Poetry - Poetry 101: Beowulf


For this week's Poetry101, Susan Omand does battle with one of the great poetic sagas...

Throughout the mists of time, tales of heroes and villains have been told, passed down through generations in the form of sagas, songs and poems because ordinary people did not write and a rhythmic form was more memorable.

One of the most famous of these heroic sagas is an Anglo-Saxon epic set in Scandinavia which involves a 5th Century Swedish hero who comes to the aid of the king of the Danes, whose mead hall has been under attack by a monster.  This monster is Grendel and the hero's name is Beowulf.  After Beowulf fights and slays the monster, Grendel's mother then attacks the hall only to be defeated, again by Beowulf. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and becomes king himself before he dies in battle fifty years later, after defeating a great dragon.

Having looked at the slightly over-simplified story above you may be surprised to know that the whole poetic saga in its original Anglo-Saxon stretches over 3183 lines. As with all sagas though, the stories tend to grow arms and legs, mixing truth and myth, history and fiction and it is difficult to tell what and how much, if any, of the stories within the saga actually happened and which bits have been added "for effect".

Nowell codex

The poem itself was first written down in its native Anglo Saxon sometime between the 8th and 11th Century by author or authors unknown (apparently it is written in two different handwritings) and survives as part of the manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, which you can actually go and see in the British Library.  Various verses of the poem had been translated previously but the first "proper" translation of the whole poem into a version we would understand without going to Anglo-Saxon evening classes, was not done until the early 1800's when it was translated first into Latin and then into Danish. Ah....ok. The first English translation of the whole saga didn't happen until 1837 when J M Kemble translated it, and then it seemed to become the fashion with no fewer than 33 translations covering 23 different languages, from such people as William Morris (he of the patterned wallpaper) and the wonderful poet Seamus Heaney.  And a new and much anticipated translation from Lord of the Rings author J R R Tolkien (edited by his son).  In fact it was Tolkien himself who said that, as a result of over-interest in the historical content of the saga, the poem's literary value had been largely overlooked and argued that the poem “is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content...” so it will indeed be interesting to see what his own translation is like.

Star Trek Voyager Doctor

No matter what language it is written in, as a story, Beowulf has sparked a lot of different adaptations from comic books to computer games.  There is a memorable Star Trek Voyager episode, which is actually what made me find out more about the Beowulf saga in the first place, called Heroes and Demons wherein Beowulf is the holo-novel opened by Harry Kim in the role of eponymous hero.  Kim disappears and Chakotay and Tuvok enter the novel to search for him only to disappear themselves.  It is up to the holographic doctor to try and save them all from Grendel.

There have also been several films either of, or based on, the Beowulf story.  Christopher Lambert was the hero of Beowulf in 1999 and played to his full Highlander sword-swinging capabilities, which split the critics opinion.  There was also a lesser known adaptation Beowulf and Grendel in 2005, starring Gerard Butler as Beowulf which, if not for the dialogue, could have been a great re-telling of the tale.  In 2007 Robert Zemickis got his hands on the story and gave it the motion capture CGI treatment, a script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary and a stellar cast including Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovitch and Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother.  As Beowulf films go, so far it's probably the best known, if not the critic's favourite, as it appears to be "style over substance" concentrating much more on the technological telling of the story rather than the story itself, in an ironic reflection of JRR Tolkien's comment above about the poem itself.

So am I going to recommend you read a 3,000-odd line poem? Good lord, no -  although it would indeed be heroic to attempt it. Even I (shock horror) haven't read the whole thing.  But you should know of its existence as a work and its importance, both historical and poetic, and be thankful that the medium of poetry allows such a heroic adventure to exist.

Image of original poem from British Library
Image of Star Trek from startrek.com