If you think you don’t like poetry, you’re not doing it right. Especially if you’re trying to get guys (or tomboyish girls) to like poetry that they envision to be sappy, sweet love junk – fuhgeddaboudit! But, there is poetry and then there is poetry – long, epic, story-telling poetic verse that catches you up in the telling of it and transforms everything you thought you knew about the genre.
Now, we turn to Beowulf, that old English hero who has inspired so many other tales through the years. If you don’t have a love of blood and gore and violence in your tales, then you may think Beowulf is not for you. Hold your disdain, though, because you won’t find a more lovely description of gnashing and killing in the whole of the English language.
To recap (Cliff Notes version here), if you’ve forgotten the tale or (gasp!) never read it, Beowulf is a hero of the Geats (modern day southern Sweden) who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Hrothgar’s hall has been terrorized by the villain, Grendel, who has been killing and eating the Danes and generally creating bloody chaos. As part of the poem reads, Grendel attacks one of the warriors and “tore him fiercely asunder, the bone-frame bit, drank blood in streams, swallowed him piecemeal: swiftly this the lifeless corse was clear devoured…” How can you not love that?!?
Beowulf and his squad lie in wait for Grendel and Beowulf kills him with his bare hands. Grendel’s mother comes for revenge, and Beowulf kills her with the sword of a giant that he finds in her lair. In glory, Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes King of the Geats. His last great act is to slay a dragon that terrorizes his land, but Beowulf is mortally wounded in the fight and dies. He is cremated and given the highest honors of his people.
And, from one of my favorite commentators on books of all kinds:
For this “reading,” I actually listened to the audio version. It’s an abridgement, but the abridged version is compiled by Seamus Heaney, the late, great poet/playwright/translator whose translation of Beowulf is widely popular. Heaney also reads the audio version, so you have the joy of listening to the tale with Heaney’s Irish lilt and bold voice bringing Beowulf to life. Beowulf is believed to have been largely an oral recitation, and it really makes a difference in the hearing of it, much like Shakespeare’s works are different when read or spoken aloud.
My favorite of the Beowulf retellings is Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. It’s based on a real, unfinished manuscript of an Arab man, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who travels north and lives with and makes observations about the Vikings. The book reads like an ongoing journal as the Arab and the group of Vikings embark on a similar journey to help a King fight off a particularly nasty villain. The book was made into a movie that I also enjoyed quite a bit, The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas. The book and movie make great supplements to the original hero’s tale and do justice to the mighty legend of Beowulf.
I’ve included a list of other famous epic poems including familiar stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon with a post on the sappy love junk, too!