|After twelve years, the mead hall of Hrothgar has known nothing but despair and death as the beast Grendel lays waste to men every night. In an hour of desperation, the great warrior Beowulf sails across the sea to Denmark to slay the beast for his own glory.
|Transcribed Between 700-1000AD, First Published in 1815
The History of The Poem Beowulf
Of course, to call Beowulf “English” is slightly incorrect. The book is written in Old English. This variant is completely unreadable to modern speakers and has its roots in a Germanic dialect likely brought to England by the Saxon Vikings following the decline of the Roman Empire. The poem, upon rediscovery in the 17th century, has received more than five dozen translations in vernacular English since people started to study it.
Beyond that, all we understand about Beowulf comes from the body of the poem itself. We don’t even know the proper title because the cover of the manuscript was destroyed in an 18th-century library fire along with the poet’s name. There are some historical clues to work with, of course. Some of the characters in the poem are even recorded in the annals of history as real kings. As such, academics have long treated the book primarily as an Archeological anomaly.
“In 1925 Professor Archibald Strong translated Beowulf into verse; but in 1921 he declared “Beowulf is the picture of a whole civilization, of the Germania which Tacitus describes. The main interest which the poem has for us is thus not a purely literary interest. Beowulf is an important historical document.” I make this preliminary point because it seems to me that the air has been clouded not only for Strong but for other more authoritative critics by the dust of quarrying researchers. The historian’s search is, of course, perfectly legitimate, even if it does no assist criticism in general at all, so long as it is not mistaken for criticism. Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on The Beowulf has been due either to the belief that it was something that it was not – for example, primitive, pagan, teutonic, an allegory (political or mythological), or most often an epic…”– The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essay, Pages 6-7, 2006
As Tolkien later says, such a read actually does a disservice to the book itself. Beowulf is first and foremost a poem in the tradition of the “Lay,” and its contents are vital to understanding the story it’s telling us. Treating the book entirely as an artifact had rendered Beowulf a piece of discarded literary irrelevance. Tolkien’s 1936 lecture completely revitalized the reputation of the poem and earned the book its current status as one of the most read books in the English language.
The Story of Beowulf: Mysteries and Oddities
Having read the poem three times now in three separate translations, in addition to much of the best commentary out there about it, it’s become a poem that has continually opened up to me with each new reading.
Immediately the poem begins to throw strange paradoxes at the reader. He’s faced with the third great monster of his life in the form of the Dragon, usually called Beowulf’s Bane. The monster itself was not conjured by Beowulf or his deeds. In fact, an unnamed slave escaping from Beowulf’s kingdom wanders into the beast’s den, steals a piece of treasure, and flees for his survival. The monster then furiously lays siege to the land, murders thousands, and destroys Beowulf’s castle.
Beowulf proceeds to lead a party of accomplished soldiers against the dragon to save his homeland. Despite his accomplishments, he decides this time to approach the dragon fully armed and bedecked in plate armor. One could assume that Beowulf has grown in wisdom in some respects. Although that clearly raises questions. Why is a 70+-year-old man chasing down a dragon? Is he foolish? Proud? Overly confident? Does he feel doomed to die and wish to go out in a blaze of glory? Maybe he’s a reflection of the hero’s worldly quest for treasure and gold brought to its horrific conclusion.
Just as his team approaches the dragon, Beowulf is abandoned by all but one of the men, Wiglaf. Beowulf begins his duel with the beast one-on-one and manages to hold his own against the monster. Quickly, Wiglaf joins the battle, and the two worth together to gain an upper hand against the wyrm. Unfortunately, Beowulf is bitten on the neck and infected with a dangerous poison. They take the opportunity to stab the dragon and defeat him.
In any case, the epic ends on a note of somber melancholy. His body is burned in a Pagan funeral and mourned as one of the great kings of his land – maybe even the last great king.
Beowulf as Post-Pagan Spiritual Tragedy
“At times they vowed sacrifices to idols in their heathan tabernacles, in prayers implored the slayer of souls to afford them help against the sufferings of the people. Such was their wont, the hope of heathans; they wer emindful in their hearts of hell, (not knew they the creator, the judge of deeds, nor had heard of the Lord God, nor verily had learned to praise teh guardian of the heavens and the king of glory.”-Beowulf: Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, Page 18, 2014
“The leading idea is that the noble pagans of the past who had not heard of the Gospel, knew of the existence of Almighty God, recognized him as good and the giver of all good things; but were (by the fall) still cut off from him, so that in time of woe they became filled with despair and doubt – that was the hour when they were specifically open to the snares of the devil: they prayed to idols and false gods for help.”–Beowulf: Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, Page 170, 2014
“This grim spirit was called Grendel, mighty stalker of the marches, who held the moors and fens; this miserable man lived for a time in the land of giants, after the creator had condemned him among Cain’s race – when he killed Abel the eternal Lord avenged his death. No joy in the feud – the maker forced him far from mankind for his foul crime. From hence arose all misbegotten things, trolls and elves and the living dead, and also the giants who strove against God for a long while…”– Beowulf: Broadview Second Edition – R.M. Liuzza Translation, Page 52, 2013
“Now war is looming over our nation, soon it will be known to Franks and Frisians that the king is gone… Nor do I expect peace or pact-keeping of any sort from the Swedes… So this bad blood between us and the swedes, this vicious feud, I am convinced is bound to revive; they will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead.”-Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney, Pages 197, 201 and 202, 1999
+ Beautiful Alliterative Verse
+ Themes of Damnation, Doom, and Despair
+ Epic Battles and Joyful Sequences
+ Brisk Length
+ Excellent Modern Translations Available
- Awkward Structure
- Challenging Prose on the First Reading
The Bottom Line
Beowulf is one of the great works of western literature. This unnamed poem from an unknown medieval writer has influenced all of high fantasy from Tolkien's Hobbit to the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and remains one of the high works of literature from any culture.