The Joyous Noise in Beowulf

meduseldHaving just completed a three week study of Beowulf with my British Literature students, I am again struck by one of the more subtle, yet striking passages early in the poem.

To set the scene, King Hrothgar is celebrating with his thanes in the glorious golden mead-hall Herot, an Edenic image of heaven and ultimate koinonia fellowship. As the men pass the communion cup around the magnificent hall, full of dancing and revelry, the king’s bard begins to sing of creation and God’s almighty power:

“Loud in that hall, the harp’s rejoicing / Call and the poet’s clear songs, sung / Of the ancient beginnings of us all, recalling / The Almighty making the earth, shaping / These beautiful plains marked off by oceans […] And then / As now warriors sang of their pleasure”

This moment, with all of its wild and boisterous celebration of God, provides a remarkable perspective on the right view of Christian worship. The noble warriors, toasting their king and pledging loyalty to their queen, fill the evening with hearty laughter, rowdy storytelling, and robust psalm-singing as they praise God for the blessing of creation and the joy of Christian camaraderie. They are not tamed, domesticated, effete Christian men, calmly tucking in their shirts and going about their business. Nor are they mindless brutes, scoffing at all this “girly” singing and storytelling. They are mighty men, knuckles sore from battle and throats sore from exuberant singing. Remember, the same man who sawed off the head of Goliath would later write a poem about it (Psalm 9).

It is no wonder, then, that the joyous noise of worship in Herot summons the envy and wrath of Grendel, the terrible beast “born of Cain” who is exiled from the mighty hall. At this point, I prefer Seamus Heaney’s translation:

“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, / nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him / to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall, the harp being struck / and the clear song of a skilled poet / telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, / how the Almighty had made the earth / a gleaming plain girdled with waters”

So Grendel attacks Hrothgar’s men out of a supreme irritation by the “din of the loud banquet.” He is furious at their joy. In this way, Grendel embodies the very nature of evil, a jealous, petty fiend livid at the joy of the Lord. He is a demonic figure representative of the Devil himself, and, as C.S. Lewis describes him, Satan is the “cosmic killjoy.” His is an unsatisfying lust, an alienated loneliness, a banal and uncelebrated eternity of selfishness and pride. Who can forget the cry of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as her staggering sledge grates across the thawing ground and she stumbles upon a small party of Narnians celebrating the return of Aslan?

“What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?” 

She cannot stand the sight of righteous feasting, of glorious revelry, the “din of the loud banquet.” And neither can Grendel. His attack on Herot, then, and the subsequent arrival of Beowulf show us the power and danger of the right worship of God. As Charles Spurgeon said, “There is no more levity in a hearty laugh than a hearty cry.” We must resist with every ounce of our power the popular notion that Satan has cornered the market on fun and joyful partying. All sin and worldliness can do is drain the potency of glory and gloss it over with a thin coating of happiness and thrill. Only in Christ and the merry jubilation of His people can true wildness and joy be found.

Or, in other words, as Lewis affirms, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

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