Many centuries ago, the Danes led a pleasant life, full of typical Viking activities (raiding villages, exploring the Atlantic, and wearing awesome, pointy, horned helmets). And they partied in true Dark Ages fashion with copious amounts of mead and Scandinavian folk ballads. Tis the life! And then, the Danes would snuggle into their cozy beds for the night in their mead hall. Their peaceful slumber only disturbed when the vile demon Grendel storms into their hall and GOBBLES THEM UP ALIVE! This is not right! One minute you are asleep, the next minute you’re being eaten by a gnarly demon. This can not be! Grendel must be stopped! Somebody help! Fortunately for the Danes (and Western literature), a hero does emerge from the icy Scandinavian fjords to teach this grubby creep a thing or two. And that would be none other than the fearsome Geat hero Beowulf! *cue triumphant hero music*
As I announced last week, I am kicking off my Zella Kate Presents series with that most awesome of Anglo Saxon epic poems - Beowulf. Forget Schwarzenegger and Stallone (in case you already haven't), Beowulf is the best action hero ever! Even though Beowulf is a poem, and you would think there isn’t much excitement to be had, Beowulf is full of great fights, cool monsters, nasty blood feuds, and ample treasure. It’s absolutely action packed! I was especially impressed that, although Beowulf is missing a few passages, it didn't affect my enjoyment of the text. Some of the ancient texts I've read in class have been really good, but the plots seemed stilted and forced. In large part, this is because some of the text has been lost and parts have been added and taken away for centuries, which has a tendency to weaken a text. But this was not a problem with Beowulf at all. The plot stayed consistent and the missing pieces are not vital to understanding the text. And even though you don't get the character development that you would with a traditional prose narrative, Beowulf, as a character, is easy to like. He is brave, chivalrous, and pretty clever, as his verbal smackdown with Urfurt proved. ("Take that, you sniveling Shieldling!") Beowulf's likeability is a big plus, and it helps make the ending especially poignant. If you like mythology and fantasy, take note! Beowulf has many of the elements associated with high fantasy and was a major influence on J.R.R. Tolkien. (Side note: If you're a fantasy fan and have never read Norse or Celtic mythology, get thee to a library! You will love these myths because this is largely where fantasy, especially high fantasy, draws much inspiration from.)
Almost everyone I’ve talked to (or eavesdropped on) who has read Beowulf told me the same thing: Great story but the Old English is just so….hard. I love Old English - it is a fascinating language, but it is hard to read. In fact, Old English is essentially a foreign language because it is far closer to modern German than modern English. If Beowulf has frightened you in the past due to the Old English, I suggest the Seamus Heaney translation. He preserves the formal, elegant, somewhat archaic tone you’d expect but without the complex original Old English. Heaney is a Nobel prize winning poet, and his version preserves Beowulf’s best attributes and makes it more accessible. His passages are so elegant and beautiful. He preserves the traditional alliteration, so it's also fun to read aloud! Only problem: Heaney is an Irish poet and he uses quite a few Irish words. Wouldn't be a problem, but I am nit picky and didn’t think it was appropriate to use Gaelic words in an Anglo Saxon text about Scandinavian Vikings. It’s a small issue though. I also suggest getting an annotated version, in case any of the cultural or historical aspects of the text stump you.
I know that the two words "epic poem"strikes more fear in your average person than the words "Nazi torture," but give Beowulf a chance! Beowulf is an epic adventure, an amazing poem, and a fascinating slice of Viking/Anglo Saxon culture. Don’t let the haters fool you – Beowulf is a great read!
Next Week: I am so excited! By blogging on Beowulf, I not only read a great classic and had an excuse to surf the internet whilst in search of great images related to awesome pointy, horned helmets, I was also able to read my book for next week. Yay! A few weeks ago, Laura suggested Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, due to a wait list, I only got my hands on the book last weekend. (O Wait List, thou art the bane of my reading existence. Thou art evil. Thou shalt be obliterated the day I take over the world and print enough copies of each book for everyone. *cough*) The Hunger Games is an excellent book, and I can’t wait to share it! I just have to write my review.