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Meaning in the Mead-Hall
Recovering a Sense of Ourselves in Middle-Earth
The modern world has given us many good things. In fact, I’ll go further. I’ll even say the modern world has endowed us with a good many great things, a rich panoply of blessings that we would be remiss to overlook or take for granted. But that’s about as far as I’ll go. My tip of the hat to modern man ends with a “thank you kindly for the heated seats and air conditioning,” because for all modernity has given, it has stolen seven times as much. Like Jesus’ parable of the unclean spirit, with the advent of the Enlightenment we may have driven out one demon, but we unwittingly made room for seven more thrice as evil.
And to make matters worse, the things modernity stole from us were the very things we needed in order to steward its benefits rightly. I am speaking, for example, of such things as religious identity, a sense of our humanity, a right understanding of wisdom, virtue, history, ourselves, and the very world we inhabit, among others. All these were essential to using iPhones well, but these are the things we no longer possess: our pockets were picked while we sat dazzled by our gadgets, and the result has been something akin to placing a toddler in the cockpit of an Apache attack helicopter.
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Put another way, men without souls don’t do well with weapons of mass destruction at their disposal. And the proof is in the gulag.
Still, there are paths back to the world we left behind. They are ancient paths, old paths, paths that by now have become rather overgrown and unfamiliar but paths that beckon us homeward even so. One such path is the Old English epic Beowulf.
Beowulf is a work of epic poetry. This means, among other things, that it is a work preoccupied with themes such as courage, honour, myth, mortality, and death, to name just a few. This also means, incidentally, that it is a work which feels very strange and foreign to the modern imagination; puzzling might even be the most appropriate term. The world Beowulf presents is a world of monsters and dragons, of kings and valour. It is a world very different from our own and thus a world we find both unsettling and perplexing. And because this is so, our impulse, unfortunately, is to ignore it, to place it glibly back on the shelf alongside all those other works we no longer know how to read. But this is exactly the thing we must not do. In fact, what we must learn to recognize is that it is precisely because Beowulf is so unfamiliar to us—so strange, foreign, and outlandish—that we have no choice but to engage it. Modernity has become the ravenous beast that it is just because we have ignored and suppressed stories like Beowulf for too long. Hence I maintain, in sharp contrast to the progressive spirit of contemporary wisdom, that the “prince of the Geats,” mysterious and otherworldly though he be, has a wealth of wisdom to impart to us impoverished moderns, if only we will take the time to listen.
One of the riches Beowulf has to offer comes to us in the form of the “mead-hall.” The mead-hall in Beowulf is a wondrous place. It is a raucous place and a beautiful place, a place ringing with the sound of celebration, kinship, joy, and song. In some ways I suppose it is analogous to our idea of a banqueting hall, but is much more lively and much more fun. It is a place of laughter and story, a noble place where great deeds are recounted, where fellowship is enjoyed, and where bonds of love and loyalty are forged and strengthened.
Even the words themselves, ealu [“ale”] and meodu [“mead”], convey a sense of this, speaking not of quaint pleasantries or treats but of weightier and richer realities: of peace, security, merriment, and warmth. In fact, Tolkien observed that mead and ale have an almost sacramental character in Beowulf, symbolizing “the mirth and pleasure of peace, and life at its brief and passing best.”1 Thus, though outside the walls of the mead-hall monsters in wastelands roam, inside is safe and at rest. The mead-hall is a bright and glittering light in a world of otherwise smothering darkness, and here, in ancient Denmark, it is a warm and comforting light indeed.
The richness of the mead-hall and its centrality to the world of middle-earth comes quickly into view in the opening pages of the poem. Hear the way it’s first described; sense the majesty that attends it:
“Then to Hrothgar was granted glory in battle,
mastery of the field; so friends and kinsmen
gladly obeyed him, and his band increased
to a great company. It came into his mind
that he would give commands for the construction
of a huge mead-hall, a house greater
than men on earth ever had heard of,
and share the gifts God had bestowed on him
upon its floor with folk young and old —
apart from public land and the persons of slaves.
Far and wide (as I heard) the work was given out
in many a tribe over middle earth,
the making of the mead-hall. And, as men reckon,
the day of readiness dawned very soon
for this greatest of houses. Heorot he named it
whose word ruled a wide empire.
