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Friday, May 2, 2008


Translator: Seamus Heaney
Rating: As if I could possible rate an ancient mythic poem that's like 1000 years old.
Reason for reading: My Year of Reading Dangerously, and I'm going to call this a mythic/folkloric fantasy, thus falling under the Once Upon a Time challenge.

Beowulf was not high on my list of books to read. Come on, there's a movie out now, what's the point, right? Well somewhere along the line (I can't remember where exactly) I saw the cover of this relatively recent translation, and it struck me. I couldn't even tell you what it was, but the cover art intrigued me. Something about the simplicity and starkness grabbed my attention.

As far as I can remember, I haven't read more than a short section of the poem once in a high school class, and so the idea of reading Beowulf just as pleasure reading without the intent to analyze and write a paper afterwards was a little foreign. I thought it was going to be awfully boring and hard to follow. As it turns out, I was completely wrong on all accounts.

The poem, in this translation anyhow, was very easy to follow. There is a lengthy introduction setting the scene and short sidenotes throughout the book to explain things (Beowulf tells of his ordeal in the sea. King Heremod remembered and contrasted with Beowulf. Beowulf and the boys get a little drunk on the mead and start a bragging contest. Beowulf and the boys start another bragging contest but Beowulf just killed a superhuman monster so yeah, he wins already. Etc.) At the end, there is a family tree, so the reader can keep Hrethric straight from Hrothmund and Heoroweard.

And as far as being boring, I shouldn't have worried. As long as I took the time to pay the story my full attention, I was quickly lost in the larger than life world of Beowulf.

Beowulf is described as

"formiddable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage; never cut down
a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers."

Beowulf, a Nordic warrior looking to make a name for himself, sets off across the sea to help the neighboring Danes with a nasty monster problem. At night the murderous creature, the "fiend out of hell", Grendel, comes out to play. Except Grendel's idea of fun, of course (being a monster and all) is eating people.

No warrior has been able to stop Grendel, but Beowulf boasts to the king of the Danes that he will not only kill Grendel, he will do it sans weapon. And so he does.

After a ferocious battle, Grendel runs off with a mortal wound. There's a big feast, but in the morning, everyone wakes up to discover that not only did Grendel have a mother, the mother is a monster too, and she is out to avenge Grendel's death. Sadly, one of the old King's dearest advisers was murdered in the night.

I love the advice that Beowulf gives at this point, because I think it pretty much sums up the whole Norse fatalistic attitude towards life.

"Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death."

Beowulf fights Grendel's mother in an underwater battle, and wins by stealing a giant's sword from her lair and killing her with it. He leaves with the Danish king's everlasting gratitude and returns to his homeland. Eventually, he becomes king and rules for a long time, keeping the peace because everyone else is afraid of taking him on in battle.

After ruling for 50 years, Beowulf is faced with a final supernatural monster to fight. This time, he must fight a dragon, and though he kills the dragon, he loses his life as well, going out in battle like a warrior.

I can't believe it took me this long to read this poem! Beowulf is the archetype for the so-strong, so-confident-he-doesn't-even-have-to-bother-bragging-but-brags-anyway type of hero. To read this book is to understand where the whole idea of the ultimate warrior-hero came from. As I read the book, there were many passages that in the back of my head were bringing to mind other books or movies, like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and other characters that are practically mythological, like Batman.

I loved the way that the poem gave very little description of the monsters, and the battle scenes are surprisingly brief compared to the length of the sections where everyone feasts, retells stories of kings past and boast about their various exploits. So for those parts, the reader can imagine the scene however they wish. I'm still debating whether or not to watch the recent movie version, because it will probably ruin whatever I had imagined before.

So in closing, let me leave you with this thought about Beowulf. It's mythological. It's epic. It's legendary. And it can be read without the need to write an entire paper afterwards.


Rhinoa said...

Yay I am really glad you enjoyed this. I read it last year fianlly too. You might want to try reading The Epic of Gilgamesh which is an ancient Mesopotamia/Babylonian poem still with sections missing. It has similar themes to Beowulf.

Alice Teh said...

Thanks for giving me the courage to read the real thing. I've read the movie version one. :)

Kim L said...

rhinoa-I might have to do that. I remember reading about it in one of my college classes, but we didn't really study it too extensively.

alice-oh good, I hope you do read it! It is definitely not as hard as I thought.

Chris said...

I read this translation last year and really loved it. I've been told that Heaney's translation is the only way to go! I had no intentions of ever reading Beowulf honestly, but I signed up for Grendel by Gardner for the banned books challenge so I figured I'd read this first. Don't read Grendel! It was awful. At least I thought so...Worst book I read last year. But Beowulf was an honest surprise like you said. It flowed with no problem, I was hooked in the story, and just really enjoyed it.

The movie is good, but major liberties are taken with the story. So I don't think it will ruin anything for you. It didn't ruin the book for me. I managed to keep the 2 seperate especially since the whole movie was CG. It's not great though...I was expecting better with Gaiman writing the screenplay, but oh well. I'd give it a 2.75/5

Nymeth said...

Excellent review, Kim! I've wanted to read this one for a while - Rhinoa and Chris really enticed me with their reviews last year. I hope to get to it this year. My library has this very same translation and I look at it almost every time I go there.

And I second Rhinoa's recommendation of Gilgamesh. I loved that one.

I really enjoyed the recent movie, but I think I'm in the minority. It is quite a departure from the original story, but that was one of the reasons why I liked it so much. It re-imagines it in a very daring way.

Susan said...

I have this on my TBR pile, in my 888 challenge - i have the old Penguin edition version as well as Seamus Heaney to read, to compare....I plan to get to it in the summer. I like your review, you make the poem seem accessible, which I think is important. I haven't seen the Neil Gaiman movie yet,and somehow in my English LIt classes this got missed - we did other Old English stuff - so this is my first time reading it - and you're right, NO PAPER after!! yaay!! Isn't it fun just to read for pleasure?