Beowulf in Teejop
After he kills the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother, the poem’s hero Beowulf travels back across the sea to the home of the Geats. Fifty years later, he dies defending the Geats from a dragon, in a battle where both hero and monster lose their lives in combat.
At the end of the poem, the Geats carry the hero’s body from the scene of the battle, “Eagle’s Cape,” to “Whale’s Head,” where they bury the body in an earthwork burial mound on the promontory. In the last words of the hero himself in Seamus Heaney’s popular verse translation:
It will loom on the horizon at Hronesness
and be a reminder among my people—
so that in coming times crews under sail
will call it Beowulf’s Barrow, as they steer
ships across the wide and shrouded waters.
The original text of Beowulf was written in Old English, probably at the end of the ninth century. So modern readers generally encounter the poem in modern English translations like Heaney’s. Since its modern rediscovery at the turn of the nineteenth century, the poem has tempted dozens of translators, each with their own style and reading of the poem. In a sense, the poem has as many versions as it has interpreters, and as many geographies as it has scenes of interpretation.
The poem’s great modern editor Frederick Klaeber included in his editions of the poem a detailed map of the poem’s early medieval Scandinavian geography—complete with the parallels and meridians of modern latitude and longitude. Following suit, many modern critics identify the historical site of the iconic hall Heorot as the archaeological site at Lejre (ca. 550) on the island of Zealand in the North Sea (not far from where Klaeber placed Heorot on his map). But few critics pretend to identify the site of the promontory “Whale’s Head” where the hero is buried at the end of the poem.
Needless to say, no modern critics identify the location of the hero’s funeral at the poem’s end as the Four Lakes region of southern Wisconsin called Teejop (day-JOPE) (“Four Lakes”) by the Indigenous Ho-Chunk people. And yet, relations among Beowulf’s Barrow and Teejop are key for beginning to remap the global geography of the early medieval poem and its modern critical history.
Beowulf on Turtle Island
Judging by its unique extant manuscript copy (ca. 1000), the poem’s first readers weren’t medieval, but modern. Rediscovered among Robert Cotton’s manuscript collection at the British Library at the turn of the nineteenth century, early appreciation of the poem in Europe and North America was thoroughly Romantic, nationalist and racist. In the “long nineteenth century” (ca. 1780-1920), the poem was always the “epic” literary embodiment of the “spirit” of the ancient Germanic people, and/or one modern Germanic nation or another.
American revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams imagined themselves modern members of the same ancient Teutonic race of seafarers and berserkers whose spirit the poem supposedly made manifest. Indeed, from the conquest of Indigenous peoples and homelands to the Mexican War, white Americans often imagined themselves the trans-Atlantic avant garde of the early medieval Germanic tribes—the so-called “Anglo-Saxons”—who migrated from the continent to Britain circa 450. Early appreciation of Beowulf in North America was often part of this imaginary imperial genealogy.
One of the poem’s first American readers was Harvard University professor of modern languages Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1838, Longfellow reviewed Beowulf in the North American Review: “It is like a piece of ancient armour; rusty and battered, and yet strong.” The poem is an old, Gothic war-ruin, haunted by ancient spirits of folk heroes, seemingly foreshadowing Longfellow’s own saga of “Viking America,” the ballad “The Skeleton in Armor” (1841). In the same essay, Longfellow also reviewed the famous speech—“then cometh a sparrow”—of an alderman of King Edwin of Northumbria, where he argues the English convert to Christianity (ca. 627). Longfellow likens the early medieval English conversion and the modern conversion of Native Americans: “This brave man spake well; and how like an American India!” The alderman’s speaking is like a Native American’s, the Anglo-Saxon “then and there” being like Indigenous peoples’ “here and now.”
