Slothrop and the Scop:
A Study of
Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf

by Ted Morrissey

Link to .pdf version of paper.


In his introduction to Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays (1978), Edward Mendelson proposes that Thomas Pynchon's distinctiveness as a fiction writer is not due to his inventing groundbreaking literary techniques but rather just the opposite: his embracing older narrative traditions. Mendelson writes, Paper presented at the 20th Century Literature Conference, Feb. 2006. University of Louisville.
  The work of self-discovery which [romantic and modernist literatures] were designed to perform has now been done. For Pynchon there are other tasks, and other methods, and most of them need not be invented from nothing, but need only be rediscovered from the past. (2)  
  Mendelson calls these narrative methods--like omniscient narration, characters speaking directly to the reader, and the use of song and verse--"all the paraphernalia of the loose baggy monsters of an earlier age of fiction" (3). He does not specify which earlier age, however, only that it is pre-romantic. The purpose of this paper is to provide specifity to Mendelson's claim--indeed, to provide a concrete example. I suggest that Pynchon's techniques, especially in the crown jewel of his oeuvre, Gravity's Rainbow, bear an uncanny resemblance to those found in a work that in essence represents the beginning of English-language literature: the eighth-century epic Beowulf. Beowulf scholars disagree on the poem's composition date, and theories range from the seventh to tenth centuries.


Readers of Pynchon's dense, postmodern novel have been busily comparing it to other works ever since it appeared in 1973. Titles such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, Don Quixote, and Commedia have appeared in the literature, as have the works of Shakespeare--among many, many others. But no one seems to have noticed its connections to Beowulf. Once one begins to examine the two texts and the scholarship devoted to them, the comparison becomes natural. There are numerous similarities, both great and small, including their apocalyptic foundations; their use of monsters, literally and figuratively; and their frequent (some would say, bewildering) digressions. Moreover, both works occupy significant positions in relationship to the rise and decline of Christianity in Western culture.  
3 Almost as soon as Gravity's Rainbow was published, Pynchon scholars began discussing it in ways that invite its comparison to Beowulf. For example, James Perrin Warren refers to the novel's "narrative discourse [. . . being] on an epic scale" (55). He goes on to borrow the terminology of narratolgist Gérard Genette in discussing Pynchon's use of analepsis and prolepsis (i.e., flashback and foreshadowing)--the elements that make both Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf difficult terrain, especially for their first-time readers. Keeping in mind that Beowulf was composed as oral art and remained such for several centuries, it is noteworthy that Jacqueline R. Smetak points out that critic Douglas Fowler considers Gravity's Rainbow "less a novel and more an enormous lyric poem [. . .]" (93). Moreover, Smetak claims the novel "is written almost entirely in free indirect style [. . .] or speech" (94). That is, it seems that Pynchon's narrator is in effect telling you the story--just as did Beowulf's meadhall scop. For example, when the narrator is omnisciently discussing Slothrop and Katje's twisted and doomed affair, he says, "But here's only her old residual bitterness again, and they are not, after all, to be lovers in parachutes of sunlit voile, lapsing gently, hand in hand, down to anything meadowed and calm. Surprised?" (222). The final one-word question is a direct address to the reader/audience, to you. Link to Wikipedia article on Gérard Genette.
4 Meanwhile, in order to view Beowulf in the proper perspective for this study, one must consider the extant poem as a complete artistic expression--and not something that has been cobbled together from various bits of old lays: the argument of the so-called "dissectionists" whose scholarship dominated the first century of Beowulf study, beginning about 1850. David Wright, one of the poem's many translators to modern English, his in 1957, speaks on behalf of the anti-dissectionists when he writes, "Far from being a rambling, incoherent affair, the poem is built up of themes, motifs, contrasts, and parallels, and is in fact as sophisticated in its construction and use of allusion as The Waste Land of T.S. Eliot" (125). See also Adrien Bonjour's The Digressions in Beowulf (Basil Blackwell 1950, 1965); and R. W. Chambers' Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn (Cambridge UP 1963).
5 The complexities, then, of Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf--the challenges each presents to the pedestrian reader--cast them in the same aesthetic light, according to German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. In his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno asserts that the more works "are understood, the less they are enjoyed [. . . and] the more the works exist as they do in themselves and not for the sake of the observer" increases one's "admiration" of them as art (13). Moreover, Adorno views it as perfectly understandable--indeed critical--given the nature of true art, that Pynchon would look to an established literary tradition: "Art desires what has not yet been, though everything that art is has already been. It cannot escape the shadow of the past" (134). Adorno translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor (1997).

