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NA242512 - FLYNN, B.: Beowulf (Unabridged)
Consider this story. The peace of a happy community is shattered by the emergence of an all-powerful monster from its watery lair. Fear and confusion reign as it seizes its victims at will, again and again. When the threat seems almost unbearable, a hero sets out to do battle with it. A struggle ensues, the monster disappears, apparently dead. But still victims are taken and torn to pieces. There is a climactic battle, the hero finally overcomes the threat to his world, the community rejoices. Life can begin again.
Is it ‘Jaws’? It might be, the story is strikingly similar. But no, the monster is not a big fish, the hero not the police chief of Amity, Long Island. It is the first part of Beowulf, an ancient poem that comes to us with a slightly dusty reputation, as being primarily of interest to scholars. But built from the same source material as Frankenstein and Godzilla, fears deeply rooted in our psyches, it is a poem as gripping as any horror-flick, an epic re-telling of one of the fundamental plots of good versus evil.
In this version our hero is Beowulf, a warrior among the Geats with the strength of thirty men. He crosses the sea from southern Sweden to the land of the Danes to rid them of Grendel, a shambling, man-eating monster. Grendel’s nocturnal attacks have rendered a gilded mead-hall called Heorot, pride and joy of the Danes, cursed and uninhabitable for twelve years. But this night when Grendel emerges from his lair on the misty fenland nearby to seize his victims in the barricaded hall, Beowulf joins him in battle. The monster retreats, fatally wounded. Success is short-lived however. Warriors are still seized from Heorot at night. Beowulf must search out and face a second revenging monster, Grendel’s even more fiendish mother in her dark infested lake lair. He triumphs after a near-death underwater struggle, and laden with glory and gold, sails back to his homeland, where in time, he becomes king. Finally, fifty years later, Beowulf faces evil in a third guise, in the form of a dragon terrorising his country. He confronts the reptile at its cave, but meets his own fate in the battle too.
Beowulf’s struggles against evil are powerfully straightforward. What can make the poem puzzling is the way the story is told. The narrative appears to flit between past events and a known future just when, to our understanding of story-telling, the action ought to move ahead. At two points, the story of Sigemund’s triumph over a dragon, and the battle at the stronghold of Finn, it seems to wander into entirely different poems. But these are digressions only if we look at the poem with a 21st century view. They have a purpose. Like a medieval narrative picture that lacks perspective but works on it’s own terms as a whole, the poet’s allusions and supporting incidents create a believable world and, by comparison, celebrate Beowulf’s heroic deeds.
Though the poet writes in the eighth century and God is present throughout the poem, the world he describes is pre-Christian. Beowulf’s world is constrained by wyrd, or fate, and blood-feuds, shackled by the mutual ties of honour and loyalty between lord and liegeman. It shows an ideal of noble conduct where gold and earthly fame through honour are the twin poles of a warriors existence. A warrior must strive for honour constantly, as Beowulf does, in battle and in deeds.
Honour won by liegemen accrues to a lord, distributor of treasure to his clan, and their defence. The death of a lord means weakness and attack by other more powerful lords. Killing vengeance is demanded of the living, and so blood feuds trickle down the generations. These are things Beowulf predicts himself for his own people when he returns home after defeating Grendel and his mother.
In this sense Beowulf also traces the wyrd of three nations; the Danes, at the height of their power, as the great golden hall of Heorot shows to the world, our hero’s own people; the Geats, doomed to be left lordless after Beowulf’s own passing, and the Swedes, a dreadful ever present threat in the background. It is not a historical poem, but we know of one event often referred to by the poet through a near contemporary source; the death of Beowulf’s liege lord Hygelac in a raid around 520 AD. Beowulf himself is, of course, entirely legendary but no less real for that.
The poem comes down to us in one surviving manuscript copied out around 1000 AD, now in the British Library. It is certainly the earliest epic in what can be called English literature, and marks a step away from oral tradition towards written practice. Exactly when Beowulf was written though, we do not know. Possibly the original was composed around 835 AD. It is unlikely to be later since it glorifies the Danes, whose ruthless raids on Anglo-Saxon England began then. Possibly it was written earlier around 700 AD, in Northumbria during its Golden Age, the time of the Venerable Bede.
The language of Beowulf, Old English, is like our own but not sufficiently so to be read easily, hence the poem’s dusty reputation. In the same way, the poetry resembles ours, although given our familiarity with free verse today perhaps we appreciate it more easily than previous generations. Originally it would have been read slowly, to the sound of a harp.
A line of Old English poetry divides into two balanced halves of two stressed syllables, linked by alliteration. It has no regularly recurring rhythm, but the natural metre of speech organised for powerful effect. Patterns are enhanced by a characteristic vocabulary of poetic compounds to make analogies, such as ‘whale-road’ for sea, or ring-giver for king. In translation attempts at exact imitations of the style of an Anglo Saxon scop (a professional tribal poet) can become intrusive, or self-consciously archaic. This version of Beowulf in modern English does not labour the alliteration, or cleave rigidly to the equal break in the line but tries to keep a sense and feel and movement.
Notes by Benedict Flynn
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