In honor of Seamus Heaney and his delightful translation, I decided this month I would tackle Beowulf. It also works out well because Beowulf is not terribly long, and I have a lot of homework piling up on me due to poor planning and the habit of biting off more than I can chew when it comes to signing up for free college classes on Coursera. Beowulf, for those of you who haven’t read it in three different literature classes, is an old Anglo-Saxon poem about a Scandinavian prince written in Old English by an anonymous British monk between the 7th and 10th centuries.
Our epic poem begin with Shield Sheafson, who is described as a generally wonderful king, as indicated by his epithets of “scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.” One imagines the mead-bench builders are especially grateful and flourish prolifically during his era, but it turns out that Shield is not the hero of our tale, nor is he of any importance whatsoever. He has a son, Beow, and then dies on the next page. In traditional Danish fashion, they load him and his booty on a boat and send him off to sea. Beow, in turn, has four kids named Heorogar, Hrothgar, Halga, and a daughter (who doesn’t get a name, but at least we know she marries someone named Onela and is fantastic in bed).
Fast forward a few decades to a time when Hrothgar builds the greatest mead-hall known to man, which he names Heorot. His hall is filled with music and dancing and all sorts of merrymaking and you would think this a fantastic thing, but wait-!
There is a monster named Grendel, and he is a party pooper. He shows up at the hall after the boys are settling into a drunken stupor and grabs 30 of them, dragging them to his lair and murdering them before returning their bodies to the hall. (All I can think of is how large his arms have to be to carry 30 people. Unless he made several trips. Or had a wagon of some kind.)
This rampage happens the next night as well. And the next. You would think people would stop getting drunk and/or sleeping in this hall pretty quickly, but you would be wrong. It goes on for twelve years.
Beowulf, a thane belonging to King Hygelac of the Geats (who lived in part of what is now Sweden, I think), eventually volunteers to help out Hrothgar, gathers a small army, and sets sail. He and his men arrive on the Danish shore and grandly introduce themselves to everyone they meet, from the coast guard to the king’s herald. The king’s herald, Wulfgar, brings the message to the king, who happens to remember Beowulf and his entire family history (except, of course, his mother’s name, though I’m starting to wonder if the women even get names around here). He invites them in, telling them to leave their weapons and shields at the door. Long winded introductions are made all over again. They then sit down and have a party, complete with minstrels and food. (One thinks they would have vacated to a safer hall, but no.)
Unferth, a man who is for some reason crouching by the king’s feet, is envious of all the attention Beowulf is getting, and tries to discredit him by bringing up that one time Beowulf lost a swimming contest. Beowulf, of course, has a perfectly believable explanation. It turns out that they swam for five days and nights in full armor and Beowulf totally would have won except he was attacked by sea monsters and dragged down to the depths and fought long and hard and killed off nine of them in the end without needing to breathe at all and finally he washed up on Finland and had to walk home. So that’s why he came in second place.
Beowulf could have stopped there, but instead continues to boast about his upcoming victory against Grendel and soon, everybody gets drunk. Hrothgar’s queen Wealhtheow (finally a woman with a name!) shows up to refill everyone’s drinks, and everyone keeps drinking, which I guess is what one does when preparing to face a terribly vicious monster. Hrothgar probably realizes this, quickly bids Beowulf farewell and good luck, and then he and his people scramble out of there for all they’re worth.
Beowulf, ever the intellect, decides to take off all his armor and toss aside his weapons to fight Grendel barehanded. His men are not entirely comforted by this.
Grendel appears that night, ripping the front door off its hinges and mauling a few people before Beowulf attacks. Beowulf, it turns out, is not entirely exaggerating about his strength, as he locks Grendel in a deathgrip and they struggle around, smashing timbers and the poor mead-benches. His men poke at Grendel with their swords, but it turns out he’s immune to weapons. Finally, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and shoulder, and Grendel slinks away home to bleed to death in peace. (Beowulf is not satisfied with the arm, though, and later tells Hrothgar that he wishes he had grappled him to his immediate death right then and there.)
The peasants rejoice. Everybody drinks. Hrothgar adopts Beowulf as his son. Everybody get a gift. The minstrels sing. Presumably the mead-bench makers get to work on more mead-benches. Queen Wealhtheow masters the art of drink refills. Beowulf gets more gifts. Everbody drinks until they can’t see straight and fall asleep where they are. Grendel’s mother attacks the sleeping Danes.
Grendel’s mother has come to avenge her son, and she is not happy. She grabs one of Hrothgar’s favorite advisors as a snack for later, snatches Grendel’s arm, which is presumably hanging from the rafters like a tacky Halloween trophy, and runs.
Everyone is left in a bit of a confusion while Hrothgar mourns for his lost advisor. Beowulf offers to cheer him up by seeking revenge against her, and is soon off to the countryside with his entourage on horseback.
Their search is cut short when they find the advisor’s head at the foot of a cliff by a lake. The water happens to be infested with sea monsters, but fortunately Beowulf is used to this sort of thing. He puts on all his armor (wait, what?), gives a speech dictating his last will, and then dives into the lake.
