Wednesday, June 03, 2009


By Unknown
First recorded: Late 10th/early 11th century

One of the problems of this blog is that I am "reviewing" works that are mostly so established in the literary canon, and whose worth is so entirely evident, that the praise seems presumption. But it's one thing to recognize the merits of a work and another to enjoy them, and it is the latter with which I am principally concerned.

Whether the old English epic "Beowulf" is well-known enough outside of literature courses to be in no need of trumpeting may, however, be questionable, despite the recent films and Seamus Heaney's fine translation. Its origins are obscure, reaching back to 1000 AD or even earlier, and though the consensus appears to be that the manuscript that remains to us was written by two monks, it is unknown whether it may not be rooted in an even hoarier tale that was passed on by Anglo-Saxon storytellers for centuries before it was finally transcribed and infused with Christian propaganda.

When we read excerpts of Beowulf in my high school English Literature class, my excellent teacher devoted a lot of time to giving us a conception of what life was like for the Anglo-Saxons. It was not a pleasant life, "nasty, short and brutish" as Thomas Hobbes put it, and overshadowed by the savagery and inexorable tedium of war, indigence, and hostile nature. The society was organized into clans which were led by cynnings, or ring-lords, and which formed alliances or enmities against each other as they saw fit. They lived in dark houses in a gloomy climate, and the untamed bogs and long winters as well as the uncertain seas made attempts at travelling into a fearsome ordeal. Beowulf itself testifies to the extent to which they mystified their environment; the bogs and the seas are peopled by all manner of outlandish monsters, and the whole is governed by the intangible and incalculable whims of wyrd, or fate.

Beowulf is in its way deeply preoccupied with fighting against the misery of the Anglo-Saxon world. It is too earthy and narrow in scope to be a convincing religious tract, in my point of view, but much like the Bible it records the history of a region's peoples and aims to distract its audience from the trials and imperfections of sublunary existence. Despite the loneliness that pervades the poem, it is obsessed with a sense of community. The kings and queens are set on pedestals as hazily perfect beings; the loyalty of the armed men to each other and to their leaders is implicitly extolled; the names and exploits of ancestors and distant acquaintances are summoned; and the dining-hall Heorot, a central setting of the tale, is a meeting-place not only for the Danes but also for visitors like the Geats [N.B.: pronounced "yats" according to my second-year English professor] under Beowulf. My high school teacher emphasized the exiled status of the first villain of the tale (the monster Grendel), his misery, and his resentment against "civilized" mankind. To be cast out from society was worse than death; the wild melancholy of that situation is also captured in the old poem "The Wanderer."

At any rate, the tale begins when the Danish king Hrothgar builds a mighty feasting-hall, named Heorot. At first all goes well, but then Grendel catches wind of its existence and, driven by his hatred of mankind, he prowls around at night and kills the men who frequent it, a couple at a time. Months pass, and from a place of rejoicing the hall has turned into a horrible abode of death. The news of these depredations eventually reaches the distant shores of Geatland (present-day Sweden, I think) and as a result Beowulf, a man of great courage and prowess, sails over with a company of men to provide assistance. The warrior is gratefully received and soon afterward fights singly with Grendel, who is immune to swords. With his bare hands Beowulf tears off the monster's arm and the monster betakes himself, bleeding copiously, to die pathetically in the depths of the swamp whence he came.

Grendel's mother is not pleased with these developments and comes marauding not long afterwards. But Beowulf, who evidently has the lung capacity of a zeppelin, dives down into the swamp and kills her with a magic sword he just happens to find there. Despite its implausibility, the mental images I have of this battle — the murky and mysterious and morbid waters, sunken treasures, hideous plants and monsters, and finally the fierce wrath of the ghastly and vengeful female — are deeply impressive. The third battle in the tale transpires when Beowulf has become king of Geatland, and he must fight a dragon that is laying waste to the countryside. He takes his followers with him, but, pursuant to the philosophy that "when the going gets tough, the tough get going," they run like the wind, with the sole exception of the comically nomered Wiglaf. The dragon and Beowulf both die and the tale ends with the grand obsequies of the defunct king.

The tale is told in typical Anglo-Saxon verse. Each line has four beats, which means that there are four syllables that are naturally emphasized, and this practice conveys a drumlike rhythm. There is no rhyming, but there is a lot of alliteration. The language is in my view rather pretentious and pompous, windbaggish to be precise, but I do like the kennings, which are essentially compound nouns that poetically describe objects, like "roof-tree" and "swan-road." I think it would be darnedly difficult to remember the whole poem, which is a couple thousand lines long and not precisely streamlined where the narrative is concerned, but it seems as if the ancient bards, or scops, managed it. Its tone is relaxed and rambling, as if the storyteller couldn't bear to end it and to leave the world in it. That world doesn't appeal to me and I find Beowulf a priggish ass, but it is undeniable that the tale is still weirdly compelling and likable.

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Resources for the Study of Beowulf []
An introduction and links to all sorts of online Beowulf texts and background reading.

Beowulf []
A transcription of the original Anglo-Saxon text.

New York Times Film Reviews:
Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Beowulf (2007)

"Beowulf and Fate Meet in a Modern Poet's Lens" [New York Times]
A nice review of Seamus Heaney's translation by Richard Eder, from February 2000.