Eat Your Vegetables: Beowulf

Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.

Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Beowulf (the poem)

Vegetable Equivalent: Spinach, the vegetable of warriors

Nutritional Value: A Christian perspective on what’s worth keeping and discarding from the non-Christian past

Recommended Serving Size: The Seamus Heaney translation read loud in 200-line chunks

The Beowulf poet lived in Christian culture, but the legacy of England’s pagan past was all around him: the remains of Roman buildings, the offspring and cultural legacy of three Germanic tribes, and even the language he spoke and wrote in. Consequently, Beowulf is filled with bittersweet reminiscences. Although it was written in England, its action is set in Scandinavia. Although its poet was Christian, its protagonists are pagan. And although its titular hero is powerful, the poem ends with Beowulf dying as a result of the very pride that made him formidable.

The poem’s tone is more elegiac than nostalgic. Think, for instance, of the verse from Genesis 6 — “There were giants in the earth in those days” — with the mixture of awe and ethical complications such a statement implies. The world of Genesis 6 offers a good analogue for the poem’s action as we learn that two of the poem’s monsters are the demon-offspring of Cain. The warriors of this world believe in God but not in an afterlife. Immortality can only be achieved through earthly fame. God may grant a warrior his strength, but a warrior earns salvation through his own bloody works.

As an epic poem, Beowulf contracts into its title character the culture’s representative strengths and weaknesses; namely, Beowulf is powerful but proud. The poem does not biographically record Beowulf’s adventures from the cradle to the grave, but instead focuses on his three greatest adventures. The first two happen in Beowulf’s youth. A demon named Grendel has invaded the mead-hall of the renowned king and held sway for a dozen years. Beowulf visits and rids the kingdom of Cain’s spawn. But Grendel’s mother seeks revenge, and Beowulf must travel to her underwater lair to dispose of her. The poem’s conclusion records the aged Beowoulf, having served as king for fifty years, fighting a dragon to the death.

The poet critiques the violence of his Germanic ancestors, revealing revenge as a brutal cycle because its logic can be adopted by anyone. Beowulf uses it to avenge the men Grendel has killed, but Grendel’s mother can just as legitimately use it against Beowulf and his men after her son’s death. This culture was physically imposing but ethically corrupt. Its moral code ensured its demise.

The poem reminds us of a culture’s fragility, not only through its contents but by its very existence. It is the longest epic poem in the Old English language, yet only a single thousand-year-old copy of the manuscript survives. An eighteenth-century fire damaged this sole manuscript, and careless handling by readers further deteriorated its condition. There is no way of knowing if the poem was part of a larger tradition of oral epics or if Beowulf was regarded in its time as it is today, a quintessential statement of Anglo-Saxon values.

The poem provides an interesting juxtaposition with a later English epic, Paradise Lost. Milton’s epic heroes — Adam and Eve — must demonstrate a very different kind of heroism than Beowulf. Epic action, Milton maintains, does not require protagonists to fight dragons or conquer an opposing nation. Rather, real epic heroism is saying no to a tempting serpent. Beowulf’s heroism is external. His failings are internal. From the poet’s perspective, this is why Bewoulf’s story is so bittersweet.

About Jonathan Sircy
  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Hwæt wê Gâr-dena may be the best opener for a story ever. What do you think of Frederick Rebsamen’s translation? I haven’t read it (I opted for Heaney’s insted for the side-by-side English/English), but I hear tell that it’s the best translation out there.

    Also, though I didn’t see the movie best it looked awful, I was browsing Neil Gaiman’s screenplay for Beowulf and saw he did some interesting stuff with Grendel’s mother and the wyrm. It seemed like he tried to make Beowulf’s inner struggles more outwardly apparent. Still, I think my favourite film adaptation is The 13th Warrior, which is in turn an adaptation of Michael Criton’s adaptation.

  • Steven Sukkau

    I can’t remember what translation I read in college, but I remember the poem begins with, “So, …”
    Such a casual way to begin a most epic story, “So, there was this one time,”
    I can imagine these viking dudes sitting around the mead hall, telling stories, “Have you heard the one about Beowulf? No? So, this Beowulf guy, he was a pretty hardcore dude…”

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Heaney’s begins: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of these princes’ heroic campaigns.”

    Rebsamen’s begins: “Yes! We have heard of years long vanished, how Spear-danes struck, sang victory songs, raised from a wasteland walls of glory!”

    Raffel’s begins: “Hear me! We’ve heard of Danish heroes, Ancient kings and the glory they cut for themselves, swinging mighty swords!”

    Liuzza begins: “Listen! We have heard of the glory in bygone days of the folk-kings of the spear-Danes, how those noble lords did lofty deeds.”

    Alexander begins: “Attend! We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark, how the folk-kings flourished in former days, how those royal athelings earned that glory.”

  • Steven Sukkau

    I personally love Heaney’s and Liuzza’s versions, instantly you find yourself caught up in the story.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    I don’t know how these guys are pulling their translations out, but Rebsamen’s is easily the most dramatic here. Compare with Heaney:

    “Spear-danes struck, sang victory songs, raised from a wasteland walls of glory!”
    vs.
    “The Spear-Danes in days gone by…had courage and greatness. We have heard of these princes’ heroic campaigns.”

    The one is showy, the other is telly. Again, I don’t know how two so different translations could arise, but regardless of accuracy, I like the way Rebsamen reads here. Still, I do enjoy Heaney’s “So.” Very matter-of-fact. Rebsamen’s “Yes!” is very adulatory, but I prefer Heaney’s deadpan here.

  • Steven Sukkau

    Yeah, i’m probably a sucker for the more “showy” dramatic language, but I can imagine Heaney looking over the translation and then thinking for a moment, and then just jumping in, “So,” haha i love it!
    Raffel’s version struck me as well, “Ancient kings and the glory they cut for themselves, swinging mighty swords!” Cutting glory for themselves with mighty swords? Awesome. Sounds like a more modern translation and easier to read as well. I think I might want to check his version out.

  • David Clark

    I taught the Heany this year and was disappointed when I realized how few of the parallels between Beowulf and Grendel he preserved. For example, on their first approach to the hall, neither B or G is initially named, but rather described as ellengast (powerful visitor or guest) that parallelism is absent in the Heaney text. Both are also described using similar terms at other points in the text–aglaeca (awe-inspiring one), it has been noted regularly denotes Beowulf, Grendel, and the Dragon at various points in the text. It might also be fun to note that aglaeca also shows up in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, describing the Green Knight, of course.


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