Epic Poems You’ve Never Read: Beowulf’s Anglo-Saxon heroics

beowulf-1It’s the start of university teaching again in the UK, so this miniseries of Really Like This Book podcast script catch-ups indulges my passion for teaching epic poetry. If English literature is a forest, epic poems are the big knobbly roots that stick up out of the ground and get in the way. They’ve been there for a long time for good reason. I start in the sixth century AD, with that Anglo-Saxon epic of Danish monsters, Beowulf. Today’s link with the sixth century’s round-the-fire entertainment is The Lord of the Rings, so if you like that, you’ll like Beowulf. It’s got a superhero with a sword, it’s got the ur-monster Grendel, and his even more terrifying mother who is an underwater killing machine. It’s got a dragon, it’s got a hall of men being eaten up by a rampaging monster dripping blood, and it’s got stately kings and magnificent queens.

All that is great to read, but in reading Beowulf, we do have a problem. It’s not written in modern English, so we have to use translations unless you’ve done a year or two of Anglo-Saxon first. * Seamus Heaney’s version is very good. I like it mainly because Heaney’s version is that of a poet retelling the story while following the Anglo-Saxon poetic forms. The translations I used as a student were written by scholars of Anglo-Saxon. While they were all enthusiasts for the story and the culture it depicts, and in some cases they were also literature scholars as well as linguists, they weren’t always good poets. I got tired of clunky renderings of the exact match of sense and sound: I wanted story. Heaney gives the story in poetry.

beowulf-2When you read Beowulf, as with all poetry, it’s a good idea to read it aloud. Beowulf was an orally transmitted poem, memorised and recited as a set-piece performance in halls and at feasts. It was public entertainment, to be heard and marvelled at, and also remembered. Everyone would have known it as a familiar story, and it would have been received as an old favourite as well as a variant on an old form. The first word of Beowulf as we know it tells us this: it’s ‘Hwaet!’. That means, ‘listen, pay attention, I’m going to tell you about something worth listening to’. It’s a word designed for bellowing into a rowdy drinking hall, to make the drunks shut up and the idle pay attention. Heaney’s version starts the poem with ‘So.’, which is equally effective: a colloquial signal meaning ‘stop what you’re doing just a minute, and listen to what I’m about to say’.

The story begins in the hall of Hrothgar, a Danish king with a hall that was probably somewhere near Roskilde in modern Denmark. (There’s a huge metal music festival there now every year: is this a coincidence?) Hrothgar is a good king and a rich one; his queen is the great lady Wealhtheow, and he has a fine body of men as his war-horde. But he has a problem: he also has a monster. Something is attacking and eating his men, by night and in secret, and no-one knows where the beast lives, or how to stop it. So he sends out the word for help, and Beowulf’s ship arrives.

beowulf-3We could describe Beowulf as a professional hero, but that would be a very anachronistic view. We have to think ourselves into Anglo-Saxon culture, drawn from archaeology as well as ancient fragments of poetry and formal records. The lord of a hall offered hospitality without question to anyone who came to visit – this was a common feature of Bronze Age and Iron Age civilisations worldwide. Fighting men who had their own means – weapons, armour, servants and their own warriors, and a network of family and friendship connections – would find a welcome anywhere where they weren’t already involved with a feud or a bad kin relationship. Once the fighting man had come to visit, he might stay for a week, a month, or years, giving the lord service as required, and being treated as part of the fighting force. Beowulf is already royal, as the nephew of King Hygelac of the Geats, so he has high status, but he’s also welcome for his prowess. He’s an established hero, and the poem is full of stories of his deeds. All heroic fantasy novels, video games, films and avatar worlds that have any connection with pre-medieval swords and sorcery, are descended from Beowulf, no matter how remotely.

