If you’ve glanced at my list recently, you know I’ve finished a few shorter works. I want to post a short note about each, and I’ll begin with the longest of the three.
Beowulf terrorizes countless high school and college students, not because of its three monsters but because it’s translated from Old English. But it’s worth your precious reading time.The story of a great hero and his encounters with fantastic beastly foes puts teens to sleep. After all, the poet says things in a somewhat circular fashion, reminding readers of previous events and giving characters with jaw-cracking names equally long epithets. In fact, virtually everything gets an epithet. The ocean, for instance, isn’t just the ocean; it’s the ‘whale-road’. It’s a characteristic of epic poetry (as we’ll see in The Iliad), not to mention Old English poetry.
Critics love and hate it, not least because it was probably written down by, then edited by, Christian monks. They appended some thoughts about the God of the Bible, making heathen Danes into pious Christians.
But I love Beowulf. You might expect as much from a sword-and-sorcery fantasy buff, but it’s more than that. The poem captures some qualities of true heroism that are lost to too many of us modern folks. For one, Beowulf is willing to sacrifice his life for the honor of his family, his people, and his friends (Hrothgar, for one). For another, heroism is rewarded with the praise of both the hero’s companions and of the beneficiaries of his heroism.
The poem is dark and beautiful, and fragments of other, interspersed stories deepen the effect. Small wonder that Beowulf is among the influences of The Lord of the Rings. If you’re going to read, find a good verse translation, such as Seamus Heaney’s of a few years ago. Reading Beowulf in prose robs it of its rhythm.
<rant>These days, genuine heroism is overshadowed by the sins of the few and famous. I’m no fan of the Iraq war, but most of our soldiers are facing death with courage. The media, however, seems unable to report on anything but casualties and corruption. We hear about helicopter crashes and IEDs, and yes, an occasional nod to a captured operative. By and large, though, we hear the bad. I guess we’ll have to wait for the after-action reports to make it stateside, long after our part in this war is concluded, to hear about the average guys who are protecting the helpless over there.</rant>