During my early teen years I made it a challenge to see how difficult of a book I could read successfully, partly out of a genuine interest in improving my reading abilities but mostly out of the misguided belief that I could brag about having read such a book, as if my peers would marvel at my intellect.
Though I look back and groan at that attitude, my old habit of choosing the dustiest and least approachable books did have its benefits, especially after I ventured to read Beowulf (700–1025?). I first picked up Seamus Heaney’s side-by-side translation of Beowulf expecting what many might from the oldest surviving epic written in English: something antiquated and unrelatable; a hack-and-slash warrior adventure written in the dead husk of Old English.
What I found was a poignant and haunting story about meaning and mortality in a world where death is glory.
Beowulf, which was likely first passed down by oral tradition, was originally untitled. In the 19th century the poem began to be called by the name of its Scandinavian hero, whose adventures are its primary focus. Though true historical events are woven into the poem, both its hero and the story are fictional. In its most basic form, the story follows Beowulf as he battles three monsters: Grendel and Grendel’s vengeful mother, who threaten the hall of the Danish King Hrothgar, and a dragon who attack’s Beowulf’s own land late in his life. Throughout, the text engages in interesting historical digressions and storytelling via its cast of talkative characters, making for a text worthy of historical and cultural appreciation.
With the recent (and long overdue) release of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf on May 22nd, the epic poem continues to be relevant despite its age. Though Tolkien’s translation has been shelved for 88 years, his unique interpretation of the text was first made known in his 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” The lecture was a milestone moment in the study of the poem, significant in shaping how the piece is read and understood in modern times. Tolkien suggested the poem was more than just an interesting historical artifact otherwise wanting in proper narrative structure, but rather an “elegiac” piece that was sensitive to the mortality of its characters, which understood that all the history and glory “ends in night.”
Short of suggesting there is a right and wrong interpretation of the poem, I will say that I myself have always been affected by the ever present haunt of mortality in Beowulf that Tolkien suggests. Beowulf’s code of “let whoever can win glory before death” sets the tone for a story constantly conscious of mortality, wherein the hero’s actions are determined by the knowledge of his inevitable death. All of Beowulf’s brave feats are based in a desire to ascertain some sort of legendfor himself before he dies, and even this heroism is presented with a sense of vanity. Despite being a hero, a King, and a saviour, Beowulf cannot escape his mortality. Is it any coincidence that a poem bookended with funeral scenes is interested in death?
I am encouraging everyone I know to buy a copy of the new (old?) Tolkien translation, if not the Heaney translation as well. Heaney and Tolkien share a sensitivity to the humanity of Beowulf. Though superficially a story about heroism and history, it is concerned with fears of mortality that are quintessentially human, making it a timeless work of fiction that remains emotionally effective to this day. Read it, as I first did, for the language, the challenge, and the heroism, but read Beowulf also with the knowledge that it expresses a most basic human concern which extends beyond its historical and fantastical trappings.
Beowulf: a New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf and the Critics. Ed. Michael D. C. Drout. Tempe Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002. Print.