Top critical review
Tale of a monster-slayer
on 24 February 2014
In ancient Anglo-Saxon culture, a "sceop" was a storyteller. A sceop might not be telling a story of his own, but he tells it with grace, elegance and power.
It seems like an appropriate title for whoever originally wrote the classic story of "Beowulf" -- a full-blooded, rich epic poem about a young hero who is called upon to slay various monsters. That's a tale old as time, but I can only advise people to find a more graceful translation than Gummere's -- it's too clunky and literal.
A creature named Grendel is attacking the beautiful mead-hall of Heorot, sneaking in at night to carry off and/or kill innocent people. King Hrothgar is powerless to stop the monster. But then Beowulf, an already-legendary hero from Geatland, arrives at Heorot specifically to kill Grendel -- and using only his superhuman strength, he is able to arm-wrestle Grendel to death. Not joking.
But that isn't the end of his troubles. Grendel's equally grotesque mother is enraged by her child's death, and attacks Heorot to lure Beowulf out. This time, he'll be fighting on HER turf, and the legendary hero might not survive. And as the years go by, he's faced with a terrible new enemy, one that threatens his homeland and everyone in it...
"Beowulf" is revered as one of the oldest works of Anglo-Saxon literature, and it deserves the reverance. But the poem is a lot more than just an old story -- it's a gripping adventure story, and it's also a glimpse of a culture that was pretty much stamped out with the Norman invasion. It's a culture of boasting, blood, honor, friendship and "ring-giving," where ancient pagan cultures are enmeshed in new Christian beliefs.
It's also an outrageously awesome adventure, with some brilliant fight scenes -- lots of swords, blood and sometimes wonderfully graphic violence. Just look at the awesome scene where Beowulf rips off Grendel's arm, then sticks it on the wall as a trophy. You can practically hear the early-medieval mead-halls erupting with applause whenever that happens.
But it also has some truly beautiful moments, such as the final conversation between Beowulf and Wiglaf. And there are some powerful speeches, such as Hrothgar lecturing Beowulf on what it takes to be a "good king," and the qualities of a great leader.
It also has some truly, amazingly beautiful language woven into the story. It takes a little while to get past the rhythms of epic poetry and the very Anglo-Saxon words and phrases, but there is some truly beautiful alliterative wordcraft ("Untrod is their home;/by wolf-cliffs haunt they and windy headlands,/fenways fearful, where flows the stream/from mountains gliding to gloom of the rocks,...").
Beowulf himself is not the perfect superman that you would initially think -- he's rather arrogant and immature at the beginning, despite his great strength and leadership skills. It's only through his fight with Grendel's mother that he realizes that even he is not invulnerable, and learns the humility to be a good monarch himself.
Sadly, I can't recommend Gummere's translation for people who aren't massive fans of Old English. It's a very dense, literal translation with some odd word choices (Beowulf is the "bairn of Ecgtheow"), and it's hard to really lose yourself in the romantic use of language when you're trying to unravel the proper word sequence.
"Beowulf" is a story of timeless power and beauty, while also giving us a glimpse into a long-gone -- but still influential -- world of wildness, monsters and magic. Try a different translation, though.