Arthurian Annotations: ‘Once And Future’ #7 – #9 And A Look At Beowulf And The Sutton Hoo Treasure

by Oliver MacNamee

You’ll have to accept my apologies for slipping somewhat with the regularity of our ‘Arthurian Annotations’ which takes a deeper dive in to some of the source material informing Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain and Ed Dukeshire. But, there has been a certain pandemic gripping the globe to worry about firstly before anyone can even consider the luxuries of comic book reading.

But, in many cites in the US and here in the UK comics are being distributed more frequently and while we are a long way from returning to any previous definitions of normal, we’re getting there. 

So, with the introduction of one of the most famous Old English literary heroes, Beowulf, in Once and Future #7, as well as references to the famous Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo treasure that every British school pupil learns about at some point, I thought it was high time to encourage you once more to dig deeper, like some sort of literary archeologist, and find the true treasures that lie below the foundations of this fantastic fantasy series.

In the epic poem, Beowulf, dating back to the late 10th/early 11th century, one witnesses not only a prime example of the archetypal hero – as written about by the likes of Vladmir Propp and later Joseph Campbell – but you also get a hero’s quest in three parts, with Beowulf growing odder and weaker with each new adventure. In beating Grendel off from the societal community hall of Hrothgar, King of the Danes, Beowulf is young with a strength worthy of such a legendary hero and makes quick work of his most famous foe, before turning on Grendel’s mother, rightfully out for revenge for her son’s death. But, as an older man and now King of the Swedes  he once more takes up arms, only this time it will be his third and final battle and with a dragon which he finds harder to kill and who mortally wounds our hero in their battle together. No longer the younger man he was. In this story you have all 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey effortlessly on show. It’s a poem I have often used in teaching this very subject to pupils. And, a reminder that stories link us on a level no-one really every considers. Stories that have been told orally through generation after generation, separately in the various cultures of the world, and that all follow a very similar pattern has always fascinated me. Myths, legends and fairy tales that were created and passed on unaware that across the world similar stories were also being told. Separated by continents, time and cultures, yet all part of a bigger, collective conscience, with culturally appropriate heroes, villains, mentors, donors and other identified archetypes, but all sharing more in common that binds them, and therefor humanity. This is rather amazing when you really think about it and further proof, through the stories we have always told, that we are intrinsically connected. Far out, or what, man?

Here, Gillen rightfully resurrects a Beowulf at the height of his youthfulness and primed with a strength only such heroes possess. Beowulf follows in the footsteps of other such archetypes, Theseus from Greek mythology, or Hercules, or even King Arthur who predates Beowulf by a few hundred years.

As for the Sutton Hoo treasure? It has been the source of so much research and learning around our ancient past, giving us a view into the past and has allowed us to piece together a great deal of this Anglo-Saxon era of Britain’s history, from the every day to the more artistic endeavours of these people. A history that seems to be at the roots of this series, so worth checking out for yourselves. 

Th resting place of an unknown great warrior (probably the East-Anglian king, King Rædwald), buried within a long boat (which has since rotted away) and surrounded by treasures and artefacts of the day and pressed until it was unearthed in 1939.

The Anglo-Saxon helmet Duncan comes across in Once and Future #7, the resurrection of Beowulf at the Sutton Hoo site (although, that is at odds with Beowulf’s true resting place, but all stories are malleable and ripe for remixing or rethinking, as Gillen seems to be exploring in this series), it all adds to the story Gillen is unfolding in each issue. But, it is also a treasure that many associate with the foreign invaders of the Angles and the Saxons who invaded and settled in the south-east of England and to became the Anglo-Saxons. And, these people would have been seen as the enemies of England, according to this xenophobic version of King Arthur, not allies as our more demonic looking once and future king seems to be happy with. Arthur’s been gone many centuries, but his attitudes, unfortunate, are still with us today and still as primitive as they were even in ancient times.

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