Why Beowulf still thrills us.
Beowulf: A new verse translation by Seamus Heaney, bilingual edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2000
I am trying to figure out just how, on earth, this most ancient relic of English literature still manages to thrill me every time I open its pages. A few months back I bought a copy for my 12-year old granddaughter, and I must confess she gave me a rather puzzled look when she opened it up.
I gave her sheepish.
Yeah, not exactly the trendiest thing I could give her; and maybe a bit too early too. But, she’ll get it one day and when she does, she’ll love it, or I don’t know my granddaughter!
Maybe it’s the translation. Seamus Heaney’s is wonderful and I don’t remember the older versions being so forceful and readable and…well…alive. I do love playing with the bilingual page, too. It’s just perfect for a poser like myself, who likes to think he can read some of the Old English anyway.
But, no, the real reason why this ancient epic poem still thrills…is the man! If Beowulf (the man) doesn’t strike a chord in you, then…well…you might need some kind of transplant!
The story begins with Heorot—the great and glorious royal hall of the King of the Danes—now empty, abandoned, and falling into ruin. No man goes there anymore. They used to. It used to be a wonderful place, full of joy and excitement, where all the king’s warriors would gather and celebrate their victories, share their treasures, and have fellowship together.
But not now; those days are over. Ever since…
Every night, in the middle of the night, this horrible creature has been coming up from the marsh. Swiftly, viciously he rips the massive doors from their hinges and “grabs thirty men from their resting places and rushes to his lair…blundering back with their butchered corpses.” Night after night it keeps happening until the King’s forces are just decimated. The bravest and the best in the land have been devoured and are gone. And everyone else has just fled, so that, now, the once-glorious Heorot Hall is just an abandoned ruin.
But that’s when a young soldier named Beowulf shows up. He comes from the faraway land of the Geats (southern Sweden). He’s heard about the problem. In fact, he’s been somewhat intrigued by the challenge of it all; and now, with his band of mighty men in tow, he has come to solve it.
Well, everyone warns him that it can’t be done: No man fights Grendel and lives, they say. He’s a God-cursed brute; a descendant of Cain. No one has even yet harmed him. Why, his skin is so tough that no sword will even pierce him.
“Then I won’t use a sword,” Beowulf calmly announces.
And instantly you love this man!
That night, Beowulf and fourteen of his men move into Heorot Hall and everyone settles down for the night. Before too long, the whole place is asleep. Except, that is, for one. One of them is pretending to sleep. Finally, late in the depths of the night, as the hall resounds with the dreadful noise of the front doors being ripped from their hinges again, young Beowulf is ready…and waiting!
Well, of course I’m not going to spoil it for you. You need to read it on your own. Let’s just call it “problem solved”. The next morning, the King of the Danes and his handful of surviving warriors come timorously back to Heorot Hall. They’re expecting the worst, of course. But—oh!—the sun is shining; it’s a beautiful day and Beowulf’s men have had a great night’s sleep. Everything’s fine. Everyone’s safe; and our “God-cursed brute” is not coming back. How do we know? Well…let’s just say there’s a ‘piece’ of evidence, now nailed to one of the rafters in the Royal Hall!
I love it! I love the clarity of good vs. evil. I love the virtue and the moral strength of the monster-slayer; and the hero’s ‘calm’; his unshakable resolve to go ‘hand-to-hand’. With all due respect to Harry Potter and his wand, give me Beowulf and his two bare hands any day.
This world will always need a monster-slayer. Where do you find a people that doesn’t feel overwhelmed when the crisis looms large and the problem can’t be pierced? This world needs a monster-slayer. That’s why, after more than a thousand years, the book still resounds. That’s why the author of this marvelous thing, whoever he was, spoke of our Savior on almost every page. He saw the parallels in this ancient legend.
Oh, that reminds me. I love the realism too! Oh, yes—didn’t you know?—this ancient relic of an epic poem is brutally realistic; there’ll be no simplistic happily ever after formula at the end of this thing! Which makes it just as relevant as can be for us, as we fight the battles of our day and age. Because—you see?—this story is not over. One battle doesn’t win the war! As soon as the problem of Grendel is solved…
…we discover that he has a mother! And she is not pleased…