Link to Wikipedia article on Theodor Adorno.

6 Given the fact that Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf were composed in the Christian era, it is not surprising that both offer an apocalyptic view of the world. Critic Frank Kermode, in The Sense of an Ending, writes, "Men, like poets, [. . .] to make sense of their [life] span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems" (7). Kermode goes on to identify "aspects of apocalyptic thinking and feeling," namely "of the Terrors, of Decadence and Renovation, of Transition, and of Clerkly Scepticism" (93). All of these aspects, to one degree or another, can be identified in both the work of Pynchon and the Anglo-Saxon scop. Again, this commonality is not surprising--the apocalyptic paradigm has dominated Western literature (not to mention Western thought) for two thousand years; what is surprising is how similarly Pynchon and the scop work out the particulars of Apocalypse in their respective narratives. Link to Wikipedia article on Frank Kermode.
7 In the interest of brevity, I will focus on the first aspect of Apocalypse as identified by Kermode, the Terrors, with which Gravity's Rainbow abounds. There is after all Tyrone Slothrop's paranoia about the Rocket, about the War, about "They" . . . about everything. When Slothrop enters the Mittelwerke, inside the mountain where the V-2 was constructed, Pynchon writes, "No, this Rocket-City, so whitely lit against the calm dimness of space, is set up deliberately to Avoid Symmetry, Allow Complexity, Introduce Terror (from the Preamble to the Articles of Immachination [. . .]" (297). In sum, what terrorizes Slothrop are the political and cultural changes--seemingly orchestrated by "They"--that are beyond his, or any individual's, control. As Katje contemplates her own lack of worth to the system, the narrator waxes philosophic about the global machinations that reduce human beings to mere commodity. Katje asks, via internal monologue, "if there's a real conversion factor between information and lives"; and Pynchon's narrator responds, "Well, strange to say, there is. Written down in the Manual, on file in the War Department. Don't forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals" (105).  
8 In Beowulf, the apocalyptic Terrors of its three well-known monsters immediately come to mind, but the Slothropian-style fear of political and cultural upheaval is knitted throughout the epic, too. Both the Danes and Geats are doomed peoples. When Beowulf returns to Geatland, after defeating Grendel and Grendel's mother, he tells King Hygelac of how Hrothgar, the Danish king, is trying to save his people by marrying off his daughter to his enemy, Ingeld. Beowulf observes, however, that "'generally the spear / is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed, / no matter how admirable the bride may be'" (2029-31). Beowulf then graphically describes how the Heathobards will stir up trouble "'until one of the lady's retainers lies / spattered with blood, split open / on his father's account'" (2059-61), and the old feud will be rejoined until Hrothgar and the Danes are annihilated. The Danes' inevitable annihilation has been referred to, cryptically and not so cryptically, throughout the poem. In the concluding sections of the epic, after King Beowulf is killed by the dragon, the Geats' destruction is foretold too: "'So it is goodbye now to all you know and love / on your home ground [. . .] / our whole nation will be dispossessed,'" predicts Wiglaf (2884-88). Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney (2000).
9 These apocalyptic Terrors rooted in political strife and cultural upheaval manifest themselves as monsters in the two texts--figuratively for Pynchon, and literally for the Beowulf scop. In Gravity's Rainbow, the rocket-bombs, which are referenced in the first and final sentences of the novel and everywhere in between, are frequently described in monstrous terms. Pynchon writes, "Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour" (135). Later, a rocket lands near a theatre where Hansel and Gretel is being performed for children, and the Gretel character begins singing about the bomb:  
  Oh, don't let it get you,
It will if they let you, but there's
Something I'll bet you can't see--
It's big and it's nasty and it's right over there,
It's waiting to get its sticky claws in your hair! (174-75)
  Furthermore, scientist Roland Feldspath, who has been monitoring the secret experiment to see if Slothrop's love-life could be used to predict rocket strikes, decides, "God have mercy: what storms, what monsters of the Aether could this Slothrop ever charm away for anyone?" (238). The Rocket/monster's carnage is often described in detail, just as the Anglo-Saxon scop describes the deaths brought about by Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon.  
10 More interesting still is that Pynchon and the old scop both bridge the metaphorical gap between humans and their politically inspired monstrous acts by sometimes describing their characters in bestial terms. For example, when Katje, who is Their pawn, first seduces Slothrop in Their continued manipulation of him, Pynchon writes,  
  [T]he moonlight only whitens [Katje's] back, and there is still a dark side, her ventral side, her face, that he can no longer see, a terrible beastlike change coming over muzzle and lower jaw, black pupils growing to cover the entire eye space till whites are gone and there's only the red animal reflection when light comes to strike[. . . .] (196)  
  In other examples, Enzian, the leader of the Schwarzkommando rocket-troops, describes the German women as "all docile" like cattle being milked (325), in a Max Schlepzig film two actors are "darkened and deformed, resembling apes" (483), and wild woman Frau Gnabb bares her "fangs [. . .] in a grin" during Slothrop's madcap escape from Peenemünde (515). The Beowulf scop employs a remarkably similar technique, especially in his description of the Battle of Ravenswood, which provides the incentive for the Swedes to seek their revenge against the Geats once Beowulf is gone. Briefly, in the wood of the ravens, after a fierce battle, Swedish King Ongentheow "howled threats" at the surviving Geats until King Hygelac "swooped on the Swedes at bay"; ultimately Geatish warriors Wulf and Eofor [i.e., Boar] killed Ongentheow (2938, 2957-58, 2981). The name Beowulf itself may mean "bear" in Old English.  
