2020-10-30 @Literature

I reread the sensational epic poem Beowulf, one of the first surviving Old English epics of an anonymous author. My first exposure to the poem dates back to school twenty years back, although I can hardly attest to that entirely superficial experience. Fortunately, I can now speak a bit more authoritatively.

I read the C. W. Kennedy verse translation, which, like the original, maintains the unrhymed, two half-line alliterative structure with a caesura/pause between the two halves.

It would have been pleasant to read the original, but suffice to say, Old English/West Saxon are divergent from the modern or even the Middle English (which I read with comparable ease) to such great extent that only serious scholarly pursuit would enable the due appreciation.

A bit on the background of the epic. While the surviving manuscript, written in the West Saxon dialect, dates back to the 10th-11th centuries, the poet composed the work a couple of centuries prior. The actual narrative, however, takes place in the 5th-6th centuries.

The heroic epic draws heavily on the roots of ancient Nordic/Scandinavian/Celtic sources: histories, sagas, fables, myths. The narrative unwinds within the territories of modern Denmark and Sweden. Beowulf, the hero of the poem is of a Geatish lineage, a royal tribe of southern Sweden. The other royal lines pertinent to the story are the Scyldings (Danes) as well as the Scylfings (also of Sweden).

The ancient Scandinavian traditions were harsh, yet simple. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Serve your king. Reap rewards, but be eager to requite in the glories of battle. Stand behind your word. Respect your legend. Expect death at any moment.

The world presented was bleak, winters harsh, death ensuing, volatility constant, strife between royal lineage incessant, deception looming, enemy threat abound.

You’ll observe similar feel in much of the Scandinavian/Celtic material. Pleasures were little and base. Debauchery at the Mead Hall over beer and ale constituted much of it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth presents a world of a similar character, also set within that echelon of history and among those geographic whereabouts.

See this one of my favourite passages to get a sense of the world as well as the poetry, more of which I’ll address further below.

Wild and lonely the land they live in
Wind-swept ridges and wolf-retreats,
Dread tracts of fen where the falling torrent
Downward dips into gloom and shadow
Under the dusk of the darkening cliff.
Not far in miles lies the lonely mere
Where trees firm-rooted and hung with frost
Overshroud the wave with shadowing gloom.
And there a portent appears each night,
A flame in the water; no man so wise
Who knows the bound of it’s bottomless depth
The heather-stepper, the horned stag,
The antlered hart hard driven by hounds,
Invading that forest in flight from afar
Will turn at bay and die on the brink
Ere ever he’ll plunge in that haunted pool.
‘Tis an eerie spot! Its tossing spray
Mounts dark to heaven when high winds stir
The driving storm, and the sky is murky
And with foul weather the heavens weep.

Concerning the translation. However richer the original, this particular translation exhibits certain alliteration (sometimes syllabic, although more frequently first-consonant, or similarly sounding and evocative words). See this handful of lines I’d noted:

Find many more excerpts beneath.

Granted, alliteration appeals to the subtlety of individual taste. But of greater importance, the work captures the abundant appositives and kennings, characteristic of the ancient Old English and Nordic poetry traditions.

What do I mean by appositives? Well, as there isn’t much use of simile (that I recall), the poem instead appeals to repetition of narratives and ideas, and with such ample variety that it manifests a different brand of lyricism I’d not been previously accustomed to. It’s something to appreciate.

You’ll also find much boasting among the epic’s heroes; boasting of deeds already carried out, as well as boasting of deeds yet to transpire. You could view this as a further extension of appositives. I’d lost count of how many times Beowulf recounted his battle glories to extravagant detail.

A modern frame of mind might construe this as a severe display of narcissism and conceit. However, it very likely suggests the custom of the time. Within the poetry framework, the exhibit probably constitutes all of these factors.

The frequent kennings/circumlocutions further give the poetry it’s signature aspect. These are indirect forms of referring to the same element in multitudes of ways.

How about these different forms of referring to Beowulf throughout the poem:

Or the varying descriptions of Grendel I’d encountered: 'Foe of man’, ‘hideous foe’, ‘fiend of hell’, ‘the fiendish ogre’, demon, etc …

Or the creature to later take the stage: ‘dire destroyer’, ‘evil worm’, ‘the fiend’, ‘flying serpent’, ‘the ward of the barrow’, including the following two lines of nonstop kennings:

The monstrous wonder, the loathsome worm,
The horrible fire-drake, hideous-hued


Beowulf is all about poetic exhibition. Were I to compact the narrative into simple prose, as perhaps many of the hundreds of existing translations aspire to, it would leave little to marvel over. I can only imagine the exoticism of the West Saxon original, but note these excerpts of the Kennedy translation:

The water boiled in a bloody swirling
With seething gore as the spearmen gazed.

The hall stood reddened and reeking with gore
Bench-boars wet with the blood of battle

If death shall call me, he’ll carry away
My gory flesh to his fen-retreat
To gorge at leisure and gulp me down
Soiling the marches with stains of blood

Gulped the blood, and gobbled the flesh
Greedily gorged on the lifeless corpse

Howling his hideous hymn of pain
The hell-thane shrieking in sore defeat

The stranger from far, the stalwart and strong
Had purged of even the hall of Hrothgar

The fiend’s hand fastened by hero’s might
On the lofty roof. Most like to steel
Were the hardened nails, the heathen’s hand-spurs,
Horrible, monstrous; and many men said
No tempered sword, no excellent iron,
Could have harmed the monster or hacked away
The demon’s battle-claw dripping with blood

Possible appeal to humour:

The lofty building, splendid and spacious,
Towered above him. His sleep was sound
Till the black-coated raven, blithesome of spirit
Hailed the coming of Heaven’s bliss.

Allusion (mixed with humour):

So the son of Ecgtheow bore himself bravely,
Known for his courage and courteous deeds,
Strove after honor, slew not his comrades,
In drunken brawling; nor brutal his mood.

Corselet and warrior decay into dust;
Mailed coat and hero are moveless and still.
No mirth of gleewood, no music of harp,
No good hawk swinging in flight through the hall;
No swift steed stamps in the castle yard;
Death has ravished an ancient race.

Questions, comments? Connect.