“Queer and Marxist Readings of Beowulf”


One of my students, Windy Vorwick, recently sent me a link to an amusing Buzzfeed post on “17 Things English Majors Are Tired of Hearing.” Each of the comments, composed or compiled by Jennifer Schaffer and Kirsten King, is accompanied by a snarky rejoinder that allows English majors to feel smug and superior. There is also an amusing clip from a movie or television show, often expressing exasperation.

I’m choosing to respond today to the rejoinder that mentions Beowulf but I’ll cite a couple of other comments and their replies first:

Comment: So are you going to be a teacher.
Reply: You’re a math major, are you going to be a calculator? 

Comment: But, like, what’s the point of poetry?
Reply: I don’t know, what’s the “point” of life?

Comment: O, creative writing? Sometimes I write for fun too.
Reply: Yeah, trying to plumb the depths of the human condition is a real walk in the park. I like to do it in my spare time too.

Comment: A humanities degree in this economy? Do you ever regret that?
Reply: I tend not to regret the things that give my life meaning.

Comment: But, like, what are you going to do for money?
Reply: I don’t know, it’s a really tough economy. The only jobs left for me are the ones that can’t be done by machines.

And then there’s this:

Comment: I’m so excited for my humanities requirement. I really need a break.
Reply: Totally! Try ENGL312: Queer and Marxist Critical Readings of Beowulf. Easy A.

Putting aside the fact that any professor limiting an undergraduate course on Beowulf to queer and Marxist readings is guilty of malpractice, I want to discuss what such readings would entail.

The Marxist part is fairly easy. There is definitely class in Beowulf between warriors and kings. Usually the tension is caused by kings hoarding wealth that should be distributed amongst deserving warriors. As I have written several times, both in my book How Beowulf Can Save America and in several posts (including this one here), there is even a monster in the poem, the dragon, that symbolizes greedy kings.

I believe that some of the rage in Beowulf can be traced to nostalgia for an earlier and simpler age when kings and warriors were comrades in arms. We see such comradeship between Beowulf and the young men who accompany him to Horthgar’s kingdom. When tribes were still small—before they became monarchies—such camaraderie was possible.

With growth and institutionalization, however, a distance grew up between kings and warriors, and the epic is filled with stories of kings who have lost touch with their men.

One reason Beowulf feels relevant to Americans today is that the growing income disparity between the wealthy and everyone else is generating a similar type of anger. We have our own Grendel-like resentment against the 1%, who frequently appear to us as hard-scaled and hunkered down dragons.

Applying queer theory to Beowulf is harder, not least because homosexuality as we now understand it is a modern invention. But let’s try this. My reading of Grendel’s Mother is that she represents the grief and horror that men feel at the death of comrades. She pulls them into a dark place, and to emerge back into society requires heroic fortitude.

Grendel’s Mother is a female monster because warriors felt unmanned by the grief they experienced and such sensitivity is something they associated with women. Beowulf goes to fight Grendel’s Mother after he is unnerved by Hrothgar’s paralyzing grief over the death of his best friend Aeschere. Whether Hrothgar’s and Aeschere’s bond is homoerotic (sexual) or homosocial (male bonding) is not clear but maybe the Anglo-Saxons didn’t draw a distinction.

I acknowledge that, in making the link between homosexuality and female sensitivity, I am stereotyping gays as super sensitive men. This is not universally true and, in the Renaissance, the stereotype actually ran the other way: male homosexuals, like Antonio in Twelfth Night, were regarded as particularly macho men. (By contrast, the heterosexual Sebastian is the one who sheds tears.) But men acting contrary to gender expectations does appear to threaten social order.

As far as women are concerned, there is the shrewish princess Modthrydho who refuses to conform to stereotypical female roles but wields a very male-like power, putting to death any man who looks at her. She is contrasted with the Geat queen Hygd, who is presented as the model wife. Although Modthrydho is eventually domesticated—she marries the warrior king Offa and they live happily ever after or something—the images of her that we retain are her transgressive gender behavior.

Is such interpreting as hard as organic chemistry or differential calculus? Let’s just say that English majors become fairly good at it. Whether anyone should be feeling smugly superior is another matter.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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