11 In keeping with the apocalyptic paradigm, both Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf end with death and destruction. Pynchon's final scene is in a Los Angeles movie theatre, and Rocket 00000 is in its awful descent: "But it was not a star, it was falling, a bright angel of death" (760). The book concludes with the narrator inviting everyone--character and reader alike--to sing along with a hymn by Slothrop's Puritan ancestor, William, just as the Rocket explodes. Song also dramatizes the final, apocalyptic scene of Beowulf. While waiting for her world to come crashing down and watching her beloved king's funeral pyre, a "Geat woman too sang out in grief" (3150). Kermode says that "ours is the great age of crisis--technological, military, cultural [. . .]" (94), and his observation certainly fits Pynchon's work. But the critic also observes, "Perhaps if we have a terrible privilege it is merely that we are alive and are going to die, all at once or one at a time. Other people have noticed this, and expressed their feelings about it in images different from ours [. . .]" (95). Kermode says the atomic age's fear of nuclear bombs (or more broadly, now, weapons of mass destruction) is no different than another age's deepest fear--that is, the Anglo-Saxons' Terror of foreign invasion is every bit as legitimate as Pynchon's rocket-bomb in 1973. In both cases, it is a very real threat by an unknown (and unknowable) They.  
12 Narrative digression is not a rare feature of only Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf. However, the perplexing number of digressions and their specific varieties put Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf in a special narrative class. Of the latter's structure, Wright says, "[O]ne of its characteristics is the extraordinary number of episodes that are contained in it. Many of these considerably puzzled the early students of the poem, who invented a number of ingenious but unsatisfactory theories to account for them [. . .]" (125). Mendelson, meanwhile, calls Gravity's Rainbow a "national encyclopedic narrative," a genre into which membership is "severely exclusive" (10). Bonjour's work on the digressions in Beowulf (see note for par. 4) is a must-read for any student of the poem.
13 Discussing the digressions of either work is the stuff of whole dissertations, so in the interest of time I will only say that the digressions of both can be sectioned into three broad categories: the personal/family histories of the main characters, references to historical or quasi-historical events and personas, and biblical/religious allusions. In way of support, I will look at historical digressions in Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf. Pynchon alludes to numerous figures, often times in eclectic clusters. For example, at one point Slothrop visits the café Odean, where "Lenin, Trostsky, James Joyce, Dr. Einstein all sat out at these tables" (262). Elsewhere, Pynchon mentions George Washington, John Wilkes Booth, Hitler, and Jack Kennedy--among copious others. He writes of Argentinean revolution, Herero rebellion, and the Zoot Suit Riots. The longest digression in the novel focuses on rocket scientist Franz Pökler, for which Pynchon blended and fictionalized the autobiographies of actual World War II scientists. Robert L. McLaughlin writes, "[I]n Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon has apparently used the V-2 scientists' autobiographies as sources for the details of Pökler's story and his story environment, and has also incorporated the scientists' discourses and the worldviews they imply into a dialogic relation with his own narrator's discourse" (160).  
14 Likewise, the Beowulf poet's story of Hygelac "we know to be solidly historic [. . . whereas] the stories of Heremod, Ingeld, and Hrothulf belong purely to Scandinavian tradition," writes Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (137). The scholar contends that "the allusive and summary matter derived from heroic legend [. . .] serves as enrichment or adornment, or affords characterization by way of compliment or contrast, or drives home a specific point [. . .]" (133). McLaughlin makes a markedly similar claim about Pynchon's use of real scientists' autobiographies: "Out of this intertextual mélange--not the totalized system of linear narrative--come the possibilities for meaning in the novel" (159). That is, in both Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf, the storyteller integrates genuine history and dramatized quasi-history to complicate and enrich the core linear narrative.  
15 Finally, a comparison of biblical allusion and Christian imagery is also too rich of a vein to fully explore here; however, a related contrast in the works is too significant to omit. It is clear in the text of Beowulf that the scop hoped Christianity (still a new concept in his world) would end the violence that mankind had always participated in, but there is no such optimism in Gravity's Rainbow. In fact, by placing the two works side by side one may be seeing evidence of what W. B. Yeats theorized as "the two butt-ends of a seesaw": "What if every two thousand and odd years something happens in the world to make one sacred, the other secular; one wise, the other foolish; one fair, the other foul; one divine, the other devilish?" (29). In other words, on one butt-end of the historical seesaw, Christianity is viewed as sacred, wise, fair and divine (as illustrated in Beowulf, composed only about 700 years after Christ's death); and on the other end of the seesaw, Christianity--"The Baby Jesus Con Game" (318)--is secular, foolish, foul and devilish (Gravity's Rainbow, published only 27 years shy of the two-millennia mark). It is noteworthy that Slothrop and Enzian describe the divine as being in motion (214, 323), suggesting the dynamic essence of Yeats' metaphor, "the dip of a scale [. . . and] the coming of that something" (29).  
16 There is much more that could be said about Gravity's Rainbow and Beowulf, but I trust I have established that the two seemingly unlike works do in fact have many things in common. The study has led me to questions I had not considered beforehand. I wonder, for example, if the old poem is so old after all; if the Anglo-Saxon scop created something that is quite at home in the literary world of the twenty-first century. And I wonder if the term "postmodern" is wildly inaccurate, for it seems Pynchon has written a novel that has as much in common with an eighth-century poem as it does works of its own time period, possibly more in common. I will close with this observation: Many of the readers who engage these works do so in search of their authors. All that we know of the Anglo-Saxon scop is pure speculation based on analysis of his one known poem; similarly, Thomas Pynchon maintains perhaps the lowest profile of all literary giants--those who wish to know the reclusive author must read his five novels and a handful of short stories. So, for both artists, the merits of their art rest solely in the art itself. Let us raise, then, a mugful of Pirate Prentice's banana mead to the scop and Thomas Pynchon, kindred spirits in the art of storytelling. Pynchon's novels are V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), GR, Vineland (1990), and Mason & Dixon (1997). His collection of stories is Slow Learner (1984). Pynchon maintains that The Crying of Lot 49 is a short story (see his introduction to Slow Learner).

