This winter I've been reading Beowulf. The timing has nothing to do with the recent release of the Neil Gaiman-written, Robert Zemeckis-directed film version—although it was a happy coincidence! When I saw the posters go up at my local movie theater, I realized that I had a very serious and research-related responsibility to go. (Also, did you know that if you write columns about SF and fantasy, you can claim a ticket to the 10pm showing of Beowulf 3D as a business expense? What a surreal world we live in!)
No, but the real reasons why I'm reading Beowulf are simpler. First, I've been wanting to reread it for ages, since I read it only once in college and that far too fast. Second, I'm currently boning up for the GRE Subject Test in English Literature, which (for some reason) I've committed myself to take in April. The GRE is meant to test your knowledge of English story-telling traditions from the beginning through yesterday; but if you only have three months to review, as I do, you don't sit down and try to cram back into your head everything you studied in college and all the books you've read since. Instead, you skim a bunch of stuff to remind yourself how it goes, and on top of that you select a few—a very few—stories to read over slowly and with care. If you are wise—or, at least, if you've been reading GRE review guidebooks—those works will include a few of Shakespeare's greatest, a selected handful of the Canterbury Tales, and Beowulf.
Of course, some people might choose differently; but then, I am partial to Beowulf. I encountered the story for the first time as an undergraduate, when, like many another freshman enrolled in "Survey of English Literature, Part 1," I was tossed the book in the first week, after a day or two of introductory lectures about obscure sacred poetry in Anglo-Saxon.
As a freshman, you are told: Read this book all the way through! And don't complain! No shirkers are wanted here! We've made it easy for you—the whole thing's been translated into Modern English, out of the runic original that was hammered into rocks by the Vikings—so you've got nothing to complain about. Just keep a close eye on the family trees. And the parts of the boat. And the various appellations used to refer to the king. And remember, we do expect you to make your way all the through! Things only get harder from here on in, little frosh!
Well disheartened by these admonitions, as, indeed, anybody might become, you take the book back to your dorm room. Under a growing pall of gloom about your decision to become an English major you crack the thing open, determined to give it your best whack.
And lo and behold, right from page one, the darkness starts to clear. You say to yourself: Hold on! This doesn't suck. This isn't even boring. What this story is about is princes.
Princes, and hard sea voyages. And famous armor. And distant shores, and people performing superheroic feats like swimming for five days straight and battling sea serpents along the way, or carrying thirty dead guys' armor on their back as they swim home from battle. And there is treasure and gold hoards and huge magic swords made by giants, and underwater demons, and blood feuds and dismemberment and that guy just totally ripped that other guy's arm off WITH HIS HAND!! And immortal blacksmiths! And bards singing in the hall! And guys drinking out of drinking horns like Thor! And a fight at the end of the second level, in an underwater cavern in which the boss's acidic, scorching blood totally melts down the hero's sword!
By the time you get to this point in the book, a few things have become glaringly clear to you. One is that every game of D&D you have ever played owes a gigantic debt to Beowulf. Another is that the only people who might possibly find this book boring are obviously people who don't like Tolkien, or video games, or fun.
And this is before you get to the third part of the book—the third battle, that is, or the third agon, if you're into classical Greek dramaturgical terms, or the third big boss, if you're into video games. Because this is the point at which you realize with a sort of blissed-out amazement that you are obviously, unquestionably reading direct source material for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. "Oh my God!" you say (if you're me, and eighteen, and possibly have been drinking too much coffee in your dorm room). "I can't believe it! This dragon is totally Smaug!"
