Saturday, April 13, 2024



King Hrothgar of the Danes has had a long and prosperous rule, but is now left to worry in old age as his great hall, Heorot, is terrorized by a monster named Grendel whose emergence from his lake is becoming more and more frequent as he feasts on the king’s men. The horror is felt throughout the kingdom and all hope now seems to be gone when a brave warrior from the north docks on the king’s shores. Beowulf comes from the land of the Geats and has a debt to pay to the Danish king dating back to their forebears. He gives his word that he will get rid of the monster. The king promises fortune and fame in exchange. True enough, he accomplishes his mission and everyone rejoices, celebrating his bravery and heroism, until Grendel’s equally monstrous mother decides to pay Heorot a visit to avenge his son.

Poetry is not really my cup of tea. How I wish meter and alliteration would tickle my fancy, but they just won’t. Luckily, reading Burton Raffel’s translation is an easy task that prioritizes efficient translation over poetic shenanigans. What you get is a simple introduction to Beowulf’s lore, accentuating the story in its core which remains to be your typical Germanic Heroic Legend. Once you are done familiarizing yourself with the characters and the storyline, you can always proceed to tackle the many other Beowulf translations from various scholars of Old English, in the original, with hefty notes to aid your linguistic training.

Considered to be the oldest masterpiece of English literature, Beowulf does not seem to introduce anything new, because it is considered as one of the prototypes of this genre, or at least the oldest that managed to survive centuries in manuscript form. Most of these legends were passed down via oral tradition, making it difficult to ascertain who the real author is. Although short, the story gives you a good glimpse of how life must have been back then. Which values were considered as positive or negative? How did those people view life and success? What was their society like?

Of course, we cannot take everything at face value here. Beowulf feels more like historical fiction more than anything else. What makes some people confuse it for actual history is the presence of familiar place names, actual historical figures as well as legends shared among other Germanic traditions. That is one fun aspect of this tale as you get engrossed in trying to find real life links based on archaeological evidence. Real or not, the real value here is the medieval worldview you get to obtain from peoples who lived a thousand of years ago. One that I particularly enjoy is the religious aspect.

Beowulf seems to have been written at a time when the pagan tribes of the British Isles were transitioning to Christianity, and the resulting work highlights the role of religion in nation building. There are plenty of mentions of God and glory. Even Grendel’s origins are linked to Cain, obviously a biblical reference. And yet, much of the plot points hark back to a more ancient tradition that emphasized a different set of values that at times just do not jive well with the religion they are trying to promote. Now we get a glimpse of how divine ordinance as a mandate to rule a kingdom had evolved over time.

Going back to the issue of prototypes, there are a lot of literary tropes here that we have seen recycled all the time in various eras and various forms of media. The fire breathing dragon guarding a lair full of treasure. The brave and bold king who dies and is immortalized as a hero. The quest to defeat a horrifying and powerful villain in its own lair. Reading Beowulf feels as though you’ve already seen bits and pieces of it somewhere else before, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones. Perhaps what’s even more fascinating is how the popularity of medieval storylines like this doesn’t seem to die down. Where does its appeal come from?

I have no answer for that, unfortunately. The eras in which these stories unfold were turbulent ones that should be unattractive to the modern reader/viewer, but perhaps it is the backdrop that makes them conducive to tales of heroism and legendary quests that draws people in, especially now when such conquests have taken on a more figurative form confined in one’s imagination. When the Grendels and dragons you fight have been reincarnated in the form of monthly bills and taxes, sometimes it’s just hard to resist the allure of an old-fashioned tale of heroes and monsters, in a world that is as alien as it is familiar.

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