What’s not to like? There are monsters, Vikings, lots of big fights and too much violence for sexy Angelina Jolie. Who seems set to get her kit off in eye-popping CG. Cor!
That said, I only actually read Beowulf last week. The epic, Old English poem written sometime in the 400 years prior to the existing version of about 1000 AD has been recommended by all sorts of people over (blimey) the last three decades. But I think the main reason I’ve never quite got to it was I didn’t know where to start.
There are various different translations and things, and many of the people who’ve said “But you’ll love it!” have also warned “Be sure to read the right version.” And I’ve always neglected to make a note of which exactly one that is. There’s one by famous Seamus Heaney (whose bog poems I studied at A-level), and one by Julian Glover (who, top fact, was Justin Richards’s original model for Doctor Who’s brother Irving).
So a couple of weeks ago I asked Psychonomy, and he not only recommended but lent a rather nice edition by Kevin Crossley-Holland, which includes all kinds of notes, family trees, maps and explanations.
Beowulf is a young Geat – which is some kind of Dane – whose dad owes a favour to a bloke with a very nice painted hall. The trouble is, every time the bloke tries to have a party in this very nice painted hall, along comes the monstrous Grendel and carries off his guests. Grendel likes to eat people, and weapons don’t seem to touch him.
Beowulf is the Mr T of his day, and so helluva tough he takes on Grendel without a weapon. There’s a lot of gripping and then Grendel’s arm tears off. Grendel runs away and there is much rejoicing. Beowulf is given some treasure and some nice things to drink, and people tell stories.
But Grendel’s mother is not amused and comes to the painted hall that evening. She eats some people, so Beowulf tracks her back to a river of blood, goes swimming in this, finds he wounded Grendel and stabs him with a magic sword. The sword melts.
So far, so good. Not surprisingly, the style did remind me of Tolkein, what with the swords that have names and the legends of bravery. Oddly, about half way through we’re told that Beowulf wasn’t always the baddest dude around.
“He had been despised
for a long while, for the Geats saw no spark
of bravery in him, nor did their king deem him
worthy of much attention on the mead-bench;
people thought that he was a sluggard,
a feeble princeling. How fate changed,
changed completely for the glorious man!”
Kevin Crossley-Holland, The poetry of legend: classics of the medieval world – Beowulf, p. 110.This comes a bit out of nowhere, to be honest. If we’d know it at the beginning, we might have seen some kind of character journey or moral development of our hero. As it is, the throwaway comment feels a bit tacked-on for no reason.
In fact, there’s a lot of stuff that feels tacked-on or inconsistent. And Crossley-Holland’s explanatory notes are good at giving some insight into the various fights Beowulf has inspired in historians. Partly, these scuffles are about the clues in the text which might tell us when Beowulf was first written. A reference to a King Offa might be the original author trying to lick bum of Offa, King of Mercia from 757-796 (yes, he of Offa’s Dyke).
But the historians seem most bothered by the intrusion of God. Beowulf is basically a brutish sort hero in a brutish story. The story rather assumes that life is one long series of bloody and bloody stupid battles, small pockets of neighbouring tribes smashing the shit out of each other whenever they’ve the chance.
Beowulf returns home from fighting two monsters and spends the next decades fighting his neighbours. He eventually becomes king of his people less because he’s such a brilliant slayer of monsters as that all the other candidates have been hacked to bits.
The ideology, or system of values, underpinning this seems to fit with other, non-Christian thingies of the period.
“’One thing I know never dies not changes,’ goes an Old Norse proverb: ‘the reputation of a dead man’; while the Anglo-Saxon poet who composed the elegiac poem ‘The Seafarer’ spoke of the inevitability of death by ‘illness or old age or the sword’s edge’ and exhorted each and every man to ‘strive, before leaves this world, to win the praise of those living after him’.”
Ibid., p. 31.It’s a world of blood-oaths and warriors’ honour, where the fleeting delights of treasure and feasting are paramount because there’s so little joy in the world. And this doesn’t exactly square with Christian teaching, or the Christian spin on Beowulf and what he gets up to which peppers the narration.
As Crossley-Holland points out, the most jarring example of this is when Beowulf dies. In a bit that made me think, “Ooh, it’s Smaug!”, a dragon is accidentally wakened from where it had been sleeping on a heap of gold. It flies amok and kills lots of people, and old King Beowulf staggers out of retirement to take on one more monster.
There’s lot of warrior-moral stuff as Beowulf’s retainers run away, despite the fact that he gave them nice rings to wear in exchange for their loyalty. One young fellow stays true, and together the two of them defeat the Big Worm. In the process, the young fellow burns his hand and Beowulf is mortally wounded.
“Then the wise leader
tottered forward and slumped on a seat
by the barrow; he gazed at the work of giants,
saw how the ancient earthwork contained
stone arches supported by columns.”
Ibid., p. 126.(We know, of course, that he’s looking not at the work of “giants” but of the Roman period. Though did the Romans make it to Denmark, and did they do much building? Or is it just that the English author of the original Beowulf had seen impressive things like Leeds? And again, isn’t it like Tolkein to have a land so rich in old bits of big masonry?)
Once Beowulf is dead, his young helper berates the other of the thanes who bravely ran away. They are, he says, bad knights and should give their rings back.
But the poem’s narrator then has a go at Beowulf too; he’s brought his end upon himself by being too keen on dragon gold. He should, of course, have put all his trust in the one, splendid God who looks after us all and not thought about vulgar stuff like treasure.
Which rather comes from nowhere. Beowulf fought the dragon because it had been killing people, and he only seems to notice the old gold after the dragon’s defeated. Up until that point, it felt a bit like Tennyson's Ulysses (because I have read more than one whole poem), where old Ulysses wants one last adventure before he goes and snuffs it.
Crossley-Holland seems to suggest that the debate consists of whether Beowulf is a Christian story or not. I think it’s both; a non-Christian story with some Christian bits tacked on. It’s like the teller is all excited by the fighting and the monsters, but every so often remembers to put in a word for Jesus.
This can make it a little inconsistent, and I’ve sympathy for those historians who struggle to fit the evidence so it’s either one way or the other. But these contradictions, these continuity errors, are an inevitable part of any long-sustained narrative.
Arthur Conan-Doyle, for example, gave James/John Watson two first names and two wives. The effect is even more peculiar when the long-running narrative is the work of many different authors. But we shall leave the debate about Sarah-Jane Smith being 13 in 1964 for another day.