Here is a digression into book history, and the extraordinary survival power of stories. Beowulf was an orally-transmitted poem, and is around 1500 years old. It’s the oldest text in English literature. It was probably first created in the Anglian dialect, from the East of England. At some time in about 750 AD a written version was made using a different dialect of Old English, from the north or west of England. This was copied and recopied by different scribes for different clients, in different parts of the linguistic patchwork of the British Isles. The earliest copy of the poem that exists now dates from 1000 AD, and that was written in a Kentish dialect. So the poem was an English poem, it travelled around and existed outside the borders of small kingdoms. That single copy of the poem was the only one that survived, for 1000 years, without being burned, used as fish wrapping, or stolen and lost in a river at night, as probably happened to other copies that undoubtedly also existed. Finally, this ancient survivor was copied in the early eighteenth century on the instruction of its then owner, because the 1000-year old parchment was decaying fast, and it had been damaged in a fire. These eighteenth-century copies preserved the poem for modern study, and released Anglo-Saxon culture as an imaginative cultural force into modern society. Pause for a moment to think of all the other Anglo-Saxon poetry and stories and jokes and songs that were never written down, and have disappeared for ever.

beowulf-5Back to the plot: Beowulf makes his plan and lies in wait for the monster. At this point in the story, the Christian concept of ‘demon’ is used as a description of the man-eating monster, showing that the society that enjoyed the poem enough to write it down was also Christian. When the monster enters the hall for its nightly snack, Beowulf wrestles with it as it scoops up men to eat, and wrenches its arm off at the shoulder. Consider this for a moment: the poem has already mentioned Beowulf’s stupendous battles with underwater creatures, and his beyond-human prowess in war, so we know he’s a little bit supernatural. But here we’re hearing about physical strength, endurance, immense wrestling power, all without weapons: Beowulf must be a man-monster himself, but luckily for Hrothgar he’s on the right side.

beowulf-7So Grendel the monster (for it is he) is defeated, and runs back to his lair wailing, to die. The warriors feast in triumph, there is much rejoicing, but on the next night, a far worse terror enters the hall: Grendel’s mother. I have to say, the concept of a bully’s mother being more terrible than the bully itself seems a joke now, because Monty Python have massacred that idea into silliness. But if we read this from the Anglo-Saxon perspective, the mother of a monster has got to be worse than the monster itself, because of kinship laws and the transmission of a feud between child and parent. From the Christian perspective, Grendel wasn’t any old monster-demon: he was the son of Cain, so Grendel’s mother could be connected with one of the Old Testament demons like Lilith, which Jewish folklore later connected with Adam, Cain’s father. In any case, a female demon is more formidable than a male one. The fear of a powerful female who can defeat men, even eat them up, goes a very long way back in human culture.

beowulf-4Beowulf takes on Grendel’s mother in an underwater battle in the slime, and their combat is epic, lengthy and bloody. When it is over, the world returns to normal, the hero is feasted, and he sails away. But the poem is not yet finished. Many years later, Beowulf has become king of the Geats (the poem is very precise about details of Scandinavian ruling dynasties, because it also functioned as a history lesson for its original listeners). He has got to fight a dragon, because some thief or other has stolen a golden cup from the dragon’s hoard. Anyone who’s read The Hobbit will now be pricking up their ears: this is where Tolkien got the idea from for Smaug, and for Bilbo’s theft. Beowulf goes forth to attack and beat the dragon, and he dies.

The thing I particularly love about the dragon part of Beowulf is that it was the first known best-seller. The manuscript of the dragon part of the single surviving earliest copy of Beowulf is significantly more worn, and faded, and handled, than the earlier parts. The dragon part was almost illegible in the eighteenth century, and was obviously much more popular than the earlier parts since it had been used and copied from and simply touched by many more hands. That battle was epic, but it was also tragic, and noble. Interesting fact for medievalists: the death of Beowulf, and his conversations with his faithful warrior Wiglaf while dying, have a lot of similarities with the Malorian version of the death of King Arthur.

