Saturday, October 18, 2014

Book Review: Beowulf

· Barnes & Noble
Translation by John Leslie Hall circa 1897

This epic poem was written over a thousand years ago in England by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet. The story itself is actually much older, scholars think it describes events that happened in the late 5th century in Scandinavia.

Was this a fun read? Not really. Scholars, such as Mr. Hall, translate this poem with the intention of making the wording as accurate as possible to original poem. There are footnotes everywhere, explaining conflicts in opinion as to whether or not the root word more closely translates to “toilet paper” or “tissue of the bottom”. Just kidding, toilet paper wasn't invented until late 19th century. Thankfully, John Leslie Hall put in brackets a modern language synopsis of what was about to happen, [Beowulf greets King Hrothgar] then comes the archaic-poetic language form of Beowulf’s greeting. I would have been lost in this story without them.

I have always wanted to read this and I'm profoundly glad I did. The story is awesome, the monster Grendel, a direct descendant of Cain, is offended by King Hrothgar's magnificent new hall, where much like Dr. Seuss' Grinch, he couldn't tolerate their nightly merry-making, but instead of stealing their presents and decorations, Grendel came in the night and devoured the men that celebrated there.

Enter Beowulf the Magnificent, to regale King Hrothgar with tales of his legendary exploits.

Grendel uses no weapons, so Beowulf declares won't either; he defeats the monster Grendel with his bare hands, rending Grendel's arm from his socket to dangle from the rafters of Heorot hall thereafter.

But Grendel has a mother…

This story has it all.  There is a hero in Beowulf, a monster in Grendel, an hero's antithesis in Unferth, a legendary sword, a battle with a dragon, that all intertwine in historic movements of our Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ancestors.  Ah, just breathe in the awesome.

Knowing Tolkien had a particular interest in this poem, it was fun to speculate how it shaped his own legendary LOTR series. On the lookout, I imagined some parallels between Grendel and Gollum, Gollum being less formidable but equally detestable. Also Smaug and Beowulf's dragon have several similarities, they are wormlike in body form and are notably greedy; Beowulf's dragon burns everything and everyone in sight after a cup is stolen from his hoard. The poem also refers to "middle-earth", a term I always thought was an original in LOTR.

There are probably many more subtle parallels that whooshed right over my head. However, the poem is from a period of English history where information is of swiss cheese density, and Tolkien's LOTR is often interpreted as a prehistory of England, which plugs each of those holes with literary genius to create something fictitious, yet magnificent.

I have two more versions of this poem, including Tolkien's that I can't wait to read to see what else I can find to geek-out on.

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