Beowulf is the greatest of the surving works composed in Old English. An Epic poem, Beowulf was composed orally in a form of poetry in which each line is effectively split in half, with the first half linking with the second alliteratively. It is the epic story of Beowulf, the man's man, a badass whose dark side you would not want to experience. He embodies all of the social ideals of the culture that created him: loyalty, honesty, courage, justice, and generosity. Despite much of the blood and horror, Beowulf proves to be a story of good versus evil and one man's quest to become immortal through fame. (The Geats did not believe in much of an afterlife, therefore the only way to live beyond death was by the legends you inspired.)
Believed to be composed circa 700 c.e., Beowulf has instances of blatantly obstrusive Christian influence in an otherwise pagan work. The snippits of Christianity were likely inserted by a priest who recorded the narrative in writing. (Priests were practically the only people in that day who were literate, and they probably didn't like all of that profane, godless paganism.) Apparently the priests would insert bits of Christianity (who knows what they took out?) as not to fully corrupt anyone who might read Beowulf. Take, for example, this passage:

At times they prepared sacrifices in temples,
war-idol offerings, said old words aloud,
that the great soul-slayer might bring some comfort
in their country's disaster. Such was their custom,
the hope of the heathen; they remembered Hell
in their deepest thoughts. They knew not the Lord,
the Judge of our deeds, were ignorant of God,
know not how to worship our Protector above,
the King of Glory. Woe unto him
who in violent affliction has to thrust his soul
in the fire's embrace, expects no help,
no change in his fate! Well is it with him
who after his death-day is allowed to seek
the Father's welcome, ask His protection!

So Healfdene's son brooded continually
over his sorrows; the wise man could not
ward off the trouble The strife was too great,
hateful, long-lasting, that had come to the nation,
cruel spirit's envy, gigantic night-evil.

Notice the completely obvious intrusion in italics.
Beowulf is idealistic and grand in nature. Many times there are great exaggerations (consider the time he falls through the water for "hours") and extensions of truth. Themes that are prevalent in Beowulf are Good versus Evil, famehogging, and the idea of ubi sunt. In every age those living look back to the great deeds of those deceased, and more often than not, they mourn. Because those days are over, and it is all generally going to shit.
Ulysses's writeup has been bothering me. Rather than refute him poorly, I will take my educational fair use right to quote Robert P. Creed:

For Beowulf is the work of a Christian poet. In the nineteenth century, when every country in Europe was searching for or even creating its glorious pagan past, it used to be fashionable to deplore the Christian elements in the poem and to blame them on a "monkish interpolator." Noble and rugged paganism unweakened by Christian "sentiment" had to be discovered in the old documents, even at the cost of violence to the poetry.

These older students of the poem had some small justification for their high-handed proceedings. They knew that neither the real sixth-century Geats of King Higlac nor their possible fictitious hero Beowulf could have been Christians. Christianity came to Sweden to stay four centuries later. If, then, the poem preserves--as it probably does--some truth about the defeat of the Geats by the Swedes, then the "Christian coloring," as they called it, must have been added later than the earliest tellings of Beowulf's feats.

Of course it was. But it was not added by some sneaking monk to the honest tale told or written by a fine old seventh- or eighth-century Anglo-Saxon pagan.

It might have happened in this fashion...

I watched a modern adaptation of the old (whether it was many centuries or just a few) story. The soundtrack is mostly techno-sounding chainsaw music, and the action was only so-so, but it wasn't irreverant or disrespectful. I didn't check the credits, but I think that Beowulf was played by Christopher Lambert.

The storyline followed nicely, nothing out of the ordinary. Some of the weapons were buzz-saws at the end of spears (kind of like modified pikes), and there were some nice looking longswords and a broadsword for King Hrothgar and at one point, Beowulf has the assistant Weapons Master make him a pair of wrist blades that could be hidden from Grendel. The movie goes throught the battle with Grendel (including the hacking off of a limb) and the eventual battle with Grendel's mother.

The movie The Thirteenth Warrior is based on Michael Crichton's book Eaters of the Dead (Which incidentally, I saw in a Barnes & Noble recently, renamed to The Thirteenth Warrior as well.)

BUT...Crichton based Eaters of the Dead/The Thirteenth Warrior roughly on Beowulf, also referencing ancient manuscripts and writings regarding Beowulf. He has a forward talking about his interpretation of the story of King Hrothgar, Beowulf and the Grendel.

If you don't have the patience/willingness to read old english literature, read Crichton's book. It's worth it. If you do have the patience, see Beowulf on Everything or buy a copy translated by Burton Raffel.

The manuscript is in the British Library, and normally on display to the public under a glass case. It is traditionally known as Cotton Vitellius A. XV, because it came to the British Museum (which until recently included the Library) from the collection of the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), who arranged his books under busts of Roman emperors: of Vitellius, in this case.

Before that it may have been in the possession of Laurence Nowell (d. 1576), the Dean of Lichfield and a pioneer in Anglo-Saxon studies; before that, presumably preserved in a monastery. In 1705 it was catalogued by Humphrey Wanley, who briefly quoted passages from it.

These are of interest because in 1731 the Cotton collection, then housed in Little Deans Yard in Westminster, was devastated by a fire. Vitellius A. XV, the only manuscript of any part of Beowulf that has ever been discovered, survived the fire with only its edges damaged, but the edges have been crumbling away ever since, and a considerable amount can no longer be recovered.