Any dragon in English literature is descended from Beowulf’s dragon, which itself came from Norse mythology, but there are other things in Beowulf the poem that we recognise today. Tolkien was a world-class scholar of northern languages and myth, and wrote many highly influential scholarly works dealing with dragons and northern mythology, as well as with the language and literature of that period and later. He too translated Beowulf (see the image posted above) with an extensive commentary. In The Lord of the Rings the Riders of Rohan and the culture of the Rohirrim are lifted straight from Beowulf, as are the names of Éomer and Hàma. The defence at Helm’s Deep is partially lifted from the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Fight at Finnsburgh’. When Beowulf and his men arrive at Heorot they are asked to stack their weapons at the door. When Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli arrive at Édoras, Hàma the doorwarden asks them to do this too. Wealhtheow, the queen of Hrothgar’s hall, and Hygelac’s queen Hygd, are the Éowyns of their day, and Éowyn’s offering of the guest-cup to Aragorn comes directly from Wealhtheow doing to same to Beowulf in Hrothgar’s hall. The lament of the Rohirrim that Aragorn sings to Frodo is a Tolkienised version of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer’. Beowulf’s sword that dissolves in Grendel’s mother is startlingly close to the sword that the Witch-King of Amgmar stuck into Frodo.

beowulf-6We could go on hunting Anglo-Saxonness in Tolkien, and several people, principally Tom Shippey, have done so. Everywhere you look in Anglo-Saxon poetry, you can find things that Tolkien reused in Middle-Earth. But start with Beowulf: it’s the best and most direct way to return to the society Tolkien had in mind when he wrote his Rohan chapters. But read Beowulf for itself: it’s a grand poem, it won’t take you long (epic does not necessarily mean long), and it’s a window into a different world.

* The late Professor Duncan Macrae-Gibson taught me Anglo-Saxon, and recited the first stanzas of Beowulf to a harp (possibly also wearing Anglo-Saxon costume, but I’m not sure about that now), to open his first lecture. That is how to get your students’ attention.



Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book

Willis 1I fell into Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book with passionate gratitude, after wading through a run of disappointing novels. This novel, as Jo Walton has apparently said, is the one in which Willis got everything right, and it is superb. It won three awards, including the 1992 Hugo and the 1993 Nebula, and is a time travel novel in which an Oxford PhD student is sent back to the 1348 outbreak of the Black Death by mistake. Its structure reminded me immediately of Julian May’s The Many-Coloured Land (1981), in which characters go voluntarily back in time and find it rather different to how they had imagined it would be. Interspersed are episodes set in the present day, in which the evolving plot makes the fundamental problem, of not being able to communicate with the person in the past, a massive design flaw.

Willis recreates Oxford University academic arrogance so well, caricaturing just enough of the confident assertions of the Middle English tutor and the archaeologist that things will be exactly as they teach in tutorials. Nothing can possibly go wrong if Kivrin learns enough medieval Latin. Kivrin is eager, earnest and exceptionally hardworking. She has learnt dyeing and weaving in preparation for her role as a noble lady, memorised her languages, understands her cultural idioms and volunteers on an excavation of a tomb from the right period to get the hang of the church architecture. So does the tech specialist whose developing fever will skew his calculations to send her back in time by about thirty years, and so do some visiting students who later go to a dance in the city. Who could have thought that a virus could live so long?

willis 2For a novel with such a vast body count, it is unexpectedly funny, in the Oxford parts at least. The humour wells up first from the hysterical backbiting between academics determined to pull rank and gain position. It becomes darker as people begin to get ill and the city is put into quarantine, exasperation running ahead of desperation. It is positively graveyard when the bodies are piling up and still Mr Finch is worrying about the college running out of toilet paper and bacon. The visiting handbell group from the United States are mostly ludicrous, but their bells are essential for the plot. Tolling and chiming bells signify death and the passing of time, to remind us of the time passing for Kivrin in the plague period, and her deadline for catching the link back to the present day. Contrasted to this undernote of dread, the insouciance of the teenage Colin negotiating law, order and Oxford hospital nurses is simply joyous, an affirmation of nous and chutzpah all rolled up in polite Home Counties cheeriness.

willis 4Kivrin’s sojourn in 1348 is oppressive and unnerving. It is so beautifully written, we can feel the snapping frost, hear the cracking logs and frozen mud under the horses’ hooves, and imagine the textures of the clothes she has to borrow, and the filth in which they are caked. Kivrin arrives in medieval England with more than just a head cold. There are no drugs and no antibiotics to help her, other than the hi-tech boosters and immunisations she’s been given in the twentieth century. Surviving whatever it was that had knocked her flat for days, she becomes a children’s nanny, and then a makeshift hospital nurse, stacking up furs and blankets for the household to die in, and fighting for their survival alongside the dogged parish priest. She does all this because she cares so passionately for the people who saved her, and we come to care for them too, since every character is a person.

