I’ve been fascinated by the funerals in Beowulf and specifically the funeral of Beowulf, as recorded in the famous epic Anglo-Saxon poem. The funerals punctuate the poem and configure its storyline. Beowulf’s burning and barrow-burial conclude his life and the story.
Equally though, I’ve also been captivated by how ill-equipped early medieval linguistic and literary specialists have been in attempting interpretations of its funerals, in and of themselves, as parts of the story as a whole and early medieval cultures and society. This might be in part because few of them have archaeological and historical training or read/listen to archaeologists and historians regarding our knowledge of real-world early medieval funerary practices. Partly also it could be because early medieval archaeologists and historians have themselves either discounted the poetic representations of open-air pre-Christian funerals as anything from mere whimsy to direct fossilisations of pre-Christian elite mortuary theatrics, without any careful consideration of mortuary theory or indeed the detail of what we do now know about variability in early medieval mortuary data.
Against this somewhat dismal and messy background, I feel all early medieval disciplines have failed to actively and creatively engage with the potential of visual representations to critically research with, and educate with, the funerals of Beowulf.
I’m therefore very sympathetic when it comes to popular translators and creatives attempting to negotiate the early medieval text for new audiences since often they’ve had to work without any useful academic guidance. Where do they go for inspiration and ideas regarding the significance of the funerals as well as how they operated in technological and ritual terms? While I don’t forgive it, I can understand why many do not bother to link their renditions to early medieval archaeological and historical frameworks for understand death, burial and commemoration, preferring instead to work in an fantastical realm conflating Norse mythology and legend with fantasy medievalisms. At one level, this is fine. After all, Beowulf was nothing if not a fabulous story to be told as a performance in a hall recalling legendary deeds of heroes living centuries earlier. Furthermore, many do not consider in any detailed way may how these funerals operated at all. Yet I do feel this is a vein of missed opportunities for scholars, educators, artists and entertainers alike.
In this blog-post I wish to evaluate 7 comic books that retell the story of Beowulf and how they choose to represent his funeral. I will firstly evaluate them in relation to the poem itself, and then reflect separately on their relationship with what we understand about the variability and complexity of early medieval mortuary practices, focusing especially on cremation and barrow-burial. I hope this exercise will be instructive regarding how different non-experts approach the poem and its death rituals, and how scholars might be missing key understandings of the poem and communicating them outside the academy. Furthermore, we can consider how these comic renditions might serve to assist in our public engagement and education, as well as prompting us to consider how future comic versions of Beowulf might do different and better versions of the funerals.
The spatiality and materiality of Beowulf’s funeral
Let me sketch in order of mention, details of Beowulf’s funeral as recorded in the poem but rearranged to make sense in regards to a linear sequence of practical actions following the death of the king and his retainers encountering the scene:
At the dragon’s barrow where Beowulf dies, Wiglaf commands the funeral to be arranged:
- The dying Beowulf commands Wiglaf to build a mound on Whale’s Ness ‘after the blaze’ (implying or assuming the choice of cremation) as a reminder to his people and so seafarers will afterward call it ‘Beowulf’s Barrow’;
- The dragon’s hoard is determined to be dedicated to Beowulf’s funeral: it is destined for the dead king: not for the living;
- A bier is called for to take the king’s body to the pyre-site;
- champions (i.e. specifically warriors) are tasked to collect firewood from ‘afar’;
- seven best thanes are directed to go with one bearing a torch into the barrow;
- they drag out the 50-foot-long dragon and shove its body over the sea-cliff ;
- they collect the treasure from the dragon’s hoard within the barrow and place it on a wagon to be taken to Whale’s Ness – it is unclear the distances involved for the cortege;
We now hear of the burning of Beowulf on Whale’s Ness:
- A pyre is built with helmets, shields and mail-shirts displayed around it (implicitly these are not items from the dragon’s hoard);
- A Geatish woman sings an elegy with her hair unbound as the flames rise;
We then learn of the building of Beowulf’s barrow;
- Onto the pyre-site, rings and brooches, are placed, items from the dragon’s hoard;
- A mound is made on Whale’s Ness on top of the pyre-site over ten days;
- The mound was surrounded with a ‘wall’;
- 12 warriors ride around the mound singing laments;
- Beowulf’s mound endures as a landmark on the promontory, visible to mariners, conforming to Beowulf’s dying wishes.
So, the funeral of Beowulf concluding the poem involves three clear stages: the death and preparations for the funeral, the burning of Beowulf, and the building of Beowulf’s burial mound on a headland.