We are dependent at crucial points on the first publication, completed in 1787 and printed in 1815, by Grímur Thorkelin, an Icelander. He made a copy himself, now called Thorkelin B, and employed a professional copyist to make an independent copy, Thorkelin A. As the copyist had no knowledge of Old English, his is in some ways more objective, since Thorkelin (and every scholar since who has ever worked on it) was prone to finding scribal errors to allow the text to make more sense.

Some text has been recovered by modern techniques such as ultraviolet inspection.

Two scribes wrote it down, one up to line 1939 and the other to the end (line 3182). The second scribe also wrote Judith, bound after it in the same book. They were both writing in the classical Wessex dialect, but differentially preserve older forms from other regions, allowing scholars to guess at the tale's history. The text is divided into forty-three fitts.

It seems fitting to end by giving an example of the Old English. These are the last lines of Beowulf.
þá ymbe hlæw riodan hilde-déore,
æþelinga bearn, ealra twelfe,
woldon ceare cwíðan, kyning mænan,
word-gyd wrecan ond ymb wer sprecan:
eahtodan eorlscipe ond his ellen-weorc;
duguðum démdon, swá hit gedéfe bið
þæt mon his wine-dryhten wordum herge,
ferhðum fréoge, þonne hé forð scile
of líc-haman læded weorðan.
Swá begnornodon Géata léode
hláfordes hryre, heorð-genéatas;
cwædon þæt hé wære wyruld-cyninga,
manna mildust ond mon-ðwærust,
léodum líðost ond lof-geornost.

Then round the barrow rode the battle-bold,
princes' children, all twelve,
wanted to tell their sorrow, talk of their king,
utter their elegy and speak about the man:
esteemed his earlship and his works of valour;
it seemed to his followers, that it be fitting
that a man praise with words his friend and lord,
love his spirit when he should go forth
led from the body-husk.
So lamented the Geat people
their lord's passing, the hearth-retainers;
said that he was, of the world's kings,
mildest of men and gentlest
kindest of people and keenest for praise.

There is an yet another modern interpretation of the Beowulf epic. It is a book named Grendel, by John Gardner. This book follows the basic storyline of Beowulf, but tells it from the point of view of the 'monster', Grendel. Grendel is portrayed to be a creature with feelings, rather than the savage beast of other interpretations. While having feelings, Grendel is still a killer by default, as that is still his nature. An odd angle, but an interesting read nonetheless.

compiled overview of the 45ton Beowulf 'Mech, from various BattleTech novels and game sourcebooks:

After the Clan defeat on Tukayyid, ComStar immediately began upgrading several small production facilities in the Free Rasalhague Republic into 'Mech factories. The largest, Odin Manufacturing's facility on Orestes, was the first to produce a new 'Mech design, the Beowulf.

In 3058, when ComStar was driven from Terra, all of its Mongoose scout 'Mechs were destroyed. Rather than order more, the Precentor Martial decided to build a new 'Mech that would serve as a scout without the Mongoose’s lack of firepower and mobility. The new 'Mech, the Beowulf, is nearly twice as heavy as the Mongoose and has jump capability.

The Beowulf is extremely mobile, combining an XL engine with MASC for extra speed and with a 180meter jump radius. Combined with that mobility is the firepower provided by a large pulse laser and two of the newly developed ER medium lasers, purchased from the Free Worlds League. As a scout 'Mech, the Beowulf is also equipped with a Beagle active probe and a TAG system to direct incoming artillery.

Half of the Beowulfs produced go to the Com Guards, the other half to the Rasalhague Kungsarme. To date, only the 321st Division of the Com Guards and the Fourth Kavalleri of the Kungsarme have received Beowulfs.

Note: Information used here was the domain of FASA before they split the rights between Wizkids LLC and Microsoft (table-top gaming and video games respectively). Copyright of the fluff text is in limbo, but names of persons, places, & things are without any doubt the property of Wizkids LLC. Use of any terms here related to the BattleTech trademark are not meant as a challenge to Wizkids LLC's rights.


The poem is set in Denmark and Sweden, some time between 500 - 700 AD. Grendel, a hideous monster, terrorises Heorot, the mead-hall (drinking hall) of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Enraged by the noise of the partying and revelry, the monster Grendel launches regular raids, attacking at night and killing the King's greatest warriors.

This lasts for twelve years, until the hero Beowulf arrives. He is a Geat from southern Sweden, nephew of Hygelac, King of the Geats. Beowulf has heard of the troubles of Hrothgar, and arrives with fourteen warriors to help. Although he is at first challenged by guards who think he is a spy, they let him enter the country. He is welcomed warmly by Hrothgar, who knew his father, and by Queen Wealhtheow, and Beowulf tells tales of his brave exploits.

Unferth, a drunken warrior from Heorot, challenges Beowulf's bravery. Unferth claims that Beowulf lost a swimming race against Beowulf's childhood friend Breca; however Beowulf had been attacked by sea-monsters, and swam for seven days and nights fighting them. Beowulf in turn accuses Unferth of fighting and killing his own kin, and taunts him over his failure to kill the monster Grendel.

Beowulf decides to kill Grendel that night and boasts that he will do it bare-handed. He sits in the mead hall waiting for nightfall and the monster's arrival. Eventually, Grendel comes, breaking down the door and killing and eating one of Beowulf's men. Beowulf attacks the monster, wrestling him; his men attack Grendel with their swords but do no harm. With his mighty strength, the hero tears the arm off Grendel. The mortally-wounded Grendel escapes, running off to die, leaving a bloody trail that runs to its lair.

