Beowulf, Conrad and the Other

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Beowulf, Conrad and the Other

  • Chris McCully

Joseph Conrad

  • (Conrad, photographed in 1916)
  • Conrad (1857-1924) was a Polish native (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski). He settled in England in the 1880s and was granted English nationality (1886) but always considered himself a Pole and spoke English, which he learned relatively late in life, with a strong accent.

Conrad’s life

  • Conrad (1857-1924) was a Polish native (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski). He settled in England in the 1880s and was granted English nationality (1886) but always considered himself a Pole and spoke English, which he learned relatively late in life, with a strong accent.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

  • His early career was as a merchant seaman, and the sea, seafaring and the characters and stories of seamen are perpetual themes of his fiction. Heart of Darkness (1899) may contain apparently diaristic elements involving ships, rivets and charts but these thematic elements are always integrated into the story, rather than illustrating Conrad’s personal preoccupations.
  • Conrad gave up the sea as a career in 1896. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, had appeared in 1895. Contemporary critics and the reading public often understood Conrad to be ‘a romantic teller of exotic tales’….the very thing that neither he nor his works aspired to be. Conrad’s works, that is, are very far from being ‘Romantic’; they are Modernist.
  • Heart of Darkness appeared first, like many of Conrad’s earlier works, in serial form - 1899, Blackwood’s Magazine) and was finally published as a novella (= short novel, around 30,000 words) together with Youth and two other stories in 1902.

Conrad and colonialism

  • Heart of Darkness appeared when the British Empire was at its greatest extent
  • Other nations – Belgium, Germany – also had colonial ambitions (see below)
  • Heart of Darkness describes a journey in the Belgian Congo

The Belgian Congo, late C19th

  • ‘In 1896, when this map was published, the Belgian Congo–known as the Congo Free State–was actually a personal possession of King Leopold II and not an official Belgian colony. The king was engaged in a vigorous publicity campaign aimed at convincing the other European powers to recognize the legitimacy of his rule, a difficult task in view of the notorious brutality of his administration in Africa.’
  • (, accessed May 7th 2012)


  • Leopold set up various organisations with philanthropic-sounding names, all of which served as covers for his (personal) appropriation of ivory. Native populations – ‘savages’ – were regarded as totally expendable. In his writings, King Leopold makes it abundantly clear that he regards white, European civilisation as ‘refined’ and the spread of that ‘civilisation’ as ‘desirable’, claiming nevertheless – like many politicians before and since – that ‘our ultimate end is a work of peace’
  • (‘The sacred mission of cilvilization’, repr in ed. Paul B. Armstrong, p.119; the ‘Backgrounds and Contexts’ section of Armstrong’s fine edition of Heart of Darkness is essential reading for those wishing to study late 19th-century white colonialism – the ‘scramble for Africa’ – in more detail).

‘Savages’ – the Other

Conrad and brutality

  • Conrad had direct experience of the Congo: he’d been hired as a merchant seaman by the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo and made a traumatic journey to Kinshasa and back in 1890. The journey underlay the journey described in Heart of Darkness, where the narrator, Marlow, journeys upriver to find a rogue ivory trader, Kurtz.

Heart of Darkness – racist?

  • In a famous essay revised in 2006, Chinua Achebe described Conrad – particularly with reference to Conrad’s work in Heart of Darkness - as a ‘bloody racist’ (later amended to a ‘thoroughgoing racist’)
  • This view has been challenged. See e.g. McCully, Chris (2014) ‘Conrad, culture and civilisation’. PNReview 219, pp.36-41 – and references therein.

The Other

  • Yet what’s at issue here is the attitudes colonisers take to the colonised:
  • ‘History is written by the winners’ – and if ‘winners’ deny a people their history, they deny them a part, often a large part, of their culture
  • History may be encoded in dance, art, music, oral forms of verbal art, even personal decoration
  • What – in the view of late 19th century colonisers - are a people without a (Western[ised]) culture?

Who are your Others?

  • humans can and do objectify ‘others’ – those ‘not belonging’, those of other tribes, those non-native….
  • humans may also project their own Shadow (Jung) onto others, ascribing to others the darkest/most perverted aspects of their own psyches
  • humans often fear Shadows and Others
  • Think of examples from the present time. Who are your Others? Can you think of other examples – say, from political events of 2016?