Beowulf’s funeral thus involves three monuments: (i) the dragon’s barrow with its hoard of treasure where he dies, (ii) his own pyre as an ‘ephemeral monument’, and (iii) the mound surrounded by a wall built on a sea promontory over the pyre. It also involves at least two sets of material cultures. A range of weapons and armour brought from among the Geatish people are afforded to Beowulf as pyre-goods. Meanwhile, as a separate set of acts, the dragon’s treasure is placed on top of his cremains as grave-goods, interred within the mound within the ‘wall’.
How and to what extent are these elements conveyed in comic renditions of the Beowulf poem? The date-foci on 2007/2008 relate to the release in 2007 of the animated film Beowulf yet the seven considered here reveal trends and traditions in representing Beowulf’s cremation and barrow-burial in late 20th-century/early 21st-century popular culture. I’d be keen to learn of more!
Beowulf burns 1: Beowulf by Jerry Bingham (1984)
Jerry Bingham’s 1984 Beowulf ends with Beowulf’s death with Wiglaf in attendance. There is no hint of his funeral which in traditional comic terms might be seen as too morbid and surplus to requirements. It simply ends with the words ‘his soul went forth from his flesh’. Very disappointing from an archaeological perspective, but hardly surprising to end with Beowulf’s death after Wiglaf shared the treasure with him, rather than in solemn ceremony mourned by the Geatish people when the dragon is shown living in a cave and Beowulf wears a horned helmet. There is no effort at all attempted in regards to showing an early medieval world as we know it from archaeological evidence: this is a later medieval dragons and fantasy Beowulf.
Beowulf burns 2: Beowulf – Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary (2008)
We next move on to Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s comic which provided the parallel to the aforementioned film. Here, a dramatic funeral is featured, inspired very much by Norse mythology and the 1958 film The Vikings. For in stark contrast to the original poem, Beowulf is burned on a Viking longship heading through a sea arch from which fire is poured onto the boat. Thus his funeral mashes up that of Scyld Scefing and Beowulf in the poem with Hollywood visions of Viking death ritual. This is a different but hammy and heavily over-adapted version of the tale. The saving grace is at least that Beowulf is afforded a funeral with lavish pyre-goods and a sword and mourned with laments by a large crowd. A night time or dusk context emphasises the fiery conflagration. Most importantly, despite the stark contrast with the poem in terms of the context and character of the funeral, and the lack of a landward process and burial mound, at least something of a funerary process is represented spread over 4 panels and a sea promontory association is maintained. Still, overall not at all good in regards to the way the funeral is represented in the original poem.
Beowulf burns 3: Beowulf – Santiago Garcia and David Rubin (2016)
We stay on a burning boat – and this a blend of Scyld Scefing and Beowulf’s funerals – for Garcia and Rubin’s version. Nothing of the topographical context is alluded to, so this is in fact somewhat worse than Gaiman and Avary in this regard. Still, Beowulf is again given a weapon although other treasures and pyre-goods are not represented. What is great about this version is that Beowulf is burned not in a single image or page, but through a sequence with three double-page spreads, each of which parallels the mourners with the fate of Beowulf’s body. Each sequence is ‘bound together’ by the funeral lament across the centre of the page. This is superb in showing the funerary process.
Therefore, story above where Wiglaf chastises the shirkers and foretelling the Geat’s doom, the funeral lament, and the scenes of the funeral itself punctuate a total of 20 panels over 6 pages. Even if nothing resembles the poem beyond the public nature of the funeral and the cremation of the hero, at least this sense of conflagration and transformation at night/dusk is powerful and evocative. I particularly like the focus on the fire throughout until all is gone. The night time context allows red-against-black to be the pervasive frames of reference as the despair and doom of the Geats is foretold.
The public nature of the funeral and its acoustic elements are apparent. Sadly, however, given the choice to place Beowulf on a boat embarking out over the waves like Scyld, and burning like Balder, we have nothing of the headland and the barrow.
I commend this version for its detail and sequence, but it is simply too far removed from anything in the poem to be awarded a high score!
Beowulf burns 4: Beowulf: Monster Slayer. A British Legend – Paul D Storrie and Ron Randall (2008)
This version of Beowulf is far more faithful to the poem in its structure and in general terms the material culture looks far closer to an early medieval world. Only a single panel encapsulates the funeral and this is a back-step compared with the versions above in many regards. However, I afford it greater marks for choosing a land-based cremation on a headland overlooking the sea. The relationship with the dragon’s mound is not shown, nor is the cortege, or the mound of Beowulf himself. The pyre is atrocious and would never burn the body at all. Also, where are the pyre-good including weapons as described in the poem? Still, in terms of a public setting and an appropriate topographical context, it deserves credit as the final image of the story. Moreover, the text indicates Beowulf’s wish for a barrow to be raised for him, and the text subsequently implies this wish will be fulfilled and in order for everyone to remember his deeds.