The following day, everyone celebrates, and Beowulf shows off the arm he tore from Grendel. There is a great feast, with singing, storytelling, and much praising of Beowulf. Only the scoffer Unferth is silent.

But it does not end there. Grendel's mother, a still greater monster, attacks the hall as her child had before. She grabs Hrothgar's counsellor Aeschere and vanishes back into the marshes. Beowulf and Hrothgar give chase, but the monster disappears under water. Beowulf follows alone, fighting off attacking sea creatures, until he comes to the monster's lair.

His sword will not harm her. She attacks him with a dagger, but his armour protects him. Luckily, in the underwater cave, Beowulf finds an enormous sword, forged by giants, and too heavy for any normal man to carry. Any man but Beowulf: he is able to pick up the sword, and swings it at Grendel's mother. He kills her, and, finding Grendel's corpse in the cave, cuts off its head as a trophy. Beowulf returns triumphantly to the Danish King. He is greatly rewarded, and goes back to his home in the land of the Geats, where he eventually becomes king himself after the death of King Heardred.

Fifty years later, the kingdom of the Geats is attacked by a fire-breathing dragon, angry that part of its treasure trove has been stolen by a Geatish slave, who was looking for money to buy his freedom.

Beowulf takes eleven warriors to fight it, but all except one, Wiglaf or Wicglaf, are scared and run away. Beowulf kills the dragon with Wiglaf's help, but Beowulf is bitten by the beast's poisoned fangs. He realizes he is about to die, and instructs Wiglaf to show him some of the dragon's treasure before he dies. He also tells Wiglaf to build a barrow (a memorial mound) to mark his remains, after his body is burnt on a pyre. Wiglaf returns alone to tell of Beowulf's great deeds. He banishes the cowards from the kingdom, and arranges for Beowulf's funeral, but new troubles are already brewing with neighbouring tribes.

This node is something of a mess already, so I will not try to contribute any description, commentary or prosodic analysis of the poem. However, one thing that is missing is a plot summary, which I hope I have provided.


  • Anonymous. "Beowulf". []. February 1, 2002. (Original Anglo-Saxon text.)
  • The British Library. "Beowulf" in Collections - Treasures. []. February 1, 2002. (Cannot give URL of actual web page, the result of a search for "beowulf".)
  • Michael J. Cummings. "Beowulf: A Terrifying Tale of Good vs Evil: Background and Plot Summary". []. February 1, 2002.
  • Grendel's Lair. "Grendel's Lair: Beowulf". []. February 1, 2002.
  • Robin Katsuya-Corbet (ed.), "Beowulf". []. February 1, 2002. (Includes Gummere's translation.)
  • Kevin Kiernan (ed.). "Electronic Beowulf". []. February 1, 2002.

Values of Anglo-Saxon Society and Universal Themes Revealed Through Beowulf

The epic poem Beowulf reflects many of the ideas and values of the Anglo-Saxon society. The epic is largely based on a warrior type of society, where the society is led by a strong leader, and life revolved around the communal or the mead-hall. Many universal themes are also prevalent throughout Beowulf, and one such theme is that of good prevailing over evil. This is a theme which is reiterated throughout the epic, and is also in itself, a key to understanding the values of Anglo-Saxon society.

As already illustrated throughout Beowulf, some of the values which were of very great importance to the Anglo-Saxon society were courage, loyalty, and strength. Fame, success, and sometimes even survival, were gained only though ones loyalty to the leader. This is clearly illustrated in Beowulf. For example, Beowulf left the land of the Geats and came to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, only because of his loyalty to the king. It wasn’t because of his own self-satisfaction, but only due to his extreme loyalty to the leader, which was a quality much revered in Anglo-Saxon society. Warfare, being prevalent in their lives, was a very big part of the Anglo-Saxon society. This value is apparent in Beowulf on many different occasions. The entire epic, to some extent, is based upon fighting. Some examples include when Beowulf came to the aid of the kingdom Herot, and fought off the monster Grendel, and his mother. This again is shown when the dragon attacks the Geat’s land, and Beowulf, once again, saves the day. This value, along with many others of Anglo-Saxon society in the middle ages, is exhibited in the epic Beowulf.

Of the many universal themes present in Beowulf, one is good prevailing over evil. Beowulf, himself, could be seen as the personification of all that is good in the Anglo- Saxon society. Upon his arrival, the king said, “But to table, Beowulf, a banquet in your honor: Let us toast your victories, and talk of the future.” Obviously, according to that society's values, Beowulf would be considered a very successful man, because of the praises he received from the king. But this also leads the reader to believe that Beowulf is the “good” one and that he has overcome “evil” and will do so again. This time, the “evil” comes in the form of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. On each occasion, the good overcame the evil. Although, Beowulf did suffer a fatal wound while battling the dragon, he still slayed the dragon, and good had prevailed once again over evil.

This battle of good and evil could also be interpreted in terms of religion. Christianity was eventually replacing the old warrior religion and paganism. This had become a major part of Anglo-Saxon society, hence this universal theme helps define the values of that society. For example, the monster Grendel would not touch Hrothgar’s throne, because it was protected by God—this basically represents the ideals of Christianity overtaking that of paganism.

