Thursday, May 10, 2012

Review: Beowulf by Unknown

I had no idea what to expect before I picked up Beowulf.  I knew it was the oldest English epic in existence, but I was unaware that it was only translated into English in 1815 and was apparently damaged in a fire in 1731 and nearly lost. 

The story is about a character named 'Beowulf' and is set in Scandinavia.  He belongs to the Geat-clan, which lived in modern day Sweden.  Beowulf comes to the rescue of the King of the Danes, who is exasperated by the death of many in his kingdom by a giant named Grendel.  Beowulf slays the giant as well as his mother who seeks retribution after Grendel's death. Fifty years apparently pass and Beowulf has become king of the Geats.  They go after a treasure guarded by a dragon, who is slain... but Beowulf sustains an injury that kills him.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?  I could not help thinking about 'The Hobbit' as I worked my way through this epic poem.  Tolkien's world contained rings (reference frequently) as well as a large dragon named Smaug, who dwelled on a mountain of treasure.  There is a thirteen member party, very similar to the party that goes on the hobbit adventure.  The naming conventions are similar - there is one reference to a man named Eofur, which has a striking resemblance to the dwarven Bifur and Bofur.  There is even a character named Guthlaf which looks a lot like Gandalf to me.  Beowulf is buried on a large Tumulus (or barrow) upon his death, similar in nature to the barrow downs in The Hobbit where Bilbo is buried alive. 

There is no question that Tolkien borrowed a few ideas from this work.  This was just a theory of mine, until I found this on Wikipedia: "Tolkien also revealed how highly he regarded Beowulf: "Beowulf is among my most valued sources," and this influence may be seen throughout his Middle-earth legendarium. 

Anyway, this work can be a tough slog at times.  The chapters are thankfully short and preceding each one in my edition, there is a summary of what will happen.  This is helpful since the text is an olde English translation.  You eventually get used to the style and the rhyming convention almost flows, but it takes some time to get used to.

Since the work was not preserved in its entirety, there are pieces and chapters missing.  In addition, there are historic stories with unknown characters thrown in the work which makes it fairly choppy and incongruent with the original story. 

I would recommend it to hardcore Tolkien fans, as it gives you further insight into Middle Earth.  I'd also recommend it to those who enjoy ancient tales from Scandinavia or the surrounding area and for those that love adventure and fantasy tales.  It's not really something that most parents would read to their children, though perhaps it's possible to find a version that is translated into simpler verse.

Would love to hear what those in the book blogging community think of this one before my book club meeting in late May!


Marian said...

Great review! I will have to give Beowulf another try. I read a translation without chapter summaries, and that was probably a mistake. But apart from that, Beowulf is a pretty one-dimensional character, which is somewhat disappointing after reading Tolkien.

Eclectic Indulgence said...

Beowulf is definitely lacking in character deveopment.

A friend of mine stated that the real beauty in Beowulf is the poetic nature of the language...

It's interesting to see where Tolkien got some of his ideas from, but I agree with you... character development in Tolkien is much better.

Brian Joseph said...

Good point about the Tolkien connection. For all its shortcomings, I think that this tale has had an enormous impact on may of our modern fantastical stories and films. From Western Civilization's dragon stories to Harry Potter, Beowulf has had far reaching influence.

theduckthief said...

Holy moly that's a lot of reviews!

I agree that there's not much to Beowulf but it's the language that makes the read worth it.

Christopher said...

Beowulf is an amazing work. I own nearly a dozen translations. My favorites, in order, are by Howell D. Chickering, Jr. (1977), Frederick Rebsamen (1991), and that of Seamus Heaney (2000). I also very much appreciated your comments about the influence of Beowulf upon the mythology developed by Tolkien. Certainly there are elements within the Silmarillion, e.g., the tale of Hurin and his son, Turin, comes to mind. Importantly, this was intentional as it was always Tolkien's desire to develop a mythology for England, similar to that of the Norse epics, or the Finnish Kalevala (the source for Tolkien's 'Gandalf'), and a mythology not bound up in Christianity like the Arthurian legend. Anyway, I very much enjoyed your thoughts and observations about your encounter with Beowulf and encourage you to pick up different translations of it as you encounter them. They are all worth reading. Best wishes for 2013! Cheers! Chris