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Monsters in Beowulf and Richard Wilbur’s “Beowulf”

The incorporation of monsters or other mythological beasts for Beowulf to fight in the original poem, Beowulf, are eliminated almost entirely from Wiblur’s poem “Beowulf,” which shows that there is more to the legendary hero and king than merely the creatures he fought or the treasure he won. Wilbur’s poem focuses more on Beowulf’s lack of descendants, and the poem feels emptier at the end because when Beowulf dies, the people gather and sing, but there is no direct descendent of his to assume the throne, so whatever monsters he defeated in battle seem almost irrelevant.

The only monster even mentioned in Wilbur’s piece is Grendel, and even then he is not referred to by that name. The duel in Wilbur’s piece also lacks a lot of the detail and explanation that the original incorporates to flesh out the fight scenes. Wilbur’s introduction of Grendel is simplistic: “and a child, / Grown monstrous, so besieged them in the night / That all their daytimes were a dream of fright.” The speaker provides little to no background information about Grendel–who or what he is, where he came from, and why he attacks. The actual moment of battle is short-lived as well:

The hero, to his battle reconciled,
Promised to meet that monster all alone.
So then the people wandered to their sleep
And left him standing in the echoed hall.
They heard the rafters rattle fit to fall,
The child departing with a broken groan…

In the original Beowulf, the speaker’s introduction of Grendel is not only lengthier, but also informative and vivid. Grendel here is described as “a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark” who “nursed a hard grievance” (86-7). Here we receive another piece of information that Wilbur excludes from his poem: “Grendel was the name of this grim demon” (102). Wilbur’s avoidance of details about Grendel make the battle, and one might even say Grendel’s existence in the story’s world, lackluster and bland.

In Beowulf, we are brought into Grendel’s attack as it happens in scene (so to speak), when the author writes:

Suddenly then
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses. (120-25)

Wilbur’s poem takes a distanced observational perspective, but Beowulf brings us directly into the fight. We can picture Grendel catching the men and, after killing them in its lair, returning their corpses to the hall, as if to mock the survivors. Grendel is not only asserting itself, it is being an aggressor. Then we reach the moment of battle: “Beowulf was granted / the glory of winning; Grendel was driven / under the fen-banks, fatally hurt, / to his desolate lair. His days were numbered…” (817-20). One will notice that in Wilbur’s poem, the speaker does not refer to Beowulf by name, instead calling him the Hero. In Beowulf, the credit for Grendel’s defeat is given directly to Beowulf; in Wilbur’s poem, we would not know who this Hero is were it not for the poem being titled with a famous figure’s name. We must make those connections ourselves, but Beowulf does not leave room for that speculation.

Beowulf actually has multiple monsters with which Beowulf engages in battle, including Grendel’s mother and a dragon. Wilbur’s piece includes neither of these creatures or their respective battles. There are no mentions of Grendel’s mother or the dragon that inevitably kills Beowulf. Beowulf’s death is described as such: “He died in his own country a kinless king. / A name heavy with deeds, and mourned…” and “Twelve men rode round his barrow all in a ring, / Singing of him what they could understand.” Wilbur omits any indication of how Beowulf died, which makes it entirely unclear whether it was because he fought another monster, or if he simply grew old. This pulls focus away from the very things that make Beowulf an epic tale, such as Grendel’s mother:

Then it became clear,
obvious to everyone once the fight was over,
that an avenger lurked and was still alive,
grimly biding time. Grendel’s mother,
monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs. (1255-1259)

As well as the dragon:

[Beowulf] lunged at the enemy lower down
so that his decorated sword sank into its belly
and the flames grew weaker

He stuck it deep in the dragon’s flank.
Beowulf dealt it a deadly wound. (2699-2701, 2704-5)

When Beowulf dies, the focus around his death is the treasure he has won from his battles and by being a great king. However, in Wilbur’s “Beowulf,” the focus around his death is just the fact that he has no children. Wilbur explicitly writes that Beowulf “wept that he could share [his treasures] with no son,” and that he died “a kinless king.” Wilbur’s speaker is solely focused on the value of Beowulf’s legacy as being tied to his bloodline, or lack thereof. In the original text of Beowulf, his lack of family is rarely commented upon. Beowulf speaks of it himself only once: “Now is the time when I would have wanted / to bestow this armor on my own son, / had it been my fortune to have fathered an heir” (2729-31). Beowulf’s funeral scene is also much more elaborate in the original text:

His royal pyre will melt no small amount of gold:
heaped there in a hoard, it was bought at heavy cost,
and that pile of rings he paid for at the end
with his own life will go up with the flame,
be furled in fire: treasure no follower
will wear in his memory. (3010-16)

Though both pieces do reference Beowulf’s lack of an heir, it is Wilbur’s piece that brushes off a majority of Beowulf’s battles and accomplishments, because (as Wilbur’s “Beowulf” implies) regardless of what a good king does, if he does not have an heir then that legacy cannot continue. The bloodline will die, and Wilbur focuses on that throughout his writing. The original Beowulf poem does acknowledge that Beowulf has no heir to take the throne after his death, but that piece’s primary focus is the great battles that he fought and all of the treasure he collected from his deeds as a good king. Both pieces acknowledge valid aspects of kingship, but the authors vary the level of these aspects’ importance.

 

Bibliography

BeowulfThe Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. Norton, 2012. 41-108. Print.

“Beowulf.” Wilbur, Richard. Poetry for Students Vol. 11. Gale Cengage. eNotes.com 9 Nov, 2014 <http://www.enotes.com/topics/beowulf-wilbur/etext#etext-text-poem&gt;

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Author:

22. BA English, James Madison University. MA English Candidate, University of South Dakota. Poet. Playwright. Memoirist. Cat Mom.

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