Longfellow also writes, “How much, too, like our Indian names are some of the Anglo-Saxon names, when translated. For example; Ӕthelwulf, The noble wolf; Eadwulf, The prosperous wolf; Ealdwulf, The old wolf; Hundberht, The illustrious hound; Ӕalfheag, Tall as an elf; Dunstan, The mountain stone; Heaburg, The high tower.” On the one hand, white Americans are identifying themselves as “Anglo-Saxons” destined to conquer Indigenous peoples and homelands. On the other hand, the analogy of Anglo-Saxon and Native American rhetorics is part of a general comparison of Anglo-Saxon and Native American histories and cultures across time and space, from ancient Germania to the “Turtle Island” of many Indigenous creation stories of North America.
For white Americans like Longfellow, the comparison of the Anglo-Saxons and Indigenous peoples was a way of imagining that they—the modern “descendants” of the Anglo-Saxons—also belonged “here and now,” as much as or more than Turtle Island’s “medieval,” “barbarian” or “backward” Indigenous peoples. Beowulf’s reception and appropriation in North America were often parts of the same racist evolutionary comparison.
Ho-Chunk Mounds and Beowulf’s Barrow
Over more than two thousand years, the Ho-Chunk people and their ancestors built thousands of effigy and burial mounds in the Four Lakes region of southern Wisconsin, the region being ancestral Ho-Chunk land called Teejop (day-JOPE) (“Four Lakes”), where the Ho-Chunk people have lived and called home since time immemorial. One thousand years ago the region was the center of the Late Woodland effigy-mound culture of southern Wisconsin between the eighth and eleventh centuries, when the region was already the site of numerous groups of one-thousand-year-old burial mounds built by Early and Middle Woodland cultures between 500BCE and 400CE. To paraphrase Ho-Chunk Nation member Samantha Skenandore, the region has always been sacred ground.
White settlers destroyed many of these mounds in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries after they forcibly removed many Ho-Chunk and other First Nations peoples from their homelands in Wisconsin in the early nineteenth century. The public land-grant University of Wisconsin-Madison where I’ve had the privilege of studying Old English poetry occupies stolen ancestral Ho-Chunk land on the shores of Lakes Mendota and Wingra. On campus are multiple effigy mound groups built by the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk people in the region between 700CE and 1100CE. Many other mound groups were destroyed during the construction of the university campus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the “long nineteenth century,” medieval studies was an important touchstone for antiquarian and archaeological study of Indigenous mounds and the peoples who built them. Antiquarians and archaeologists often compared Indigenous mounds to mounds of classical and medieval history and literature, including the tomb of the hero Beowulf at the end of the Old English poem. At the time many amateurs and scholars alike denied Indigenous mounds were the works of First Nations peoples. Some writers identified Indigenous mounds as the works of Phoenicians, Israelites, Hindus, Welsh, or Norse Vikings. These racist theories closely participated in white settler dispossessions and erasures of First Nations peoples and cultures, including strategies of forced removal and cultural genocide. Today they remain critical parts of ongoing histories of whiteness, Anglo-Saxonism, medieval studies, and white settler colonialism.
In 1867, State Historical Society of Wisconsin member George Gale compared the Four Lakes region’s Ho-Chunk mounds to the tombs of Hector in book six of Virgil’s Aeneid and the hero Beowulf at the end of the Old English poem. He also compared the “mound builders” to Ancient Greeks and identified them as members of a “lost people” replaced by the “dusky savage.” For antiquarians and archaeologists like Gale, the mounds were more closely related to Beowulf’s Barrow than they were to the Ho-Chunk people. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century that many antiquarians and archaeologists recognized the Ho-Chunk people and their ancestors as the peoples who built the mounds. No legal protections for Indigenous mounds on private lands across the state existed until 1985, and legal protections remain precarious today but for the activism of Ho-Chunk and other First Nations peoples of Wisconsin, for whom those mounds that survive remain sacred sites.
Beowulf in Teejop
Although the center of early medieval English studies in the United States was on the east coast (where Thomas Jefferson successfully advocated for the teaching of Old English as part of the essential mission of the University of Virginia), the first American translation of the poem was completed at the University of Wisconsin, on the lakeshores of Teejop. Indeed, the poem’s first translation project was steeped in white settler colonialism, which shouldn’t be a complete surprise, if we recognize the poem’s appreciation in North America was always part of a complex network of investments in white Anglo-Saxonism and stolen land.
