Way Beyond Retro – Beowulf

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. Beowulf is another of the texts I had to read from at university. Having only read the lines prescribed, I never read the entire text. When I picked up the book from my shelf, I discovered that my Penguin Classic edition was an untranslated Old-English edition. Since it’s been over 10 years since I actually learned how to translate Old English and I’ve forgotten most of it, I borrowed a copy of the Norton Critical Edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation, published in 2002, from work. 

Eighth-century in its origin, Beowulf is an epic Anglo-Saxon poem and one of the earliest texts in Engish literature. Of the 32.000 lines of Anglo-Saxon writing preserved over one-tenth of these are the lines of the Beowulf. The poem describes the journey of the young Beowulf to the Danish court of King Hrothgar, which is besieged by a monster called Grendel. Beowulf vows to take on Grendel and relieve the court of his oppression. He succeeds, but incurs the wrath of Grendel’s mother, who comes to the court to take revenge. Beowulf follows her to her underwater lair and slays her. Triumphant, our hero returns home to Geat-land, where, after several heroic deaths in the family, he assumes the throne. Beowulf becomes a wise and well-beloved king, but when his country becomes plagued by a dragon, he once again dons his armour to slay a monster and save his people. He kills the dragon, but loses his life in the process. He is buried in grand style by his grieving retainers, who we leave standing next to his grave site, contemplating their loss and the greatness of their fallen hero.

The manuscript which contains Beowulf (MS Cotton Vitellius A. XV, housed at the British Library) is a collection of stories about wondrous creatures. It is preceded by The Passion of St. Christopher, The Wonders of the East and a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and followed by a poem on the Old Testament heroine Judith. So even placed in this context the story seems to fit into the speculative. It certainly is a horror story, with the monsters creeping in at night and terrorising the people at the Danish court. While there is a strong Christian influence in the narrative, Beowulf, Hrothgar and company are firmly pagan:

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell. (ll. 175-180)

The story is based in history, since it references many historical kings, battles and places, but it is a history that has been moulded into legend.

While Beowulf was originally composed orally and then written down, unlike the much later dated Mabinogion, it is a far more fluent whole. The story is far less fragmented, with the only large shift in time being the fifty years between Beowulf’s fighting Grendel and his mother and his fighting of the dragon. As such it is far easier to follow and for me more enjoyable.

So what is speculative in Beowulf? The question is rather, what is not speculative? Beowulf is filled with heroes and monsters. Besides Grendel and his dam, there are dragons, trolls and sea monsters. The latter not just being found in the mere where Grendel and his mother live, but also in the sea, as mentioned in the swimming episode told during the banquet. If Beowulf was written today, it could be classified as a sword and sorcery tale. You could also argue that a modern day version of Grendel could be portrayed as a zombie. He rends flesh and eats people, he is other, though he still has human qualities, being a descendant of Cain. In this sense, Beowulf doesn’t seem outdated. On the contrary, it seems far less so than younger tales such as the Mabinogion and some of the Arthurian Romances.

Beowulf remains a ripping good yarn, which one can imagine being told at a feast or round the fire to great enthusiasm of the listeners. Indeed, it drew great enthusiasm from me as a reader. The translation I read (and quoted from above), was the one by Seamus Heaney, first published in 2000. It’s a beautifully translated piece of poetry. Heaney has tried to be faithful to not just the letter of the original, but the spirit. The result is a text that is not just a translation, but has a soul all of its own. Heaney makes this ancient story accessible to modern readers, without losing the feel of the original. Beowulf is one of the cornerstones of British literary history and as such is compulsory reading for any student of English. But most of all, the book should be read for the story it tells: of the man called Beowulf and the monsters he fights.