England, between 8th-11th cent.
Translator, Seamus Heaney, 2000
Sitting down to write about Beowulf, I feel woefully ignorant of the context of the poem—and therefore completely unqualified to write more than some cursory thoughts. (I should point out that Cleo provides some great background info to the poem, which is very useful.) I know that is it old—somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. That it was written in Old English (which can also be called Anglo-Saxon, as I read…somewhere?). And based solely on my reading, the anonymous writer was clearly very religious, specifically Christian. But the literary context of the poem: how does it relate to other writings of the era/region? It is a poem, in the Germanic form, Cleo tells us, but I’ve not read anything else in the style. Used to end rhymes and syllable-based rhythms, it barely feels a poem to me. This is not the fault of the writer, nor the translator, it is me.
Looking in the other direction, on the other hand, I can clearly see Beowulf’s influence, specifically on the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. Some time back, Tom at Wuthering Expectations commented that he wasn’t sure why more Tolkien fans didn’t read the Icelandic Sagas, given the relation between the two; this applies also to Beowulf. Even beyond Tolkien’s essay, “The Monster and the Critics,” (which I have still to read—I’d hoped to get to it this week, but instead paid the price of a week off work with extra hours), and his recently published translation of Beowulf, there seem to be clear lines of influence on his fictional works. I marked quite a few scenes in my notes, from noting in general the fondness for lays to descriptions that seemed reminiscent of scenes from The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, to the powerful chain-mail that was perhaps the prototype for Bilbo’s–later Frodo’s–mithril shirt, and even a reference to an “Eomer.” But it was a passage towards the end that struck me most vividly:
…until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage,
unknown to men, but someone managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing,
though with a thief’s wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon; that drove him into a rage,
as the people of that country would soon discover. (2210-2220)
It was as if I was reading a poetic rendition of the dragon Smaug and the thief Bilbo, hired by the dwarves.
I also saw Beowulf in contrast to other more ancient works I am familiar with, some of the Greek plays and myths. Over and over, I noted that Beowulf seemed to boast of his prowess—and yet his boasting didn’t bring him low or or his end. Were this a Greek tale, I felt sure that the gods would punish him for his boasts. But the worldview is different here: it is a brutal world, and whatever is fated will be—and in the writer’s Christian worldview, it will be God who will decide that fate, a belief Beowulf acknowledges even as he claims the power to defeat Grendel.
‘When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.
He has no ides of the arts of war,
of shield or sword-play, although he does possess
a wild strength. No weapons, therefore,
for either this night: unarmed he shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.’ (677-688).
Overall, I quite enjoyed reading the poem, and should very much like to read the Tolkien translation and commentary, hopefully soon. This was only my first reading, and really my first familiarity with Beowulf and its world, and I feel like I have only started to grasp what it is about. My way in was via the Tolkien writings, but I think there is probably still much more the glean from it. And perhaps this will prove my way in to other Old English works as well as a stepping stone towards reading some of the ancient sagas and mythologies of the northern countries.
Thank you so much, Cleo for hosting and prompting me to finally read Beowulf! As a bonus, it also counts as my second selection for Once Upon a Time IX (and I thought I’d only read one this spring) and as my seventh title completed for The Classics Club.