In this lesson, we'll take a look at the Old English epic, Beowulf. We'll explore what happens, how it's written and why it has such a lasting legacy.
Beowulf, Beowulf, we're gonna talk about Beowulf!
We're going to talk about Beowulf, and he's super exciting. We're going to talk about the form of the poem, we're going to talk about what happens, and we're going to talk about why we care...because it's old. It's so old...this is like the oldest thing ever. Scholars like to fight about whether it was composed in the 8th century or the 11th century, but it doesn't really matter for us because either one of those things is still really, really old.
It's basically written by this anonymous Old English poet and we don't know who he is. It's about some Scandinavian guys who go on some adventures. It's actually called an epic poem. Epic doesn't just mean 'totally awesome,' like 'that was epic,' or, 'Oh my god, that was so epic!' It's a long poem about adventuresome deeds. So that night your friends got drunk and pushed each other around in shopping carts until the cops showed up, that's not epic. Beowulf is epic.
It's written in Old English, which is not the same thing as Middle English, which comes later. Old English is spoken from around maybe 450-1150 AD, it gets a little murky, but that's about right. Even though it has the word 'English' in it and you might think that it would be comprehensible to you, you really can't understand it. So I'm going to put up on the screen the opening lines of Beowulf, and just take a look at it, just try to figure that out:
Hwæt! We Gardena || in gear-dagum,
þeodcyninga, || þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas || ellen fremedon.
You can't do it. It doesn't make any sense. And you're not going to be expected to be able translate that. You're only going to have to read that in translation if you do have to encounter it. But the important thing to know is that it is in something called alliterative verse, which is a really typical thing for Old English poetry. I promise you we're going to get to the fun battles and all the exciting stuff soon, but I do have to tell you about alliterative verse first because it's really important and it is something that might come up at some point if you have to talk about Beowulf.
So you've probably heard the term 'alliteration,' which basically means things like 'an angry ant' or 'the beautiful butterfly;' it's a bunch of words that all start with the same letter, basically. Instead of rhyming, what Old English poets like to do, as a kind of way to structure their poetry, was to have a line that, maybe not every word because that would be kind of difficult, but a lot of the words start with the same letter. Translations of Beowulf do try to preserve this, so you can kind of take a look a line and see how this really plays out in a practical kind of way.
Here's a translated line:
The folk-kings' former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
So in the first line we get lots of F's and in the second line we get lots of P's, you know, princes, displayed, prowess. The other important thing is that the lines are kind of divided in two by something that's called a caesura, which means break. And basically how it's organized is that you have two strong accents before the break and two strong accents after the break in each line. It sometimes can be harder to see in translation, but if you look at the second line again that we read before - 'How princes displayed their prowess-in-battle,' - there are two accents before and two accents after, and there's that break that you can do naturally in the middle. And the alliteration is supposed to help us, in a way, bridge that gap, so there are things on either side that all start with that same letter. That's the basic form and structure of how Beowulf is formed and structured.
The Epic Tale
King Hrothgar and his wife Wealhtheow are characters in Beowulf.
So what happens in Beowulf? It's a lot of awesome adventuring. First we're introduced to the Danes who are people who live in what's now Denmark. They're descendants of Scyld Scefing (that's kind of an awesome name). He's dead, so we're really looking at one of his descendants, whose name is King Hrothgar, and his wife Wealhtheow and all of his knights. (I think that Hrothgar would be the best cat name, but that's neither here nor there.)
So Hrothgar and his people, they have a monster problem. There's this horrible beast named Grendel who's terrorizing their mead hall, Heorot. Scholars kind of fight a little bit about what Grendel really looks like - it's not totally clear from what they've translated. A lot of them think he's kind of human-like, but really big, and maybe has scales. I like to think of him as an ancient-day Oscar the Grouch when I picture him. Sometimes I also think of him on the cover of John Gardner's book called Grendel about the monster's point of view, and on the cover of that he looks like a furry cat-monster. There's an animated movie (that I love the title of) called Grendel, Grendel, Grendel where he's just a sad-looking green monster. Then there was a 2007 movie with a whole bunch of CGI where he kind of looks gross, I don't know how to describe that gross person. But however you picture him, he's ferocious and weird. He's supposed to be disconcerting and strange, and he keeps killing the Danes (that's really the salient point), and they don't know what to do. He also lives in the swamp - that's important. I think that also might be why I think of him as Oscar the Grouch, because it's kind of like, trashcan, swamp...who can blame him for being upset about things.
So Beowulf comes in. He's sort of a professional good guy. He hears about this situation and he comes in to help. He's a Geat, which means that he's from what is now Sweden (it doesn't mean that he opens and closes to let you through). Hrothgar, a long time ago, had helped out Beowulf's dad, so he's sort of repaying the favor a little bit, coming and helping out with this. So Beowulf gets there and they have a big feast. Some of Hrothgar's warriors are a little skeptical of Beowulf's accomplishments. One of them named Unferth brings up this embarrassing swimming contest that Beowulf had back in the day that he lost. Beowulf says that he lost because he had to defeat a bunch of sea monsters on the way, which I think might be supposed to be true. It's the kind of thing, you know, excuses, excuses...