The children of this noble household are particularly heartbreaking: the enchanting six-year old Agnes who is everywhere she should not be, and the haughty, terrified Rosemund, destined to be married to a fifty-year old neighbour at the age of twelve. Against all the deaths and the inevitability of dying of plague, the hopeless feelings Gawayn the knight and Eliwys the lady of the manor have for each other are both futile and necessary: we all have to live for something or someone.


Hand me a petrel: Robert Atkinson’s Island-Going

Atkinson 1We’re in the Outer Hebrides in the 1930s in this Really Like This Book podcasts scripts catch-up, on a mad quixotic journey in the roughest of conditions to locate, observe and tag an obscure little bird called Leach’s fork-tailed petrel. Island-Going by Robert Atkinson is a classic of nature writing, of social history, and of the insanity of the obsessive scientist. I like to know about the practical arrangements behind scientific expeditions, and this one is particularly wacko. Atkinson was an Oxford undergraduate in 1935, or possibly a postgraduate, it isn’t very clear. He and his friend John Ainslie wanted to locate and record Leach’s fork-tailed petrel, in remote and unrecorded birding territory. They were drawn to the Outer Hebrides, mainly because of its relative ease of access from southern England, but also because, as the introduction to the Canongate edition of Island-Going says, very few people were even looking at the outer Scottish islands in the 1930s. Britain was very England-centred at that time, and Scotland was just a holiday destination. These chaps chose to study and pursue Leach’s fork-tailed petrel because it did have known locations, places that it had been spotted at in the past, and these were ludicrously remote even in a Hebridean context. The Flannan Isles, North Rona and St Kilda are practically off the map, so this was clearly a zestful challenge for two young Englishmen on their summer vacation.

The first trip was taken by travelling up to Cape Wrath, the most northerly westernmost point in Scotland, and taking a fishing boat to Handa Island. They observed birds, got familiar with the parenting habits of fulmars, watched the porpoises and peregrines, and every few days caught the fishing boat back to the mainland for a wash, decent food, and a replenishment of supplies. Camping on the island in the very rudimentary old cottage used by stranded sailors and the lambing crews was primitive, but primitiveness does not seem to bother Atkinson. The worse the conditions, the happier and more interested is his writing. There is no way I would want to recreate his experiences counting birdlife and sealife, but it is riveting reading.

Atkinson 2In their second year, the boys – and they really were boys, only 19 and 21 – tried something more advanced, by going to the island of Rona and to the Shiants, which you can read about in Adam Nicolson’s Sea-Room. Atkinson got permission from Nicolson’s grandfather, the then owner, to land on the Shiants to observe the birds, but to get there they had to make a risky trip by boat, and to get the boat they first had to transport all their stuff – in seven packing cases – up from Oxford by car. This car was rather fragile in its construction, and didn’t really have much life left, but it did get their gear up to the far north-west coast for shipment over rough seas to their first destination, North Rona. The trip by drifter over to the island exposed the weak spot in their operating methods, since poor John Ainslie was a martyr to seasickness, and had to suffer so much of this in repeated approaches to the islands in rough weather, that he gave up going on the expeditions. They landed, they made a camp, they found prehistoric settlements, and at last, in the night, they could hear the peeping of Leach’s fork-tailed petrel as it flitted to and fro nocturnally. You couldn’t imagine a more difficult and elusive bird to observe. It was unknown where they came from, where they went when they’d stopped zooming around in the night on Rona for these few weeks in the year, and why they came there to breed. Hence, of course, the interest in observing them.

The birdlife is not the only interest in this delightful and really rather mad account of interwar ornithology. Atkinson is acutely aware of the life of the islands as well, through the history of the buildings: from tiny early Christian monks’ cells to nineteenth-century lambing pens and the bins of the seaweed-gathering industry. The history of the communities on the edges of the Scottish west coast were then just as unrecorded as the lives of its birds. When historians don’t speak or understand Gaelic, huge areas of history will disappear without anyone knowing. Interspersed between their own adventures, Atkinson is very keen to collect together the older notes of other travellers and scholars, making Island-Going a repository for all the information about one particular small island. The human history then becomes important again.

