Friday, December 10, 2021

Beowulf, an Early English Epic

It took four men to carry Grendel's head.

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 7 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

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"Old English"

I'm always amused when I hear people say things like, "I can't read Shakespeare. That Old English is so hard to understand."

Well, here's some news: That's not Old English. In fact, it's modern English. Before that came Middle English, and before that was Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon.

Middle English is the language in which Chaucer wrote; it contains a great deal of French, the result of the English loss at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to the Norman French, and the subsequent rule of William the Bastard--usually called "the Conqueror."

But before that was an extremely German-sounding language brought over from the European continent by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes when they invaded England--"Angle Land"--mainly from the mid-fifth to the early seventh centuries. The mélange of dialects they brought synthesized into what we now call "Anglo-Saxon" or "Old English."

For comparison, here is the first line of the Lord's Prayer in four "Englishes":

  • Anglo-Saxon (995): Fæder ūre þū þē eart on heofonum...
  • Middle English (1389): Oure fadir That art in hevenes...
  • Elizabethan (1611): Our father which art in heauen...
  • Contemporary (now):"Our Father who is in heaven... (or, more simply, Our Father in heaven...)

The Elizabethan, it should be noted, is from the time of Shakespeare: Early Modern English.



It is to that earliest period of English--before Shakespeare, before even Chaucer--that we must turn to find the earliest epic available to us in any kind of English. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are earlier still, and Gilgamesh is even older. But this is the first epic to have come from the culture that gives us modern English.

Beowulf is both the name of the epic, and the name of its protagonist. He was a hero of some people called the Geats, who lived in the southern part of Sweden. (The "earliest English epic" did not take place in England! It was carried in by immigrants.) Hrothgar, king of the Danes, was having a little monster problem, and Beowulf gained fame by coming to his aid.

The name "Beowulf," by the way, may mean "bee-wolf" or "bee-hunter," a reference to a bear. (Old English uses a poetic device called kennings, in which two words are put together to signify a third. Famous examples include "whale-road" and "swan-road" for the sea, and "sky-candle" for the sun. The kenning forms given here are translations of hron-rād and heofon-candel, respectively.)

As the story goes, Hrothgar has built a mead hall named Heorot, a place to drink mead (a liquor made from honey) and celebrate victories in previous battles, as well as mourn the loss of fallen warriors. Unfortunately, a monster named Grendel lives nearby, and, hearing the songs of celebration, becomes jealous. And so, the story says (in one translation):

"[T]he hall's merriment was brought to an end by a grim foe named Grendel.... This wretched being… was a descendent of Cain, whom the Lord had banished from mankind for the slaying of Abel."

Let's pause for just a moment to get some "feel" for Anglo-Saxon poetry. It did not achieve a pleasant sound through rhyme, as we might expect, but instead by alliteration, the use of similar opening sounds in words (like "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers..."). What's more, each line was split in half; one side was to use the alliterating sound once, and the other twice, like this:

wæs se grimma gæst     Grendel hāten

A translation that tries to keep the sound reads:

Grendel that ghost was called, grisly and terrible,

Grimma means "grim"; gæst might mean "ghost" or "demon," though some use "stranger" (like "guest") or even "foe," as in the quote above. Grendel, of course, is Grendel. Kennings used for him include "hall-watcher," "corpse-maker," and "shadow-walker."

Back to our story: Grendel had been attacking Hrothgar's men for twelve long years when Beowulf decided to cross the sea and take on the monster. After his arrival and the usual formalities--including some drinking and bragging--Beowulf beds down and pretends to sleep in the hall--without weapons, so he and Grendel can have a fair fight. Beowulf, after all, is said to have the strength of thirty men. The monster comes, they fight, and in the struggle Beowulf rips off Grendel's arm. The beast returns home, where (we learn later) he dies.


Grendel's Mother

There is much rejoicing--more drinking, more bragging--after the hall is cleaned up from the struggle.

But the trouble isn't over! Grendel's mother decides to avenge her son's death, and attacks the hall again, where she kills an earl who was Hrothgar's dearest friend. Beowulf and his men follow her to the pond where she lives, and Beowulf dives in to battle with her in an underwater cavern, while his fourteen companions, with Hrothgar and his men, wait on the shore.

It would have taken nearly a whole day for Beowulf to reach the bottom, but while he is still on his way Grendel's mother attacks, along with the help of water-beasts who batter him with their tusks. She drags him into a waterless underground cavern, where the battle begins.

But as Beowulf engages the water witch, his sword fails him, and he throws it away in anger. The monster stabs at him with a knife, but he's protected by his good chain-mail coat (these sagas always make a big deal out of weapons and armor). Looking around, he spies a huge old sword hanging on the wall amongst other armor. It's clearly the handiwork of giants.

So our hero stabs her with the sword, and as he does the poison in her body melts the sword up to the hilt. She dies, and at once the water turns clear, with light shining like the sun. Beowulf sees Grendel's armless body and cuts off his head as a trophy to present to Hrothgar.

Hrothgar and his men, meanwhile, have given up hope that Beowulf is alive and have headed back to Heorot. But Beowulf's own men faithfully remain on watch, heartsick at the thought of losing him. Imagine their joy when he emerges from the pond with the magic sword hilt--and Grendel's gigantic head! (It took four men to carry it.)


