Wednesday, December 18, 2013

5 Things That Struck Me About Beowulf

When last I left my series on The Magic of Medieval Fiction, we were in the Sixth Century – the age of Beowulf, the subject of one of England’s most famous epic poems. The tale was the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, and has spawned numerous films, both live and animated. I recently re-read the story, and five things really struck me this time around.

My favorite Translation

1.  The Monsters Have Biblical Origins

Despite the story’s Norse-like setting, Beowulf’s author was obviously Christian, for he gave Grendel and his evil mother biblical origins. When I first encountered this, my hope was it would tie-in with Enochian myth. Perhaps Grendel and dear mom were Nephilim who survived the Great Flood and now lurked in the shadows? Alas, while the poem makes a reference to the giants (the “Nephilim” of Genesis 6:4), Grendel and his mother turn out to be descendants of Cain, banished in their monstrous form as divine punishment for the murder of Abel:
“Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward.”
In retrospect, the odds that Beowulf’s author would have known about the Book of Enoch are slim to none because the Book of Enoch all but disappeared during the Middle Ages. (One of my characters in Enoch’s Device has a great conspiracy theory on the reason why :)

2.  Beowulf Is Foolhardy Brave

When the hero of the Geats arrives to help King Hrothgar rid his land of Grendel, he learns that Grendel scorns the use of weapons. So, being the badass that he is, Beowulf decides to forego weapons too and fight to the death in hand-to-hand combat. Of course, this foolish move works out in the end since it turns out that Grendel can’t be harmed by mortal weapons. Fortunately Beowulf is such a badass, he just tears off Grendel’s arm, which is pretty much all she wrote for the big baddie of this tale.

Who can forget Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mum - she even wore high heels!*

3.  Grendel’s Mom Doesn’t Look Anything Like Angelina Jolie

In Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 film Beowulf, Grendel’s mom is pretty much a naked Angelina Jolie with a really long ponytail. In the actual poem, she’s a “tarn-hag” and a “swamp-thing from hell.” Oh well.

4.  There’s Always a Magic Weapon When You Need One

Like many good fantasy tales, it’s a magic weapon that allows Beowulf to defeat Grendel’s mother: “a sword in her armoury, an ancient heirloom from the days of the giants.” Even more, it’s “holy God” who allows him to find the magic sword, and then with one good chop, it’s off with her head. The notion of a magic weapon – particularly one given to the hero as a divine gift – is one of the archetypes of fantasy fiction (and old hero tales in general), so it’s only fitting that one of the oldest epic poems had one lying around.

We can thank Beowulf for giving us Smaug

5.  The Dragon At The End Is A Precursor to Smaug

Long after the story of Grendel and his mom is wrapped up, the poem contains a whole new story about a dragon. It takes place years after the first tale, when Beowulf is fifty and now the king of the Geats. Lo and behold, the dragon lives in a barrow, guarding a hoard of gold, and only comes out after a thief sneaks in and steals a gem-studded goblet. Sound familiar? J.R.R. Tolkien was a Beowulf expert and even gave a lecture in 1936 called “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics.” So I had to smile when I remembered that scene from The Hobbit where it’s Bilbo’s theft of a cup that awakens Smaug from his slumber. I haven’t seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug yet, but I’ve read that the dragon is amazing, and we can all ultimately thank the author of Beowulf for that!

Try reading Old English - I dare ya!

One last word on the tale: My favorite translation of the story is the bilingual edition by the late Seamus Heaney. The book has the translated verse side by side with the original Old English text, which makes you realize that modern English looks and sounds nothing like what they wrote in the Middle Ages. I always smile when some folks are critical of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages because the characters are speaking in “modern” English. Trust me, if the characters talked in Old English, you couldn’t understand a word they said, and Mr. Heaney’s translation proves this point. The translated verse, however, is easy to read, and quite beautiful in places. And it makes the story read like a novel instead of a thousand-year-old poem. It is very well done, and not surprising that Mr. Heaney’s version became a New York Times bestseller.

* Trailer photo from


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Joseph Finley said...

I'm glad you love the blog! And an award too - thank you!