You won’t read this book. And that’s okay: a purpose of these reviews is to bring to your attention those works which are significant cultural markers. Beowulf is one such work.
But first the title: ‘Beowulf’, pronounced ‘BAY-WOOF”. It means a ‘bee-wolf’, a bee-eating wolf – in other words, a bear. If these sort of word games bring a smile to your face then read on, because Beowulf is full of them.
Beowulf is a 9th century poem, originally written in Old English, describing events in 7th century Scandinavia. See? I told you that you won’t read it. And you don’t need to. Because you’ve already read (or at least seen) Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Because all that ‘stuff’ - kings, giants, monsters, dragons – is in Beowulf. Only it was written 1200 years earlier.
It is the story of a Danish king, whose great hall (the Viking equivalent of a royal house) is being attacked nightly by the demonic monster Grendel, who slaughters the best and bravest of the king’s warriors:
‘As a first step he set hands on
a sleeping soldier, savagely tore at him,
gnashed at his bone-joints, bolted huge gobbets,
sucked at his veins, and had soon eaten
all of the dead man, even down to his
hands and feet.’
It’s visceral stuff, and to truly appreciate Beowulf you must place yourself into the minds of these people. Imagine yourself in the smoky, rowdy hall telling stories around a warm fire to while away the long icy nights. No doubt it was probably told during feasts whilst men were themselves ‘gnashing on bone joints’. These people wholeheartedly believed in spirits, both good and evil. Events in the spirit world affected their own mortal world, and vice versa.
In the first section of the poem, the king puts out a call throughout the Viking lands for a warrior to come and slay Grendel. Beowulf answers the call:
‘I have not in my life
set eyes on a man with more might in his frame
than this helmed lord. He’s no hall-fellow
dressed in fine armour, or his face belies him;
he has the head of a hero.’
Here is a description of Beowulf and his men organising a ship and crossing the seas to offer his services:
‘With fourteen men,
he sought sound-wood, sea-wise Beowulf…
Away she went over a wavy ocean,
boat like a bird, breaking seas,
…The crossing was at an end;
closed the wake.’
Let’s break this passage down to explore the subtleties. Firstly, the whole poem was intended to be spoken aloud (as all poems are). This changes the tempo and rhythm of the words. There’s the alliteration (repetition of a sound at the beginning of a word) of ‘s’ in the second line, of ‘b’ in the fourth line, and ‘w’ in the fifth line. The boat itself is described as being like a bird, meaning it was fast, so that the bow wave threw up the foam at the ‘throat’ (bow) of this ‘bird’. And lastly, when they have reached the shores of the king’s kingdom, ‘closed the wake’ - the waters behind their ship are once again still.
In order to prove himself to the king, Beowulf describes a swimming contest against another warrior, Breca:
‘If he whitened the ocean,
No wider appeared the water between us.
He could not away from me; nor would I from him.
Thus stroke for stroke we stitched the ocean
five days and nights…’
‘Whitened the ocean’ describes Breca stirring up the water as he tries to break away from Beowulf, but he could not open a gap – ‘no wider appeared the water between us’. Thus, side by side, stroke for stroke they ‘stitched the ocean’. What a great image, their arms rising out of the water and plunging back in, like a needle into thread, their white wakes trailing them like a thread.
Beowulf quickly defeats Grendel in vicious hand-to-hand combat, ripping off his arm at the shoulder:
‘A breach in the giant
flesh-frame showed then, shoulder-muscles
sprang apart, there was a snapping of tendons,
As a signal to all
the hero hung up the hand, the arm
and torn-off shoulder, the entire limb,
Grendel’s whole grip, below the gable of the roof.’
Grendel slinks off to his underwater lair to die. Again, we have that wonderful alliteration in every line:
‘The tarn was troubled; a terrible wave thrash
brimmed it, bubbling; black-mingled,
the warm wound-blood welled upwards.
He had dived to his doom, he had died miserably;
here in his fen-lair he had laid aside
his heathen soul. Hell welcomed it.’
That last line is important. Grendel had a heathen soul. Beowulf represents an attempt to meld the pagan beliefs of the Viking peoples to a Christian theology. Grendel represents the Cain and Abel story of the Bible (there are also references to a great flood). Hence Grendel is going to Hell.
In the second section of the poem, Grendel’s mother, an equally hideous monster, seeks revenge, so Beowulf follows her to her lair:
‘It was then that he saw the size of this water-hag,
damned thing of the deep. He dashed out his weapon;
not stinting the stroke, and with such strength and
that the circled sword screamed on her head
a strident battle -song.
However, Beowulf’s sword fails to cut Grendel’s mother. Amongst the weapons and treasures strewn amongst the lair, Beowulf spots a sword made by giants, which he uses to kill Grendel’s mother:
‘…brought it down in fury
to take her full and fairly across the neck,
breaking the bones; the blade-sheared
through the death-doomed flesh.’
The implication here is that the blade was provided by God. After killing Grendel’s mother, Beowulf spots Grendel’s lifeless body and cuts off his head, the blood melting the blade:
‘The blood it had shed
made the sword dwindle into deadly icicles;
the war-tool wasted away. It was wonderful indeed
how it melted away entirely, as the ice does in the spring
when the Father unfastens the frost’s grip,
unwinds the water’s ropes – He who watches over
the times and his seasons; He is the true God.
Again, in keeping with the melding of religious beliefs, we have the final confirmation of a one true Christian God
Beowulf and his men then return to their homeland:
‘Out moved the boat then
to divide the deep waters, left Denmark behind.
A special sea-dress, a sail, was hoisted
and belayed to the mast. The beams spoke.
The wind did not hinder the wave-skimming ship
as it ran through the seas, but the sea going craft
with foam at its throat, furled back the waves…
The importance of this nautical imagery is that, despite their new role as land-bound farmers in England, at their heart and in their ancestry, these are still a sea-going people.
In the third and final section of the poem Beowulf is now a great king himself, having ruled (relatively) peacefully over his people for fifty years, when he hears story of a great dragon guarding a treasure-filled lair. The dragon is described in numerous. wonderfully poetic ways:
‘The Ravager of the night’
‘foe of the people’
‘The smooth evil dragon swims through the gloom
enfolded in flame…’
‘The visitant began to vomit flames.’
It’s as good as any movie.
Beowulf defeats the dragon but dies a heroic death. We saw in Homer’s Illiad how the Greeks celebrated warrior culture, with notions of honour, loyalty, provenance, reputation and legacy. The northern European warrior culture of Beowulf echoes these traits, but also places great emphasis on fealty to a lord, who are variously referred to as ‘giver of treasure’ or ‘protector of warriors’.
It has also been noted that the three monsters in Beowulf represent to the (Christian) Anglo-Saxons of England the worst parts of the character of their (pagan) Viking ancestors: unprovoked aggression (Grendel), vengeance (Grendel’s mother) and greed for gold (the dragon). There’s a little bit of hero, and a little bit of monster, in all of us.
Obviously, there is Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings if you like tales of monsters and dragons. Tolkien himself has done a translation of Beowulf. But this is to miss the underlying religious connotations, and how new stories can be overlaid on existing (a common and deliberate tactic in the popularising of early Christianity). Thankfully the tv series Vikings understands this and this conflict between old and new worlds is central to the first few series. There is also the 2007 animated movie.