The epic Beowulf, written by the anonymous author, undoubtedly reveals many of the values which are predominant throughout the Anglo-Saxon society. It was a very society based on warring and stressed loyalty towards the leader. Like any other great epic, or even novel, Beowulf, not only reveals the attitudes and cultures of its society and culture, but also reveals some universal themes, one of which is that good will prevail over evil. Beowulf basically set a precedent for all other novels and authors, not only because it was the first work in English, but also because of the values of its society which it reveals and the universal themes it embodies.

Essay written by Irfan

Epic poetry usually embodies the attitudes and ideals of an entire culture. What values of Anglo-Saxon society does Beowulf reveal? What universal themes does it also reveal?

The anonymously written epic Beowulf captures the very essence of Anglo-Saxon warfare culture, while rousing various paramount, universal themes of human behavior: heroic deeds as a reflection of personal glory and the personification of raw, deadly emotions such as envy, greed and pride, through the characters in Beowulf.

The Anglo-Saxons's concept of loyal reliance on one absolute leader grew out of a need for Beowulf to protect them from the terrors of the sordid enemy in order to gain their loyalty-- to establish law and order. He would complete his valiant missions and, would thus gain the respect of his people. Beowulf earns his name through his defending of Geat, his home, from evil, identically to that of the prototypical Anglo-Saxon hero.

Yet another aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture that Beowulf defines is that of religion. The Anglo-Saxon religion was bleak and fatalistic, based on warrior Gods such as Thors and Woden. The practice of Christianity was burgeoning: on page nineteen of Elements of Literature (Sixth Course) is stated that due to the various elements of Christianity present in the epic, Beowulf was most likely written by a Christian monk. Hence, biblical allusions are not uncommon in Beowulf; i.e., ?He was spawned in that slime, conceived by a pair of those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures?? Yet another theme enhanced by biblical allusions is Unferth symbolizing the proverbial Cain, known for having killed his own brother. As such, He is the jealous element of humanity. The conflicting good versus evil theme represents what is 'good' as in Beowulf (God) and Grendel (Satan) for what is 'bad'. The aforementioned relates to the burgeoning Christianity of the time.

The Anglo-Saxons had communal halls that provided a meeting place in the center of the village for the townsfolk. It served as a place for community discussion and rule by unanimity as well as it provided a place for storytellers. The mead hall is Herot in Beowulf, serving as a perfect-place mead-hall where Anglo-Saxon warriors feasted and the like. Bards who frequented these halls were not ignored because they were thought to be as valiant as the warriors, keeping history of the tribes? failures and successes through their poetry and stories.

Beowulf establishes the personification of raw, deadly emotions such as envy, greed and pride, through its characters. The main theme in Beowulf is heroic deeds as a reflection of personal glory. Everything that Beowulf does is for the sake of feeding his ego because he is highly praised for his performance at battle. He is characterized predominantly by his feats of strength and courage. The three separate encounters with evil (Grendel, Grendel?s mother, the Dragon) express various aspects of the heroic code that he personifies and engages in. Beowulf represents pride, which causes his death. Pride was the fault that, although well appreciated and needed to lead in his culture, finished him. He decided to fight the Dragon alone, overestimating his own strength.

Grendel represents all of the evils in Beowulf combined. He seems to be guided by animalistic emotions and impulses, and he?s exiled to the swamps of an unbeknownst underground. His faults, too, are what cause him to falter. Unferth is "the monster of green envy". He is the proverbial Cain who killed his brother and is now challenging Beowulf because he resents that he will never be known as the great warrior that Beowulf is. This doesn't get him anywhere because it deviates from the heroic code. The aged ruler Hrothgar advises Beowulf to moderate his pride because he knows that pride could very well bring hardship as well as good fortune. He is vulnerable, however, acknowledging his weaknesses and calling upon Beowulf to kill the disastrous societal outcasts. He represents the balance of pride.

Rousing paramount themes such as heroic deeds as a reflection of personal glory and the personification of raw, deadly emotions such as envy, greed, and pride, through its characters, Beowulf gathers the aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture in a way that makes this epic poem identifiable, brilliant.

How true does Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf remain to the text?

Beowulf was written around the start of the 7th century, by an unknown poet. Chronicling the life of its eponymous hero, Beowulf is one if the earliest known non-classical epic poems in existence. Classical epics, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, were written primarily to be heard rather than read, Virgil himself reading the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. Beowulf follows in this mould.

Translations of Beowulf have tended to ignore this fundamental aspect of epic poetry, choosing instead to interpret Beowulf as a text to be studied rather than a work in the oral tradition. As Kevin Crossley-Holland says in the introduction to his 1968 translation: “scholars and critics regard Beowulf as a museum for the antiquarian, a sourcebook for the historian, a treatise for the student of Christian thought”. Owing to this trend, translators have striven to convey the meaning as accurately as they are able, rather than the sound effects of the verse.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of 1999 does not follow this drift toward the transformation of the poem into an academic exercise. He does not shy away from what he calls in his introduction a ‘ ‘shield-wall’ of opaque references’, nor from the ‘word-hoard’ of the poem. For example, the Crossley-Holland translation on line 156 transcribes the word ‘wergild’ lit. man-price leaving it there, supplying instead a footnote explaining that it is the monetary compensation paid by a murderer to the family of their victim. Heaney, however, offers ‘death-price’. This seems self-explanatory to the first-time reader, especially since the context also helps to explain the concept of wergild. It is an adventurous and novel use of language to create a compound noun where English has few such.

