Beowulf displays to us three things related to virtuous living: 1) natural magnanimity; 2) the craft of a scribe; and 3) the futility of this life as shown best at the day of ashes.
On the first, natural magnanimity, I am talking of that particular way of life which men honored highly before the Incarnation and which loses its luster more and more over time. Augustine shows its weakness in Civitas Dei when he comments on the Stoics’ mockery of the Epicureans in the description of the illustrious virtues arranged in the majesty of the court of the soul, and on the throne of the soul sits the fat, slovenly Mistress Pleasure, to which these nobles minister and serve. Augustine then says how ludicrous it is that on this throne should sit instead the effeminate and preening Master Vainglory. And it is this vainglory which motivates the highest of men to the highest and most painful of actions beside the pure motive of charity, which is love of God. This also is what the pagan culture of America holds up after their examples of Rome and Greece, having rejected the Kingdom of Christ in the Catholic Church and, with it, all three of the supernatural virtues. This via Calvinism, which makes Heaven and hell seem such secure attainments for those on Earth that there is no need for the achievements of supernatural virtue, and all that remains is to bide time and earn a living.
Well, in America, our heroes (that is, sons of Hera, the Great Harlot) are those who make such great sacrifices and risk body and soul to, for instance, prosper a business, so that their name may live on (this is the shallow immortality promised and delivered by vainglory before the end). This high and admirable way of life is marked also by a fleeting dependence on God. The Romans would turn to the philosophers if they had the spare moment; the Americans go somewhere on the day of the sun to worship and account for themselves. In desperation, too, both cry out to their gods, but they in ignorance do not know the King and Queen of our hearts, and might often have the opportunity to learn of Them, by the recurrence of divine mercy.
Well, in the same way but much better, are the barbarians which were converted to Catholicism. This is shown minutely in the character of Beowulf. They know their God, they call upon Him, they attribute to Him the high things, and they reap their glories as well. In fact, all the tale could be considered as a wondrous portrayal of that naturally high and masculine soul of mankind and its repeated invitations in the course of the activities proper to it, to learn the love of God and put it upon the throne. The life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola might be proposed as the simplest example of the conversion of this type of soul.
Craft of a Scribe
The second thing which Beowulf displays is the craft of a scribe, who our Lord says is like the keeper of a house, bringing out furnishings and things of beauty new and old. This is considerate of the author of Beowulf rather than the characters, and of its antiquity, and of its composition and history. The art of a novel, in which I am intimately involved, is a very new and very rotten art which has its origins in the spurning of God’s Church. For there was always hagiography, that is, Lives of the Saints, which is a part of Sacred Tradition according to the Baltimore Catechism. Then the fools who began the Protestant Revolution said for the first time that no one is perfect or should try to be, and so they pretended these Lives did not exist, as the moderns pretend that medieval history does not exist, because of the records of miracles. But men need distinguished examples of how to live, and so the biography was invented. The novel, being fiction, is the artist’s free treatment of the life of ordinary men, which is why it is marked so much with vulgarity and immodesty. I have done this wretched art as I have described. And I also say that the Life of Jesus is the epitome of this pursuit, and it might easily be seen how even He is interpreted as ordinary in all respects until His Resurrection, which is untenable.
But the art of fiction is ancient and contained in poetics. I have attempted this purer art. And before hagiography, there was always the study of great men, without a care for ordinary men or children or anything shared in common and easily understood, but only the distinguishments of greatness. These poets asked themselves, it seems, why anyone would care to hear these stories. Plutarch answers this in the beginning of his Lives, which is of pagan fascination to Americans and fits within what I have said in the first point.
And so, if we imagine the author of Beowulf asking himself that question, in a time when men sought to banish idleness and only do godly things with godly thoughts at all times, then we come to the third point, which is the futility of this life in this pompous world.
The Futility of This Life
This point is seen from the author unto the characters and the reader in the person of the besot king speaking after the great triumph in Beowulf against the sea hag. For at this time, it might be expected that, as would be the case in any pagan tale, there would be a great exultation and even declaration of immortality or omnipotence which is the reward of vainglory and is seen in the reputation of a man. But this is a good Catholic tale, and at this very time, the king, rooted in the truth of the only True Religion and also the Natural Law shown him by experience, reminds Beowulf of the slime from which he was made and the inevitability that he should return to it. This sort of thing is why prophets are slaughtered.
But it is perfect for those who see the soul over and above the body. Like the author, who has composed this tale out of phantasms in his mind with resemblance to reality that are actually abstractions of it, purifications of water with dust removed so that the truth can be seen, for this is the craft of poetics.
And after the battle of bodies, anyone could see that it is God Who grants victory, except perhaps that one who received it. And he might fall now by pride. And so the wise father, his friend, assists him. And this is what makes Beowulf true and profitable, because it shows the greatest strength of men and then the truth of man: Of ashes you have come, and to ashes you will return.
And Beowulf, in the midst of this, has wisdom as is shown us. So do not hear me as cautioning against magnanimity or grandeur or earthly reward. God makes all things new, and the giver of rings who has discovered the best response to riches, gives this wisdom and finds it already present in the one whom God has given strength, who knows his own weakness, and continually looks to his own death.
Perhaps that is why Beowulf came. He is looking to see where God might spend his life for His glory. That is the just sacrifice of all men. Whatever you might have, you offer it to God in the simplest way possible. This is seen best in Saint Christopher, whose hermitage was a raging river over which he might bear weak travelers, because he was tall and strong. And the reward is the same as with Beowulf: a greater service to be offered more approximate to Christ. For Beowulf became a king and died in a later feat of the same sacrifice. It is like Saint Louis, who died in a later Crusade under the same privations.
Thus is the sudden ending of this essay. Pray for me.