I know this is long overdue, but like I keep saying, better late than never! I have always wanted to read Beowulf; for a student with an honors degree in English Literature and somebody who is obsessed with English classics, this poem got strangely left out in my wide circle of reading. It could be because old English scares me, it could have been because prose and not poetry is my preferred medium of literary indulgence, and epic poems especially fatigue me. (I loved Odyssey but barely managed to survive Iliad; I am not even getting into epic Indian poems like Ramayana and Mahabharata – at least the latter reads like a thriller, but still action and drama in ancient India in rhythmic structure…it takes SOME effort to finish!) Anyway whatever the deep sub conscious reason, Beowulf remained unread and part of my TBR for a long time. Until Cleo decided to do a rescue act and organized a Beowulf read along in May, an event, that finally made me pick up my Beowulf translation of Michael Alexander and begin to read it!
Wikipedia tells us that that Beowulf was composed between 8th to 11th centuries by an English poet who remains anonymous. Though this poem was considered to be one of the first and original works of English literature, is very much set in the Saxon lands of Northern Europe and tells a tale inhabited with the Swedes and Danes. The poem primarily deals with the battles and triumphs of Beowulf, a hero of the Geats (modern norther Sweden) and spans over 50 years from his youth till his death. The poem begins with the distress felt by Hrothgar, the old King of Danes, whose people are being devoured by the monster Grendel. Hrothgar was once a brave and valiant King and though he remains noble and kind, he is unable to take any action against Grendel. Beowulf, then a young warrior from Geatland , hears of the troubles of Hrothgar and with band of courageous comrades, sets out to kill Grendel. Beowulf and his team enter Grendel’s lair, but Beowulf alone fights the monster and kills him ripping his arm from his body. Enraged at her son’s death, Grendel’s mother ends the celebrations at Hrothagar’s Hall by carrying off one of Beowulf’s most trusted warrior, Aeschere. The Geats and Danes once again set off in pursuit of this monster and Beowulf finally kills Grendel’s mother in her cavern. Hereafter, Beowulf returns home and becomes a King to his people and 50 years pass of peace when life is once again disrupted for the hero when a slave steals a cup from the lair of the dragon, who sees the theft and is enraged and begins buring down all habitation. Beowulf again musters his warriors and sets off to kill the dragon. Soon Beowulf is locked in a deadly combat with the dragon and his men fearing their own lives, flee the battle, leaving Beowulf alone. Only one loyal retainer, Wiglaf, remains steadfast and helps Beowulf slay the dragon. However Beowulf is mortally wounded and soon dies. Wigalf predicts the defeat of the Geats in the hands of the Swedes, because of their betrayal of Beowulf and the dragon’s treasure is left where it was found.
What can I possibly say about the poem that has not been said before? Since this is a translated work, I cannot really comment on the language, but it is the structure of the story and characters that takes your breath away! It is a grand adventure, it is story of a simpler time, but its values of courage and loyalty and nobility still sustain. It is an epic adventure and yet is also a story of mankind. Beowulf is the natural hero – brave, strong and loyal. He has all honorable intentions and acts with principle even when the greatest rewards are for his taking. For instance when Hrothgar makes him a brother to his own sons, after killing of Grendel, he could have easily taken over the Danes, but does not do so. Even in his native land of Geats, after King Hygelac’s death, though Beowulf is urged to take over the kingdom, he supports Headred the son of Hygelac and only becomes King at Headred’s death. But this poem is not only about Beowulf, all other characters shine through. Hrothgar has no longer the ability to fight monsters, but his goodness still makes his revered and loved by the Danes. The contrasting characters cleverly point out that there is a difference between a good warrior and a good king and one may not always be the other – a very revolutionary concept in a time filled with wars and disturbances. Wigalf, the brave solider who could have taken the easy way out, but chooses instead to do stand by his King and do his part for no reason or reward, except that it’s expected of him. Even the monsters come to life and can be seen through the mind’s eye as they destruct and kill. The characters bring in all the fragility and tension that inhabit human nature, the concerns on divided loyalties and the choices man makes. I also loved the unique blend of pagan and Christian beliefs that comes through the poem. Christianity was its nascent stages in when the poem was being composed and the poet beautifully marries the nobler aspect of Christianity with the good solid belief system of the pagan world which has seen its people through many a terrible times.
It is a wonderful read and I loved the grandeur and the simplicity of the story and will definitely go back for several re-reads! Thank you Cleo for not only organizing the event, but also for all the research and back ground reading that you provided, that made this work, even more joyous to read!