Freshman year: Beowulf

Sorry for the slight delay with this one. Life got busy and the family vacation sprang up on us all of a sudden. Not an auspicious start, having the second blog post a few days late, huh?

 

Beowulf! Everyone’s heard of Beowulf at some point, probably.  Hardcore Tolkien fans will recognize this poem, thanks to the semi-recent publication of Tolkien’s prose translation of the thing.

To be quite honest, I didn’t really even make it through the equivalent of the first stanza of Tolkien’s translation. Tolkien was brilliant, yes, and there are only a very few fantasy works that can match Lord of the Rings for it’s amazing story, incredible world-building, cultishly dedicated fans, and enviably wonderful characters. I want to someday write a character like Faramir, Eowyn, or Sam. However, I do have to say that just the first sentence of Tolkien’s Beowulf was a grammatical headache, abundant with prepositional phrases that muddied the waters considerably:

“Lo! The glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour.”

The glory OF the kings OF the people OF the Spear-Danes IN days OF old we have heard tell?

Basically he’s saying, “Yo, guys, I heard the kings of the Spear-Danes have done some pretty rad stuff,” but the first time I read that I didn’t really get that. I do regret that I didn’t read more of at least the essays and bits from Tolkien’s Beowulf. It felt like I was disowning a child, or turning my back on a beloved grandparent. On the other hand, I was reading BEOWULF. I wanted to enjoy it, and having recently finished Moby Dick, I didn’t want it to be the kind of enjoyment that felt like “Wow! I only had to read that sentence twice to understand it!”. Sorry, Tolkien.
So Tolkien proceeded to gracefully exeunt, and Seamus Heaney’s verse translation entered with:

“So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”

We have here, ladies and gents, proof that there is some kind of angel of books smiling down on us all.  In the year since reading Beowulf, I have found much evidence in favor of this angel, possibly even a saint. Move over, angel of music.

So, what happens in Beowulf?
Well, there’s a bunch of genealogy at the beginning, telling the reader about Hrothgar’s grandfather and such. But Hrothgar’s the one we care about. So Hrothgar is king of the Spear-Danes, and he decided, “Hey, I want to build a mead hall” so he did, and he called it Heorot. But little did he know that while he and his thanes were partying every night, a medieval grinch by the name of Grendel slowly lost all patience with him.  However instead of crusading against Christmas, Grendel just kind of waged a one-man war against happy people.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries:
Basically.

See, Grendel was descended from the line of Cain, and so was cursed to never know human companionship or happiness, and to always be hated and feared wherever he went.  So every night, when Hrothgar’s thanes and such were probably very specifically not thinking about the massive hangovers they would have the next morning, Grendel came along and grabbed a person or two to take back to his cave and eat.

This went on for a while, until along comes Beowulf from Geatland (Sweden)! Beowulf is all like “Yeah, sure bro, I got this. I’ll kill your medieval grinch for ya.” So there’s lots of partying until they all go to bed in the great hall. Grendel comes, takes a guy and kills him right there. After that, Beowulf’s all “You’re going down” and so they fight until Beowulf ends up cutting off Grendel’s arm. Grendel runs back to his cave in pain and dies. Beowulf keeps the arm as a souvenir.

Cut to the next evening, however, and Grendel’s mom is nothing short of enraged and ready for a revenge-fueled murder. She nabs one of Hrothgar’s favorite liegemen and goes back to her cave hidden under a lake. Come morning, Beowulf decides to find Grendel’s mother’s cave and kill her too. So he dives into the lake, battles some freaky monsters, then finds the cave and Grendel’s mother. There’s some fighting, and she is killed. Much rejoicing all around. Hrothgar offers his kingdom to Beowulf after his death (Even though he’s already got an heir, so a bit awkward)  but Beowulf decides to go home.

Cut to several decades later, and some idiot has pissed off a dragon.

Some guy found a dragon’s hoard and thought “Hey, why not take a chalice or two? Nobody’s using them.”  But the dragon notices. The dragon wakes up. The dragon sees all. And the dragon is mad.  So a bunch of guys including Beowulf, now king of the Geats, go off to fight the dragon.  Pretty much everyone takes one look at the dragon and says “LOL nope have fun Beowulf.” So it’s just Beowulf and this kid Wiglaf who fight the dragon. They fight valiantly, though Beowulf’s sword fails him, until Beowulf finally strikes down the dragon with a slit to the throat. Beowulf himself has been mortally wounded, however, and with his last breath he thanks Wiglaf for his service and names him king of the Geats. Beowulf is sent off in style, with a blazing pyre, treasure from the dragon’s hoard, and lots of moaning and wailing. And that’s basically the end.

So, Beowulf is the first poem I ever really sat down to read with any enjoyment. I think I read a poem of Walt Whitman’s at some point in middle school, but all I really remember is something about boats and people, or something like that. Mostly all I remember from middle school literature was resolving to stay well clear of Faulkner after reading A Rose for Emily.  That’s a messed up story, ya’ll, trust me on this. I had a weird middle school literature curriculum. Anyway, yeah.  Beowulf. Seamus Heaney’s translation worked really well for me, and I ended up really enjoying it.  The alliteration throughout the poem was particularly fun to read aloud at times.