Beowulf hears about Grendel and comes in to help.
They're having this big feast, and Hrothgar thinks he can do it, even if some of his warriors are a little skeptical. And late at night, Grendel turns up, right on cue, to be fought. But late, kind of like that obnoxious friend who turns up wasted right just when you're starting to clean and gets all upset that no one wants to play Mario Kart with him... Grendel's kind of like that, turning up late at night. Beowulf has decided that he's not going to use any weapons because Grendel isn't armed. That seems like dubious logic to me because people don't have monster things like teeth and claws and all that stuff.
But Beowulf thinks he can handle it, and it turns out he totally can because he ends up beating Grendel. He rips off his arm, which is really crazy. Grendel runs away to his swamp to die, and we think we've maybe seen the last of him. The Danes are drinking and singing songs and all happy the next day having celebrations. And then, Grendel's mom turns up. And this is kind of the origin of the mama bear concept; you kill the baby, and then something even more horrible and big comes to get you because you killed its baby. That's kind of what's going on with Grendel's mom.
She comes in, she kills one of Hrothgar's favorite warriors, and then it's on. Beowulf and a bunch of the Danes run off to the swamp and they're going to go and take on Grendel's mom. Unferth, remember that doubting guy who brought up the whole swimming contest thing, he's totally convinced now, because he saw Beowulf rip off Grendel's arm, that Beowulf is a good guy, so he gives him a sword called Hrunting. (Beowulf's just full of fantastic names.). So Beowulf takes Hrunting and he's going to go fight Grendel's mom. Grendel's mom ends up pulling him underwater where they fight, which I guess was fine - if you're an ancient-day person I guess you don't have to be able to breathe.
Beowulf slays the mother of Grendel with a sword he finds underwater.
But Beowulf finds that Hrunting isn't really cutting the mustard and he can't really defeat Grendel's mom with this sword. Things are not looking good for Beowulf for a while. It looks like he might lose this battle with Grendel's mom, which is one of the interesting things about the epic in general. He doesn't seem invincible all the time, which is kind of nice and interesting. Down underwater, he finds this other sword that is really awesome and is actually able to kill Grendel's mom, and then yay, hooray, the Grendel part of this story is done.
So then we get a kind of epilogue-y thing, where 50 years later, Beowulf goes home. So now he's back among the Geats, among the people in Sweden, and he's king. During his reign, some idiot guy goes and tries to steal some treasure from a big treasure horde. It turns out to belong to a dragon. The dragon gets very upset and goes around burning the peasants and burning the countryside. Beowulf has to go and deal with it. He's kind of old now. So he goes to deal with the dragon, and he's really not doing well. A friend comes and helps him out,. He ends up being able to take care of the dragon, but he also ends up being mortally wounded in the process. The epic concludes with him dying a hero's death and being buried on the cliff side. So that's what happens in Beowulf.
Beowulf dies a hero and is buried on the cliff side
Like I said, it's really, really old, so 'why do we care?' is an important question to ponder. One of the reasons is just because it's old and big and significant-seeming, and so it's worth studying from that perspective. It's an original thing and might have some influence on later literature. The other thing is that it's really attractive to people who study this stuff because they don't know a lot about it. They don't even know who wrote it, and there's a lot of scholarship that can be done figuring things out about it, which is really attractive to the kind of people who do that.
It's interesting too because it's at a weird intersection between Paganism and Christianity. It was probably written down by a Christian, but it's definitely about Pagan stuff, such as these Pagan kings, who are actually probably sort of based on real people. Obviously Grendel and the dragons and stuff like that's probably not real, but Hrothgar and Beowulf were probably based on real people. So there's an interesting intersection of older stuff and then new Christian interpretations going on in this. Legend, myth, and history wrapped up into one thing is interesting.
One of the reasons why we're so into it now is that J.R.R. Tolkien, of Lords of the Rings fame and The Hobbit, was really, really into it. You actually might recognize the part where the idiot disturbs the dragon horde, and then the dragon comes out - that kind of happens in the Hobbit. Bilbo is the thief and Smaug is the dragon, so that plot ends up playing out. But what Tolkien did is he delivered this famous lecture about how we really can't separate out the supernatural stuff from the history stuff, which is how people were approaching it at the time. He said, no, this is really important that we look at this all together, and that has influenced the way we think about it now. His work on it influenced the importance that we assign to it now. And we definitely wouldn't have had the crazy CGI Beowulf adaptation if we left out the magic, though I'm still not totally sure how Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mom fit into all that...
To sum it up, Beowulf is the mother monster of English literature. It's a gigantic early epic. Scholars try to figure stuff out about it, that's really fun for them. It's pretty exciting - there's lot of stuff to inspire all sorts of adaptations over the years. Beowulf swoops in to help Hrothgar deal with Grendel, then he deals with Grendel's mom, then he goes home and deals with the dragon and dies a hero's death. A few more important facts: written in Old English (not Middle English), alliterative verse, and with caesuras. So that is Beowulf.