Monday, March 22, 2010

Pre-Printing Press Challenge: Beowulf (and Grendel)

I'm within sight of the finish line on the Pre-Printing Press Challenge and eager to wrap this one up. Crossing things off the To Do list is one of my favorite pastimes!

Technically this is a re-read, but in school assignments we only read the "good parts." That said, as the longest and most complete Old English poem, circa 1100 CE, this is all good stuff! Part of the fun this time was in reading a modern English prose translation in a cool Penguin paperback from England, circa 1957.

The cover design is based on a gold belt buckle found at Sutton Hoo in England, a pagan king's burial site that dates from the 600s. Isn't this beautiful?

(photo credit)

What struck me the most was that while this is a Christian poem, that religious expression is so transparently overlaid upon the ancient codes of fealty, courage, retribution, and right action in this world rather than reward in the next. These Christians have kept their warrior values. The briefness of life remains as much a sorrow for them as though there is nothing beyond: renown in this world is all they have. Even God is a warrior king in a model they recognize--protector, leader, gift-giver, who demands and deserves their loyalty--but on a larger scale.

That said, this is a gripping, wandering tale full of many digressions, all the while telling of the hero and king Beowulf and his battles with the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a great Worm (dragon), complete with gory combat, fantastic weapons, an underwater journey, treasure, funerals, and long speeches. Over it all lies the sadness of loss.

I took advantage of having it fresh in my mind to read Grendel as a companion piece. Generally I don't like anyone to mess with the classics, but I don't mind a creative idea that riffs on other works, when it's well-executed. For example, I wouldn't be caught dead reading the Gone with the Wind sequel--the idea of another author taking up Scarlett as though she's her own makes me shudder--but I love Tom Stoppard's "Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which contains a lot of the talk and action that happens off-stage in Hamlet. The very idea is genius!

(Yes, I know this last bit is a huge contradiction. Stoppard gives Hamlet a cameo! Outrageous! But for some reason, it doesn't bother me. Perhaps the cleverness of it dazzles me to the point that I don't care.)

Gardner has created a similarly dazzling work here, circa 1971, telling the Beowulf story from the point of view of the monster. It's definitely the other side of the story. In Grendel's eyes, the men are drinkers, boasters, nearly savages, living mostly in darkness and fear. Grendel is no shiny hero, either, but he has a subtle understanding that matches his alienation and rage. And his anguish. He is horrible and pitiful, and he will make you think about whether we have come all that far from the 1100's, and who our heroes are.

Good stuff.


Beowulf: King Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf and gives him a status report:

My retainers and my fighting-men have dwindled away. Their fate overtook them at the frightful onslaught of Grendel. Surely God can hold back that maniacal killer! Often and often, over their cups, a party of pot-valiant men has sworn to stay behind in Heorot to fight Grendel with their swords. But the next morning at daybreak this hall would be stained with carnage, the benches wet with blood, and I would have so many loyal followers the fewer, all of them dead. Now you must sit down to banquet; and when the time comes, express your thoughts and your confidence in victory to the men, just as you feel inspired.

Grendel: The monster himself describes what might happen next:

They would listen to each other at the meadhall tables, their pinched, cunning rats' faces picking like needles at the boaster's words, the warfalcons gazing down, black, from the rafters, and when one of them finished his raving threats, another would stand up and lift up his ram's horn, or draw his sword, or sometimes both if he was very drunk, and he'd tell them what he planned to do. Now and then some trivial argument would break out, and one of them would kill another one . . . and they'd either excuse him, for some reason, or else send him out to the forest to live by stealing from their outlying pens like a wounded fox. At times I would try to befriend the exile, at other times I would try to ignore him, but they were treacherous. In the end, I had to eat them.


  1. Oooh, Beowolf....I tried to read it to the kids, but they didn't go for it AT ALL...too violent. Maybe if they'd been boys.

    Love that belt buckle, love it to pieces.

  2. Beowulf is a goodie. I have to ask, what did you think of the translation?

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  4. Elena, didn't mean to ignore your question about the translation! I'm no expert. I prefer verse to verse, instead of the paraphrase method. And I thought this one did a nice job of keeping the staccato effect of the original language. What's your take?

  5. Of the two that I've read, I found I liked the Chickering more. It kept more of the rhythm of the language. For poetry that's something I find particularly important.


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