Works Cited

  Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000.

Brodeur, Arthur Gilchrist. The Art of Beowulf. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1959.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

McLaughlin, Robert L. "Franz Pökler's Anti-Story: Narrative and Self in Gravity's Rainbow." Pynchon Notes 40-41 (spring-fall 1997): 159-75.

Mendelson, Edward, ed. Introduction. Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Printice-Hall, 1978. 1-15.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. 1973. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Smetak, Jacqueline R. "Who's Talking Here: Finding the Voice in Gravity's Rainbow." Pynchon Notes 20-21 (spring-fall 1987): 93-103.

Warren, James Perrin. "Ritual Reluctance: The Poetics of Discontinuity in Gravity's Rainbow." Pynchon Notes 18-19 (spring-fall 1986): 55-65.

Wright, David. "The Digressions in Beowulf." Readings on Beowulf. Ed. Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. 125-28.

Yeats, W. B. A Vision. 1938. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

© 2006 Ted Morrissey Ted Morrissey has been teaching secondary and post-secondary English for 22 years. He teaches British Literature and Advanced Placement English at Williamsville High School and is an adjunct instructor in the Division of Languages and Literature at Springfield College in Illinois. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in English Studies at Illinois State University. His articles on literature pedagogy have appeared in Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction, and his own fiction has been in Glimmer Train Stories, Paris Transcontinental, Eureka Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. The author is indebted to Drs. Robert McLaughlin and Curtis White of Illinois State University for their invaluable reading of and commenting on this manuscript. Email the author.