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Completed: Beowulf

BeowulfCover: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney
Anonymous
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.

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6 thoughts on “Completed: Beowulf

  1. I need to read Heaney’s Beowulf – I always enjoy the excerpts. I’ve read the poem several times, but not his version. The Tolkien book seems most interesting for the notes.

    Beowulf is a logical introduction to the Icelandic sagas. One of them, King Hrolf’s Saga, even includes a version of the Beowulf story.

    1. Tom, I have the Tolkien, but haven’t read any from it yet. From what I’ve read elsewhere, it sounds like his translation is more difficult to follow than Heaney’s and that the benefit is really the commentary. Of course, I’ve also read praise for his translation, so I guess I’ll have to read it to find out for myself.

      I’d not heard of King Hrolf’s Saga, but it would be interesting to compare a different version of the Beowulf story. I’m almost tempted to look into it now, were it not for my current pile of library books. That said, do you have a recommended edition for future reference? (There appear to be several out there.)

    2. I don’t know anything about the editions. I read the Penguin Classics. I will say that King Hrolf’s Saga is minor compared to Njal’s Saga, Egil’s Saga, Volsungs, and the sad Grettir’s Saga, about the last of the monster-slayers, sniff sniff, what pathos. But: it is short, and it has Beowulf.

      1. Short + Beowulf – sounds like a winner! It looks like the Penguin Classics might be the easiest to get, so I imagine when I finally get around to it, that will be what I read. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it, Amanda. Parts of it, especially the dragon in its lair and the thief, rang so clearly of Tolkien, that it was really hard to separate the two. Jean’s moving on to read the Song of the Volsungs, so I might try to get a copy and read that within the next couple of months. As you say, the background for the poem was lacking and it would be nice to get some exposure to the Icelandic sagas.

    1. Thanks, Cleo! I think it’s actually quite helped me to get out of my reading slump, so I’m so glad you decided to host the readalong. I’d be tempted to immediately look for some Icelandic sagas as well (I actually have a copy of Njal’s Saga on my shelf), but all my library holds seem to have arrived at once, so I need to finish those first. But definitely I want to get to the sagas in the future.

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