Sunday, 24 June 2007

Beowulf and Boy's Own

We groupies were all very nervous and none too enthusiastic with our June Book Group choice – one bright spark suggested we read Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf: could we do justice to an Anglo-Saxon epic that is a set university text to challenge the best of boffins.

We need not have worried: here was Raiders of the Lost Ark crossed with the best Boy's Own story. Hrothgar, King of the Danes, was in a bit of a pickle because the nasty Grenfel (it's mentioned that he's a descendent of Cain so you get the message) was terrorizing his kingdom.

Beowulf, Scandinavian prince and Germanic warrior, sails over from south Sweden with some of his men to help him out. But Unferth – one of Hrothgar's warriors – is envious of Beowulf, strongest of the Geats, and has a swipe at him: Beowulf is no wimp and retaliates.

The very next day Beowulf is off and mortally wounds Grenfel with his bare hands. We're all treated to a little reminiscence: the legend of Siegmund slaying a dragon. Beowulf cuts off Grenfel's claw and carries it off to show King Hrothgar: he gets royally rewarded (lots of alliteration in Beowulf) and feted and at this celebration we hear the Song of the Finns.

Unfortunately (or fortunately if you're into myths) Grenfel's mum comes to avenge her son's death and kills Hrothgar's most trusted friend: Beowulf, hero that he is, rides off in search with a sword no normal man could wield.

In a cave under a lake he breaks the she-trolls neck and finds the dead Grenfel. He cuts off the dead demon's head with the sword the shaft of which immediately melts with the heat of the monster's blood: all very gory but excellent material for an epic.

Beowulf returns to the grateful Hrothgar with Grenfel's head and the encrusted hilt of the sword: soon he sails home to the land of the Geats with a pile of goodies for his King. Eventually Beowulf inherits the kingdom and rules for fifty years in peace and harmony. Until, that is, some stressed Dane helps himself to some loot from a dragon's lair.

The angry dragon wreaks fire and brimstone on the Danes: again Beowulf – with eleven warriors - sails to help. He knows his destiny is to finish the dragon off but that his fate will be to die too. He does manage to wound the dragon but finds his sword will not kill the beast: ten of his warriors retreat but brave Wigluf helps him.

Between them they kill the dragon but Beowulf is fatally wounded. He asks Wigluf to show him the dragon's treasure before he dies: a pyre is built for Beowulf and the treasure is buried with him in his barrow. Good has nevertheless triumphed over evil.

Yes, it's a jolly good tale, listened to over the centuries around many a camp fire –feuds, bravery, loyalty and fate all play their part. But of course there's a lot more to it than that. The poem is a prime example of the oral Germanic tradition – all myth and legend - and we learn what life was all about then. Read aloud the narrative is powerful, beautiful and very moving but must be even more so in the original Anglo-Saxon.

The poem starts and finishes with ceremonies for the brave dead but the structure is not straightforward. Surprisingly it's not so very different from the time shift found in many novels of today: for example the legends of Siegmund and the Finns are slotted into the narrative and past and present intermingle.

Inaccuracies of events and exaggeration of feats and character's abilities make the stories believable and these devices have been used throughout the centuries in all folk stories. We only have to look at the tales of Robin Hood to be reminded of that.

Those of us who finished the book thoroughly enjoyed it and those who did not were so enthused with the discussion that they pledged to do so. We were so glad to have tackled what we had imagined was, if not a chore, then a challenge and to have found it a pleasure: our bright spark was transformed into an enlightened groupie, if not a total visionary.

So anyone can read Beowulf, nothing to worry about, the poem is simply brilliantly imaginative Boy's Own stuff: enjoy it.


Book Note: JRR Tolkien was born in Blomfontein, South Africa in 1892 but came to live in England in 1895. In 1936 he was made Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University.

His books, The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-56), are both tales about mythical creatures (elves, wizards, dwarfs, dragons and orcs) and their legendary past.

Tolkein wrote his critique Beowulf and the Invention of Myth in 1938, shortly after The Hobbit was published, and parallels are frequently drawn between his works and Beowulf.

In all three texts characters shape future legend, past and present are interconnected , there is the same form or structure with inset narratives and, in both, characters exaggerate the deeds of their protagonists.

Be this as may, it was Tolkien's contention in Beowulf and the Invention of Myth that scholars and students should cast aside all previously complicated, high-brow ideas about the poem Beowulf and simply view it as a work of imagination.


Carla said...

I fell for Michael Alexander's Penguin Classics translation, and that's the one whose words always come to mind for me now. I must get a copy of Seamus Heaney's translation - I've heard many good things about it.

Lucy said...

If you do get Heaney's translation you'll find his introduction very interesting: I skimmed the intro first, then read it again when I'd finished. Fascinating stuff.