In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. Nor was that the first time
he had scouted the grounds of Hrothgar’s dwelling –
although never in his life, before or since,
did he find harder fortune or hall-defenders.
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead
and arrived at the bawn. The iron-braced door
turned on its hinge when his hands touched it.
Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
pacing the length of the patterned floor
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
– from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf
As one of the original, if not the original, Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf presents in its marching, hypnotic tones a glimpse of a world that echoes behind us in shadows and mists. The setting and characters feel less familiar than the Ancient Greeks although this poem we believe was penned much more recently than the writings of Homer. The names, places and peoples do not come from a collection of writings but from few isolated fragments of the time– Beowulf being the most complete history that has survived.
The epic reveals the tensions of a Christian poet narrating a pre-Christian world–and of an English heroic tale set in realm of the Nordic people. There is much to be considered here of historic interest, and much to recognize in the heroic codes and poetic integrity of the work. But as always in our Salon studies, the words are the focus of our attention: what is created–how is this world painted for the listener, how are the characters revealed, what does monstrous look like in this world?
From The article, “Why Read Beowulf?” by Robert F. Yeager :
“Any of these issues — from the perilous history of the single manuscript, to the uncertainties of oral transmission from audience to audience, to the use of a pagan, foreign hero in medieval Christian England — could have prevented the manuscript from enduring. And yet Beowulf is still read and serves as an inspiration.
What is the secret of this poem that has kept it quintessential to the English literary canon?… But certainly common to every experience of Beowulf is the sense that its poetry reaches, somehow like lightning, to the core of what we understand about ourselves stripped to basics, even amid the twentieth century world of central heating and computers.
Interlaced with the stories of Beowulf’s battles with monsters are tales of human struggle and less than exemplary people: Heremod, the wicked king who hoarded people, and put many of his own to death; Modthryth, the queen who arbitrarily executed those who displeased her; and Hrothulf, the treacherous usurper-in-waiting.
The struggles the poem depicts are of the good against evil: strength of sinew, heart and spirit, truth and light, pitted against dark power that gives no quarter as it shifts from shape to shape. That the darkness (be it Grendel, a dragon, or treachery, greed, and pride) is familiar only renders it more frightening — and the more instructive.
In the poem’s narrative, challenge is constant and death always waits. True, there are victories — glorious ones, sometimes, like Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel — but in the end even the hero’s strength and vitality must be sapped by age.
“And yet, although the poem ends with the death of its hero and the prophecy of extinction for his people, Beowulf is not a gloomy work, and our experience of it does not incite despair. That is because, like Beowulf himself, the poem never backs away but greets what comes with courage. To this, probably as much as the tales of monsters, or the high adventure, or the blood and gore (of which, relatively speaking, the poem contains little), Beowulf’s audiences have always reacted most strongly. Students respond to the lack of falsifying sweetness that would gloss over a world that they recognize as basically an image of our own.”
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