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.