Day 606: Beowulf

Cover for BeowulfI’m planning this post for Halloween, so I decided to write about the quintessential monster tale. I’m not enough of a poetry reader to easily read an extended poem. Still, Beowulf is considerably more accessible than I expected.

The poem is, of course, the oldest known work in Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, written sometime between the seventh to early eleventh centuries. It is the story of the feats of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero. It is also a poem written by a Christian poet looking back to a time of paganism. I read the award-winning translation by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

For me, the interest in the story is not the tale of battling monsters but the glimpses into a different past and mindset. For this poem is about right and proper behavior. The hero honors his lord and behaves rightly to him. When Beowulf is rewarded for killing Grendal and his mother, he rightfully takes his treasure back to his own chief. Later in the story, when all of Beowulf’s guard except Wiglaf desert him in the face of the dragon, Wiglaf is steadfast by his chief’s side to the end.

The poem is melancholy, for it tells of the end of the Geats, Beowulf’s people, when they are left leaderless after his death. It also stops several times to relate tales of revenge and blood money.

I barely remember a semester of Old English classes in graduate school, but it was enough to occasionally pass my eyes over the Old English side of this bilingual edition and recognize some similarity to modern English, an interesting pastime in itself.

3 thoughts on “Day 606: Beowulf

  1. sodiamondwords October 31, 2014 / 12:19 pm

    Beowulf is a challenge! Old English is a complicated, complicated language but one I really, really enjoyed puzzling through. I had a really good copy for my studies that had a side by side, english/old english translation but I can’t for the life of me remember who translated it. But the story of Beowulf was actually more approachable than Heaney’s version. If you enjoy Beowulf, you should try reading Gawain and the Green Knight in it’s translation. It’s a fabulous middle english story. Happy Halloween!

    • whatmeread October 31, 2014 / 12:40 pm

      I read Sir Gawain years and years ago. I’m not quite sure what you mean by the story being more approachable than Heaney’s translation. Do you mean the other translation? I thought Heaney’s was pretty good. Was it Tolkien’s maybe?

      • sodiamondwords October 31, 2014 / 12:45 pm

        Yes I meant the other translation told the story better than Heaney’s version in my opinion. But I wasn’t massively keen on Heaney’s. (To each their own). I’m going to have to root through my bookshelf to find my side by side translation copy, I just can’t think of their name!

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