The most notable examples of Heaney’s reversion to the oral tradition are his treatment of the two ‘episodes’ in the poem. The ‘digressions’ in the poem run from 883-914 and 1070-158. They are poems within the poem, sung by minstrels at banquets. In the latter section the metre shortens. These have been treated no differently from the rest of poem, with only inverted commas to denote song rather than narration. The Old English itself only acknowledges the minstrels with opening and closing semi-colons or colons. Heaney treats each part slightly differently, both from their former versions and from each other. Heaney’s writing becomes more stylised, and the passages in question are italicised. There is in the first song a visible hiatus where each line’s caesura falls, and in the second there is a line break there, rendering the physical appearance of the passage much more like a song than prose. The end result in each part is both to bring out the ballad-like nature of the sections and, by raising their profile in the poem to emphasise their thematic importance: the first prefigures Beowulf’s last battle with the wyrm, and the second depicts the cyclical wars ravaging the region that are a part of the Danes’ culture.

These two sections, especially the first, are analogous to the customary prophecies and warnings of classical epics, like Jupiter’s prophecy in The Aeneid. So standard is the use of prophecy in the epic that Alexander Pope’s 18th Century mock-epic The Rape of the Lock includes a lengthy caution to Belinda from Ariel on the perils in store from ‘Man’. Thus, Heaney’s accentuation of the two ‘digressions’ helps to highlight the epic nature of Beowulf.

Heaney’s use of alliteration is both effective and faithful to the original. In Anglo-Saxon poetry the alliterations are notionally divided by a caesura in the line. For example, ‘þone deorestan deadne wisse’ (1309) of the original alliterates across the caesura with ‘deorestan’ and ‘deadne’. Heaney’s supplied translation for this is: ‘his dearest companion, was dead and gone’. Heaney is especially fortunate here in that the same words alliterate in both languages. Elsewhere, he is less fortunate, but his skill as translator allows him to overcome the problem. For example, ‘fela feorhcynna forð onsended!’ (2267) is full of lyrical alliteration, but there is not such a convenient transcription available to Heaney as there is in line 1309. His version is ‘have emptied the earth of entire peoples.’ Not only does Heaney keep the caesura and the rhythm of the line, he manages to include a triple alliteration as in the original where no direct derivatives exist. Occasionally, however, it is impossible to be so faithful to the Old English and avoid contrivance. In such circumstances Heaney allows himself to deviate from the rule that the alliteration must fall on the first stressed syllable, without which flexibility Heaney would have used an ‘artificial … or unusual word choice just for the sake of correctness', as he says in his introduction. In line 1068, ‘be Finnes eaferum, ða hie se fær begeat,’ in Heaney’s version is ‘the tale of the fierce attack in Friesland.’ Although this caesura falls naturally, the alliteration is not authentically placed. To do so would require a forced choice of words, and Heaney here favours content over style. In line 681:’ Nat he þara goda þæt he me ongean slea,’ Heaney gives: ‘He (Grendel) has no idea of the arts of war’. He does not alliterate, saying in his introduction that he often prefers to let the ‘natural sound of sense’ prevail over convention.

It is interesting to note that in writing about Beowulf, many critics veer towards the use, whether conscious or otherwise, of the compound noun, virtually obsolete in Modern English. In his Translator’s Note, Crossley-Holland thanks his wife for ‘weathering the word-storm’, and Heaney in his introduction says that he considers Beowulf to be ‘part of my voice-right’, both of which sound peculiarly Anglo-Saxon in tone. Old English itself is descended from German, and thus shares some linguistic rules, one of which is the ability to construct compound nouns or adjectives to suit any purpose or metaphor. The Beowulf poet makes extended use of kennings, conjuring strange images with the combinations used. Other translators make relatively sparing use of this linguistic device, fearing perhaps that it might alienate readers with its over-rich feel. Crossley-Holland seems to use it only with occasional poetic license or when forced to. He translates ‘helrunan’ (lit. ‘hell-witches’) as the more sinister ‘hell-whisperers’ where Heaney has the less Germanic but equally gothic ‘reavers from hell’. However, Heaney tends in his translation to stick with a compound from the original to preserve the oral effect, as when ‘wergild’ becomes ‘death-price’. He is able to incorporate this into his alliteration, and the whole line reads: ‘nor stop his death-dealing, nor pay the death-price.’ The 1968 option of leaving ‘wergild’ and supplying an explanation disrupts the rhythm of the lines, and the word becomes a blot on the aural landscape of the poem.

Heaney uses compounds both to move closer and further away from the text. One of my favourite images is ‘But the Lord was weaving / a victory on his war-loom for the Weather-Geats’ (696-7). This is only a figurative translation, but the analogy is powerful. The Geats’ vessel almost invariably has a ‘ring-whorled’ prow and at 32 it is ‘ice-clad’. He says in his introduction: ‘I try to match the poet’s analogy-seeking habit at its most original’, and to do so he must have at his disposal the same linguistic tools as the Beowulf poet. He uses the same plethora of terms for ‘ruler’ as the original, from ‘ring-giver’ to ‘gold-giver’ to ‘his people’s shield’. Heaney also recognises that it is not the precise translation of the compound that matters; it is the use of a compound there to preserve the rhythm. The presence of the kennings is one of the most enjoyable things about the poem: ‘death-qualms’, ‘wound-slurry’ and ‘sea-brutes’ amongst them. The adherence to this archaic style of writing brings the poem more powerfully to life and the presence of alien syntax makes the reader aware in turn that an alien culture is being described. This glimpse of Old English through the modern translation makes the reader more conscious of the original atmosphere and tone.

