Welcome to another edition of Scholarly Saturdays. Each Saturday in April I am covering a major poetic work that I highly recommend reading, along with a shorter work to read and enjoy that has some sort of connection to the longer poem. Sometimes the connection is based on time period, like today’s shorter poem. Other times it is connected by subject matter, like last week’s shorter poem. Here are the three major poems I have covered so far in April:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
Paradise Lost by John Milton
And this week we will be discussing what is perhaps my favorite of the five works getting covered in April: Beowulf. There is a lot to love about this poem, which has monsters and a dragon and three epic battles. This is the longest poem that was composed in Old English and is comprised of three acts: Beowulf versus Grendel, Beowulf versus Grendel’s Mother, and Beowulf versus the Dragon. Beowulf is a Geat and comes to the aid of the Danish kingdom to help them ward off the monster Grendel. The first two acts take place around the same time among the Danes, whereas the Dragon encounter occurs 50 years later after Beowulf has become the king of the Geats.
Beowulf was a work that J.R.R. Tolkien taught frequently throughout his career. He was famous for coming into the classroom reciting the first 50 lines of the poem from memory in Old English (While it isn’t Tolkien, this is a good video of the opening lines in Old English). He wrote two fantastic essays on this work, one of which was highly influential on the way Beowulf was studied and still holds sway to this day for scholars of this work. Tolkien knew this poem extremely well and had outstanding notes and lectures on this work. While the translation released recently was never intended by Tolkien to be published – I firmly believe he would have published a poetic translation rather than a prose one – the notes and commentaries within that book make it worth the investment to anyone with an interest in this poem.
Perhaps the most beloved of translations is the one by Seamus Heaney, which is the translation that I will be using for this short excerpt from the poem where Grendel is approaching Hrothgar at night, not knowing that Beowulf is there waiting for him:
Then out of the night
Came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift;
The hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts,
All except one; it was widely understood
That as long as God disallowed it,
The fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne.
One man, however, was in a fighting mood,
Awake and on edge, spoiling for action.
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
Hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved toward it
Until it shone above him, a sheer keep
Of fortified gold. Nor was that the first time
He had scouted the grounds of Hrothar’s dwelling—
Although never in his life, before or since,
Did he find harder fortune for hall-defenders.
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead
And arrived at the bawn. The iron-braced door
turned on its hinge when his hands touched it.
Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
pacing the length of the patterned floor
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
There are many excellent translations out there to read this poem in full. And for those who don’t think they are ready to tackle the full poem, there is a wonderful website, Beowulf for Beginners, that might be a great entry point to appreciating this poetic work.
The shorter poem being shared today, in the spirit of Beowulf, is an Anglo-Saxon poem titled “The Wanderer”. It is believed to be about a warrior who gets rendered unconscious during a battle in which his chief dies, and this is him recounting his plight later in life. It is a short poem, just over 100 lines long, but an enjoyable delving into the Medieval poetry.
For those bold enough, you can also listen to it in its Old English form.
Have you read Beowulf before? Was it assigned reading for a class or merely for pleasure? What are your thoughts on “The Wanderer”?
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I don’t understand a word of Old English, but I could listen to it all day. So beautiful and mysterious. And Beowulf in particular is still intriguing and inspiring today. So many authors have used it as a starting point for other creative works. Most could only dream of having such a lasting impact through their words!