As I expect you both have, I’ve been wondering why I have felt so moved at the passing of the Queen, someone I never knew or even met. It is a feeling that many people seem to share, so much so that they are prepared to queue for hours, even days, just for the chance to walk past her coffin.
This might reflect no more than the love-affair that the British have with queues. However, there could be a deeper meaning to it all. Through tumultuous changes — Brexit, Covid, and everything else — the Queen was a constant we took for granted, like the sunrise in the mornings. So much so that her passing represents a shift in our national stability. Not long after I heard the news I thought, as I expect you did too, of the closing passages in Beowulf.
After the eponymous hero’s adventures with Grendel and his mother, he lives a long life as much-loved ruler and protector of his people, the Geats, until, in old age, he dies in combat with a dragon. The Geats lament his passing, partly because his loss has removed their security — a bulwark against invasion by opportunist outsiders. I am sure you’ll immediately recall the passage that starts on line 3150:
swylce giormor-gyd Geatisc meowle
song sorg-cearig. Sæde geneahhe,
Þæt hio hyre here-geongas hearde ondrede
wæl-fylla worn, werudes egesan,
hynðo ond hæft-nyd. Heofon rece swealg.
Which in Seamus Heaney‘s translation reads
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
Then there is the more recent, very lively translation by Maria Dahvana Headley, which reads
Then another dirge rose, woven uninvited
by a Geatish woman, louder than the rest.
She tore her hair and screamed her horror
at the hell that was to come: more of the same.
Reaping, raping, feasts of blood, iron fortunes
marching across her country, claiming her body.
The sky sipped the smoke and smiled.
Both translations are rather free, partly because the text in the one surviving smoke-singed copy we have is rather ropey, and parts of the passage quoted are either illegible or missing. (This didn’t stop the noted medievalist Tom Shippey referring in my hearing to Seamus Heaney as ‘Shameless’ Heaney). At times of national crisis and brouhaha I turn to the comforting solidity of Tolkien who rendered the same passage in prose:
There too a lamentable lay many a Geatish maiden with braided tresses for Beowulf made, singing in sorrow, oft repeating that days of evil she sorely feared, many a slaying cruel and terror armed, ruin and thraldom’s bond. The smoke faded in the sky.
The translations vary (on the whole I prefer Headley’s for its brutal immediacy), but the sense of all is clear. Now, I do not think that the immediate consequence of the death of our Queen will be invasion by barbarous hordes bent on destruction. But I sense that, deep down, beneath the ordered calm of our world, the passing of a much-loved monarch after a very long reign has stirred up something atavistic, a memory of past horrors. Which might explain the urge to come together in a festival of communal mourning.
Which, in Britain, takes the form of a queue as long as Jörmungandr.