In Search of Beowulf

I first discovered Beowulf when I was around ten years old. On rainy weekends, when my brother and I started to wreak too much havoc inside the house, my father would round us up and read us poetry. I’m not sure if he felt that poetry would have a calming effect on us, or if he was just trying to instill some culture, but poetry was his weapon of choice. He had gone to the University of Illinois on the GI Bill, and had studied English Literature. It wasn’t a very practical choice from a career perspective, but he did get some good books out of it. Of particular interest was a big two volume anthology of English literature which has long since disappeared from the family library. It was Volume One of this anthology that he opened up one rainy Saturday, and read us Beowulf.

I don’t remember if I had nightmares afterward, but I do remember that Beowulf impressed me more than any other poem that I had heard up to that point. At first there was the question of the mead hall. I wasn’t exactly sure what a mead hall was, or what mead was, but I had observed my German grandfather and my uncles drinking beer during Sunday dinner, so I had a general idea of what was going on. Then, as my dad read, the poem got scarier. The warriors, after they had drunk their mead and gone to sleep, were killed and eaten by Grendel. Grendel! The name still strikes fear into my heart. As my dad intoned the various ill deeds of Grendel, my brother sank further and further into the couch. This was scary stuff. Then Beowulf showed up on the scene, and I remember this vividly: in weapon-less battle with the monster, Beowulf ripped off Grendel’s arm! High-fiving was not yet invented, but if it had been, my brother and I would have high-fived.

Now we flash forward many, many years to Paris in 2007. As I traveled about the city, I noticed posters in the metro advertising Beowulf the movie. I was intrigued. How will they pull this off? Will my childhood memories of Grendel hold up to Hollywood? I started to ponder what Beowulf could mean in this day and age, when legends have been debunked, when people are obsessed with the lives of the star of the moment, when heroes have lost their allure. I decided to get a copy of the original poem and read it. I headed to the W.H. Smith bookstore on rue Rivoli. Sure, I could have searched for a used version of Beowulf among the shelves at Shakespeare and Company, but I had a need for a fresh, clean, up-to-date copy. I found it. The Norton Anthology has a version of Beowulf that was translated from the original Old English by Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. It was fresh, it was relevant, and it was only sixteen euros in paperback. I bought it. For the next several days I read the book. After that, I planned to see the movie.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is very easy to understand compared to the version that I remember from the big two volume anthology of English literature. I noticed also that Beowulf was an important work of literature. How could I tell? I counted the pages of the poem itself. There were 76. I looked at the last page of the book. Page 256. There were 180 pages in addition to the poem. There were more than 2 times as many non-poem pages as poem pages. What did this mean? It could mean that Norton felt that it was a rip-off to sell a poem of 76 pages for sixteen euros. But what I think it really means is for a poem to be an important work of literature, the accompanying text

12 Responses

  1. That is one fine review,
    That is one fine review, Michael. Thanks.

    Hey, your Dad did the right thing, majoring in English. I was going to be an English major and I let people talk me out of it. Not practical, they said. I should have followed my heart. But that’s okay – reading articles like yours, I’m getting the education I need.

  2. What a great essay — one
    What a great essay — one that actually makes me want to reread Beowulf, which is no mean feat.

    The film certainly did not, though I found it an enjoyably mindless way to spend two hours. Nor did my entire semester in college spent studying Old (or rather, Olde) English lit. I wish I could have first experienced it the way you did.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Thank you.

    Ironically, Bill,
    Thank you.

    Ironically, Bill, my dad advised me to major in History, which he felt was “more practical”! But I did, and I don’t regret it. He was a big believer in a liberal arts education, an idea which doesn’t seem too popular in this day and age.

  4. I’ve had some confused
    I’ve had some confused thoughts with the whole idea of changing the story. The main problem is, well, it’s a classic and you can’t just go about changing it!

    But then I think of how Beowulf was originally told – we’ve only got one written source for the poem we now have, but how many poets and minstrels knew the story (not necessarily the same poem) and told different versions over the long months, years and decades? How much had it changed from when it was first thought up? Was what was told in Denmark the same as what was told in Northumbria?

    Is a different version for a film any different? Hence my confusion… a healthy confusion I think. 🙂

    Given that, I probably won’t see the film.

    Very good article, I enjoyed reading it! (And I need something to read over the next few days… maybe I’ll also pick it up again?)

  5. I loved the DC comic book
    I loved the DC comic book version from the mid ’70–issue No. 3, especially. Can’t say I’ve ever gotten around to reading the original poem, though–despite 2 or 3 different translations in my collection.

  6. The film isn’t quite the
    The film isn’t quite the hollywood sell out that you think it is, although it has defintely flt the effects of an adaptation.

    Still, I’m surprised you didn’t recognise the work of Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite writers in the movie. Here’s a more detailed look at how the writers actually took on the original and then worked with it, makes for interesting reading and somewhat addresses yoru question of what an epic (or a heroic elegy) means today.

  7. A few things strike me about
    A few things strike me about this Beowulf poem.
    I recall attempting to read it in a highschool english
    class.I remember little about highschool “education”
    but i do recall the few books i read in an English class.I have a vivid image of sitting in class one
    day and reading Beowulf, i can see my mind dealing with the language of the poem, the “mead hall” and
    the symbology of the tale.I don’t think that i really tried to understand the meaning of the poem,then
    though perhaps the teacher wanted us to write a synopsis of it.At any rate, something about reading Beowulf remained.

    What remained, was perhaps, something about the
    density of the language and the intensity of the
    symbology.Something about the “bittersweet” theme
    which although it is a “heroic” tale we get this
    other element, which seems to be a type of thread
    of thought that is woven through writings that are
    handed down through the recorded ages.

    Yet, i wonder how much of our modern day context
    really is able to deal with the layers of symbolic language and the meaning of how people felt about
    their own changing world in that day and age?
    I wonder if the cycles of understanding are coming
    through as the theme of dragons and older layers
    are peeled back? What do we gain and what do we lose? Are taking liberites with the story for the
    film version just for more visual effect? Or are
    there other factors figuring in, that are somehow
    more of a vital question now?

    If dragons relate to various symbolic meanings, do
    we get the meaning that was woven in the Beowulf
    poem, more now? Or in the final analysis are we merely seeing the mind of the poet that was looking forward to a world that these mysteries would become shrouded in other kinds of complex
    constructs, so that we can only see the serpent
    eating its own tail? the hero zero.

    Oh, of course we are cautioned, that mead holds a powerful spell.And poetry is a mighty weapon.

  8. Sorry, Michael, but this is
    Sorry, Michael, but this is just another “the book is better than the movie” complaint that I’ve read more times than I care to think about.

    If you were to use your writing talent to express the marvel that the movie “Beowolf” is, both in its cutting edge animation and story telling, I’d have been much more impressed.

  9. I thought the movie did a
    I thought the movie did a really good job conveying the overall themes of the original poem. The passing of time, heroic people, fading culture, violence…all addressed. And so what if it doesn’t really hew to the poem word for word…let’s not forget that Beowolf was pretty much an action movie for its time, which is to say popular intertainment.

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