Reviews of Beowulf (ca. 700–1000) and related work
- Adaptation: The 13th Warrior (1999)
Beowulf (ca. 700–1000)
Read in 2022.
Read in Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation.
A hero of the Geats fights monsters for a Danish king.
The origins of this epic are frustratingly hard to discern. It’s set in illiterate 6th-century Scandinavia. It contains the first known use of the term that evolved into Sverige, the name for Sweden in the Swedish language. It was written after the 6th century though, probably around an orally preserved core. Personally I lean toward the hypothesis that the bulk of the written version was composed well after Christianity had become the norm, so that the setting and its careful aestheticization would be the author’s choice of decoration: Archaicisms like those of the King James Bible and 19th-century genre fantasy. Beowulf is a big influence on the genre, and not just on the English philologist Tolkien, who adored the epic.
The monsters of Beowulf are similarly decorative, but they feel different from the ones in Homer and Job (ca. 550–200 BCE). They’re better, having their own homes and interests as well as being boringly evil and physically monstrous. Still, they’re a long way off from modern genre fantasy, with its fictional ecologies and often more pragmatic heroes. To prove his worth, Beowulf stupidly vows to fight Grendel unarmed, and unfortunately he triumphs because he’s upper-class. The monsters read to me as if they’re not fully imagined supernatural creatures or Christian allegories but mainly symbolic of human enemies: Whole armies of them. What makes Beowulf great is not its hero or its monsters but its many poetic glimpses into an idealized early-medieval society and mentality, where a shield made entirely of iron is a superweapon and the ruling elites gather in smokey mead halls to listen to poets of renown.
References here: The Lord of the Rings (1954).