Beowulf 101

by Oct 23, 2020

If you’ve never read Beowulf, what are you waiting for? Go and start now! If you’ve never read Beowulf and you love fantasy – really, I’m completely in earnest about this – go and start now. I promise that you’ll thank me. I’ve just started re-reading it – this time in Tolkien’s marvellous translation which my daughter bought me as a gift – and I’ve been overtaken by the urge to convert the rest of you. You don’t need to be a scholar of Anglo-Saxon to find this epic tale thrilling.

The first page of the poem, Beowulf

(This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.
Catalogue entry: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, ff 94r–209v)

I first discovered Beowulf in my early teens. I was a Tolkien addict, and he seemed to think the Anglo-Saxon poem was important, so I dug out a copy from my local library. Monsters, dragons and heroes; what’s not to love? Most of the nuances of the manuscript passed me by then, but I loved the story and the mood of it. I pictured wild, desolate landscapes stalked by the bloodthirsty spectres of Grendel and his mother. There is something very ‘British’ about it, something that speaks to those of us who have a ‘northern spirit’, whatever the land of our birth. I think that, perhaps, this is what attracted Tolkien to it. It’s much more satisfying than Homer somehow.

Beowulf is, of course, the first great British literary work. It was written around the 11th century – probably – by a poet from the Fenlands (also probably). I’m no expert on it – just an enthusiast – and my background knowledge is based on what I’ve gleaned so far from the copious notes. I’m a few hundred lines in, and I’m as fascinated now by the scholarly aspects of it as I was by the story and the language as a teenager. I didn’t realise then how much I was at the mercy of the translator, the interpreter, the conveyor of background information. It evokes a lost Northern heroic age that calls to me despite my lack of knowledge.

The Beowulf poet probably took an ancient – even then – Scandinavian legend about an epic, pagan past and overwrote it with thoughts, ideas and inclinations from his own time. The story of Beowulf’s life, his battles with monsters, is compelling, but his character is also a profoundly moving one. This passed me by when I first read it; now I find his motivations and his development as fascinating as his epic adventures. I always saw it as the first fantasy ever written; now I find it has depths I hadn’t suspected.

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