To leap forward from then to now: Basically, I have been waiting twelve years to get the chance to read Beowulf again. I wanted to read it with more leisure this time, and to be able to take my time to pick out all the obvious, gorgeous resonances between it and Tolkien and the other fantasy stories that have so enriched my life. As it happens, those intervening years have seen a more felicitous turn of pop-culture trends than I would ever have anticipated. I'm talking about the renewed exposure in the popular culture for fantastic stories; I'm thinking, especially, of the resurgence of "mainstream" enthusiasm for epic fantastic literature that has followed on the heels of Peter Jackson's enormously successful adaptations of Tolkien's books. And that's not even to mention the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, and the (re)birth of superhero films. If Zemeckis' 2007 film version of Beowulf didn't meet with anything like the popular success or critical acclaim of Jackson's Tolkien trilogy . . . well, there are reasons for that. Nonetheless, I'll be referring to both of them in this column. And it's hard for me to find words to express how delighted I am that there now are film versions to refer to, and that—at least in the case of Jackson's films—most readers will have seen. That's definitely something I had a hard time imagining twelve years back.
So this, in a nutshell, is what I'd like to tell you about Beowulf: the fantastic-ness of it, the magic and the monsters, and the ways in which those of us who love Tolkien (and D&D, and fantasy adventure, and sword-swinging video games) owe something to the Nowell Codex. Sound good? But if you don't mind, I'd like to take a minute first to sort out what Beowulf actually is, because even if the story itself is simple—and it is, gorgeously so—the context can get kind of confusing.
We know the Beowulf story through a single manuscript, called the Nowell Codex, that was written in England and in the language known as Old English around the year 1000. The story, however, is not set in England. Instead, it takes place in various places in Scandinavia, notably among one tribe of people living in what is now Denmark and another established in what is now Sweden. (Beowulf's people, the Geats, are Swedish, but he does his initial monster-killing in Denmark.)
The story is also set half a millennium earlier than the manuscript's date. The events it describes take place around the fifth century AD, which is a period we can variously describe as the Germanic Iron Age—the part of the Iron Age that came after the Romans fell off the map, and the various Germanic tribes whose "barbarism" they had so feared took the ascendant—or, alternately, the Migration Age, which refers to the fact that during this period, Continental Germanic peoples like our friends the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were making their journeys from mainland Europe to colonize England.
The reason all this is important—besides, of course, its just being kind of generally interesting—is that there are some big gaps between the people being described in the poem and the person, forever nameless, who wrote it down. Maybe the most important difference is that, while the hero of the poem is an Iron Age pagan, the guy who wrote his story down in turn-of-the-millennium England lived in a civilization that, by this point, had been thoroughly Christianized. The differences in viewpoint and in beliefs about the nature of the world comes through quite clearly, and interestingly, at many points in the poem. As often as not, the surprises come in the form of things this medieval Christian poet cheerfully brings out that seem, by today's lights, a little far from the mainstream of Christian thought.
As for when the poem was first composed, there's a fair amount of debate. Some scholars place it as early as the 7th century, others as late as the early 11th. Nor are they sure whether it was passed down orally for generations before being transcribed—as is thought to be the case with the works of Homer—or whether the scribe who put pen to paper put in a lot of creative work of his own. (They'll probably be arguing about it for centuries to come, so personally I don't think it's really worth worrying about.)
The language of the poem is Old English, which is so completely different from the English of today that you can't read it without special training. Fluency in modern English will only help one with Old English to about the same extent that it allows one to automatically understand German: that is, it doesn't. If you've ever read The Canterbury Tales, you may be familiar with Geoffrey Chaucer's Middle English: "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote," and all of that. Some people find they can read Chaucer without too much help; others prefer to use Modern English "translations." Even if Chaucer's English is basically recognizable as the same language we speak today—the grammar is more or less in the right place, although it's full of odd spellings and vocabulary borrowed from courtly Norman French—most people find reading Chaucer not exactly a walk in the park.
Chaucer's six-hundred-year-old English is, I think, about as far back as most people can go and really feel comfortable that they're still reading "English." (Compared to him, even Shakespeare's four-hundred-year-old stylings qualify as "early Modern"!) Chaucer wrote his tales in the 1380s, more than three hundred years after the Normans invaded England and laid the flesh of their Latinate language over English's Germanic bones. When you consider that, and then you consider that the Beowulf poet was writing four hundred years before Chaucer—before William the Conqueror had put in motion the plans that, in the year 1066, would bring him and his French-speaking Normans across the English Channel—perhaps it comes clearer why the language of Beowulf is incomprehensible to us today.