The Dragon

Now a certified hero, Beowulf--after more drinking, bragging, and gift-giving--returns to his people, where in time he becomes king, and governs the land for fifty years--until more trouble came.

A runaway slave takes shelter in a cave, which happens to be where a dragon has been guarding his hoard for over 300 winters. Thinking he might have found a way to buy his way back into his master's good graces, the man takes a huge golden cup--awakening the dragon's wrath.

The "worm" goes on a rampage, burning the people's homes--and Beowulf's, too. The King sees it as his duty to rid his country of this plague and--as he did Grendel and his mother--to do so single-handedly, without relying on his troops. So, approaching the lair, he tells his men to wait as he calls the dragon out.

And out it comes. Unlike back in Denmark, this time Beowulf has a sword and shield. But the shield does nothing to stop the flames shooting from the beast's mouth, and the hero suffers excruciating burns.

One of his men, Wiglaf, decides to help his lord (after haranguing the others for their cowardice). As he rushes in, the dragon's flames burn his wooden shield to ashes. (I have to ask" who fights a fire-breathing dragon with a wooden shield? Anyway...). Wiglaf hides under Beowulf's shield and makes his attack.

Beowulf, meanwhile, strikes the beast's head, but he's so strong that his sword shatters. The dragon rushes upon him, and seizes him by the neck with its poisonous fangs. Wiglaf, though scorched, takes this opportunity to smite the dragon lower down on its neck, and the fire begins to abate. The King draws his war-knife and ends the monster's life. Working together, the two have destroyed the enemy of the people--but that enemy has also destroyed Beowulf.

Beowulf, though, is dying of the poison inflicted by the dragon's bite. When Wiglaf brings him water, Beowulf laments that he has no son to whom he can leave his armor. He asks Wiglaf to pile up some of the hoard--elaborately described--where he can see it, and expresses his pleasure that he can leave this to his people.

He gives Wiglaf instructions for his burial, in a barrow out on a headland overlooking the sea, which he predicts will be called "Beowulf's Barrow" and serve as a guide to sailors. He bestows his armor on Wiglaf--a great honor--and seems to name him as his successor. Wiglaf, a distant cousin, is Beowulf's last surviving relative. (He may also be Beowulf's nephew, a very significant relationship in Anglo-Saxon and other medieval European cultures; the word nepotism, meaning "favoritism in business and politics toward a relative," derives from an Italian word for "nephew.")

At last, declaring he now must join all of his departed relatives, he dies.


Those who see traces of The Lord of the Rings in this story might be interested to know that the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was an expert in the study of not only this story but others like it, and produced a translation of Beowulf in the 1920s.

The shield does nothing to stop the flames shooting from the beast's mouth


General Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. banished
  2. Cain and Abel
  3. cowardice
  4. dialects
  5. excruciating
  6. grim
  7. haranguing
  8. mélange
  9. mourn
  10. synthesized
  1. mixture
  2. brothers in the Bible, sons of Adam and Eve. One killed the other, and was condemned to wander the earth.
  3. be sad about; grieve
  4. sent away; exiled
  5. extremely painful
  6. making a long, scolding attack
  7. made up by combining two or more parts
  8. local forms of a language
  9. being afraid in the face of danger
  10. dark; savage and cruel

Vocabulary more specific to Beowulf's world: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. armor
  2. barrow
  3. chain-mail
  4. epic
  5. headland
  6. hilt
  7. hoard
  8. sagas
  9. smite
  10. worm
  1. earthen burial mound
  2. pile of saved-up treasure
  3. shirt made of metal rings
  4. another word for "dragon"
  5. a long poem about a hero
  6. covering for the body
  7. long historical or legendary stories of a person or family
  8. promontory of land sticking out into the sea or another body of water
  9. strike; hit (old fashioned)
  10. handle of a sword or dagger

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What problem did King Hrothgar have?
  2. How did Grendel die?
  3. How did Grendel's mother die?
  4. Who killed the dragon?
  5. What did Beowulf leave for his people?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Does it surprise you that the English language came from so many places--Scandinavia, France, and so on? Why is this information important to know?
  2. What model does Beowulf present of "the hero"? Is this a comfortable model for you? Is it appropriate in today's world?
  3. The only strong female character in Beowulf is Grendel's mother. What does this--and the absence of other strong women--tell us about the role of women in that society?

1 comment:

  1. Answers:

    General Vocabulary: 1. D; 2. B; 3. I; 4. H; 5. E; 6. J; 7. F; 8. A; 9. C; 10. G

    Vocabulary more specific to Beowulf's world: 1. F; 2. A; 3. C; 4. E; 5. H; 6. J; 7. B; 8. G; 9. I; 10. D

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)
    1. A monster had been killing King Hrothgar's men at night for twelve years.
    2. Beowulf ripped off Grendel's arm and he died after returning home.
    3. Beowulf stabbed Grendel's mother with a giant sword.
    4. Beowulf killed the dragon, with a lot of help by one of his men, Wiglaf. But the dragon also killed Beowulf.
    5. Beowulf left the dragon's gold for his people. He also probably left them a new king: Wiglaf.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").