Top positive review
A Classic:Ancient England, History And Language
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on August 14, 2011
Beowlf is an epic poem written in Anglo Saxon (Old English) telling the story of a Swedish warrior who rid the Danes of an ogre (Grendel) and his mother who had been terrorizing the kingdom for years and then, 50 years later, rid his own land of a dragon at the cost of his life. As epics go it's on the order of Chanson du Roland but not up to either The Aeneid or The Odyssey or The Iliad.
Translated by Seamus Heaney who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997 it has some beautiful poetry. Some great lines. But I'm not much of a lover of poetry. Heaney's translation (in paperback) comes with facing parallel texts - Old English on one page, translated text on the facing page - and since I can't read Old English I cannot comment on the excellence of the translation. Suffice it to say that, like all translations, I'm sure it represents a lot of the translators mind.
There is only one surviving original copy of this poem which the experts say was written in England between the seventh and tenth centuries. And the questions of when it was written and by what kind of man wrote it are more interesting to me than parsing the poem itself. It's a bit like going through a museum and finding an artifact from the tenth century. You pick it up, examine it and wonder who made it, why and what it might tell you if it could speak. Then you put it back in the case and walk away.
Picking up this artifact and examining it I found that it was not particularly easy or interesting reading. The names were confusing. locations confusing; and the story line was constantly broken by other stories about or by speeches about other incidents or battles in the past. All of this detracts from a clear sequence of events. Furthermore I thought the story was rather one dimensional in the sense that almost all the characters were masculine; all were warriors in well described armor; there was no love interest; it was filled to the top with fighting, sword play, violence, drinking and tribal conquest or peril. And when I put the book down I knew nothing more about the condition of man than I did when I picked it up. No philosophy, no metaphoric teaching.
There were a couple of benefits, however. One was that it sent me to the history books and the other was that it made me analyze the poem with a mind to try to figure out what kind of a man wrote it.
First, history. After the fall of Rome in 410 the Romans left Britannia (as they called Britain at the time) where they had had a very flourishing and comfortable colony and a black curtain came down for a thousand years, give or take a century or two. For centuries the land was subject to tribal warfare without any real centralized authority. It was not until the Angevin kings (beginning with William II in 1066) that England had any real vestige of central authority. Yes, here were kings; but they ruled (if that is the right word) at the pleasure of the large landowners who themselves had acquired and held their lands by the same violence that they practiced on their "enemies" - of which there always many. It was a Mafia like government (again - the word government being used in its most elastic sense).
Education except in arms was nonexistent; food and shelter were primitive; illiteracy was universal except in one or two monasteries where Irish monks saw to the copying of existing scrolls and preserved what there was to preserve as best they could. The only real authority was in Rome. The country was basically pagan-Christian.
Furthermore, complicating this history of violence and want, England was always subject to invasion - first by the Vikings who harassed the shores of Britain for almost three hundred years in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries and then by the Normans who took over in the eleventh. During this time the Anglo-Saxons had produced only one real king - Alfred the Great (847-899) - and for about a hundred years before the Norman invasion much of the country was nothing more than a southern province of the Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Baltic confederation which gave England one of its most famous early kings - Canute (1013-1035) - who was not only King of the Danes but also King of England.
I have outlined all this to illustrate how much Viking history, ways and culture was and were imposed upon, injected into and became a part of English culture, a people who by 1066 were nominally Saxon but had a lot of Viking blood.
Now back to what kind of a man wrote Beowulf? No one person wrote Beowulf but you can bet each was either Norse or immersed in Norse civilization. The entire poem is series of stories, oral episodes, memorized, altered and sung or recited over three centuries in the mead halls of the nobles of Britain. And someone, a truly talented poet, strung them all together in about the tenth century to celebrate Norse heroism. And that's what it does. But it doesn't teach today. It doesn't inspire today. It doesn't entertain today. Better a poem to Joe Montana or read "Eaters of the Dead" by Michael Crighton, a far more interesting book about the invasion of monsters (Neanderthals) into the mead halls of the Vikings.