Atkinson 3But the birds are really the focus, because there are so many of them. Hundreds of thousands of individuals roost and breed on the islands that Atkinson inspected, and he became familiar with entire populations. Not with single birds, because they were perpetually off and about, but with the habits of a species. The greater black-backed gull will prey on puffins, and turn them inside out while pecking out their meat. Fulmars squirt oil at anything and everything when they’re feeling unnerved, for protection as well as an alarm. The four kinds of petrels that spend a tiny part of their lives on land all lead a rather risky lifestyle, laying only one egg a year, and have no sense of which is their own chick when it comes to feeding time. Subsequently one chick might starve to death because its parents forget which one is their own, and feed another baby instead.

The boys also integrated with the human work on the islands, pulling the focus of the book back from horrible bits of bird corpse and broken eggshell. The annual sheep gathering on Rona wakes them up one morning, so they spend the day helping to round up sheep with fishermen and shepherds. They moved to the Shiants mainly because the opportunity arose when a friendly boat was going over there anyway. Its relative luxury of an intact cottage for sleeping in, and foliage that grew more than an inch high above the ground, made the Shiants seem paradisical compared to the rigours of Rona, stripped bare by Atlantic weather, but then they discovered the rats. The Shiants do have a rat problem, which will eat anything not nailed down or locked away. The boys struggled on, competing with the rats for their own food supply, to become perturbed when there was no sign of their return lift on the horizon. They did some rudimentary fishing to stay alive, and were rescued four days late, because their fisherman had just forgotten to come and fetch them. This was apparently rather funny, in hindsight.

The trip to the Flannan Isles brought the boys greater comfort: accommodation in a lighthouse, with lobster teas to catch. Sheep were pastured there, so they went in with the sheep boat, and stayed with the lighthouse-keepers for a few days. This takes the narrative away from ornithology to late industrial practices, with intense interest in the maintenance of the light. When not watching the thousands of resident puffins, the boys played golf on a five-hole course laid out for the entertainment of the keepers.

Atkinson's photo of Finlay McQueen outside his house on St Kilda (School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh)
Atkinson’s photo of Finlay McQueen outside his house on St Kilda (School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh)

In 1938 Atkinson’s expedition was to North Uist, St Kilda, and the Monach Isles, to get away from mainland Scotland as much as was humanly possible without actually going to Iceland. The Uists had red-necked phalaropes to watch, the Monachs had rabbits and lobsters, and also hosted a game of beach cricket between the incoming scientists and the locals, who were learning the game for the first time. On St Kilda, Atkinson was hoping to photograph the St Kilda wren, and maybe the St Kilda house mouse, of which only twelve had ever been seen. He managed to land in good weather, and was given the empty manse for his house, one of a string of stone-built cottages on St Kilda’s only street, all deserted by then except in the summer months. Three of the islanders were in summer residence, come back from their exile on the mainland to keep an eye on the island during its brief tourist season, and to sell postcards (but never on a Sunday). Snipe rootled around in the grass outside Atkinson’s front door, and the village was alive with all the St Kilda wrens he could want. There were also other bird stories to explore. The St Kildans used to catch and process fulmars for food and trade: their body oil used for train engines and lamps, and their feathers stuffed mattresses for First World War soldiers. Finlay McQueen showed Atkinson how to catch puffins by a long pole with a loop at the end. The St Kilda chapters are ghost-ridden, because this was the most famous of the Hebridean islands to be evacuated and abandoned, incapable any longer of sustaining life.

Atkinson’s last expedition before the war was an attempt on Ultima Thule, which means the ends of the earth, his facetious name for Sula Sgeir, a gannetry in the middle of the Atlantic. More vast quantities of birds, more primitive conditions, more astounding natural beauty, and more remnants of human habitation dating from when living was expected to be brutal and hard. This whole book is a record of survival, if not of the birds, then of the people who scratched a living from the earth in the middle of the sea. You’d never want to go and do it yourself, but it is a terrific record of its last survival.