So I finally polished off The Further Adventures of Beowulf recently, and while I couldn’t bring myself to get through that horrible John Earle prose translation that I bitched about last week, the other short stories featured in the compilation were quite enjoyable, but the way everything was tied together absolutely sold the anthology for me.
In between the short stories were these interludes, short excerpts of only a page or so each set in Oxford in 1934. A nameless Oxford don, one noted for his scholarship on the Beowulf poem, is approached by another man with several fragments of the “authentic” four short stories that make up the anthology, tales that are continuations of Beowulf’s adventures in between his slaying of Grendel’s mother and his heroic death by dragon. It’s a great metadiscursive thread linking all the disparate tales together, but the best part is the conclusion.
It turns out that the man seeking the aid and opinion of the scholar happens to be Guy Burgess, a notorious Cold War-era Soviet spy that worked for the BBC and MI5 during the 1930s and 1940s. The story implies that Burgess was already acting as a spy during that time, but for the Nazis, and he was sounding out to the scholar to determine if he was sympathetic to the cause of Germanic supremacy due to the interest in Beowulf as having a possible use in Aryan propaganda.
Not only that, but a touch of the supernatural is thrown in that made me grin. As Burgess leaves off from his unsuccessful recruitment campaign – the professor unequivocally shoots him down by blatantly declaring he has no interest or desire to further Aryan ideals – he goes over in his head the things he was shown by his handlers before being set out on his quest:
He recalled the first time he was shown the mummified arm, the claws blackened by age, the feral skin leathered and tan. Truly monstrous. Whether it was really real was for other judges. The benefactors had an interest in such matters of the occult . . . that and a weakness for Oxford scholars.
In what could possibly be a nod to the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, the fictional Burgess implies that the Third Reich had discovered the withered remains of Grendel’s arm, once hung above in the rafters of Heorot as a trophy of Beowulf’s triumph over that grisly, monstrous malefactor. Even if you’re not familiar with the BPRD, almost everyone’s seen Raiders of the Lost Ark or watched a few hours of the History Channel, and Hitler’s interest in the occult has become well known in popular culture (though I don’t think those Korean Nazi cosplayers know this).
But the paranormal hits keep on coming. Burgess (who was a notorious alcoholic) heads off to the local pub for a few pints to drown his sorrows in failing in his task before departing to London, resolves to call it quits with his benefactors, saying that all this Barbarossa business is more or less far and beyond his interests. Now, most people hear Barbarossa and immediately think of Operation Barbarossa, the doomed Nazi plan to invade the Soviet Union during World War II, but the name itself has more ancient resonance than just Hitler’s insatiable need to send his soldiers to freeze to death on the steppes of Mother Russia.
Of course, Hitler named the invasion after one of the most charismatic and legendary Germanic rulers of the 12th century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick von Hohenstaufen. He became known as Frederick Barbarossa due to his fearless campaigns to conquer Northern Italy. Not only that, but his ferocity in battle was matched by his ability to maneuver in the Balkanized political landscape of Germany at the time, where he may have been outmatched and outnumbered at first but somehow managed to consolidate his power and restore Imperial authority in the region. He was an obvious role-model for Hitler, and his status as a legend in German mythology and folklore has elevated to the level of a slumbering, deathless champion of Germany who will rise again in order to lead the German people to victory and primacy, like a Teutonic King Arthur.
Barbarossa’s cultural hold on the Germans was so deeply ingrained that when the Prussian Empire rose to power in the 1800s, many felt that Kaiser Wilhelm I was Frederick reincarnated. In fact, the theme was immortalized in the stone of the Kyffhäuser Monument, which features prominent depictions of both Barbarossa and Wilhelm, with the overall feeling at the time that Wilhelm had taken up the fallen banner with the Second Reich.
Hitler, of course, wanted to hitch his wagon to this particularly bellicose and jingoistic star by naming the opening of the Soviet front after Barbarossa, as he wanted the Third Reich to see him as the next logical step after Wilhelm. There was a problem with this, though, an ironic twist that is kind of funny in light of good old Uncle Adolf‘s ultimate failure as a self-styled emperor: Barbarossa met a particularly ignoble end.
The great leader of the Germanic people drowned in a river when he stopped for a drink. He had committed a massive army to the Third Crusade – one he had decided to lead personally – but even after years and years of working tirelessly to unite his people and to invade his neighbors for some Holy Roman Imperial lebensraum, he was too daft to not take off his armor before stooping down and tumbling into the river. Weighed down with all that iron and steel, he died, and his soldiers shipped him back to Germany in a pickle barrel to preserve his remains. I guess it beats shooting yourself in the head in a bombed-out bunker. Poor little emo dictator.
All these connotations and allusions are just jam-packed into these little interludes inside The Further Adventures of Beowulf. Of course, an even better ending note would be the last words the Oxford don has with Burgess before sending him off: the nice old bloke had moved past Beowulf and was working on another project instead, and had in fact just been picked up by a publisher. Burgess scoffed, figuring that in the coming years, who would remember the author of a simple children’s book?