Stephen Haskins Carpenter was the first professor of English literature at the University of Wisconsin where he taught Old and Middle English. He published the popular introductory text An Introduction to the Study of Anglo-Saxon in 1875. His plain, prose translation of Beowulf was his last work before he died in 1878. But unfortunately he died before he could publish his translation, and so the first American translation of the poem was published by University of Virginia professor of English literature James Mercer Garnett in 1882. Because Carpenter’s translation was never published, it’s absent from histories of the poem’s reception and white Anglo-Saxonism in North America. (Carpenter’s manuscript remains unpublished at the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.) Reconsidering and reimagining Beowulf in Teejop recontextualizes and reorients the poem’s modern critical history, specifically in light of white settler colonialism and white settler research, including comparison, folklore, antiquarianism, archaeology, and private/public land law.
Although white settlers forcibly removed many Ho-Chunk and other First Nations peoples from their homelands in Wisconsin in the early nineteenth century, forced removals and Indigenous resistance continued in the state as late as 1874. The same year, University of Wisconsin professor of Scandinavian studies Rasmus Born Anderson published the popular book America not Discovered by Columbus: A Historical Sketch of the Discovery of America by the Norsemen, in the Tenth Century (1874), dedicated to none other than his good friend and colleague Stephen Haskins Carpenter: “whose friendship and sympathy have been a comfort to me in the line of studies that I have pursed.”
In the chapter “Antiquity of America,” Anderson wrote: “We can show mounds, monuments, and inscriptions, that point to periods, the contemplation of which would make Chronos himself grow giddy; yet among all these great and often impressive memorials there is no monument, mound, or inscription that solves satisfactorily the mystery of their origin.” This kind of racist denial of the origins of Indigenous mounds like the Four Lakes region’s Ho-Chunk mounds closely participated in white settler dispossessions and erasures of Indigenous peoples, like the forced removals of 1874, the same year as Anderson’s book’s publication.
Four years later, when Carpenter translated the scene of the hero’s funeral at the end of the Old English poem, he identified Beowulf’s Barrow as a “mound on the hill.” He wrote: “It was high and broad, far to be seen by the wave-farers, and built in ten days, the beacon of the battle famed.” Of course I’m not trying to say Carpenter translates Beowulf’s Barrow as a Ho-Chunk mound, or vice versa, or that he relocates the hero’s funeral in Teejop. Rather, Carpenter’s translation refracts the poem’s modern critical history in a way where we can begin to analyze and retrace the landscape of attachments sketched here among the poem and white “Anglo-Saxon” settler colonialism and related white settler research, from ancient Germania to the lakeshores of Teejop.
Beowulf in Teejop, then, represents a literary and cultural ecology where the Old English poem shares space with ongoing histories of white “Anglo-Saxon” settler colonialism and related research. At the same time, it also represents a critical terrain where Indigenous and decolonial histories and knowledge may begin to interrupt and interrogate the dominant white “Anglo-Saxon” settler colonialism of the poem’s North American reception and appropriation.
Finally, Beowulf in Teejop or on Turtle Island challenges white settler medievalists like myself (occupying ancestral Ho-Chunk homeland of Teejop and on Turtle Island) to ask: “what does it mean to practice medieval studies, and what may it mean to practice medieval studies otherwise, here in this place?”
Featured image: Wingra Woods Effigy Mound in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Richard Hurd, 2012.
Maxwell Gray is a medievalist graduate student at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. His current creative research project is a digital documentary poetry project called MOUNDS. Contact. Website. Twitter.
Project research and development take place at the Wisconsin Historical Society Library and Archives and University of Wisconsin—Madison. Both institutions occupy ancestral Ho-Chunk land called Teejop (day-JOPE) (“Four Lakes”), where the Ho-Chunk people have lived and called home since time immemorial. Indeed, both institutions were founded upon exclusions and erasures of the Ho-Chunk and other Indigenous peoples. Today, the Ho-Chunk and other Indigenous peoples continue to have a special connection to the region’s land and water, and to resist white settler colonialism and conquest in the state.