Most of the people who read Beowulf in the original these days are medievalists, or at least English majors who had the good luck to take a couple of semesters of Old English in college. Although I was an English major, I never got around to studying Anglo-Saxon (as it's sometimes also known), so I've only ever read the poem in translation. I have to note here, however, that my current edition of Beowulf is an extremely awesome one—I can't sing its praises highly enough. The translation is by the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, which is pretty good all by itself, and every line I quote should be attributed to him as much as they are to the Beowulf poet. But what makes this particular edition really fantastic is that it's illustrated with gorgeous photos of Danish barrows and coastlines, and also of artifacts from the period, fantastic torques and gold brooches and daggers and rune-etched swords dug up in excavations at Sutton Hoo or elsewhere, and displayed today at national museums across Scandinavia. It's incredibly engaging; reading, you find yourself drawn into the tale, visualizing the people who lived in these lands or whose hands used to hold these things.
But let's get on to the book! Okay, so Beowulf opens with a little background, but we can skip over that: it's mostly about kings and begettings, and those kind of passages are as boring in Anglo-Saxon as they are anywhere else (although, in Beowulf, it has the advantage of being short). What matters is that a tribe called the Spear-Danes, living in what is now Denmark, have a king called Hrothgar. And now . . . ah, and now it's time for the monsters.
So, the very first monster to appear in Beowulf is called Grendel, and he's famous enough that even if you haven't read the story you may have heard of him anyway. What exactly is Grendel? This is actually a tough question. When he's introduced, Grendel is described as "a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark" (86), and as a "fiend out of hell" (100). That may sound like a pretty typical evil monster; but actually there's quite a lot of ambiguity about what Grendel is. We never get much in the way of a physical description of him, although we know that he's superhumanly fast and strong, capable of snatching up a man and carrying him off, or eating him alive on the spot. But is he hairy, scaly or smooth? The size of a giant, or of a very tall man? All we can really be sure of is that, whatever he is, he is sort of like a man, with legs and arms and a head; and that he is capable of anger, and hatred, and of pain.
If Grendel's shape and size are unclear, there's at least as much ambiguity about his motives. The poet describes him as a "grim demon, haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens" (102-04). Apparently he has been haunting them for some time, before his attention is drawn to a human settlement by someone's ambitious architectural project. Grendel's first deadly raids are triggered when Hrothgar, the king of the Danes—described to us as an all-around good guy, brave on the battlefield and liberal in handing out gold rings—decides to build himself an extremely large house. This place is called Heorot, and it always makes me think of an Iron Age McMansion. But what it actually is is a mead-hall, a place where Hrothgar's earls and thanes and warriors and everyone can get together to eat and boast and drink wine out of aurochs horns. In good proto-Viking style, I learn from my book's historical notes, this building seems to have served not only as the dining hall, but also as the king's throne room, and moreover the place where all the warriors slept. (I know! It all sounds a bit dorm-like, doesn't it? But I guess that's Iron Age warriors for you.)
Hrothgar's mead-hall is incredibly enormous—bigger than any other mead-hall in the area. It has "wide and high" gables, and at times it appears to actually be gilded: the poet calls it "a sheer keep of fortified gold" (715-16). The earls and thanes and other Danes make very merry in there, drinking and carousing and calling in the skalds, or bards, to sing songs for them.
