A Dark Age Peter Principle: Beowulf’s incompetence threshold
By Oren Falk
Early Medieval Europe, Vol.18:1 (2010)
Abstract: Many readers, recognizing the incompatibility of heroism with the duties of kingship, have argued that Beowulf tells a story of colossal failure. Drawing on anthropological theory, I propose that the protagonist is more Big-Man than king and that his heroism, far from a socially dysfunctional flaw, is in fact the leash by which society yanks him back from establishing himself as king. Beowulf thus speaks to an aristocracy disinclined to submit to royalty. The poem shines a light on Anglo-Saxons’ aversion to despotic rule: to protect its own decentralized political structure, society against the state foredooms King Beowulf to death.
Introduction: Beowulf is difficult material to work, especially for butter-fingered historians, accustomed to kneading less nimble sources than verse. On the one hand, one faces the opacity of the poem itself: there is so little we know with confidence about it – and so much of what each of us does know with any degree of certainty is flatly contradicted by what others fancy they do, no less securely.
On the other hand, if J.R.R. Tolkien found it unprofitable ‘to read all that has been printed on, or touching on, this poem’ by 1936, the rate of publication in Beowulfiana nowadays literally makes it impossible to familiarize oneself with all of the secondary literature and (almost as literally) ensures that nothing really new could be said. On the third hand (even merely to gripe about Beowulf’s terrific complexity, one needs three hands), certain rules of etiquette have sedimented around the poem, setting limits to what can be ventured about it without offending against decorum.
Ever since Tolkien issued a stern admonition against the practice, most readers have come to reject as Very Bad Form any analysis ‘that is directed [not] to the understanding of [the] poem as a poem’ but seeks, rather, to reduce it to a historian’s turnstile: a gateway into the early Middle Ages, which must be traversed, of course, but which hardly constitutes a destination in its own right. ‘Beowulf‘, rebukes Tolkien, ‘has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art.’ Critics travelling in his wake have seen fit to heed his call and turn back from excavating the poem to reading it.