Book Review – Beowulf by Unkown

Title: Beowulf
Author: 
Unknown
Translator: 
Burton Raffel
Format: 
Paperback
Written: 
Unknown (pre-Henry the VIII), Translated 1963
Published (Republished):
1999

 

Beowulf is the classic English epic poem and a bloody tale of royalty, monsters, and royalty acting like monsters.  The hall of the Danish King is terrorized by the demonic monster Grendel who comes at night and makes meals of the good king’s servants.  Beowulf is a prince of the Geats (a Germanic Tribe which inhabited part of modern Sweden) who comes with men to kill Grendel or die trying.  Likely you’re familiar with that portion of the story, but there’s a bit more to it.  It’s also a mix of religious allegory, political commentary, and history lesson, covering a period where European history is so heavily blended with mythology it’s hard to separate the two.

We covered Beowulf in my high school English class but did so rather poorly.  I had been told it was incredibly long, and for a poem it is long.  But by prose standards it’s the length of a short novella.  So why we didn’t simply read it in English class boggles my mind.  It is very violent, but it’s also essentially a moral work.  Violence is glorified but only when used against enemies.  Beowulf has several passages that heavily criticizes the use of violence against peasants, kin, and neighboring kingdoms (unless they attacked first).

There’s no clear documentation on when or why Beowulf was written, so there’s lots of room for interpretation as to it’s purpose.  Those familiar with English history could easily interpret it as a sly rebuke of monarchy and nobility to use their wealth and might to good purpose, to defend lives and not take them.

While some elements are clearly fantastic, it’s also likely there is some root of truth to the myth.  Beowulf is very concerned with genealogy and history of those monarchs related to Beowulf in some way.

As a poem I feel unqualified to judge Beowulf.  The music of the words tends to get lost in translation, though I must say Raffel makes an effort and there’s some lovely phrasing and rhythm wherever the translator could work it in.

As a story, while the main thread of Beowulf’s life is told chronologically, there are a great number of side stories that are not, and it gets a little convoluted, trying to keep track of which king is currently being discussed.

As a historical piece, it’s unreliable but interesting, enlightening more on attitudes than details.  However, it struck me while reading what a strong influence Beowulf must have had on Tolkien’s work.  The greedy dragon, the noble warrior reluctant to become king, monsters born from spiritual origins.

All in all, it’s short and reasonably entertaining.  I give it 4/5.  I have to dock it a point for promoting revenge as a virtue and using female characters mainly as props to flatter the men.  It is gory, so I would not use it as an introduction to literature for a young child.  But it may help convince your teenage boy that not all old books are boring.  If you are a dungeon master, it’s a ready made D&D campaign.

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