So.

November 11, 2008

I have read Beowulf before, as have many of my fellow students, but it is always a delightful experience and I never get tired of it. On the heels of a couple of waffling, womanizing or downright didactic heroes, it is refreshing to come back to an unabashed braggart and all-around ass-kicking dude. Consider this exchange, presented in summary form below:

Unferth: You aren’t so tough! You swam a race against that guy Breca and lost.

Beowulf: Oh sure, I lost, but only because I stopped to kill like nine sea monsters along the way. Also, didn’t you kill your own brothers, you douchebag? Now get in the kitchen and get me some mead!

Audience: Ooooh, he got told!

But of course there is more to Beowulf than violence and mead: there is also an incredibly pervasive Christian subtext, which almost doesn’t deserve the “sub” prefix because it is so flagrant. At the same time, there is no doubt that this poem is about a guy that kills things because he is awesome, and eventually gets killed by a thing when he is too old to continue being awesome. It is like this Christian rock album that I really enjoyed until someone told me it was a Christian rock album, and then I felt a bit awkward because I am an atheist. Or perhaps it is like one of the Christian parties they would have on my college campus occasionally; I would go for the free food, and if there happened to be a guy talking about Jesus in the background, so be it.

This is the first (and possibly only) Old English epic around, and it differs pretty significantly from the Greek and Roman epics. It doesn’t have an invocation to the muse, for one, and not just because it’s a Christian epic; even Milton invokes the muse in Paradise Lost, as does Dante in his Divine Comedy. It also lacks the same structure as the previous epics; it isn’t divided into books, and it doesn’t have a singular focal quest that the hero has to complete, such as getting home or getting the golden fleece or founding a city.

Finally, and perhaps least obvious in translation, it wasn’t written in dactyllic hexameter. The Old English poetic meter wasn’t based on having a certain number of stressed and unstressed syllables per line; instead, as far as I understand it, each line was divided into two parts with two stressed syllables each, and no limit to the number of unstressed syllables. There was also emphasis on consonance, with at least one word on each side sharing some consonant sound, usually the first letter (alliteration ahoy!).

Although it has a lot of qualities that point to it being an oral poem–epithets, lengthy internal digressions, that pervasive drumbeat of a meter–it was obviously written down or we wouldn’t still have it today, and some argue that it was exclusively a written work. The new theory at the moment is that a monk did it, which would explain why it has such a strong Christian message, and perhaps more importantly, how it ended up written down at all given the literacy rates at the time. I find this image intensely amusing; a little guy with a shaved head, wearing an itchy brown robe, alternating his time between tending a little garden and writing about an epic hero of old beating the snot out of demons.

Ah, Brother Anonymous, we hardly knew ye.

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