Meanwhile, out in the fens, haunting the marches, Grendel hears the sound of the music coming from Heorot. "It harrowed him," the poet tells us, "to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall" (87-89). And so one night, when the Danes are asleep ("insensible to pain and human sorrow"—which if you ask me means they're drunk), Grendel busts down Heorot's door, grabs thirty men(!!!), and rushes back to his den to eat them. In the morning, of course, when the Danes realize what has happened, they're utterly horrified and freaked out. But what are they to do? Over the coming days, then months, then years, the king's soldiers and advisors try every way they can think of to kill, placate, bargain with, or otherwise somehow stop Grendel. But Grendel listens to no one and respects nothing. Even after the people abandon the mead-hall to ruin and decay, he continues to haunt it at night, periodically raiding the settlement. The Danes live in perpetual fear, and total helplessness.
All this raises one more interesting point about Grendel. Although he's obviously evil, and dangerous, and full of hate, there's something about his motivations that seems—like his nature—to be strangely ambiguous. The poet gives us more than one story about exactly what Grendel is, and why he does what he does, and those stories don't always work comfortably together. "He had dwelt for a time in misery," the poet tells us, "among the banished monsters":
. . . Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.
The story of Cain and Abel strikes rather a jarring note in this pagan story, doesn't it? In fact, this passage is one of the more obvious places where the medieval Christian world-view of the poem's recorder—who, remember, lived in eleventh-century England—rubs up against a story that was born in Iron Age Scandinavia. By associating Grendel with the story of Cain, the poet makes sense, of a sort, out of this figure from pre-Christian Norse legend; he can fit the demon into a Christian worldview without (arguably) doing damage to the story.
The connection with the Old Testament figure of Cain, of course, is that after his murder of his brother Abel, he is supposed to have been exiled by God's decree, to become a "restless wanderer" across the earth. This figure of the exile was connected and conflated with other folk figures of wanderers (e.g. the "wandering Jew"); similarly, the "mark" that the Old Testament God bestowed on Cain to protect him from harm (or perhaps to ensure his identification as an exile) has been interpreted over the centuries in a near-infinite number of ways. The Beowulf poet, who makes Cain the father of "ogres and elves and evil phantoms," does not bother drawing fine distinctions between the narratives taught by the Christian Church and the figures of pre-Christian folklore and religion, who still occupied a prominent role in people's thought and stories—as, of course, they do to this day. And the poet also evokes the "giants" who, in numerous Indo-European mythologies—including that of the Scandinavians—were viewed as violent, chthonic siblings or parents of the gods, who had to be subdued before the gods could take power in the world. As is his way, the poet blithely seems to link them with the Christian concept of fallen angels—or possibly the Biblical giants referred to, always a little vaguely, as "nephilim." From our perspective, all this might seem a bit jarring; but his mythological mash-up seems to work well enough for the Beowulf poet, putting Grendel together in a line with both the Jotunns that Beowulf's people had believed in, and the array of angels, fiends, and wanderers that went along with the new Christian religious mythos.
Personally, I find something in Grendel that's even more fascinating than that. It lies in the implication of his exclusion, in the way the poet repeatedly evokes his isolation and his misery: "spurned and joyless," as the poet puts it, and Heaney translates it (720-21). Does misery make a demon demonic, or do evil beings always descend into sorrow? Or have the two been yoked since the beginning of time? There's something in Grendel's isolation from the humans, his almost-man-likeness and the brutal anguish it seems to bring him, that strikes many people as remarkably modern—or as post-modern, if you prefer. They seem to evoke of the postmodern complaints of the human condition: alienation, estrangement, despair. The American novelist John Gardner famously wrote an eponymous book about the monster, in which these themes dominate, through the monster's point of view.
For me, that repeated emphasis on Grendel as a being who lives on the borders of the inhabited world in darkness and cold, and who is roused to anguish by the sound of people singing, always evokes for me other monsters I have known. For instance, the Groke, a creature from the world of the Moomins, in a series of classic children's books by the Swedish-Finnish writer Tove Jansson. The Groke lives just beyond the cozy domestic circle of lamplight and family, and though she wants nothing more than to come in, she is infinitely dangerous, because anyone she touches will freeze to death. Or like the "circle of comedy," a term from Shakespeare criticism, which analyzes the endings of Shakespeare's "happier" plays in terms of which characters wind up on the inside of things—betrothed, redeemed, accepted—and which have been squeezed out to dwell in solitude or grief. For me, really, what reading about Grendel harrowed in the heath, stalking up to Heorot at the sound of the singing, always makes me think of is a kid who just can't stand the isolation any longer and, taking up monstrous arms, heading one last time toward his high school doors.
