800 AD Beowulf

The exact date of the poem is unknown, but it's from between the 8th and 11th centuries.  I just placed it at 800 AD in the title for simplicity.

Beowulf is an epic poem about a heroic warrior of the Geats named Beowulf.  (The Geats were a group from modern-day Sweden.)  The poem covers three of his major battles.  The first two take place when he is a young man.  He sails (across whatever sea that is that separates Sweden from Denmark, it’s right in between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea) to the land of the Danes.  The Danish king, Hrothgar, has a difficulty that Beowulf sets out to help him with.  A monster by the name of Grendel has been terrorizing Heorot Hall (Hrothgar’s mead hall) every night.  All the men who sleep there at night (all the men who drank too much to go home?) are eaten.  (Okay, my joke was a little unfair.  A mead hall was a large building, often with just one room, that was used as a feasting hall, but also doubled as the residence of a lord or the great hall of a king.  It was often one of the safest places to be.  This was a very lawless time in history.)  Anyway, it doesn’t take long for Heorot to be abandoned, but as it’s such a beautiful building, the Danes mourn their loss.  Beowulf hears of their plight and comes to the rescue.

There is an interesting little aside about Unferth, a jealous Dane, who speaks up against Beowulf when he first arrives.  Unferth brings up some of the legend-type rumors of Beowulf’s exploits and makes Beowulf out to be less-than-heroic.  Beowulf sets him straight, though, and humbly tells the story with himself as the victor.

He battles Grendel, without armor or weapon, and kills him by ripping his arm out of his socket.  When Beowulf later tells the story to his fellow Geats after returning home, he says,

“And though he got away

to enjoy life’s sweetness for a while longer,

his right hand stayed behind him in Heorot.”

Beowulf is one of those stories in which you will learn the meanings of phrases like “boltered in blood”, which is defined as “clotted or clogged with blood, especially having the hair matted with blood”.

After Grendel has been dispatched, the men enjoy the mead hall again, but that very night they are terrorized, this time by Grendel’s very angry mother.  Beowulf, who did not stay at Heorot that night, follows the trail to a cave under a lake, where Grandel’s mother lives.  Unferth, the previously jealous Dane, by this time has gained respect for Beowulf, and he offers Beowulf the use of his famous and trusty sword, Hrunting.  Beowulf gratefully accepts and stipulates, in case of his death, that his estate will pass to Unferth.

Beowulf dives down.  During the battle, however, he finds that an ordinary man-made sword cannot hurt his foe, so he discards it and after some close calls, is able to retrieve a giant-made sword, which only the very strongest of men could wield, and with which he then proceeds to behead Grendel’s mother.

There is another celebration at Heorot Hall.  Many speeches, stories told, poems recited, but I loved the way this was said:

“At times…a battle-scarred veteran, bowed with age,

would begin to remember the martial deeds

of his youth and prime and be overcome

as the past welled up in his wintery heart.”

Sometimes, a writer can just say something straight out, but other times, he can say something in such a way as to communicate more than just an action or a description, but a feeling.

After the celebration, Beowulf returns home to Geatland.  He becomes king of the Geats and we skip forward 50 years.  A Dragon is devestating his realm because he is angry over some treasure that has been stolen from him.  Beowulf, now an old man, takes his best soldiers with him, but goes in to fight the dragon alone.  The dragon breathes his hot, fiery breath onto Beowulf.

“Yet his shield defended

the renowned leader’s life and limb

for a shorter time than he meant it to:

that final day was the first time

when Beowulf fought and fate denied him

glory in battle.”

One of Beowulf’s young soldiers, Wiglaf,  entered into the fray, “his first time to be tested as a fighter.”  He protected Beowulf long enough for Beowulf to deliver the final blow and kill the dragon, but Beowulf would not survive his wounds.  He says to Wiglaf (who was also related to Beowulf somehow):

“”You are the last of us, the only one left

of the Waegmundings.  Fate has swept us away,

sent my whole brave highborn clan

to their final doom.  Now I must follow them.”

That was the warrior’s last word.

He had no more to confide.  The furious heat

of the pyre would assail him.  His soul fled from his breast

to its destined place among the steadfast ones.”"

I enjoyed this story.  It was nice to finally read the actual account, after having read several children’s adaptations earlier this year.  Archeologists have done some work excavating mounds that are referred to as burial sites, etc. and have found evidence that Beowulf may be more than just a story.  Many of these very old stories have a mixture of truth and legend.  Here are the last lines of the poem:

“So the Geat people, his hearth-companions,

sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.

They said that of all the kings upon earth

he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,

kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.”

The next book on my list is the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales.  I’ll be on the look-out for Morgan Ap-Kerrig.  (That’s a joke for all you Charles Dickens fans.)