He made good his boast, gave out rings,
arm-bands at the banquet. Boldly the hall reared
its arched gables; unkindled the torch-flame
that turned it to ashes. The time was not yet
when the blood-feud should bring out again
sword-hatred in sworn kindred. (ll. 64-85)”2
Several lines later we’re told that Heorot rings with the “clear song of the poet” (l. 90), thus marking it out further as both a stately place and a solemn place; a place reflecting something of the regalness and pomp of a royal court, but also a place marked by celebration and the remembrance of ancient wisdom. In the mead-hall the Spear-Danes remember who they are; they recall the great stories of the past and commemorate with feasting and “loud amusement” (l. 89). Viewed in this light, the importance and centrality of the mead-hall to the Beowulf epic can begin to be seen. In fact, I don’t think it inappropriate to suggest that the mead-hall is, in some ways, the theme of the poem. To be sure, the plot revolves around the heroic deeds of the protagonist, Beowulf, but it simply cannot be ignored that the mead-hall stands ever-present in the background of all these deeds. It is a simple fact in the poem, an assumption even, which is precisely the thing that alerts us to its importance. As all most important things are, the mead-hall is something that is taken entirely for granted, but nonetheless remains the thing that provides the impetus for the story as well as the enduring motivation of its heroes. It is the pride of kings (ll. 64-85), the joy of kinsmen (ll. 491-498; 1013-14), the thing that is lamented when lost in death (ll. 4-7; 3062-65), and, in this sense, the driving force of the epic. Everything that happens, happens for the sake of the mead-hall; men don’t slay dragons to protect nothing.
At this point a danger must be quickly noted. One of the temptations we moderns face when reading such descriptions as the one given above is to try and then comprehend it through categories already familiar to us. This is somewhat understandable, since the natural way we learn about things is by comparing them with other things we already grasp. But I would caution the reader against doing this, at least uncritically, in this particular case. And this is because what we are dealing with here, in the mead-hall, is an entity that transcends our pre-existing social categories. This is critical to understand. What we are doing when reading Beowulf is not filling in a picture that is already basically accurate, but establishing an entirely new paradigm altogether. If we do make the mistake of reading into the mead-hall our preconceived ideas—of friendship or love, for example—we will inevitably empty the mead-hall of much of its richness. The proper way to read the poem is thus not to assume we know what the poet means when he speaks of friendship and devotion, but rather to let his descriptions continually inform our understanding. We must let Beowulf’s roaring mountain-spring fill our shallow and trickling puddles. In this way, we will give the author the dignity and honour he is due and we will be the better for it.
The Essence of Modernity: A Faceless Kiss
Hopefully the foregoing outline will be enough to provide the reader with some sense of the barrenness of the sterile modern world we now inhabit. If we have understood the mead-hall rightly—if its warmth and wonder have shone appropriately on our thin and anemic imaginations—we will have quickly noticed that we have nothing in contemporary society that comes close to rivalling its glory; nothing that even echoes the richness of fellowship, the thrill of celebration, the sturdiness of shared cultural tradition, or the fervency of devotion found therein. Rather, ours is a world of distance rather than intimacy, a world of vacuity rather than fullness.
And these unfortunate qualities (symptoms of the hollowness of our modern age) have only been intensified in the Covid Era. In this strange new world of social-distancing and bio- security––a world, it must be said, which is fine for machines; less so for flesh-and-blood human beings––it has become all too common to see the last vestiges of real human behaviour surrendered to the spirit of the age: family events held “over Zoom,” funerals “live-streamed,” worship services suspended, and weddings postponed. I can even recall, with some reluctance, having the unfortunate experience of watching the 2022 New Year’s Eve celebrations on TV and seeing a man and a woman celebrating the arrival of the new year with a kiss—fully masked! The event was as jarring as it was perplexing, and palpably unnatural, like seeing one of those miserable pugs whose owner has forced it into a Christmas sweater or talking to a person whose features have been noticeably altered by a considerable amount of botox. The ordeal was unsettling, creepy even, but sadly not surprising. Indeed, that image, of two faceless ghouls pressing their mouths together through two layers of black cloth, remains in my mind the quintessential image of the modern age;
Faceless. Impersonal. Unnatural. Sad.
