Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Man of Legendary Battles: Beowulf

It’s a warm night. Crickets are chirping, the occasional hoot of an owl reminds the small woodland creatures to be cautious, lest they become a quick meal. Up in the sky, a million stars twinkle, only outdone by the silvery moon.

A group of people are gathered around a campfire, not for war, but for the sheer pleasure of one another’s company. The harvest was good. Tonight they celebrate. Mead is passed around. Husbands hold wives, small children cuddle with parents, and young boys sit close to men – hoping to soon be counted as warriors.

A man stands, holding his hand up. The talk silences. The storyteller begins…
Hear me! We’ve heard of Danish heroes,
Ancient kings and the glory they cut
For themselves, swinging mighty swords!
How Shild made slaves of soldiers from every
Land, crowds of captives he’d beaten
Into terror; he’d traveled to Denmark alone,
An abandoned child, but changed his own fate…

Oral traditions kept tales of Beowulf, King Arthur, and Robin Hood alive before the common man ever had the opportunity to write. In many countries, storytellers, or bards, were highly respected. If not for the storytellers, many of our favorite legends would not exist to this day.

One of the greatest, and oldest, epic stories is Beowulf. The name of the original poet has long been lost to time. A manuscript dating back to the 11th or 12th century is the source of the poem. The actual words were written by two different writers, as evidence by the distinct styles and use of dialects of Old English.

Historians believe the first half of the manuscript was probably written between 650 and 800. The copy was damaged during a fire at the holdings of the Robert Bruce Cotton family holdings in 1731. It was rather ironic that the library was housed in a dwelling called the ‘Ashburnham House’.  Many scholars have interpreted the poem over the decades, the most famous being Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin in 1786. 

The actual tale of Beowulf is believed to be fiction. Parts of the epic may, like the stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood, are based upon historical persons. Portions of the poem mention verifiable figures. For example, King Higlac’s (Hygelac?) battles with the Friesens and the Franks in early 500’s; Higlac died near the mouth of the River Rhine.

The story starts by telling of Beowulf of the Geats, who was beloved of his people. Beo, as he was nicknamed in the poem, had heard of the Danish King Hrothgar’s woes. A monster, called Grendel, was attacking Hrothgar’s home (Herot) and killing his people. Grendel only came at night and fled to his lairs on the nearby moors when his slaughtering was complete,

…As now warriors sang of their pleasure:
So Hrothgar’s men lived happy in his hall
Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend,
Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild
Marshes, and made his home in hell…

Beowulf, son of the King of Geats couldn’t help himself. He’d fought with Higlac and was eager to fight again. With fourteen of his best men, he set sail across the sea. The heavens were kind to Beowulf and his men; the winds blew his ship across the sea and to the Denmark shore safely. It is unknown whether they took horses or procured them once they arrived on shore.

When Beowulf’s party arrives at Herot, King Hrothgar welcomes them. It turns out, Hrothgar knew Beowulf’s dad, Ecgtheow.  Accepting the Geat’s offer to take care of Grendel, Hrothgar orders a feast. Later that night, party-pooper Grendel shows up. Beowulf has to put his sword where his mouth was. After a fierce fight, Grendel manages to run away, badly beaten and missing an arm. Grendel flees to the moors, where he dies of his wounds.

The sounds changed, the Danes started
In new terror, cowering in their beds as the terrible
Screams of the Almighty’s enemy sang
In the darkness, the horrible shrieks of pain
And defeat, the tears torn out of Grendel’s
Taut throat, hell’s captive caught in the arms
Of him who of all the men on earth
Was the strongest…

Beowulf one, bad guy zero.  The naysayers had to eat a large helping of humble pie the next morning. King Hrothgar and his people hailed Beowulf as a hero. A band of Hrothgar’s men followed the bloody trail left by Grendel, but the monster had been swallowed up by the swamp. Meanwhile, word spread of Beowulf’s deed. Noblemen, warriors, and common folk came to see the brave men from Geats. They were showered with gifts. Hrothgar gave gold, jewels, and fine horses to Beowulf and his men.

