The Oldest (But Not So Obsolete) English Epic

Beowulf cover

Often, for undaunted courage, / fate spares the man it has not already marked.

 

It was J.R.R. Tolkien who popularized Beowulf in the modern era. His essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, makes the argument that the epic poem also has a historical significance which is often obscured by its poetic and literary significance. When it’s observed from the perspective of Medieval Scandinavian history, Tolkien is indeed correct. The historical significance of Beowulf is quite rich and profound. For instance, the story deals with pagan and Christian beliefs. Although Scandinavia was Christianized only after Beowulf was written, the poem contains a multitude of Christian terminologies. Thus, it is possible that the poet was a Christian convert. By juxtaposing pagan and Christian beliefs, Scandinavia’s religious history is beginning to approach the limelight.

Beowulf takes place in Medieval Scandinavia. The story centers around a Geat named Beowulf (hence the title). He heroically saves the Danes by slaying the monster Grendel after it wreaked havoc and destruction upon their land. He later proves to be a savior again when he slays Grendel’s mother who was avenging her son’s death. After returning home, he becomes king and rules for fifty years before engaging himself in battle with a dragon.

The plot may initially seem small, but there are complex interwoven themes such as fame, victory, and responsibility. Beowulf’s taking responsibility to aid the Danes by vanquishing Grendel is a symbolism for how one takes the responsibility to not only combat one’s biggest obstacles, but also to aid others (since Grendel symbolizes a major obstacle for the Danes and Beowulf chooses to take responsibility to help combat their obstacle). Furthermore, Beowulf’s subsequent fame as a result of slaying Grendel is also a symbolism for how one can achieve eminence throughout one’s life by choosing to perform noble acts, including taking responsibility by aiding others and one’s self (since by slaying Grendel, Beowulf achieved extensive fame).

I would recommend this book to people who like poetry, Norse literature, action, and adventure. However, Beowulf is accessible to virtually anybody. The edition which I read was published by W.W. Norton & Company and translated by Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. His translation is constantly praised as the greatest among all the dozens and dozens of English translations of this epic, and I can see why. His translation was smooth and flowed as naturally as a river, thus making it easier to comprehend the story. Reading Beowulf aloud, I was able to very vividly visualize all the action and events. He provides a good introduction to elucidate the significance of this poem and brief summaries of each stanza. Furthermore, he provides family trees of the three main Scandinavian families (Geats, Swedes, and Danes) in the back. The super bonus, however, is the bilingualism, for he preserved the original Old English on the even-numbered pages and provided the modern English translations on the odd-numbered pages.  All in all, this is a wonderful edition crafted for the best reading experience possible while still preserving the originality of the poem.

Click here to buy this Old English epic.

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