At any rate, if the poet can't or won't clarify exactly what Grendel is or what drives him, the ambiguity doesn't seem to cause him any concern. (The Zemeckis film, in one of its most significant changes to the original text, takes an interesting approach to these questions, but I won't provide spoilers by going into it here.) Nor does it cause any unease in Beowulf, a man not much given to worrying about ambiguity—and, speaking of him, maybe it's time to introduce the hero! Because, after all, he is who the whole epic is about, or at least the guy it's named after.
Ah, Beowulf! Beowulf is an archetypal Anglo-Saxon hero, and about him I will give you the description offered by my encyclopedia: "[A] mighty warrior who has the qualities most admired by the Anglo-Saxons—strength, courage, loyalty, and generosity." Beowulf absolutely does have all these things in spades, and if you notice that qualities like honesty, moderation, humility, or intelligence are not on the list, it may be because they don't really turn out to be required. Beowulf is a high-born young warrior of the Geats, who live in a region in what is now Sweden. We learn about him that he is an excellent sailor, a charismatic speaker, and also "the mightiest man on earth"; there was "no one else like him alive" (plus, people say he "has the strength of thirty in the grip of each hand"!) (196-7, 381-81). When the stories about Grendel reach his country—for twelve years have passed, and Grendel continues to haunt Heorot and ravage the Danes—Beowulf decides to test his mettle by sailing to Denmark and offering his service to King Hrothgar, to rid him of the beast. The sea-crossing is accomplished, there's a lot of clanging of armor and diplomatic speech-making, and the long and short of it is that King Hrothgar accepts Beowulf's offer to spend the night in Heorot and battle Grendel, with promises of lasting gratitude and enormous treasure should he succeed.
Naturally, we expect Beowulf to win. Why shouldn't he? After all, he is the hero of the tale! Beowulf obviously expects this too, though at the same time he knows what he's risking. I can't help admiring the way he expresses this to Hrothgar: with a certain relish for the gory detail (and a slightly disquieting lack of concern), Beowulf explains that if Grendel wins, "it will be a gruesome day." After glutting himself on Beowulf's men, he will then "run gloating with my raw corpse," and, "gorged and bloodied," will "feed on it alone in a cruel frenzy, / fouling his moor-nest" (442-50). How do you like that for heroic language??
(Seriously, though, this kind of blunt language is characteristic of Beowulf, both in its Anglo-Saxon language and in its storytelling. I think Heaney's done a really good job of not prettying it up. The story really is full of bone-crunching and meat-rending, and I can't help thinking that efforts to "pretty it up"—even to the extent of imposing the kind of ten-dollar Latinate words that contemporary popular fantasists sometimes like to indulge in, but that, this fan would like to note, Tolkien normally avoided—would, I think, be a betrayal of the story's aesthetic.)
Beowulf tells Hrothgar his intention to fight Grendel that night, in the mead-hall, with no backup but his own band of Geat men (there are fourteen of them) and without using any armor or weapons. The Zemeckis film dramatizes this, admirably I think, by having Beowulf decide to fight stark naked. This is taking a liberty with the text, but it works with the story's general aesthetic, and it sure is dramatic on screen! (It also makes for the first fight scene I've ever seen that required deft editing to avoid showing too much of the hero; you can bet this was exciting in 3D.)
Hrothgar, of course, accepts Beowulf's offer, and they all set to feasting and drinking for the rest of the day. When night falls, the king and the rest of the Danes retire to other buildings to sleep, but Beowulf and his men stay in the hall and wait for Grendel's arrival. Soon enough,
[O]ut of the night
came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift . . .
