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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So. I have never before read Beowulf, though I am vaguely familiar with the story. Only vaguely though.

While traveling with Oyce and playing the game “Initials,” I gave her GM (Grendel’s Mother.) Sadly I was under the impression that Beowulf was Norse, and so misled her until she gave up. I will note in my defense that it is set in Scandinavia, not in England. And also that I can name India’s three biggest producers of milk in the early 1980s and you probably can’t.

(Later, Oyce gave me GA. “Grendel’s Aunt?” I instantly guessed. Actually, it was the Godolphin Arabian.)

Heaney’s introduction is quite interesting, noting his own history as a post-colonialist writer and how this colored his relationship with the text. He uses Ulster words he heard as a child in parts of it, as some of those are closely derived from Old English.

It’s a bilingual edition. I don’t read Old English, but it’s fun to see which words have survived – “fen,” for instance, and “gold.” Also, I now know that “Ellen Fremedon” is not a proper name.

I am struck by how much this seems to have influenced Tolkien. I knew he wrote an essay on Beowulf and Thomas Shippey’s book discusses the linguistic influences, but it’s one thing to know that abstractly and another to read it for yourself. “Orcneas,” word Heaney translates as “phantoms,” seems to be the source for “orcs.” (It’s in the same line as “ylfe” – “elves.” And the constant references to gold and Grendel’s rampage through the glittering hall remind me of Smaug, the lure of the hoard, and Theoden’s Hall.

The story goes that King Hrothgar built a shining mead-hall, a wonder of the world. But Grendel, a monster from the clan of Cain, found it and began rampaging through it, slaughtering and eating its warriors however they tried to defend it. This goes on for quite some time and many iterations of “warriors try to defend hall; Grendel eats them.” I bet Grendel felt like he’d found a free buffet.

But never fear! Beowulf is here! He arrives from a neighboring kingdom and announces that he’s the biggest bad-ass around (I believe it) and that since Grendel is killing everyone with his bare hands, Beowulf will throw away his sword and shield and fight him bare-handed too!

Rachel: is impressed.

Danish warriors: are impressed.

Unferth (some warrior who “crouched at the king’s feet” – shades of Wormtongue): “Eh, you’re not all that. I heard you got in a swimming contest with your buddy and lost!”

Beowulf: “Actually, I swam for nine days -- slaying sea monsters every minute!

Rachel: is impressed.

Danish warriors: are impressed.

Unferth: shuts up.

In a great scene, it turns out that Grendel is immune to weapons, so it actually benefits Beowulf that he’s not using any. He wrestles Grendel (also very vividly described) and rips his arm off at the shoulder! Awesome.

Afterward, there’s a celebration with minstrels. I figured that was a good point to take a break.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition)
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