Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Book 20: Beowulf

Despite being an English major, I had somehow never read Beowulf.  I knew about Grendel and Grendel's mother but managed to mix their stories with the dragon part of the story.  It was nice to finally catch up with this classic piece, and I'm glad I didn't have to read it in Old English, instead getting this well done translation by Seamus Heaney.  I can't speak as to whether it truly captures the spirit of the poem, but it definitely makes it accessible for a newcomer.
Beowulf is a surprisingly straightforward story as it deals with Beowulf, a Geat warrior, and his men coming to assist the Danes with the monster Grendel that has overtaken their land.  There are a few side tales, much like in The Odyssey, and there is also a lot of historical context built in as the story contains genealogy lists, but it moves along very quickly.  Beowulf impresses the Danish king but also shows himself a humble man, refusing to take more reward than he deems fair for ridding the kingdom of its monsters.
After the Grendel/Grendel's mother incident, the hero returns home, and the narrative quickly summarizes the next fifty years before Beowulf faces a dragon who sits on the golden treasure of a people long forgotten (gee, I wonder if Tolkien ever read this ... actually, I think his translation may be one of the most famous).  I actually enjoyed the epic poem, and even as it celebrates Beowulf's victories, I feel that there was a certain amount of nostalgia or melancholy.  The story makes reference to all sorts of past days, ancients that have died out, giants of times past - some remembered, some forgotten by time - and shows a great awareness of the future of the Geats without the leadership of Beowulf, predicting the decline of his people.  As a result, this serves just as much as instruction on what makes a warrior and good man as it serves as a remembrance of a leader and his people.

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