Classics Reviewed: Beowulf

If your only experience of Beowulf is the 2007 3-D film, there’s one thing you know for sure – Grendel’s mom is hot! That film rather imaginatively recast the monstrous swamp mama as Angelina Jolie. I like eye candy as much as the next moviegoer, but the film’s creators were quite misleading.

I think they wanted to suggest in a sexy way (sex helps ticket sales) that Anglo-Saxon society sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

The most often recurring motif in Anglo-Saxon (and old Germanic literature in general) is that of Wyrd (pronounced “weird,” meaning “fate,” or even “doom”). The whole mythology of Northern Europe focuses on the fact that everything dies (Norse mythology is quite emphatic on this point – even the gods can, and will die!). This makes sense for a culture based on war and living in a cold and forbidding climate. Life is short and hard. As death is the only constant – the choice for its literary figures and its people is to bravely face that doom or foolishly try to hide from it. But a warrior society that makes its fame by conflict and killing only contributes to that culture of death. And for a Germanic group, to be successful meant having a strong leader who could command the respect and affection of his people. The problem with strong leaders is that the people come to depend on them, and when they are gone, the people are lost.

The poem is an epic of 3,182 lines, and it makes up about one-tenth of all surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry. All editions of the poem are based on one surviving manuscript, written around 1000 AD and two transcripts of it made by or for the Icelandic scholar, Thorkelin, in the late 18th century. The manuscript itself (Cotton Vitellius A XV – contact me for more information on the name and history of the manuscript) was badly burned in a fire in 1731 and has been deteriorating ever since.  We know nothing about the author of the poem, but suggestions that he may have been a bard of heroic legend who became a monk have some merit.

The story of the poem in brief (spoiler alert!):

King Hrothgar of Denmark is a powerful king who builds a great mead hall (audience chamber/function room) that is the envy of the Germanic world. Soon after the building is completed, a swamp monster named Grendel attacks the hall driving out the Danes for a dozen years. Beowulf, seeking fame (he’s about 18 or so), hears about the trouble in neighboring Geatland, and manages to defeat Grendel and his mom (really ugly and monstrous in the poem).

Rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf returns home, where he reports that Hrothgar’s relatives will soon fall out and there’ll be war in Denmark (this war will result in the destruction of Heorot by fire). Beowulf himself becomes king of Geatland a few years later, and rules for 50 years, keeping his people safe. Now an old man, he must face a fire-breathing dragon, newly awakened and plaguing his people. He kills the dragon but suffers a mortal wound. At his funeral which ends the poem, his people await invaders who will likely destroy their country.

It’s a pretty depressing story, and, in summary treatment, it may not seem particularly special. Simply as narrative, the work does not fully satisfy. So why read it, or better yet, listen to it? For the poetry itself. Ideally one should read the work in Old English, but that requires years of study, so the answer for most of us is to read it in translation. One should read it in a translation that captures, in modern English, some of the poetic power of the original. Old English poetry is marked by its density and by its heavy use of alliteration. Any translation that does not capture the alliteration misses its power.

There are three poetic translations I would heartily recommend, those of Charles Kennedy, of Dick Ringler, or Seamus Heaney. Both Kennedy’s and Ringler’s have the same heavy use of alliteration and capture how the poem might have sounded to its original audience. Heaney (one of the greatest living poets, and a Nobel laureate) has a lighter touch, but does make adequate use of alliteration. And Heaney’s poetic gifts are tremendous – when I read Heaney I get a sense of Irish melancholy more than Anglo-Saxon doom, but the sense of loss is very much there.

If you must read the poem in prose, read that of E. Talbot Donaldson – it has the right density, and makes some use of alliteration. But, for the best experience, get a recording of the poem and experience it as it was meant to be experienced – aurally. Heaney reads his own translation in a very nice recording easily available. Kennedy’s and Ringler’s translations are also available in audio, but are tougher to find. If you want to experience the poem in Old English, find the DVD (or YouTube clips) of Benjamin Bagby performing the first half of the poem in Old English, accompanying himself on a harp he made – very well done, and it has subtitles!

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany is our resident connoisseur of classic literature and a technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.