He swims down, and over half a day later, he finally sees the solid bottom of it. Wow. They sure don’t make lungs like they used to.
He soon finds himself fighting with Grendel’s mother (who is, I would like to argue, important enough to deserve her own name, thank you very much) and discovers that his sword does nothing. Like any sane man, he tosses it away and starts his backup plan of grabbing her by the shoulder and trying to rip it off. Well, I guess it worked last time.
It doesn’t work this time, though, and Grendel’s mother nearly stabs him with a knife. Fortunately for Beowulf, she has a collection of various weapons nearby, one of which just so happens to be a giant’s sword capable of killing demons like Grendel’s mother, which can only be wielded by men as strong as Beowulf.
He decapitates her and rejoices. He next explores the vault, which happens to contain the corpse of her son. He decapitates Grendel, too. Just in case. Then the blade of his sword melts from too much demon blood. He carries the hilt and Grendel’s head up to the surface. (Wait, if the blood is that poisonous, how are you going to survive swimming in it?)
Meanwhile, the guys staring down at the lake notice a heck of a lot of blood billowing up and they all start to mourn for Beowulf. To be fair, it has probably been a couple of days since they’ve seen him. Assuming they are normal people, they’ve probably accepted that a man can’t stay underwater for days in a full suit of armor without breathing. However, this man is Beowulf, and he can totally do that. Surprise, everyone! He pops back up.
It takes four men to put Grendel’s head on a spear and carry it to the great hall (heaven forbid one use a wheelbarrow). The head is presented to Hrothgar in Heorot, and there it remains. (Great, how are we supposed to have appetites for the feast with that thing staring at us?)
Beowulf gives the gold hilt of his melted sword to Hrothgar, who admires the detail work (and presumably wonders how best to deal with useless giant hilts). They all thank God for their success, despite the fact that they were probably pagan, not Christians (unlike a certain anonymous Anglo-Saxon monk author I can think of), and swear their loyalty to each other.
Then, Beowulf and his (fairly pointless) men leave Denmark and go home to dump their booty off on King Hygelac. Hygelac’s wife, Hygd, then pours them all drinks while Beowulf relates his meetings with Hrothgar to Hygelac. (They do love their H names, don’t they.) Hygelac (who happens to be Beowulf’s uncle) gives Beowulf a sword and huge tracts of land.
Time passes, Hygelac dies, and Beowulf sits on the throne for fifty years before something interesting happens. This time, it’s a dragon. It turns out some poor unsuspecting man found his way to the dragon’s hoard and took home a gem-studded goblet, which angers the dragon. (Darn it, Bilbo! Not again!)
The dragon burns down the villages of the Geats until word gets around to Bard Beowulf that he needs to do something about this. Beowulf, of course, is an old man now, but he’s still kind of an idiot so he figures he’s strong enough to take on a silly dragon. He at least has the sense to assume this will be his last battle, so he does some reminiscing, says his long farewells, and goes to challenge the beast.
The fight goes about as one expects. The dragon’s scales are hard to cut through, Beowulf’s sword fails him, his men flee for their lives, the dragon is extra flamey, etc. Fortunately, one guy sticks around. Wiglaf is his name, and he stands by his promise to help out the man who gave him shiny gold things.
With this one man, the tide of the fight changes (and it helps if you imagine this next part in slow motion, possibly overlaid with music accompanied by a wailing woman). Inspired by the power of friendship, Beowulf throws his weight behind the next sword stroke against the dragon’s head and…his sword breaks. Oops. As the fires around them grow hotter, the dragon bites Beowulf on the neck and he starts gushing blood. Wiglaf rushes to his aid, sinking his sword into the dragon’s belly. Beowulf pulls out his spare dagger and sticks it in to the dragon’s flank, which is hailed as the fatal blow. (Personally, I’d say it was the belly wound, but what do I know.)
Beowulf then discovers that the dragon’s teeth were poisonous and that he’s becoming nauseated (which I’m sure is completely unrelated to the massive blood loss). He senses he’s not long for the world, but fortunately he has time to boast about his résumé one more time and asks Wiglaf to bring him some of the treasure in the dragon’s hoard. Instead of seeking any kind of medical help, Wiglaf does this, and returns to listen to more instructions on how Beowulf wants to be buried. Finally, Beowulf dies.
The men who ran away come back and get a tongue lashing from Wiglaf on how disappointing they were in battle. He instructs them to load Beowulf up on his funeral pyre along with the dragon hoard. It turns out, however, that the hoard is cursed, and the pile that Wiglaf brought to Beowulf is now rusted and worthless. They do the smart thing by leaving the cursed treasure in the ground for the next unsuspecting thief to wander by. Instead, they build a huge funeral fire and a magnificent barrow for Beowulf and send him on his way. Thus ends the epic tale of Beowulf (and, one imagines, the inflated demand for mead-bench repairs).
P.S. I recently found this video on YouTube, in which I discover that Thug Notes is a literary series after my own heart.