‘We’ and Beowulf

The first word in Beowulf – apart from Hwæt (‘listen,’ ‘hark’) – is we.  The first clause of the poem in every modern English translation I own is rendered ‘We have heard.’

We have heard these stories, the poet says – and then goes on to tell us anyway of the aggressive glory of the reign of Scyld, ancestral king of the Danes, and the fortunes of his heirs and his nation.  Past strength is contrasted with the present misery of the Danish court, as Hrothgar and his people live under the terror of the monster Grendel’s nightly raids.

It’s a confident way to begin, telling your audience that they know this already.  The Beowulf-poet says that he and his audience are drawing from the same well.  And throughout the give-or-take-3,000 lines of this long, contemplative, meandering narrative, he gives absolutely no reason to doubt that he is stating anything but simple fact.

What stories today – film, television, book or otherwise – begin with such a casual affirmation of shared cultural knowledge?

Apart from politicians’ campaign rally speeches and the assurances of advertisers, I can’t think of any.

A few years ago, I bought my wife a copy of Brother Juniper’s Bread Book.  On page 48, you’ll find a discussion of Struan, a bread that was made in Scotland as part of a harvest ritual until about a century ago:

The greatest loss is of the ritual itself, the consecrating of such a concise symbol of harvest, of the diverse growth of a fertile land during an entire year, the loss of offering this symbol for a blessing, which is another symbol in the chain of symbols that ends only in the numinous.  Struan is not merely bread – it is bread that represents the essence of bread, which is one of the great analogies of life itself.

In our everyday consumption of bread we tend to forget or lose sight of the reality of what bread is.  So a bread ritual, a harvest fair, dedicated to the archangel of the harvest whose name means “like unto God,” is a way to tune into this deeper reality.  I believe that if the world falls apart, as it sometimes shows sign of doing, it will be as much because of the abandonment of festival rituals such as Struan at Michaelmas as because of war or pollution.  

Stories, like rituals, or recipes, or the heirloom swords and treasures depicted in Beowulf, have a life of exchange.  They pass from hand to hand.  Sometimes the exchange is lateral, synchronic, easy, familiar, like bread torn from the loaf.  Other times it’s more of a Hail Mary pass, down the long centuries to some confused future.

For the Beowulf-poet, it seems it was both.  We, the modern readers of the poem, must initially exclude ourselves from the ‘we’ of the opening line, but we cannot exclude ourselves from among its intended audience, as a professor of mine, Tony Brinkley, suggested some years ago in reference to art in general.  Someone created this and did not want it to die.  In a strange but real sense, it was meant for us – and for those who come after. 

In the meantime, we can steward it.  We can be the ones, in other words, who have heard.