But the thing I really want to get to is this. What makes that event sad, the thing that makes two people kissing with masks on so unbearably awkward to witness, is that we all know, the same way we know the sky is blue and water is wet, that there is something deeply flawed about that picture. That is, we recognize, I think instinctively, the inherent nobility of every human person and thus also the inherent contradiction of a faceless kiss. Such a thing is an oxymoron, a falsity, an untruth. And it is so precisely because it is so patently contrary to the obvious dignity of a human creature. It can only ever strike us as ludicrous and absurd. Indeed, I think it is somewhat analogous to witnessing your father drunk in public or the Queen in her underwear. Both of these scenarios are ignoble at best and sinister at worst, but they are so (and this is the point) by virtue of the fact that the man is your father and the woman the Queen. Both individuals hold offices that ought to be attended by a certain unmistakable nobility, and yet both, in that moment, are sadly (and publicly) falling short of that vocation.
And the same is true of us.
This is the root of our dogged unrest in the modern age. There is a certain dignity that attends every one of us, a sacred nobility that has its source and center in the unalterable fact of our being created in the image of God. But this is the very thing we insist on suppressing; the thing we insist on denying, smearing, cursing, and defacing. And so, having based our entire self-perception on a lie, we then proceed from one lie to the next, leaving in our wake a bloody trail of deceit, degradation, and destruction. Having denied the Holy One, whose image we bear, we have lost ourselves in the process. This is the sad and idolatrous legacy of modernity.
But here’s the kicker: the image of God was defaced in the fall, but it was not removed. It was marred, but it was not obliterated. And hence, suppress it though we might, we can do nothing to ultimately rid ourselves of the tremendous and awesome mark we bear. For as long as we remain in this world we will never be content roaming in Grendel’s wasteland. The light and warmth of Heorot glow in the night, and the din of revelry in the distance beckons us.
The Mead-Hall in the Eschaton
All of that considered, it would be a mistake to conclude that the answer to our modern ills lies in a wholesale return to middle-earth. As enchanting a place it is to visit, our home lies elsewhere, somewhere beyond the Grey Havens and over the sea.3 The value of middle-earth, and the value of the mead-hall, the feasting, the revelry, and the whole Beowulf epic itself and all other stories like it, lies in remembering this fact: all of these things are sacramental realities. That is, they are signs, symbols that point beyond themselves to realities greater, larger, richer, and more real even than the things themselves. They aren’t the home we’ve been searching for, but they point us in the right direction.
And the thing they direct us toward, in this ultimate and sacramental sense, is nothing less than the marriage supper of the Lamb; that great and final feast that will welcome not only those numbered among Beowulf’s kin, but those from every people, nation, tribe, and tongue throughout all ages:
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many
waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the
Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for
the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted
her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’—for the fine linen is the righteous
deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to
the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God.’
This Feast—the Feast to end all feasts—is what finally infuses the mead-hall with its strength and significance, what causes it to resonate with us and stir in us feelings of longing and desire. By itself, the mead-hall is nothing: a quaint image or dusty relic from fairytales that have long since lost their value. But in God’s world, situated within the overarching Story of redemption and new creation in Christ Jesus, the mead-hall is a beautiful and enduring symbol; a reflection, however faint, of the joy that will one day be ours. For in it we hear an echo, an invitation to the communion and fellowship for which we were made. We see glimpses of future glory, and our hearts tremble.
The task that presently faces us, then, is that of repentance. We’ve erected a great number of idols in the modern age and all of them need to fall. But the good news of the gospel is that all of them can fall; all of them can be torn down. God has grace for idolaters. And so, like Gideon of old, we must heed the transcendent call and lay our axe to the root of the tree, to the base of the Asherah pole, and chop away with faith and with fervour. And who knows? Perhaps out of the splinters God will create something solid and lasting, something that less resembles our mangled image and something that more resembles Himself and His infinite glory.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (London, UK: Harper Collins Publishers, 2016), 278.
Beowulf, trans. Michael Alexander, ed. E.V. Rieu, Robert Baldick, Betty Radice (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973), 53.
This is an allusion to the end of The Return of the King. See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (Great Britain, UK: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011), 1030.