Beowulf burns 5: Beowulf by Gareth Hinds (1999)
Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf deserves to be given credit in that the text indicates Beowulf will be burnt, but oddly claims that nothing will the burned with him! The absence of a funerary scene is disappointing but made up for in two panels. First, there is a display of the tail of the dead dragon beside the sea with a collection of Beowulf’s weapons and armour: a powerful evocation of his death. There is a second and unique positive: a tomb of Beowulf is represented. Hinds interprets Beowulf as requesting the construction of a ‘lofty cairn’ and has Beowulf regarding it as a ‘memorial forever’ and for mariners to regard as ‘The barrow of Beowulf, King of the Geats’.
What is shown is odd and against anything archaeologically known, mashing up the poems reference of a ‘wall’ with the choice to make the ‘barrow’ a ‘cairn’. The result looks like the vestiges of a Scottish broch, presumably interpreting the ‘wall’ in which the treasure is heaped as literally a dry stone wall!
Still, this is welcome and interesting in an attempt to represent Beowulf’s tomb as a long-enduring (and now dilapidated) built ‘ruin’, reflecting the ‘wall’ mentioned in the poem as built around the pyre-site/mound. This is odd, confused but distinctive, and so while the funeral isn’t represented, I want to commend the attention to materiality, monumentality and topography.
Beowulf burns 6: Beowulf – Stefan Petrucha and Kody Chamberlain (2007)
The preference for night time cremation returns. There is little about Beowulf’s intentions or the meaning and significance of the funeral, the pyre is shown as modest and lacking any detail, but decked with weapons. Each corner bears a torch, which is an interesting touch. There seem to be no pyre-goods upon the pyre, and the corpse, as with all others, is left exposed on top.
Still, a sense of funerary process is rendered: the burning is shown over 4 panels leading to ascent, with the text evoking the mystery of his soul’s destination, akin to the original poem’s reflection on the destination of Scyld Scefing. I give it high marks since it is the only pyre that approaches being plausible among those discussed thus far.
Sadly, there is no hint regarding the scale of the audience, the topographical context, relationship with the dragon’s mound and Beowulf’s mound built over the pyre site.
Beowulf burns 7: Beowulf – the Graphic Novel – Stephen L. Stern, Christopher Steininger and Chris Studabaker (2007)
We end with the best of all in terms of representing the processes and sequence of Beowulf’s funeral as described in the Anglo-Saxon poem. Oddly, the treasure is taken and distributed among the living rather than consigned to the dead. However, we are shown the transportation of the treasure away from the dragon’s mound: something no other version attempts. Moreover, the disposal of the dragon over the sea cliff is depicted, again unique among the comics. The construction of the pyre also represented and framed by three spears and some kind of ceremonial staff. Therefore, it is rendered something of an ephemeral monument unlike other depictions. Implausibly, however, it is sown made of dry stones. Then a sequence of four panels show Wiglaf leading the public cremation of the pyre. Next, Beowulf burns
While the topographical context of the cremation itself is obscure, the striking night time display of cremation is vivid and evocative.
Finally, the burial mound is represented on top of a sea cliff: the only comic to show this in any way ‘right’ akin to the poem. The treasure/identity of Beowulf laying beneath the mound is implied by the helmet, akin to that from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, looming above.
Together with Gaiman and Avary, it is the only representation suggesting the presence of women and children at the funeral.
In short, a true sense of the transportation of the treasure out of the dragon’s barrow, the construction of the pyre, the disposal of the dragon and the commemoration of the pyre-site with a barrow for Beowulf. For these reasons, this is by far the best in regards to referencing the events recorded in the poem.
It is clear from these comics that the funeral is considered a serious and established stage of the story’s conclusion. Beowulf’s funeral is portrayed in most (5/7) versions. Beyond that, they each approach it with different ideas and take it in a variety of very different directions. In doing so, few show any specific early medieval themes or indications they have considered specific accounts from early medieval archaeological and historical sources.
In no cases is the transportation of Beowulf’s body represented or the relationship between the dragon’s mound and Beowulf’s pyre-site and barrow shown. Likewise, there is no attempt to show the important acts described in which warriors are tasked with retrieving the treasure from within the mound, transporting the dragon’s carcass, or collecting firewood from far away to build Beowulf’s pyre on the headland.
In only one case is the treasure shown transported from the dragon’s lair and in this instance it is wrongly taken to a nearby settlement for distribution among the people. In only one case is the disposal of the dragon’s carcass shown.
Cremation takes place implausibly and inaccurately on a boat in two cases, and the remaining 3 landward pyres are inadequate in their form and composition. Strikingly, in only a minority of instances (3/7) are pyre-goods represented as part of the funeral pyre.
