Rethinking Medieval Literature
September 30, 2021
Beowulf and the Ecosystem
Ecological criticisms range in their application and practice within literature. They include analyses in individual close readings of a text’s representation of human and environmental relationships as well as overall studies into the interpretation and expression of the natural world across texts throughout history. This essay is intended to utilize the text of Beowulf to better understand this overall analysis of ecological criticism and emphasize how the text fits as a critique of human relationships with and their exploitations of the natural world. Beowulf not only makes the ecological case in reader’s individual experience of the text, it contributes to a centuries-long (nay, millennia-long) conversation that literature has been exploring and instigating about the world and its human inhabitants.
Ecological criticism emphasizes the role of the natural world in literary works. In analyzing texts, ecological critics highlight the relationships between the human and the wild as they are represented. As said by John Bellamy Foster, Richard York and Brent Clark in The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, “a potentially fatal ecological rift has arisen between human beings and the earth, emanating from the conflicts and contradictions of the modern capitalist society” (Foster, 14). This is the type of relationship that ecological literary critics seek to identify, as well as ecosystems, animals, vegetation, etc. as they are represented in the works themselves. While capitalism is a relatively modern system (in relation to the history of humankind), its practices and attributes can be seen throughout societal history. And even without the specific identification of that system, these words ring true for other human-made things. While in Beowulf there is no established capitalist system, some of the societal practices and tendencies resemble its cultural and ecological impacts. For example, it can be interpreted that the humans invaded Grendel’s natural home to exploit its resources and establish a prosperous city. Headley’s translation references “Grendel’s former residence in the golden halls” (Headley, 1252). This emphasis on Grendel’s dislocation and expulsion from the human-inhabited area highlights the very relationship with nature that humans have deployed, particularly when analyzing capitalist-like practices such as industrialism and expansionism. Also, this particular mentioning of gold, as well as the other references to the famed and ‘valuable’ material also raises questions on environmental exploitation for monetary gain. Similar to the industrialist and mass-production practices of capitalism in the last few centuries, these early works demonstrate similar attitudes in the ways in which humans interact with the natural world.
One cannot discuss the condition of nature without also mentioning human nature. This term is widely debated and speculated on by psychologists and other professionals, but without doubt humans come from the natural world as species in it, and therefore have their own patterns of behavior that may be indicative of human nature. In Beowulf, the reader can see the importance of honor/respect/status as a theme throughout the piece. Within the first few lines of the poem comes a phrase “that was a good king” (Headley, 11). These concepts of power, honor and respect reflect the value of an individual (men exclusively in this piece) and this still rings true today. According to a study demonstrated in Stephen Peter Rosen’s book War and Human Nature, even when offered a position at a lower rate of pay, “executives display a willingness to take jobs in small firms… in return for a higher position” (Rosen, 71). It is within human nature, perhaps in accordance with capitalistic attitudes or ones similar to them, to pursue positions of power and dominance over others within the species. It is within Beowulf’s nature to seek violence in an attempt to increase his image in the eyes of the others and establish that envious position. In reference to ecology, this instinctual drive causes a lot of human actions to take place that have negative impacts on the natural world. Beowulf, for example, uses this desire for respect and admiration as incentive and internal motivation to follow through with his killing of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. This is reflective of other actions taken by humans in the non-fictitious world. The practice of hunting is the clearest connection here. A sport built around finding and killing animals in the wild is incentivised by financial compensation and camaraderie along with the respect and admiration of peers. Furthermore, animal remains are often kept as trophies to further establish a sense of status and dominance. This pattern of human behavior, along with others, takes its toll not only on the nature of humans, but on the natural world as a whole.