If only the troubles were over…

Grendel’s mother grieved over the loss of her son, her only child, and swore revenge. She was the daughter of Cain, who’d been banished after killing his brother. She lived in the cold lake waters. Breaking in to Heorot, she attacked and killed Hrothgar’s best friend. She reclaimed the arm of her son. The king of the Danes called for Beowulf, who promised to seek out this new monster and kill her. Beowulf, Hrothgar, and a group of warriors tracked the female to her lair. Beowulf was wearing his special maile shirt. He dove under the cold waters and slowly sank for hours.

…His ring-marked blade straight at her head;
The iron sang its fierce song.
Sang Beowulf’s strength. But her guest
Discovered that no sword could slice her evil
Skin, that Hrunting could not hurt her, was useless
Now when he needed it. They wrestled, she ripped
And tore and clawed at him, bit holes in his helmet,
And that too failed him; for the first time in years
Of being worn to war it would earn no glory;
It was the last time anyone would wear it. But
Longed for only fame, leaped back…

Hrothgar and his men begin to despair, believing the mighty Beowulf has been killed by the water-witch. They leave the Geats warrior at the lake’s edge. Beowulf’s men know better, staying behind. When the tip of a mighty sword breaks the water’s surface, a tired Beowulf emerges triumphantly from the dark depths carrying the head of Grendel and the golden hilt of the sword used to kill the monster’s mother.

Beowulf and the remaining men sailed back to his homeland. Beowulf stopped to give homage to King Higlac. Beowulf returned to his hearth. After Higlac, and his son, died, Beowulf became king of the Geats. He reigned in peace until a thief awakened a dragon. The fearsome beast ravaged the country, burning towns and terrorizing the people.

Beowulf was called to deal with the creature. Although the King was a man of over fifty years, he did not shirk his duty. Riding out with his guards, they found the dragon. As the reptilian beast attacked, sending flames at the King, all but one of Beowulf’s men broke formation and ran off. With help from Wiglaf, the fiery dragon is killed, but not without a heavy price. Beowulf suffers life-ending wounds. Before he dies, Beowulf makes Wiglaf his successor. He requests a tower be built on the very spot he lays.

…Waves of fire swept at his shield
And the edge began to burn. His mail shirt
Could not help him, but before his hands dropped
The blazing wood Wiglaf jumped
Behind Beowulf’s shield; his own was burned
To ashes. Then the famous old hero, remembering
Days of glory, lifted what was left
Of Nagling, his ancient sword, and swung it
With all his strength, smashed the gray
Blade into the beast’s head. But then Nagling
Broke into pieces, as iron always
Had in Beowulf’s hands…

Wiglaf goes back and tells the people what happened. He tells the men they will carry the shame of abandoning their king for the rest of their lives. Wiglaf commands men to retrieve Beowulf’s body and to build a funeral pyre. The dead king was placed on the pyre, the wood set ablaze. The dragon’s body was thrown off a cliff in to the ocean below. The tower was built, the dragon’s treasure left buried beneath Beowulf’s Tower.

The story of Beowulf has attracted film-makers a number of times in various forms.  ‘Beowulf & Grendel’, ‘The 13th Warrior’, ‘Outlander’, ‘Beowulf’, and a documentary called ‘Wrath of Gods.’ The fantasy Beowulf made in 2007 was (in my opinion) difficult to watch due to the 3d effects. The 13th Warrior, based upon Michael Crichton’s book ‘Eaters of the Dead’, was a loose version of the tale.  I can’t comment on the documentary or ‘Beowulf & Grendel’, not having the opportunity to see either one of them. ‘Outlander’ is an alien meets Viking fantasy way-out there version of the legend. Still, I watched it on the pure entertainment factor. It’s up there with ‘Pathfinder’…fun to watch.

If you wish to read the entire poem:

Translated by Raffel, Burton
1963 Signet Classics
ISBN #0-451-52740-2

One of the best sites I found was this one, which has the Old English poem broken in to sections and the modern English translations:

A nice site with many links is:

As always, stay safe out there

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