its inventiveness, Beowulf is built on one historical fact. The seed of its fictive pearl is Beowulf’s own King Hygelac, a 6th-century pagan marauder who led the earliest recorded assault by a Nordic warlord on the Christian Franks, a man who also appears as a giant in the Anglo-Saxon collection of legendary freaks and wonders, The Book of Monsters. Hygelac’s reputation as a giant in legend and as a marauder in history is significant in a poem that depicts giants as the enemies of God and a marauding monster as the child of Cain. Added to this is a depiction of Danes as pagan warlords, a portrait that Anglo-Saxon victims of Danish Vikings would have known all too well. In this regard, the poem is inescapably historical. Indeed, to approach Beowulf without understanding such identities is to approach the Gospel of Matthew without knowing who Caesar was.
xx The difference is, of course, that Beowulf lacks the definitive historical verifications that anchor the Christian narrative in the era of Roman hegemony. Even so, the poem bears the mark of its maker and its time. The fusion of Christian and pagan motifs, the remarkable learnedness of the poet, and especially the poem’s political, thematic, and theological patterns, strongly suggest composition during the tumultuous, nation-making reign of Alfred the Great. The best evidence for this historical hypothesis is its relevance to a unified interpretive frame—though it is essential to keep in mind that such relevance does not prove the date of composition (a problem that is hotly debated and will remain so for the forseeable future). Nevertheless, several historical observations support a hypothetical link between the unique circumstances of Alfred’s time and the thematic concerns of the poem.
xxxFirst, Alfred suffered England’s most infamous surprise attack with Guthrum’s assault on Chippenham at Twelfth Night. Not only did the assault nearly destroy Alfred and his kingdom, it very nearly extinguished Christian Anglo-Saxon culture as well. And more than any other, that traumatic event inspired Alfred’s remarkable commitment to a program of defense. But if the dread of hall attacks prompted Alfred’s decision to mobilize his nation, such dread is also writ large in Beowulf. Throughout the poem, hall attacks recur as the central act of depravity in monsters—and men..
xxxAlfred’s complex relationship with his adversaries also relates directly and uniquely to the poem’s critical, yet sympathetic, depiction of Danes. On one hand, the Danes came nearer destroying Alfred’s person and kingdom than they did his predecessors or his near successors. On the other hand, Alfred claimed close kinship with the Danes through his Danish progenitor Scyld Scefing. Alfred’s kinship with his “kin-killing” kinsmen is mirrored in Beowulf’s symbolic structure, especially in the poem’s depiction of Grendel as kinsman of Cain, the first kin-killer.
xxxMore evidence of linkage is found in the connection between the poem’s thematic concerns and the tasks Alfred faced in his treaty with Guthrum. In order to create a stable relationship with his erstwhile enemies, Alfred faced two large problems. First, the West-Saxon king surely had to stay some in his own nation from exacting vengeance on Danish raiders (a challenge of statecraft amply demonstrated in modern-day Kosovo, Somalia and Iraq). Even more difficult, Alfred had to forge an alliance with Viking marauders who had a history of oath breaking.
xxxThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates Alfred’s sponsorship of Guthrum’s conversion during a twelve-day event that included thirty ranking Danes.6 Was Beowulf inspired by this momentous event? That question cannot be definitively answered; but there is no doubt, the poem speaks to the political imperatives Alfred faced at that time. While honoring the virtues of heroic culture, Beowulf’s narrative unflinchingly illustrates that culture’s inability to stabilize itself against violence (a highly persuasive demonstration from the standpoint of Danes wanting to stabilize their own newly-acquired kingdoms). In addition, the poem forcefully elucidates the high cost of revenge, not only through the monstrous example of Grendel’s mother, but especially through Beowulf’s own acts of vengeance—acts that ultimately doom his nation. Finally, the hero’s doom-driven revenge is symbolically enacted against the gold-hoarding dragon (an effective caution against revenge-taking for a people whose nation had been ravaged by dragon-toting Vikings).
xxxAspiring to be the “King David” of his nation, Alfred synthesized the virtues of heroic culture with the peacemaking values of Biblical culture. In this sense, the final over-arching link between the king and the poem can be found in three theological principles expressed by the poet: 1) God acts behind the veneer of Fate and Fortune; 2) arrogance and avarice are fatal human flaws; 3) the glory of men, whether as fame or as earthly monument, must one day pass. Alfred vigorously embraced such views in his ongoing concern with the problem of right leadership, in his ambitious program of letters, and in his aspiration to be the “King David” of a God-fearing nation. Those same principles are also expressed in Alfred’s translations, especially of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care. If Beowulf might in part be viewed as a parable illustrating the insufficiency of heroic culture, Alfred’s official definition of leadership presents a very different set of values than that of the poem’s inhabitants. Alfred, who admonished his ministers to shun avarice and arrogance, who developed legal systems designed to circumvent cycles of revenge, who rebuilt his kingdom by forging protective alliances and fostering commerce, presents a highly contrastive model of leadership to that depicted in the poem.