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
When Grendel touches the iron-braced door, it opens for him, and with hungry joy he sees Beowulf's men asleep on their benches; only Beowulf himself, feigning sleep, is awake and watching him.
In true monster fashion, Grendel pounces:
. . . [H]e grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot.
Awesome!!! But the next sleeper he goes for is Beowulf . . . and Beowulf is not asleep. When Grendel reaches for him, Beowulf grabs his hand and gets him in an armlock. And now Grendel is screwed!
The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man. . .
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
with the devil's litter, for in all his days
he had never been clamped or cornered like this.
The two stumble back and forth, lurching against the walls, shaking the timbers and rocking the mead-hall. Walls groan, and benches fly off the ground, but the building doesn't fall. Grendel can't escape, and Beowulf's men keep attacking him with their swords—although they can't actually hurt him that way, since, as the poet reveals, there's magic involved: "no blade on earth, no blacksmith's art / could ever damage their demon opponent. / He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge / of every weapon" (801-04). He can't escape from Beowulf's death-grip, though. And eventually, as they struggle, "a tremendous wound / appeared on his shoulder," the poet says. "Sinews split / and the bone-lappings burst" (815-17), and, leaving Beowulf victorious, Grendel flees "to his desolate lair" to die. What the reader may not realize until a few lines later is that he has left his arm behind him. Beowulf has ripped off his freaking arm!
So that is the end of Grendel. Some monsters, you'd think, might be able to survive even after losing an arm; but this arm hasn't been cut off, it's been ripped off, and it's hard to imagine anyone in the Iron Age surviving that. Beowulf shows off his triumph by mounting the gigantic arm and hand in Heorot hall, high up near the roof, and when morning comes, people come from all around the area to marvel at the chaos in the mead-hall and to stare at Grendel's giant footprints and gory arm. Some of the King's men track Grendel's bloody spoor to the mere, or marshy lake, where he lives: the "demons' mere." They see "[t]he bloodshot water wallo[w] and surg[e] [with] waves and gore and wound-slurry":
With his death upon him, [Grendel] had dived deep
into his marsh-den, drowned out his life
and his heathen soul; hell claimed him there.
It's time for celebrations, as you may well imagine! The warriors race their horses; a bard begins to sing of Sigemund, the dragon-slayer; Beowulf tells his story, King Hrothgar praises him, and it's time for feasting and singing and the distribution of treasure. Because, as everyone knows, after a warrior wins his battle what could come next but treasure?
Of course, if you know the story of Beowulf, you know that things don't end there. Things aren't going to be quite as simple as the warriors had thought . . . But this is a place to leave this first column, with the Danes and Geats drinking below the bloody hand mounted in the mead hall, and rejoicing over the death of the demon who had come in from the cold. As Beowulf puts it when he boasts to Hrothgar,
[N]ow [Grendel] won't be long for this world.
He is hooped and hasped and hirpling with pain,
limping and looped in it. Like a man outlawed
for wickedness, he must await
the mighty judgement of God in majesty.
A Christian-inflected way of seeing things, to be sure, and one that emphasizes the righteousness of Grendel's punishment. For keeping alive the sense of loneliness that has accompanied Grendel's life, though, I think the poet is at his most evocative when he says:
. . . But his going away [i.e., Grendel's]
out of this world and the days of his life
would be agony to him, and his alien spirit
would travel far into fiends' keeping.
Next time: Sea beasts, trolls' nests, water monsters and dragons! Plus: didn't I see that in Tolkien? See you next time for "Beowulf, Part 2."
 The aurochs is a kind of large, extinct wild ox that once roamed northern Europe—just the sort of animal whose horns you would imagine people would make drinking cups out of!
References: Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. Heaney, Seamus (translator). Illustrations edited and with an afterword by John D. Niles. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.