Of all the standard classics of English literature that are taught in today’s schools, especially in high school, perhaps the definitive work that has become synonymous with “I know this is world-famous but I couldn’t stand it as a student” is the Old English epic Beowulf, whose unknown “author” actually just transcribed centuries of the story being passed down orally by monks. The poem’s time of origination is also controversial among scholars.
Of course, long, alliterative epics aren’t the type of works that rocket to the top of bestseller lists in today’s world and probably as a general rule, never will. This puts Beowulf at a disadvantage.
What’s worse, a common impression of this epic–a view I admit I once had–is that Beowulf is just a long-winded tale of a hero battling monsters. It’s a theme we see in various forms so many times in our everyday entertainment–ranging from horror novels to superhero movies–that it’s practically a part of our storytelling DNA. So why, I once thought, would we want to read about it yet again in this old-as-all-get-out epic?
With that in mind, I want to show that Beowulf is so much more: it’s a beautifully-written, sweeping saga of a time–Europe post-Romans and pre-Renaissance–that we often label the Dark Ages or forget about altogether.
Beowulf does have a fairly simple plot, featuring the titular Scandinavian warrior defeating a succession of monstrous opponents, including the infamous Grendel, whose appearance has always intrigued me (Wikipedia says he’s like a troll), but I’ve decided he must be like a swamp creature on steroids. These events take place over many years, during which Beowulf ascends the ranks of heroism (hero-hood?) to become king. The anonymous author weaves in many other tales of other heroes; Beowulf‘s finale also shows in a touching way how warrior heroes were treated.
I found it fascinating to see the blend of pagan and Christian in Beowulf, mixing Norse mythology with references to Biblical figures like Cain (whom the poem’s author claims is an ancestor of none other than Grendel). It’s also interesting to note that, despite its inclusion in the English literary canon, the action in Beowulf takes place in places like modern-day Sweden and Denmark.
The intricate language of Beowulf, though, is what sold the epic to me when I read it for the first time in 2017. As exciting as the story is with battles and bravery galore, I wouldn’t admire this work nearly as much if it weren’t for the structure and pattern its words fall into.
The translation I read–Seamus Heaney’s of 1999–and probably all translations shows off the solemnity and rhythm of the Old English, and as I mentioned earlier, alliteration is key to the success of Beowulf. Speaking of translations, since it is the one I read and enjoyed, I definitely recommend Heaney’s version of the text. Unless, of course, you are able to read Old English, in which case you’re a lot smarter than me and are probably teaching at a university somewhere. (I’m envious!)
Happy dusting off!
Update: A big fan of Beowulf and a friend of mine pointed out several inaccuracies in an earlier version of this post. A big thank-you to her!
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