Epic Poetry | Classics | Fantasy
First written around 975
Goodreads | Amazon
I’m not sure what kept me from reading the epic poem Beowulf. It’s sort, it’s metal, it’s based on Norse legends, there’s a dragon – those are all elements that usually make me love a story. Whatever the reason is, I’m glad I finally picked up this tiny mass market edition I found at Goodwill for a dollar and read it, because I loved it.
There are several translations of Beowulf that you can buy, and the version I read was translated by Burton Raffel in 1963. This translation was really fun to read, but since reading it I found out that J.R.R. Tolkien translated it, and that’s the next version I want to read. There’s also a very popular newer translation by Seamus Heaney.
***Warning: The summary below contains spoilers, which I’m mainly including because many people are familiar with the basic story of Beowulf. This is a very basic outline, leaving most of the details out. I’ll let you know when the spoilers are over.***
Beowulf is a story about heroism and valor. Members of a Danish town are being murdered and eaten by a monster named Grendel in their great hall, Herot. It all seems hopeless until Beowulf, a Geatish warrior, travels to Herot and vows to slay the monster with his bare hands. (Geatland was located in the south of Sweden.) Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm, leaving him with a mortal wound, and Grendel limps off to his underwater lair to die.
That night, while all of the heroes are sleeping after celebrating, Grendel’s mother comes to get vengeance for her son’s death. She kills one of the king’s best friends and advisors and then escapes back to her lair. Beowulf, the king, and a few of their men track down Grendel’s mother, and then Beowulf alone swims down to her lair to kill her, which he succeeds in doing. The king then bestows Beowulf with horses and gold, and Beowulf and his men sail back to Geatland.
The story then transitions fifty years into the future, when Beowulf has become king of his people. A dragon is awoken after a slave steals a golden cup from the dragon’s hoard of wealth, and the dragon burns everything in sight. Beowulf, by then an old man, decides to once again fight the monster single-handedly. The battle is almost lost until one of Beowulf’s men step in, and together they slay the dragon, but Beowulf receives a mortal wound and dies.
***End of spoilers***
I enjoyed this epic poem so much, mainly because of how metal the imagery and battles are. A couple of my favorite examples:
- “They have seen my strength for themselves, have watched me rise from the darkness of war, dripping with my enemies’ blood. I drove five great giants into chains, chased all of that race from the earth. I swam in the blackness of night, hunting monsters out of the ocean, and killing them one by one; death was my errand and the fate they had earned.”
- “The Danish king was lifted into place, smoke went curling up, logs roared, open wounds split and burst, skulls melted, blood came bubbling down, and the greedy fire-demons drank flesh and bones from the dead of both sides, until nothing was left.”
See? Metal AF.
I got so excited when the story got to the part of the golden cup being stolen from the dragon because I immediately recognized the same story in my childhood favorite, The Hobbit. It’s obvious reading Beowulf that Tolkien was in part inspired by this classic. It also makes me want to read his own translation even more.
There was one very disorienting moment while reading the poem. One moment we’re still celebrating the death of Grendel’s mother, and then, within five lines, it’s fifty years later. I had a minute where I had no clue what was going on until I just realized it really did transition that quickly between half a century. It annoyed me, but if that’s my only complaint about this book, then it’s something I can live with.
Beowulf is the type of story I’m sure I’ll read multiple times in my life, and I’m really just sorry it took me nearly thirty-two years to finally read it.
Have you read Beowulf? What were your thoughts?