revenge, revenge

"the body gaped at the stroke dealt to it after death: beowulf cut the corpse's head off." and the blood bubbled to the surface of the sea, coming in full view of those who had watched the hero descend.

the first hero of the english language, "the warrior determined to takes revenge for every gross act grendel had committed... beowulf in his fury now settled that score." his revenge was gory and unremorseful; but of course it was! he's thousands of leagues below the sea, in the lair of a pre-historic and satanically motivated monster.

even so, beowulf defends revenge between people. he assures the casual listener that "it is always better to avenge dear ones than to engage in mourning." not that they needed much convincing - beowulf's entire culture is anchored by an honor code of cyclical revenge. if someone is killeed, even accidentally, they must be avenged. it is highly shameful to refuse to kill in kind.

on another level, these speeches become very important. the poet, not a member of the germanic bloodbath era in which beowulf is set, is himself an anglo-saxon christian, who anachronistically frames this ancient germanic saga with vehemently christian characters. the speeches of these characters teach reader and hearer alike of the wonders of the vengeance of the christian God.

God gives beowulf his strength, the narrator tells us, and it is He who upholds this cycle of revenge.

so you might blame God for the fact the original readers of this epic poem (and arguably the modern readers) continue to stab and slash each other in torturous repetitions of a morbid assertion of justice. but we can't go judging a hebraic God for events that occur at least three thousand years after He's first recorded. how hokey is that?!

it seems as though we shouldn't, and though i won't attempt to gloss the theological aims of the beowulf poet here, maybe we can trace his eerie fascination with vengeance back to a legitimate source. who is the first revenge killer?

"the Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil... and the Lord said, 'I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth.'"

the first revenge killer is the hebrew God. 

it is God who at first decides to take his holy justice out on someone by killing them violently (in this case primarily drowning them). and he is the start of a never-ending tradition of violent attacks and violent reprisals.

at the foundation of western literature stands the tradition of vengeance killing; and vengeance continues in that literary line to this day - the two have never stood apart. and we, as westerners, have always been fascinated with retaliatory violence, as the literature has led and reflected us; as our students have read and our writers have expressed - we want revenge!

now this may sound as if i'm trying to misrepresent a mythological character, but the hebrew God here is proud of what he's done. he encourages the few humans who survive the flood to follow suit, saying: "if anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. for God made human beings in his own image."

and so legend conceives of the origins of revenge. indeed, as long as we can blame God(s), then there will be no need to live in anti-homicidal community.

"'vengeance is mine,' says the Lord." and now, it's everybody else's.

beowulf, trans. seamus heaney
bible, new living translation


  1. Joel, this is Elkins. I loved this post and perspective. It's intriguing and riddled with excellent points. It frankly tickles me that you used Beowulf as a literary element. Kudos, sir. Kudos.

  2. @elkins: thanks very much. always great to tickle your literary fancies... ahem. guns! biceps!