Monday, April 13, 2015

Book Review: Beowulf

This is my favorite work of fiction. The Burton Raffel translation I have runs 128 pages long, short enough to finish in an afternoon. This relatively short epic poem contains all of the themes I love best. Beowulf, the hero of the poem, is acknowledged to be the greatest warrior in all the land in a time when violence was a way of life and professional warriors were the rock stars. King Hrothgar builds the mead hall Herot so that he and his soldiers can drink, rejoice, laugh, and sing in fellowship. This upsets Grendel, one of the monstrous descendants of Cain, one member of a host of demons, spirits, monsters, beasts, and savages forever banished from the sight of God in punishment for Abel's murder. The poet describes them as forever opposing the will of God and always defeated.

Christ promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against his Church, but this does not mean we can be indolent. The war is already won but souls can still be lost until the Second Coming of our Lord. Beowulf hears of Hrothgar's plight and resolves to slay the beast. He handpicks the greatest warriors among the Geats to accompany him to Denmark. The characters often digress to recount tales of their ancestors, or how their families acquired weapons through inheritance or war. One such aside compares Beowulf to King Hermod. Hermod was a man of unquestionable courage and prowess in battle, but he was of low character. His pride and vanity led to his downfall, the poet describing him as deserving of a pitiful death. Beowulf, in contrast, is followed not because of fear but friendship.

In a scene typical of the Northern spirit, Beowulf declares that because Grendel fights without weapons or armor, he will face the monster naked and bare-handed. Grendel snatches up and devours one of Beowulf's friends. The warrior grabs hold of the monsters arm with a vice grip. The monster panics, knowing he's outmatched by this warrior sent by God himself. He attempts to flee and only manages to escape after Beowulf tears his arm from its socket. Grendel crawls back to his mother's swamp where he sinks into the depths, limps into her lair, and bleeds to death. His mother (don't get me started on Angelina Jolie) vows revenge. She returns to Herot and kills one of Hrothgar's closest friends. Beowulf journeys to the swamp where Cain's fiendish children dwell. He swims the depths, avoiding the sea monsters and foul beasts that live in the water. When the battle is joined, Beowulf's weapons are useless against Grendel's mother. Seizing an enchanted blade from her armory, he manages to slay the monster. Finding Grendel's body, Beowulf takes his head as a trophy. Hrothgar, astounded that Beowulf survived, toasts him to the skies and bestows upon him treasure and promises that his fame will live forever.

The story picks up fifty years later near the end of Beowulf's life. He has reigned as a king in his native land for most of that time, after having declined the throne several times already. A dragon has been awoken and ravages the country side. The elderly and ailing king brings 12 of his finest warriors with him on one last quest. The dragon scares the hell out of them and they all flee save one, Wiglaf. Together, Beowulf and Wiglaf slay the dragon but not before it deals a mortal blow to Beowulf who dies there on the field of battle. Wiglaf bitterly curses the other warriors who fled when their king needed them the most. Beowulf is laid to rest after a proper viking funeral.

The poem has a focus on the glory of battle and how fame is the greatest thing a warrior can achieve. But it's suffused with a tragic worldview. Glory is fleeting and purchased dearly. Friendships are violently severed. Fathers mourn sons. The courage of men sometimes fails. Success in war does not by itself a great man make. Men need fellowship. We need to fight, and strive, and to be challenged. We need heroes. There's something vile about the man who doesn't believe in heroes, who laughs at the classical archetypes like Beowulf. There's something stunted in the soul of a man who pooh-poohs our admiration and emulation of heroes.

Beowulf is the oldest piece of English poetry we have. It's far from the only heroic epic we have but it's definitely one of my favorites and a worthy addition to any man's library.

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