Poetry: Beowulf [E. Talbot Donaldson Translation]

Author: Anonymous, 8-11 Century AD
Genre: Narrative Heroic Poetry, Epic Poetry
Format: Paperback, 224 pages

A while back I posted about my decision to read the famous epic poem Beowulf. As promised to myself, I finished Reading the Middle Ages to prep myself for the unknown of medieval literature and picked up a prose translation of the poem from the library. I had to resort to interlibrary loan and surprisingly they shipped me the book all the way from Newfoundland. I was tempted to leave a little note in the margins to say hello to fellow readers on the East Coast, but then felt bad for trying to violate the book that didn’t belong to me. Finally having Beowulf in my hands I could not come up with any more excuses for avoiding it, so I rolled up my sleeves and went with it.

Should I even say that Beowulf turned out to be pretty darn great? Nah, such statement is so generic it can never do any justice to the book. If movies existed 1300 years ago, Beowulf would be portrayed by an Anglo-Saxon Bruce Willis. Who else would be able to handle so much action? Interestingly enough the poem itself contained only a few hardboiled episodes limited to Beowulf’s three major battles with monsters, but the scenes of war and peace were switching at such an intense pace that I often found myself baffled and caught off guard. Steinberg wasn’t kidding when he told his readers to be prepared for unexpected changes in plot’s timeline and setting. For example, the anonymous author would be telling of Beowulf’s feast in King Hrothgar’s great halls, when suddenly as if a random thought crossed his mind, he would switch to a reminiscence of historical feast at some other king’s abode – all without a stop for a breath. He would remember battles and heroes that have nothing to do with Beowulf or his intent to help Hrothgar, but they would be there to reinforce a sense of bravery or to allude to his imminent success.

And that is one thing that is so typical of Beowulf – the author does not shy away from major spoilers. The reader will know of the outcome of the battle or the fate of certain people way before it happens in the story. The narrator tells us straight up that Heorot, Hrothgar’s great hall terrorized by the beastly Grendel, will not fall prey to the monster, but would rather be destroyed by fire in a feud over the throne. Thus we learn that Beowulf is ought to succeed in his quest to defeat Grendel. Later on we are again told about the future that does not in any way impact the story, when the author reveals the betrayal in Hrothgar’s family that leads to the feud. Steinberg explains that by revealing the future the author intended to contrast the two forms of evil that Danes had to face in their time. One of course takes the shape of the supernatural Grendel, who is an obvious enemy that can be fought off. On the other hand there is the evil of betrayal that is much harder to detect, and that turns out to be the ultimate destructor of Hrothgar’s lineage. Theoretically this structure is brilliant, but practically it deterred me from the plot line and frustrated the suspense enthusiast inside me.

Going back to the greatness of Beowulf as a character, how can you not call him an ultimate action hero when he refuses to use a sword against Grendel, but instead rips the monster’s arm out right at the shoulder? With his bare hands! He dives into the dark lake where Grendel’s mother lives and battles horrifying serpents and water beasts that try to drown him. He steps into the cave where the fire breathing dragon sleeps and tells his back-up to wait outside. “I’ll be buck..,” Beowulf says with a heavy Austrian accent. Gosh, I very much enjoyed the action bits, but unfortunately they were scarce and brief. To counter my creeping disappointment, I kept reminding myself that the poem was not written about battling scary monsters – that was probably added for entertainment. The purpose of the story was to tell of glory, and treason, and fate. Perhaps that might turn off some readers, but those who like a good moral tale with some excitement sprinkled throughout would be quite content with it. I know that next on my agenda is to read the verse translation and see how it fairs compared to prose.

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