A Word on Behalf of Beowulf

A few days ago I read a thread on Twitter that didn’t have to do with the president of the United States. It was about Beowulf.

I know the Beowulf is not on the top of most peoples’ minds. I know that he’s largely a cause of much pain and suffering in high school. He was for me, too. It wasn’t until I suddenly (really, it was sudden) became something of a medievalist that I began to revise my views on this amazing work of poetry. In 2002, on my way to a job interview in Cheyenne, WY, I found Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf at the Denver airport where I changed planes.

It was so captivating that I didn’t do much to prepare for my interview except get dressed up and show up on time.

I love Beowulf the character. He’s just wonderful, but I’m not a “modern” person. I don’t have the preconceived biases people are taught today and that I found on the Twitter thread.

You see, here’s the thing. Beowulf wasn’t written by a 20th century author. No one knows who wrote it or even why other than to entertain people. It’s a composite of mythic stories and historical events. It’s now believed to have been written in the 8th century. Some of the factual information in the story has been confirmed. But…

These people were not us — or were they? Could Beowulf be just another scary story about men vs. monsters along the lines of The Thing or Alien? But somehow — according to the long, disturbing thread on Twitter — it’s now being taught as White Males vs. The Poor, Suffering Other portrayed by the trolls, Grendel and his mother. For them Beowulf is not a hero; he’s a villain, and the poor monster, Grendel, is the true hero because he is the victim of hatred. In fact, I don’t see a lot of hatred in that story. The person who’s hired Beowulf — King Hrothgar — is angry because Grendel keeps breaking up parties in the mead hall and eating people. I’d be angry too. Beowulf takes on the job for pay.

In my opinion, if there’s any backstory involved, fitting with Medieval people would be a Biblical allegory — especially as this was the era in which the Scandinavians were converting to Christianity. But I like the hired killer vs. monster angle myself and I’m sticking with it. The story was never written as “Literature.” It was written for those long, cold, Scandinavian nights by the fire in the mead hall, when people were bored.

And, isn’t this beautiful and true:

…Men were drinking wine
at that rare feast; how could they know fate,
the grim shape of things to come…

Beowulf, Seamus Heaney translation p 87

11 thoughts on “A Word on Behalf of Beowulf

  1. In high school, we Beowulf as the sample of Old English to read. The problem with that is was presented merely to show how much the language had changed and not as actual literature to analyze. That would have required a translation – which we weren’t presented.

    We were also presented with some less raunchy Chaucer as an example of middle English. Again, not as literature but as a step on the road to modern English.

    You probably would not be surprised to know that most students had thought of Shakespear as “old” English.

    • Most of my college students thought Shakespeare was old English. I’m so glad I don’t have to (unconvincingly) attempt to prove otherwise any more.

  2. We had to read Beowulf in 7th Grade. It was painful, and I think we were made to read it in the Old English version. The only thing I remember about it was my English teacher’s bad breath, and the fact that she wore Tabu (an awful perfume). The combination of the two was horrifying.
    Did you get the job in Cheyenne, Wyoming? We were stationed there in 1997 at F.E. Warren AFB. All I remember about that was the wind, the incessant wind.

    • I don’t think you could read Old English. It’s really a foreign language.

      I didn’t get the job in Cheyenne. They gave it to someone who was already working there as a part-time teacher. They offered me that slot, but only a week before school would start. I felt like I’d been asked to the prom at the last minute, so I stayed in San Diego which I had a little more job security. How was I going to sell a house in a week, pack and move four dogs? No way.

      • Smart move staying in San Diego – Cheyenne is a pretty depressing city. We ended up moving down to Fort Collins, CO and commuting daily – past a herd of buffalo. I used to tell my kids, that they are probably one of the few kids who see buffalo on their way to school.
        Maybe you are right about the Old English – maybe it jus seemed like it was that difficult to read!

        • A lot of translations attempted to keep the original rhythm and other idiocy. And I (personally) think English teachers in general have too much reverence for things like that. I don’t know why. Kills the joy. When I read Beowulf in 2002 I didn’t even recognize it from high school. School can be such a buzz kill.

          It’s funny but another thing that persuaded me not to move to Cheyenne was that none of the people I met were happy. 😀

          • No – Cheyenne will never end up on one of those “Happiest City” lists. Too much wind, too few trees, wide open plains littered with tumbleweeds. It’s a tough place to live.

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