Starting at line 2215 there occur a series of gaps in the text, where the original has become illegible. From 2215 to 18 the omissions are only occasional words, and the general sense can be construed from the context. Heaney and Crossley-Holland’s differences are mostly incidental. However, over the larger gaps from 2226-30, there are major differences in approach. There are roughly three whole lines illegible or missing, and Heaney simply leaves a gap to signify this, filling in the overall meaning of the passage around it: ‘….. in shock/…..the wretch.........../.........panicked and ran/away with the precious…../metalwork.’ Crossley-Holland, conversely, writes: ‘stiffened with horror. Unhappy as he was,/he stole the vessel, the precious cup.’ I find the pretence that the original supplies a complete and legible text strange, but Heaney’s admission of the fallibility of the Old English text is reassuring, and exciting. Emerging from the Geats’ cultural universe, the reader suddenly remembers that Beowulf is itself an historical document. The presence of the unknown in these lacunae reminds the reader that this is an ancient tale, some of which has been lost to the ravages of time. This text is in a sense more alive for its incompleteness, and Heaney’s unflinching acceptance of this brings his translation closer to the original than Crossley-Holland, whose fudging of the lines is embarrassed, and embarrassing.

Another difference between Heaney and Crossley-Holland occurs at lines 168-9. The Old English has ‘(Grendel) was not suffered to outrage Hrothgar’s throne, by reason of God’s prohibition: he knew not His mind (Grendel’s fate)’ and Heaney renders this as ‘but the throne itself, the treasure-seat, he was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast.’ There is controversy, however, over the subject of these lines: Hrothgar, Grendel, or God. It is perhaps for these reasons that Crossley-Holland entirely omits these lines from his version, ending the section two lines earlier. It is significant that Crossley-Holland chooses to omit these lines, because it is indicative of his opinion as to whether Beowulf is a Christian poem or not. Although he says in his introduction that it is ‘still a matter of opinion’, and that we lack sufficient evidence to answer the question, his exclusion of these lines would suggest that he does not think the poem is Christian. Conversely, Heaney seems to believe that Beowulf is a firmly Christian poem, and so his translation refers repeatedly to ‘Almighty God’ and ‘The Lord’.

As an epic, and as a tale reputed to have been put together by a group of singers, the poem’s tone has to be vocal, and in this Crossley-Holland and Heaney enjoy varying degrees of success. The tone might also be relatively informal, and here the two translators differ. Crossley-Holland is more formal and declamatory in his translation. The first word of the poem: ‘Hwæt’ has been variously interpreted, from ‘Lo!’ ‘Behold!’ and ‘Hark!’ to the 1968 edition’s more idiomatic ‘Listen!’ Heaney chooses instead to have ‘So.’ In defence of what he admits is ‘attending to the grain of my original vernacular’ as much as the Old English, he rightly states that it is a poem hospitable to contemporary idiom. Whether this departure from the strict sense of the word represents a distancing from the text or a movement closer to its culture is dependant upon how the reader views Beowulf itself: sacrosanct academic document or living interpretable poem. Heaney suggests that the middle way he sought between these two extremes was one equally sought by the Beowulf poet himself.

In line 732, ‘atol aglæca, anra gehwylces’ is often translated as something approximating to ‘the savage monster (Grendel) planned to sever’ and this is a translation that stays fairly close to the literal sense of the line. However, Heaney has ‘his glee was demonic / picturing the mayhem’ which at first glance seems a far looser and less accurate version than that which is usually offered. It would be easy, the reader might think, to substitute ‘mayhem’ for ‘havoc’, with little alteration to the meaning of Heaney’s line. This is not in fact correct. Havoc means destruction or devastation, but ‘mayhem’ in its strictest sense means ‘the privation of the use of a limb or member of the body, by which one is rendered less able to defend himself or to annoy his adversary’. In using this, Heaney has managed to portray the meaning precisely in one word. ‘Mayhem’ is fuller and more graphic than ‘to sever’, and has specific connotations of disabling a foe by the removal of a limb. Again Heaney uses unconventional means to move closer to the original intentions of the text.

Any translator will find in the original, language with untranslatable nuances. Words might have subtleties that the direct or literal translation does not carry. Heaney, speaking about this problem, said that there were in Anglo-Saxon ‘cultural depth-charges … in certain words and rhythms’. Obviously, the same associations do not still apply, and to try to recreate them is a near-impossible task given the many other restraints on the choices of word and rhythm. Heaney settles for the next best option: putting in words that are cultural ‘depth-charges’ for him. These are pieces of Northern Irish dialect, like ‘hoked’ (3026) for ‘laid bare’, ‘thole’ (an almost direct transfer from the Old English word þolian to the Irish) for ‘suffer’ and ‘graith’ for ‘harness’ at 342 and 2988. The most potent piece of Irish vocabulary he employs is the word ‘bawn’ used in Elizabethan English to refer to the fortified dwellings built by the English in Ireland to keep the dispossessed Irish out. This refers to the keep to which Hrothgar retreats to watch Grendel. This is as much recasting of the original as translation, and in adding his own Irish heritage to the poem in these subtle ways, he overlays his translation with fascinating cultural tinges whilst losing nothing of the original meaning.

