Creative Non-Fiction: 'In the Gæsthus with Beowulf'
Written by Laura Varnam
That isn't usually the way that a conversation about Beowulf begins. The early medieval epic itself opens with the famous exclamatory call-to-attention hwæt! that in modern translations sets the tone for what’s to follow. Tolkien’s grand ‘lo’, Seamus Heaney’s dignified ‘so’, and Maria Dahvana Headley’s raucous ‘bro’ do as much to establish the translators’ own relationships with the poem as they do to convey something of the poem itself.
When Beowulf and his men arrive in Denmark on their monster-slaying mission, and King Hrothgar recognises, with relief, that they come in peace, he commands his coastguard to tell them in words that they are welcome (wilcuman). Etymologically, welcome bands together desire (wil-) with the one who travels as a guest or stranger (cuma). What might it mean to be welcomed into Beowulf, to be ushered in as a longed-for caller, when the poem itself in its original language can, on first encounter, feel so alien?
As an undergraduate– arriving at university from a state school, with no Latin or Greek under my belt– I felt so alienated from Beowulf's original language that when I bravely knocked on my tutor's door and held out my Guide to Old English, with its mystifying grammar tables and multiplying paradigms, I could barely put into words what it was that I needed to know. It felt like being in a foreign land with no map, no compass, and certainly no defence against the dragons that were likely to be hiding around every corner. I was being called to attend, but to what?
Twenty years on, and now in the position of tutor myself, I want to say to my students: welcome. The terrain might feel a little rocky at first but you are welcome here, even (especially) when the poem feels like it might bite your hand off if you don't proceed with caution. Because Beowulf is a poem that changes you, as a writer and a reader, and if you spend time with it, you begin to learn as much about yourself and your relationship with language as you do the original poem. The poem's Old English– sturdy in sound but surprisingly fleet in meaning– invites you to weigh up contrasting meanings in a constant balancing act and to come to expect what it calls edhwyrft, a kind of sudden reversal, that turns hope to fear and back again as quickly. (Even this word doubles back on itself, coiled like a zoomorphic serpent in early medieval art, eating its own tail. From hwerfan 'to turn, revolve, return or depart' and ed- 'to renew', every return to the text causes us to wrestle with our expectations afresh.)
I began this article to introduce a poem on the subject of my difficult first encounters with Beowulf but already I'm rewriting the narrative. By recognising my own discomfort and alterity from the thousand year old original, I'm able to worm my way in, stake my claim, and I'd like to welcome you too. A beloved poetic compound (or kenning) in Old English literature is the banhus for the body: the bone-house. The poem that follows is my gæsthus, a house that welcomes– in the multiplicity of the word gæst– both guests and ghosts, strangers and enemies. How will you enter the text?
I've been squatting in the bones
of this story for so long now,
I've forgotten how I got here.
And whether I was invited.
Did you com on wanre niht,
The growls and the jab
in the ribs make me think
I've outstayed my welcome.
Don't fret. I'm finding my feet
in the sticky story, slippy
slick with slaughter–
and I'm not unafraid, I'll tell you
that much. But I'm not legging it
neither, not bloody likely.
Besides, where else
would have me?
This poem imagines my relationship with Beowulf as a kind of consumption, an embodied and uncanny realisation that the story has swallowed me whole when I wasn’t looking (and unlike Jonah inside the whale, I may not be vomited out again).
In the original poem, the monster Grendel, the stalker-in-shadows (sceadugenga) comes gliding in the dark night (on wanre niht) towards the hall, Heorot, where he plans to wolf down more of the warriors, in a perversion of the feasts that used to enliven that centre of community. Part of Grendel's monstrosity is that he is simultaneously attracted and repelled by what he finds in Heorot. It eats him up.
In Old English, the verb fretan means to 'eat up, to gnaw, to devour' and when we 'fret' in modern English, we are worried away to our very bones. Reading as eating is part of the Old English imagination. In the Old English riddle of the bookworm, the thief who guzzles the words from the page but does not properly digest them as a good reader should, fræt (ate) and forswealg (swallowed) the written text like a stælgiest (a stealing guest). In the Old English Wonders of the East the monstrous race of the Donestre charm foreign visitors by speaking in their own tongue, before, unable to curb their appetites, they gobble them up all except for their heads, over which they weep (one wonders if regretfully?). Beowulf and the culture that produced it knew the dangers– and delights– of allowing another's words into your own mouth.
Welcome to the gæsthus.
About the Author
Laura Varnam is the Lecturer in Old and Middle English Literature at University College, Oxford. She is writing a poetry collection inspired by the women of the Old English epic Beowulf and poems from this project have been published in journals including Bad Lilies, Banshee Lit, Berlin Lit, Dear Reader Poetry, Wet Grain; the anthology ‘Gods & Monsters: Mythological Poems’ (ed Ana Sampson and illustr. Chris Riddell); and with a creative-critical essay, in the academic journal postmedieval. You can find Laura on Instagram @drlauravarnam and Twitter @lauravarnam.