227. Beowulf (c. 975-1025 AD)

“Famous for his deeds a warrior may be, but it remains a mystery where his life will end, when he may no longer dwell in the mead-hall among his own”   

lines 3062-3065.

Source :  I found I actually had four versions of Beowulf within reach. I settled on the Seamus Heaney translation included in the Norton Anthology of English Literature (7th ed., 0393974871) as the Penguin Popular Classic by Michael Alexander just didn’t seem to convey the majesty of the words.

Norton also includes a CD with tracks from Beowulf read by Heaney, more of that below.

Thoughts :  I thoroughly enjoyed Beowulf, both as a heroic epic (and we won’t be entering the argument over whether it is an epic poem in the literary sense – it is, for my money) and as a fantasy story with heroes and villains. Even before Beowulf squares up to Grendel, we have the story of his ocean trial – a week in the freezing North Sea, swimming non-stop in full armour with his sword in one hand, vanquishing sea monsters as he went.

Beowulf ranks with the mightiest of heroes of massive strength – Heracles and Gilgamesh. Prince of the Geats, he travels across to the Land of the Danes, where Grendel, a sort of troll creature, is roaming the night, dragging grown men from the mead-hall and devouring them. Beowulf insists he will face the monster unarmed (as Grendel does not carry a sword) and rely on his own manly strength. A wise decision as it turns out as Grendel cannot be harmed by any edged weapon.

Beowulf is a warrior but also a Christian, and we read how he puts his faith in God to  protect him in this deadly encounter. (The Danes had regressed to praying to heathen idols for deliverance from their nightly marauder in their desperation for to no avail).

Grendel, a giant sized Gollum, returns that night and in the ensuing fight, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off. He wriggles free, and dies in his den in the marshes. Celebrations are short lived however, as Grendel’s mother comes seeking revenge and must also be faced, this time in her underwater lair.

“They have seen two such creatures prowling the moors, huge marauders from some other world. One of these things, as far as anyone ever can discern, looks like a woman; the other, warped in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale bigger than any man, an unnatural birth called Grendel … they are fatherless creatures, and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags and treacherous keshes, where cold streams pour down the mountain and disappear under mist and moorland”                    lines 1347-1361

Grendel and its mother are described at one point as descendants of Cain, from where all trolls, elves, giants and monsters arose. Indeed, it is with a giant’s sword Beowulf grabs in desperation that destroys Grendel’s mother.

Years later, after Beowulf has been King of his people for fifty winters, he must face one more challenge – a fire-breathing dragon laying waste to the Geat countryside. Again he advances alone to defeat the monster, but this time he is much older.

“I shall be meeting molten venom in the fire he breathes, so I go forth in mail-shirt and shield, I won’t shift a foot when I meet the cave-guard ; what occurs … will turn out as fate, overseer of men, decides”  

lines 2522-2527

This poem is even more impressive as an audio experience, letting you imagine being in your lord’s hall, listening to the bard recite the poem as flames crackle and the smell of roast meat lingers in the smoky room. The BBC Seamus Heaney recording is good and is available on Youtube – Heaney speaks slowly and pronounces the words convincingly; but it is an abridged version, with the ocean trial in his youth one of the scenes omitted. There is also a Julian Glover recording available which sounds excellent but it again is edited, missing the less spectacular battles between tribes before and during Beowulf’s reign.

Digressions/diversions:   The excellent illustration above is by artist Chris Beatrice (www.chrisbeatrice.com) Does anyone else see Sean Bean as Ned Stark here as Beowulf?

And the description of Grendel’s fate after escaping from Beowulf’s grip

“He won’t be long for this world. He has done his worst but the wound will end him. He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain, limping and looped in it.”      Lines 973-976

He what??!!

Personal rating:  A rare 9/10. I may buy the audio if I happen across it.

Kimmy’s rating:  Lots of barking and hall-protecting, mostly from underneath a table.

Other reading:  The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. Plagiarising my own Goodreads review here 🙂

Excellent! A sci-fi whodunnit with a fascinating juxtaposition of societal paranoias : one individual scared to the point of paralysis by agoraphobia while interrogating suspects immobilised by the fear of physical contact of closeness of other humans. Add in robots, futuristic social conditioning, and galactic political evolution and conflict and you have a fascinating work on many levels.



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