Beowulf: textual history

  • Poem is an epic (3000+ lines): monsters, dragon, gold, mythic materials of all kinds
  • Constructed out of Germanic (Scandinavian) story materials: some of the analogues date from as early as 7th-8th century
  • Poem set in present-day Denmark and southern Sweden, but written in Old English

Beowulf: dating and provenance

  • Dating problematic: though some story materials old, poem itself probably younger (?8th-9th century)
  • Provenance also problematic: poem written largely in West Saxon (a standard literary dialect of 8th-9th centuries) but also containing Anglian and Northumbrian elements
  • Authorship unknown

Beowulf: specimen

  • Hwæt, we Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
  • þeod-cyningas þrym gefrūnon,
  • hū þā æþelingas ellen fremedon….
  • ‘We have heard of the tribal kings of the Spear-Danes in the yore-days, how those noble ones performed deeds of valour….’ (opening lines)

Post-colonialism and Beowulf

  • Beowulf much concerned with tribes and kingship: the political setting leads to actual or threatened civil war between neighbouring tribes

Beowulf and kingship/tribes

Dynastic setting: much intermarriage and internecine feuding. Below shows Danish royal house. ‘Daughter’ m. Onela. King of Sweden

The construction of Heorot

  • A great mead-hall (and presumably, throne room and council chamber). Associated with Lejre in present-day Denmark
  • And in his mind he weighed
  • commanding the making of a meeting-place,
  • triumphal mead-hall made fair by men,
  • one mightier than any had ever heard mentioned, 70
  • and in it, to all - to old and young –
  • to grant, share, deal what God ordained
  • beyond what was already owned by right in common.
  • It was told widely that the treasures of many
  • peoples of middle-earth were on their merit ordered 75
  • to adorn that dwelling. And in due season,
  • by dint of will, they were done, and ready
  • stood the wondrous hall that some wordsmith, clever
  • and punning in his power, praised as ‘Heorot’.

Heorot associated with justice and with light

  • ….There was harp-music,
  • poet’s clear-voiced song. Who knew, recited, 90
  • told the creation of earth for men,
  • said the Almighty made the landscape,
  • eye-restful fields enfolded by water;
  • set there, triumphant, the sun and moon -
  • lights to illumine land for its dwellers; 95
  • and decorated the dales of ground
  • with tree-limbs, leaves; life he also formed
  • and quick creatures of every kind.
  • The tribe and their lord lived in abundance,
  • most blessedly - till one, their bane, 100
  • a hell-creature, began his crimes.
  • He was named Grendel, their wrathful guest,
  • infamous reiver who ravened the moors -
  • wastelands, margins….

Grendel associated with darkness (described as sceadu-gengea – ‘shadow-walker’)

  • The visitor crept, after night’s coming, 115
  • to the rearing walls, saw how the Ring-Danes
  • were abandoned to rest after their beer-party;
  • found there within the force of the troop
  • asleep, unconcerned, supped into stupor;
  • they were careless. And the creature, unhallowed, 120
  • grim and greedy, gathered his courage -
  • rapacious, savage - and from their sleep then ripped
  • thirty warriors. From there, like any predator
  • that’s secured its prey, he carried them home,
  • seeking his lair with loot from the slaughter….

Grendel is humanoid (image

…as is Grendel’s mother

The monsters’ lair

  • Beowulf (from Geatland) kills Grendel in Heorot, in single-handed combat
  • Beowulf kills G’s mother in her lair underwater
  • Heorot associated with justice, gift-giving, courtesy; G. and his mother associated with natural features, decay and death. i.e. they are a kind of ‘Other’

The lair again

  • No matter how brave, Beowulf could not
  • wield his weapons there: worm-writhing devils,
  • enraged sea-monsters, rucked around him, 1510
  • their sword-like tusks snagging at his armour,
  • teeth tearing him. In the turmoil he saw
  • something impossible, some sort of hell,
  • which no water could overwhelm or reach.
  • A vaulted roof kept the rushing lake-flood 1515
  • from falling, and fire flickered there within,
  • its pale flame-tongues faint and putrid.
  • The good warrior; the witch of mud,
  • mere’s brutality….

Beowulf’s kingship, and the dragon

  • Later in the poem, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats.
  • He rules well for fifty years, but….
  • At last his kingdom is terrorised by a dragon
  • The dragon has been woken from its three-hundred-year sleep by a man who pinches a cup from the dragon’s hoard:

The waking of the dragon

  • Three hundred years this unhallowed harm
  • kept his eyes on the cave of treasure,
  • mighty in his powers, until a man handled 2280
  • the malice bred there, bearing to his master
  • one plated flagon, a peace-guarantee,
  • feud’s settlement….
  • But the worm stirred, and new strife began:
  • he sniffed among stones, scenting – implacable –
  • his enemy’s smell, whose secret craft
  • by stealth had disturbed the strength waiting…. 2290
  • ….Then, furious, the dragon
  • nosed out man-trace, meaning to find
  • the one who’d troubled his terrible dreams: 2295
  • shifted, enraged, through the shape of his cavern,
  • to its outer ness. No one was there
  • in that burnt fastness, yet his blent evil
  • intended terror….