Heaney’s own poetry has many aspects of Anglo-Saxon verse. In Beldberg he writes of a man’s home: ‘Mossbawn / A bogland name…I could derive / a forked root from that ground / and make bawn an English fort.’ Heaney’s poetic associations with the bawn date to at least 1975 when North, from which this is taken, was published. In Punishment, he writes ‘oak-bone, brain-firkin:’ and these kennings are a trochee and a dactyl, metrical rhythms the Beowulf poet uses. In Bone Dreams he writes of ‘the scop’s twang’: ‘(the) flash of consonants / cleaving the line’ which is similar to its subject in metre and alliteration. Heaney’s introduction points out in Digging one line that runs: ‘My father, digging. I look down’. This alliterates across the caesura. He writes: ‘Part of me…had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the beginning.’

Heaney has written about the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, and his experience of the conflict there stands him in good stead in Beowulf. As an Irishman, he knows what Cromwell’s armies did in the seventeenth century, and how England colonised and subjugated the Irish. His knowledge of the consequences of violence enables him to express its aftermath very well in Beowulf. The Geat woman’s grief at Beowulf’s funeral pier (3150) reads: ‘a wild litany / of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded, / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles.’ This imagery remains current. For Heaney, it could describe either Cromwell or the worst atrocities that have taken place in Northern Ireland.

After the release of the 1999 translation, one critic wrote that Heaney is the ‘one living poet who can rightly claim to be the Beowulf poet's heir.’ This is not only because Heaney appreciates everything about the poem: its epic nature, its aural music and rhythms, its acclamation of indomitable spirit. It is not only because as a poet Heaney’s word-craft is perhaps on a par with the Beowulf poet’s. It is also because Heaney can identify so completely as an Irishman with the poem’s broad themes of oppression and loss that he is able to convey it so thoroughly and truly into Modern English.


Beowulf translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
Beowulf Wyatt and Chambers Old English text
North by Seamus Heaney

Beowulf in exile.

From the time we are born into the world, we join a collective of "se anhagas*," the lonely ones. For some of us, loneliness is not apparent, especially if we are surrounded by loving friends and family, "cynnred*." But for others of us, even the presense of loyal "cynnred" is not enough.

Beowulf's exile centered around his self worth. Even with all his strength and glory, he realized he was alone underneath his success as a warrior. Even if surrounded by glory and wealth, the greatest warrior cannot stand on pride alone. Beowulf, having defeated Grendel and Grendel's mother, having become a beloved lord, realizes that death is that time when he will be alone without kin, his pride and glory amounting to nothing when the dying time comes.

Hrothgar had already warned Beowulf of the harm of pride. Pride blocked a man's true understanding of his purpose on earth as a follower of God. To receive the salvation of God, a man's pride is worthless. Beowulf speaks of this in the Lay of the Last Survivor. "I am left with nobody/ to bear a sword or to burnish plated goblets." Beowulf understands that the power of the sword and the value of gold are as good as dust when it comes to the time he will be alone, faced with death. "And so he mourned as he moved about the world/ deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness/ day and night, until death's flood/ brimmed up in his heart."

All his life, Beowulf had undertaken glorious battles. He was in every sense an accomplished man, the sort of man that many were envious of and in awe of. But his fate differed none from any other man. All humans have a beginning and an end. We are born alone and die alone. The things we collect in the middle do not matter. Beowulf hurts from the thought of the final exile- meeting death. What desires can be had from Beowulf, who had everything but knew he had nothing? Again, the exile to God's kingdom was the only lasting hope for Beowulf. On earth, we are all alone.

This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for my English class - Node your homework. The words next to the asterisk are Old English.

I'd like to add something on the Christian elements of Beowulf. Obviously, whoever wrote down the old oral legend was a Christian monk, but why would he expend his energies in recording an obviously pagan story when there were so many classics of Christian literature to be preserved? I think it's quite probable that he saw a reflection of his own spiritual war in the story of Beowulf.

For those who didn't go to Catholic school, a bit of explanation is in order. A Christian monk took a threefold vow; he promised poverty, chastity, and obedience as a way of combatting the three main sources of sin:

The World was all the temptations to power over one's fellow man, amongst them glory, riches, and temporal power. Grendel, a force of pure malignant greed and violence, is a fairly good representation of the man who lets the World rule his life, and Beowulf's triumph over him represents the monk's faithfulness to his vow.

The Flesh represents not only sexual desire, but also the ties of kinship. A reading of Beowulf will give one some inkling of the blood feuds, based entirely on ties of family, that tore apart the society of the times. Grendel's Mother engages in this kind of revenge killing, and Beowulf's beheading her could be seen as symbolizing the monk's forsaking of children and kin.

The Devil is the most obvious tie of Beowulf's struggles to those of the monk. From ancient times, the Dragon has symbolized pure malevolent evil to Westerners and as such often represents the Devil. Beowulf tries to combat the Dragon alone and ultimately fails. Here the importance of the monk's third vow becomes apparent; no man could fight the supreme evil being alone, and obedience to God and one's superiors was necessary as discipline for a spiritual army.

The above is compiled from long debates in high school English class and given my interpretation.
The text "Beowulf" embodies the key ideology of an epic hero. This being that Beowulf does not hastily leap into battle, he understands the dangers yet “it is not his life he thinks of” (line 1535). He puts his own welfare in a lower priority to others’. But more predominantly he is not afraid to die, “He was not sorry to be fighting” (line 1537). It can be further said that an epic hero is not only brave in this sense but also loyal in that he isn’t just protecting people from a common enemy but is continuing with his promise to Hygelac to protect Heriot from all impending dangers, not just Grendel. There are however other factors, which the text highlights, that are uniquely made as an example in Beowulf that envisage an epic hero.

