Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Gay Beowulf?

Spear Dance

 

In Henry Treece's 1968 novel The Green Man, his brutal, gripping retelling of Hamlet in its original pagan cultural context, Beowulf is—let me avoid anachronism here—a man for men. He even puts the moves on young Hamlet.

(Horse-faced young Hamlet, himself a man for women, isn't having any of it.)

Yes, that Beowulf: Beowulf Grendel's-bane, King of the Geats, hero of the sole surviving Old English epic of the same name.

I'd always thought that Treece was taking some pretty broad literary license with his gay Beowulf, but after a recent intensive immersion in the original text of Beowulf, I've come to think that he may actually be onto something.

 

There's no evidence that Beowulf—his name means “bee-wolf,” a kenning for “bear”—was a historical character. He appears only in the eponymous epic, and is never mentioned by any historian of the period.

So, was he gay?

Well, here's what we know about him from the epic:

  • He never married. (At least, no wife is ever mentioned.)
  • He left no children behind him.
  • All his loves—and Beowulf, as the poet testifies frequently, lives by his loves—are towards other men.

You do the math.

 

Myself, I had always assumed that Beowulf's lack of queen and dynastic offspring were to be read as evidence (such as it was) of his non-historical status. This still seems to me the most likely reading of the evidence, such as it is.

That said, it also seems to me that Beowulf (the epic) will unforcedly sustain a gay reading of its central character's character, and personally, I'm good with that. Beowulf the Geat: a man's man, heroic, generous, utterly admirable.

Gods know, we could use a few more larger-than-life gay heroes.

 

Let me say, at the very least, that—contrary to expectation for a work of the period—the poem will indeed sustain such a reading.

If the thesis is incapable of proof, it is likewise incapable of disproof. I myself would contend that, in fact, the poem is all the stronger for such a reading.

Reader, draw your own conclusions.

 

Beowulf I sing, best of kings,

guest of Hrothgar, Grendel's bane:

of all kings, keenest to glory,

of all men, liefest to love.

 

 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

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