This specific relationship of humans to animals finds its way into a variety of ecological discourse. Beowulf is not exempt from this field of criticism as well. One can read Headley’s translation of Beowulf as a challenge to the barriers between human and animal; a questioning of the existence of humans’ pinnacle position on the wildlife hierarchy, if such a thing even exists. In Karl Steel’s essay With the World found in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral Ethics and Objects, Steel recalls a story of a boy being raised by wolves and his rediscovery by other humans. Steel states that “it seems that the boy’s only activity is to imitate, to recount what has happened to him, and to wish the humans had let him be” (Steel, 16). This is the concept that Headley’s translation alludes to. Humans create the animalistic and violent perception of the natural world, perpetuated through years of cultural practices and beliefs. However, the animal realm is not inferior to humans by any stretch. In Steel’s essay, one can see that the boy, the child who was raised by wolves with human genetics and natural components, does not resent the natural world. Instead it is those raised within the humanistic world that do. Seeing as Beowulf is raised in a society where Grendel is a monster from the wild who terrorizes the town, he resembles the traditional perception of societal humanity on nature’s other organisms. Headley also calls this dynamic into question with Grendel’s mother. Headley describes Grendel’s mother as “she who’d ruled these floodlands proudly for a hundred seasons, ferocious, tenacious, rapacious” (Headley, 1496). Grendel’s mother exemplifies the natural realm that humans so often invade and exploit. Not only that, but she also blurs the lines between humanity and the natural world. Revenge and spite are so often celebrated with stories like Beowulf’s, however when Grendel’s mother looks to avenge her murdered son, the humans lack empathy, invade her home, and kill her. Headley’s translation is a demonstration of the arbitrary and artificial lines between human and nature.
The exploitation of the natural world by humans stretches beyond living things as well. As seen with the value and symbolism of gold in Headley’s piece, natural resources are exploited for humanistic gain as well. This also expands to ecosystems. Grendel and his mother, it is suggested, come from the wilderness, more specifically an ecosystem known as the wetlands. The wetlands are a common and biologically rich biome that is often portrayed as evil, disgusting, and uninhabitable in literature. These assumptions are rather inaccurate as plethoras of organisms find their home in these ecosystems, including (in Beowulf) creatures similar to Grendel and his mother. The wetlands are complex ecosystems that are often used as literary devices to depict monstrous homes, and this is true in Beowulf. Rod Giblett, in his essay entitled Theology of Wetlands and Marsh Monsters claims that his pattern of literary depictions are in fact reflections on the patterns and behaviors of natural exploitation done by humans. He states: “Orally sadistic monsters… are projections, displacements and disavowing devices for the greed and gluttony meted out to the earth in mining, pastoralism and wetlands dredging and draining” (Giblett, 24). Meadley’s translation of Beowulf establishes a stronger sense of sympathy with Grendel and his mother and therefore personifies and defends the wetlands against human interjection. This method of ecological criticism opens the eyes of readers to defend not only the living, but other components of nature as well. Beowulf’s slaying of these characters is no longer seen as patriotic and heroic defense against the murderous aliens that invade the homes of the humans. Instead, he is a hypocrite, defending the invaders of the natural world against their defenders and warriors.
Headley’s translation of Beowulf takes the text in a number of directions. She tackles issues of race, gender, class, ecology, etc. and recreates a millennia-old work to make readers contemplate issues of the past and present. The ecological criticisms and analyses in this text allows the reader to question the actions of humans both in the past and present and contemplate the value of other organisms and natural ecosystems. Headley’s text enables readers to challenge human nature and instead investigate the nature of humans, understanding our connection and obligation to the natural world instead of exploiting it for resources.
Foster, John Bellamy, et al. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. Monthly Review
Giblett, Rod. “Theology of Wetlands and Marsh Monsters.” Environmental Humanities and
Theologies: Ecoculture, Literature and the Bible, by Rod Giblett, ROUTLEDGE, 2020,
Headley, Maria Dahvana. Beowulf: A New Translation. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
Rosen, Stephen Peter. War and Human Nature. Princeton University Press, 2009.
Steel, Karl. “With the Word, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of the Wolf-Child of
Hesse.” Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,
Oliphaunt Books, Washington, DC, 2012, pp. 9–34.