Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, Nazis, and Odinists
By Richard Scott Nokes
Old English Newsletter, Vol. 41.3 (2008)
Introduction: Beowulf, a poem written in a language identified with the Anglo-Saxons but without mention of England or a single English character, has always been entangled with the complexities of issues of nationalism. The tribes and peoples mentioned in the story are little more than names to us, but the original audience may well have had strong feelings about them. There may be strong ethnic or nationalist themes running through the poem to which we are blind in the dim light of historical distance. These issues of national identity are more than minor details; Anglo-Saxon England had, of course, a complicated relationship with the Scandinavian peoples, and as Dorothy Whitelock pointed out, the matter of how the Danes would be perceived by the audience of Beowulf is a central question in the debate over the dating of the poem.
Modern scholarship on the poem is also fraught with issues of nationalism, but in this case we can see the details and distinctions more clearly. The dual catastrophes of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and the Ashburnam House fire of 1731 left Beowulf without any serious competition for the title of “Old English Epic,” and as such, the poem was a prize for the taking. Claims upon Beowulf have often served as proxies for claims on national identity, whether English or otherwise. John D. Niles stated with dry irony that “Thorkelin’s chief motive for transcribing and publishing Beowulf was nationalism: Danish nationalism, to be precise.” Beowulf is by no means unique in medieval literature in serving the interests of nationalism. In Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman E. Cantor traced the deep interest in and profound impact of the Nazis upon medieval studies, particularly in the ways in which they promoted the use of history, linguistics, and folklore as tools for shaping a myth of pan-Germanic identity. Though they used medieval studies for their own purposes, the Nazis were part of a long tradition of underwriting national identity through medieval literature, a tradition that includes less malevolent incarnations such as the work of the Brothers Grimm or, in the case of Beowulf, the work of Frederick Klaeber.