I can see why it’s lasted this long, aside from being a really old story that exists in its oldest form as a single, incomplete manuscript.  It’s a fantastic story.  It’s pretty heavy on the heroic boasting, but I sort of got the feeling reading it that the boasting was traditional, and perhaps expected of someone who was off to kill a monster.  It’s interesting to me that the story doesn’t stop with Beowulf killing Grendel’s mother and going home triumphant. It seems like in modern storytelling, that would be the popular ending. But then again, having the hero die a dramatic and meaningful death is also a very popular ending these days.

The few women that are in Beowulf are pretty neat. We’ve got Grendel’s mother, of course, who is a pretty formidable opponent. Beowulf’s weapons fail him in fighting her, and were it not for the assumption in the poem that he succeeded in killing her mainly because God willed it that he live, he probably would have died. Then we have Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife. She is a gracious hostess toward Beowulf and his men, and she obviously holds a fair bit of power in Hrothgar’s court. As is her role in the mead hall, she distributes the beaker of mead to all her guests, doing great honor to herself, her husband, and Beowulf. Lesslie Hall’s translation, found on Gutenberg.org, shows Wealhtheow having a word with Beowulf during the celebrations after Grendel has been killed:

45   Said the queen of the Scyldings: “My lord and protector,
Treasure-bestower, take thou this beaker;
Joyance attend thee, gold-friend of heroes,
Be generous to the Geats.
And greet thou the Geatmen with gracious responses!

So ought one to do. Be kind to the Geatmen,

50   In gifts not niggardly; anear and afar now
Peace thou enjoyest. Report hath informed me
Thou’lt have for a bairn the battle-brave hero.
Now is Heorot cleansèd, ring-palace gleaming;
Have as much joy as possible in thy hall, once more purified.
Give while thou mayest many rewards,

55   And bequeath to thy kinsmen kingdom and people,
On wending thy way to the Wielder’s splendor.
I know good Hrothulf, that the noble young troopers
I know that Hrothulf will prove faithful if he survive thee.
He’ll care for and honor, lord of the Scyldings,

If earth-joys thou endest earlier than he doth;

60  I reckon that recompense he’ll render with kindness
Our offspring and issue, if that all he remember,
What favors of yore, when he yet was an infant,
We awarded to him for his worship and pleasure.”

A daughter of Hrothgar’s, Freaware, is also mentioned and the poem says that she is betrothed to a man named Ingeld so as to unite the Danes and the Heathobards, just as Wealhtheow and Hygd (Queen of the Geats, wife of Hygelac). Of course, this was a common political strategy for centuries: A woman would be married to the noblemen or royalty of an enemy country to strengthen political ties and encourage her new husband to not go send his armies to kill everyone. I quite like the term used in Beowulf: Peace-weaver. Naturally, political marriages don’t seem like particularly fun or sensible ideas these days, but peace-weaver is a very good descriptor for these women. They were married to men from other countries to weave a peace between their two lands. This would have been a risky, difficult thing to do, just as preparing a loom for weaving is a long, difficult process. Wealhtheow appears to enjoy an at least satisfactory marriage to Hrothgar, and she is a trusted and respected figure in the mead hall, but nevertheless, in Anglo-Saxon and Danish society of the time (somewhere between the sixth and eleventh centuries) an unmarried woman was her father’s property and a married woman was her husband’s. On the other hand another woman mentioned briefly in the poem, Thryth, does not appear to conform to the image of the quiet, submissive wife:

41  Thrytho nursed anger, excellent5 folk-queen,
Hot-burning hatred: no hero whatever
’Mong household companions, her husband excepted

She is a terror to all save her husband.

45  Dared to adventure to look at the woman
With eyes in the daytime;6 but he knew that death-chains
Hand-wreathed were wrought him: early thereafter,
When the hand-strife was over, edges were ready,
That fierce-raging sword-point had to force a decision,

50  Murder-bale show. Such no womanly custom
For a lady to practise, though lovely her person,
That a weaver-of-peace, on pretence of anger
A belovèd liegeman of life should deprive.
Soothly this hindered Heming’s kinsman;

55  Other ale-drinking earlmen asserted
That fearful folk-sorrows fewer she wrought them,
Treacherous doings, since first she was given
Adorned with gold to the war-hero youthful,
For her origin honored, when Offa’s great palace

60  O’er the fallow flood by her father’s instructions
She sought on her journey, where she afterwards fully,
Famed for her virtue, her fate on the king’s-seat
Enjoyed in her lifetime, love did she hold with
The ruler of heroes, the best, it is told me…

After Wealhtheow and Hygd, Thryth was a bit of a surprise. I seem to recall Heaney’s translation going into a bit more depth about why exactly she was a terror to all but her husband, and as I remember it’s implied that there’s a fair bit of torture and murder that can be linked back to her. She’s not quite as freaky and murderous as Grendel’s mother, but she comes kinda close.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading it, and would happily read it again. It’s a fantastic story, well worth devoting time towards. So go find it! If you won’t read it on my recommendation, read it for Tolkien. You wouldn’t disappoint Tolkien, would you?

Eleanor

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