Beowulf and the dragon

  • Beowulf, by now an old man, resolves to fight the dragon
  • The dragon gives Beowulf a mortal wound
  • Beowulf kills the dragon
  • Beowulf dies
  • The poem ends with Beowulf’s corpse being burnt on a funeral pyre
  • The Geats are faced with an impending war with the Swedes

‘Flame came in waves, shield burnt to boss….’

  • Image:

Is a post-colonial reading of Beowulf possible?

  • ‘Savagery suggests an ability to commit violence….without any sense of moral restraint’ (Ryan, Literary Theory, p.198)
  • Some critics have accused Conrad of ascribing ‘savagery’ to Africans in this sense
  • On this last view, ‘savagery’ is unrestrained and black, ‘civilised’ behaviour is restrained, white and European
  • Are the monsters in Beowulf ‘savage’?

A post-colonial Beowulf?

  • Would view Heorot as the construction of an occupying force, i.e. Grendel and his dam are dispossessed
  • On this view, the Danes are a colonial force
  • Would view the disturbance to the dragon’s hoard as the incursion of ‘civilisation’
  • ‘The monsters’ would therefore be portrayed simply as savage (‘without moral restraint’). To some extent this is true of the dragon, who is undeniably Other, but….

Problems with a post-colonial Beowulf

  • Grendel and his dam are humanoid. Unlike the dragon they are not utterly inhuman
  • Grendel’s dam comes to Heorot in order to avenge the death of her son; revenge is a key motif at that time in ‘civilised’ society (hint: think of the Mafia)
  • The poet lays emphasis on the fact that Grendel and his mother are ultimately descended from ‘the kin of Cain’

Cain’s kin

  • And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. Mt. 23.35 · Lk. 11.51 · 1 Jn. 3.12 9 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? 10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. 11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand. 12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. 13 And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. (KJV. Genesis ch.4; emphasis mine)

Of no fixed abode….

  • So if Grendel and his dam belong to ‘Cain’s kin’ they descend from a line of vagabonds, wanderers
  • Their ‘home’ (the lair) is temporary, therefore…
  • The Danes can’t stand accused of occupying territory that belongs as of right to Grendel and his dam

…and the dragon?

  • The dragon’s been asleep for 300 years
  • He too has no fixed abode and has supernatural powers (i.e. he can fly). It’s by chance he finds the hoard:
  • ….The old 2270
  • force, night-flyer, found [the hoard] undefended –
  • the seeker-out of smouldering barrows,
  • smooth-scaled hate-dragon, smithied in flame-work,
  • who flies at dark….

Protagonist and antagonist

  • (i) If Beowulf is the poem’s protagonist and has the dimensions of an epic hero, then
  • (ii) the dragon is the poem’s antagonist (‘Other’)
  • Grendel and his dam have a temporary ‘home’ – even if it’s a ‘home’ full of bones – and respond to some moral injunctions (i.e. the duty of revenge)

And finally…

  • A post-colonial view of Beowulf is provocative, and
  • helps us read Beowulf as a work of art with contemporary relevance, not just as some antique (and probably irrelevant) noise
  • Yet such a view has to work around some clear textual problems, too.

Key references

  • Conrad and Heart of Darkness
  • Achebe, Chinua (4th edition, 2006) ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"’. Chancellor’s lecture, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1975), subsequently published (in revised form) in ed. Paul B. Armstrong, Heart of Darkness. Norton Critical Edition, pp.336-349.
  • Ryan, Michael (2007) Literary Theory. Second edition. Oxford: Blackwell (see esp. chapter 10)
  • Said, Edward (1994) Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage.
  • Watts, Cedric (1983) ‘“A Bloody Racist”: About Achebe's View of Conrad’, Yearbook of English Studies, 13: 196-209. [, accessed November 2012.]
  • Beowulf
  • Chickering, Howell et al. (eds., 2014) Teaching Beowulf in the Twenty-First Century. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
  • Heaney, Seamus (1999) Beowulf. London: Faber and Faber. (Translation also found in the Norton Anthology of English Poetry.)
  • Johnston, Andrew James (2014) ‘Postcolonial Beowulf’. In eds. Chickering et al., pp.231-240.

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