One such being that Beowulf not only fights man to man (or female species as it is in Grendel's Mother's case) but hand to hand as well. It is almost like the headline for a boxing match, “The Geat” vs. “Grendel’s mother” (line 1536) highlights the naked appearance of the lone form of combat, which characterizes the epic hero, “not sorry to be fighting” (line 1537) and not scared that they are alone. The previous stanza of verse emphasizes the second factor being that an epic hero needs not to utilize weapons, “furious the warrior flung the sword to the ground” for “his own strength would suffice him” lines 1530-1532.

The reason for these innate aspects being so primary to an epic hero is that the classic role of the hero depends upon their faith and understanding of fate, referred to as “wyrd” in Beowulf's Norse/Pagan Society. The proof of this undivided faith is displayed in how the epic hero shows no fear of the outcomes of life. For example fighting unarmed, alone and in confidence.

However within this structure lays the elegiac heroic paradox. This being that immortality will be achieved despite the outcome. His confidence and resilience then could also said to have emanated from the fatal flaw of pride. Thus although the epic hero may appear morally just and consoled in their affirming faith in fate similarly their solace could also originate from an introspective assurance in their perpetual ability to attain glory through the paradox.

There is one question in regard to the epic hero that may appear ambiguous in the majority of heroic texts but is quite definitive in Beowulf. This being that the epic hero may appear immortal, for the “firmest of warriors fell to the earth” when he was able to “regain his feet” (lines 1542-1555). However the truth being that they are merely human, his “venture/ would have ended” without “the battle shirt” (lines 1549-1551). The emphasized aid in Beowulf however is not the technology of the Iron Age but God.

It is believed by many authorities that underneath the heroic pre text in Beowulf lays a critique of pagan society by either one or many Christianly bias authors. The primary example of this predilection being that without god this human with divinely ordained abilities would not be so sensational and successful. This is said by “the holy God” not any stone god giving “out the victory” (Line 1553).

Thus although Beowulf appears super human and fulfils the Norse as well as a contemporary criteria for an epic hero, the intention of the composer is not to fulfil any fantasy. The purpose being the text being to glorify an individual whos trusts and believes in god, which consequently displays Christianity's superiority over paganism.

Anonymous, Beowulf, trans. Alexander (Penguin pb.) 2003

Hwæt! Þe celebrated saga in Anglo-Saxon
Hollywood has adapted anew.
Hear then of how brave Beowulf
Confronted the creature Grendel and his kin
In Þis time-honored tale retold with technowizardry.

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writers: Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
Adapted from the epic poem.

Ray Winstone as Beowulf
Robin Wright Penn as Wealthow
Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar
Crispin Glover as Grendel
Charlotte Salt as Estrith
Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother
Brendan Gleeson as Wigluf
Sebastian Roché as Wulfgar
John Malkovich as Unferth

A monster bedevils the hall of Hrothgar. Brave-hearted Beowulf and his battle-geared Geats agree to rid the realm of gargantuan Grendel. This troll-like titan is only their first fight; more monsters await, as yet unseen. Beowulf the epic has survived centuries, and more than once have movies been made of its matter. In 2007, Robert Zemeckis used motion-capture and CGI to bring a turn on the Teutonic tale again to theater.

An epic intended to be recited has its own conventions which do not consistently suit cinema. Purists may protest some significant shifts made by Gaiman and Avary, but they tie together unexplained elements of the ancient account. The dragon of the denouement now connects to the conflicts from the commencement. Questions about Grendel's kindred line and motives also are answered. I don't judge the cinematic saga superior to the source, but the changes fit the medium of film and its fans. The script even speaks of its switches. The adventurers are aware their myth does not match the realities they recall.

The computer-created effects of the film have called forth considerable conversation. Motion-capture and CGI presents people who nearly resemble reality. I felt the stylization suited a legend; others felt the near-reality disturbingly doll-like. The results in any case recall 300, though the filmmakers attempt to tell a more human and less heavy-handed history.

They do not consistently succeed.

The filmmakers decided to have Beowulf disrobe before he greets Grendel in battle. They also preferred a PG rating. To mediate, the makers picked the Austin Powers path of placing objects between our perspective and the protagonist's privates.1 The comical consequences conflict with the tone of the tale.

A similar attitude affects the handling of Grendel's Mother. Far from the fearsome hag of the history, the film-epic exhibits Angelina Jolie, nude but lacking nipples or perceptible pudendum. The result seems both prurient and puritanical. Either display nudity and accept the restricted rating that results, or cover contentious concerns. Beowulf would have been fine fighting in a loin cloth; Jolie has abilities beyond her body.

Sandal epics tend to teeter toward kitsch, and the interpretation of Grendel's mother takes it over edge, with her equivocal exposure, eccentric accent, and dubious design. The monster-mother's most conspicuous camp feature: feet simulating stiletto heels.

Objections aside (including the expected epic shouting), I found almost all the actors presented passably. The sequences of skirmishing have been handled with suitable spectacle. They would be breathtaking in 3-D, though, alas, few theaters feature the film in this form.

Overall, the script presents the piece with nuance and humor. It makes an interesting evening's entertainment, if not the keenest for praise.

1. An episode of M.A.S.H. used a similar technique for comic effect, and I suppose movies and shows may have done so long before Austin Powers.

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