In no cases are the dragon’s treasures shown as being buried in the mound: this is most strange and counters the poem.
Most interesting of all, none of the representations show a woman or women mourning and lamenting the dead man whilst his pyre burns on land, as described in the poem, although laments are shown in two cases as his burning boat travels out to sea.
No attempt is made to show the 10-day construction of the mound and riders encircling it once completed and lamenting. Indeed, the burial mound is mentioned in most, but only represented twice (2/7) and only once as a mound of earth akin to later prehistoric and early medieval funerary monuments. Still, both imply an enduring landmark passing down the ages, honouring Beowulf’s name and deeds.
Only Stern, Steininger and Studabaker produce a sequence of images that evoke aspects of the early medieval poem with any detailed care and attention. And here, they still misunderstand the trajectories of the pyre-goods and grave-goods associated with Beowulf’s burning and burial and choose to distribute the treasure to the common folk instead of consigning it to the barrow.
Evaluating them in archaeological and historical terms is easy – with the exception of the representation of a version of the Sutton Hoo helmet in Stern et al., none of these comics show any informed engagement with the rich archaeological data at our disposal, and with other early medieval historical sources. These graphic novels are operating free of historical and archaeological moorings and material inspirations for the funerals and only attempting to render fragments what the poem described.
Does this matter? The poem Beowulf itself represents a fragmented and somewhat confusing sequence in relation to what we know of the variable and complex funerals involving the cremation of the dead and mound-building in early medieval northern Europe. Evaluating its relationship with other archaeological and historical sources is, however, a matter for another place. Still, I would contend it has no single and precise real-world parallel in text or material evidence. Yet our knowledge of high-status mortuary performances of the late 6th to 10th centuries AD in North West Europe has grown immeasurably in the last century, and there are many exciting ways in which Beowulf’s funeral can now be considered as inspired by these traditions. There is also a host of ways we should re-evaluate the relationship between the poem and performances that happened in the early medieval past to better inform each other. Sadly, the fixation with parallels with Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 have repeatedly detracted scholars from that task!
It is clear that no attempt has been made in the comic medium of displaying the funeral as described in the poem, let alone draw on the rich archaeological and historical data which is available. This is worthwhile reflecting on in terms of the broader lack of critical attention to Beowulf’s funeral in both scholarly literature and public engagement more broadly. The funeral of Beowulf is instead made to transcend and escape our surviving Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythologies, legends and other literatures, capturing our imagination but through a stylised and anachronistic set of fantasy medieval tropes in which the body is laid bare for all to see on a ship or pyre, and the fire/smoke mark the end of the funeral. I aware higher marks to those that make an effort to show something of the process, topography, conflagration and monumentality of the funeral as described in the original poem.
The potential is there, however and these 7 examples show this clearly! The comic medium is powerful and versatile, and I look forward to seeing many further future Beowulf Burnings and Beowulf’s barrows which adopt other perspectives, both those truer to the original poem, and those that embark on fresh directions and experimentations in dialogue with our early medieval evidence, and those that create new fantastical funerals taking their cues from other genres and concepts linked to present-day and futuristic funerals.
This all further justifies a palpable and distinctive project of creating a comic that attempts to show the funeral as the poem describes it for educational and research purposes. Perhaps such an endeavour could show some of the scenes not shown, the roles of children and women, strangers and mariners, in encountering the funeral and the barrow? Could such versions show things unmentioned in the poem but we know from the archaeological record, such as the sacrifice of animals, or funerary feasting near the burial mound? Could such efforts attempt to show the collecting of pyre materials, the true scale of an elite funerary pyre, and the deposition of pyre-goods in a convincing manner and/or the deposition of treasure over the remains of the pyre. The construction of the mound and the performances of mourners to honour the dead could also be shown. Perhaps alternative funerary sequences could be created to explore different versions of how the poem departs from, and intersects with, early medieval historical and archaeological data.
In short, such endeavours could form the basis for both discussions regarding the significance and character of Beowulf’s funeral in the context of the poem, and in its broader historical and archaeological context in early medieval Europe. Indeed, it could be readily set alongside other comics that aim to reconstruct other important early medieval funerary processes as revealed by archaeological evidence, from the cremations found at Sancton and Spong Hill to the ‘princely’ burial mounds of Sutton Hoo!
As my work with John G. Swogger clearly shows, comics are a powerful medium for communicating stories about the early medieval past. Their importance for discussions for debating necro-medievalisms has only being to be addressed. In reviewing them, it is perhaps less important what they get ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, as opposed to considering what conversations they prompt and what insights they afford regarding the poem and the various worlds it continues to operate within.