rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Sep. 30th, 2009 10:49 am)
Remember Unferth, the guy who got told by Beowulf? When Grendel’s Mother shows up, Unferth loans Beowulf his historic sword Hrunting, which never fails. I thought, “Huh, guess Unferth’s not such a tool after all.”

The narrator promptly informed me,
He was not man enough
to face the turmoil of a fight underwater
and the risk to his life. So there he lost
fame and repute. It was different for the other
rigged out in his gear, ready to do battle.

Then I felt bad for Unferth! No one else went with Beowulf either, and Unferth loaned him his best sword, and yet Unferth is the only one singled out and blamed for not going.

Beowulf dives into the mere, where he battles Grendel’s Mother. Hrunting turns out to be useless, but luckily there’s a sword lying in the hoard with even more awesome powers, with which he slays Grendel’s Mother and cuts off Grendel’s head. The blade melts as perish all blades that pierce that deadly King – er, sorry – melts from monster blood.

Then that stalwart fighter ordered Hrunting
to be brought to Unferth, and bade Unferth
take the sword and thanked him for lending it.
He said he found it a friend in battle
and a powerful help; he put no blame
on the blade’s cutting edge. He was a considerate man.

I think Beowulf was sincere, but the narrator sure sounds sarcastic. To Unferth’s relief, I’m sure, both Beowulf and the tale depart back to the land of the Geats. Where Beowulf ends up ruling and everything is fine for fifty years until wham! DRAGON!

I guess when I said this was reminding me of Tolkien, you were all laughing quietly to yourselves because I hadn’t even gotten to the part where some poor schmuck steals a golden cup from a dragon’s hoard, thereby unleashing the dragon’s wrath, and it’s exactly like Bilbo stealing from Smaug. Except that this dragon doesn’t speak. None of the monsters speak, though they’re clearly intelligent.

Then an old harrower of the dark
happened to find the hoard open
the burning one who hunts out barrows,
the slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky
with streamers of fire.

Isn’t that gorgeous?

I also caught a mention of Eomer (hi, Eomer!) and then there’s the constant references to the king as the “ring-giver.” I kept waiting for someone to call him the “mead-giver” since there a lot of mead in this story, but no.

There’s a brief mention, post-Grendel, that when Beowulf was younger, he wasn’t respected, but he eventually impressed everyone with his badassitude. This is the opposite way a modern fantasy would do it, when you’d start with the put-upon kid Beowulf being dissed and left out, and slowly build to his triumphs and everyone taking back all the mean things they said. (Has anyone ever actually written a Young Beowulf novel, by the way? Someone must have.) In the epic, none of that’s important – a little background detail, nothing more.

I did know that the dragon killed Beowulf, but I didn’t know the details. After all the grand battling and boasting and fighting underwater and departing with tons of gold and being more bad-ass than anyone ever, even Beowulf gets old. He can’t possibly be younger than his late sixties when he goes to fight the dragon, and that’s assuming he killed Grendel before he was twenty.

When he says he’ll fight and die alone and everyone can just sit back and watch, I was expecting him and the dragon to kill each other with their own individual might. I was not expecting Beowulf’s men, seeing him losing, to flee in disgraceful cowardice. (I guess Unferth was actually foreshadowing.) Or for this guy Wiglaf, who, if I recall correctly, was never even mentioned before and had never even fought before, to be the one person who runs out there to help. (Shades of Merry coming to Eowyn’s aid, as Eowyn came to Theoden’s, against the Witch King, with the winged beast standing in for the dragon.) I have to say that I love that turn of plot, and only wish it had been more influential on modern fantasy writers.

One of the coolest things about reading this edition is that I could see that some of the phrases I found most striking, like word-hoard and bone-cage, were straight out of the original. Though a lot of the story elements are familiar, much of what was most beautiful in the language was also most alien to me. Though the Greek and Indian epics I’ve read also have a lot of epithets, the joined words, the alliteration, the word choices, and the drops in register into very plain language (“That was one good king.”), all together, make this like not quite like anything else I’ve ever read before.

View on Amazon: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition)

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