Tag Archives: Old English

Beowulf – 5 The remarkable revival

The ancient story of Beowulf has had a remarkable revival. 

Beowulf’s story was composed around the 6th or 7th centuries, written down in the 10th or 11th centuries, and has survived for about 1500 years. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Whether it was composed by one artist or several is not known.

Originally the story would probably have been told or sung in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations, films and retellings. 

Beowulf is a Geat and a hero. His story tells of his defeat of Grendel and of Grendel’s mother, and a treasure-loving dragon. Grendel was terrorising the Danish mead hall, the pride and joy of its builder the king. After defeating Grendel, the monster’s mother came seeking revenge and there was another epic battle, this time underwater, but again Beowulf prevailed. Much later in life, when he was a king himself, Beowulf took on a dragon who guarded the most fabulous pile of treasure, and although the dragon died, so did Beowulf to the dismay and misery of his people.

As far as I am aware, the revival of Beowulf’s story is a recent phenomenon.

Why is Beowulf so popular today?

It’s a good story. It’s the story of good triumphing over evil and with a couple of twists. Just when Beowulf and his admirers think he has solved the problem of the attacks on the Danish mead hall, along comes another monster for him to dispatch. Later he becomes a king and does the kingly thing of defending his people, even at the cost of his own life. 

Beowulf appeals to children as well as adults. The plot can be simplified, omitting the genealogies, back stories, and sub plots. The hero defeats three monsters. He is brave. He is young and one of a gang at the start of the story and becomes king in his mature years. 

Beowulf is a hero. Superheroes are all the rage at the moment. His power, his superpower, is to have the strength of 30 men in one of his arms. He is more than a human. He finds a magic sword and has the ability to fight for hours underwater. He fits right in with the spidermen, supermen, and other film heroes.

We like a little of the supernatural in our fiction. The powers of the hero and of his defeated monsters and dragon are all supernatural. They don’t quite belong in our world, so we can return from ancient Denmark and feel happy at the outcome, and relieved that such things do not exist in our world. 

The antagonists are sympathetic. Both Grendel and his mother have been made the focus of novels: by JohnGardner and Maria Dahvana Headley respectively. Maria Dahvana Headley updated the story not only to interpret it through feminist eyes, but also to place it in a modern context, which seriously challenges the goodness of Beowulf. John Gardner views the story from the eyes of Beowulf’s first victim, who might even be a human of sorts, seriously challenged by the bragging Danes in the mead hall, and much misunderstood by the other characters and by the original storyteller of course. 

Other times, other places. There is also the mystery and attraction of this being a very old story, capable of retelling in ways that say something about the teller and their context and time. I have not yet read Edwin Morgan’s version, but I note that he says this about his original version published in 1952.

The translation, which was begun shortly after I came out of the army at the end of the Second World Wat, was in a sense my unwritten war poem, I would not want to alter [in a new edition] the expression I gave to its themes of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss. Inter arma musae tacent (“In time of conflict the Muses are silent”) but they are not sleeping. (Preface to 2021 edition)

These themes are timeless, conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss and just as Edwin Morgan experienced them in the Second World War, so do we today.

The mystery of the text. The story of the survival of the version of Beowulf that we have is fascinating, not least because it is so ancient, and the language in which it was written is obscure to most readers, despite being a version of very old English. It is not clear whether it is written by more than one scribe or composed by more than one poet. We know that the poet and the scribe cannot be the same person, for the poem predates the written version by some centuries. Survival of texts and arguments about versions and who wrote what and authenticity are the very stuff of fascination. For example, Shakespeare’s plays have been subjected to a huge amount of scholarly examination in the various versions that still exist. I have looked at the versions listed below, which include prose, and poetry, adaptations and translations. No doubt there are others, and in different genres, perhaps a computer game, anime or film. Whatever version Beowulf is in, the story will be read into the late twenty-first century. Not bad for a text that started as a spoken or sung poem fifteen centuries ago.

Pile in order 2

Versions of Beowulf discussed in this series

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, (1961) reissued by Puffin in 1966.

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, (2006) by Walker Books.

Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, (1982) Oxford University Press.

Beowulf by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, (1999) Faber

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley (2021) Scribe. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (2018) Scribe. 

Grendel by John Gardner, (1971) Picador. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Beowulf by Edwin Morgan (1952) republished by Carcanet (2002)

Links to previous posts in the Beowulf series

Beowulf 1 Some versions February 2021

Beowulf 2 in which he meets a feminist July 2021

Beowulf 3 – Grendel by John Gardner March 2022

Beowulf 4 – Charles Keeping’s Illustrations December 2022

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Beowulf – 1

The Anglo-Saxons have never left us: swear words, place names and the foundation of our language. We have some great archaeological Anglo-Saxon finds including several hoards containing jewellery, such as the Staffordshire and Lenborough Hoards – hidden and never reclaimed – and the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. And there is Beowulf. Beowulf’s story has survived for about 1500 years, composed around the 6th or 7th centuries and written down in the 10th or 11th centuries. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.

Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel. Grendel is a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in a battle to protect his people that is his last. His body is set alight in a funeral pyre and a barrow made in his honour, high on a cliff to warn ships of the rocks below.

Origially the story would probably have been told in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Some of the There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations and retellings.

When I taught history in Coventry, many moons ago, I used to love the unit on Anglo-Saxons as it enabled me to retell the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and to explore the Sutton Hoo Ship burial. After the tale of heroic actions, in which Beowulf’s arm was claimed to have the strength of thirty men, he survived almost a day under water and he died fighting a fire-breathing dragon, after retelling his adventures some child would always ask, ‘is it true? Did it really happen?’

The story of Beowulf has been retold many times, in translations, novels, films and other adaptations. In this and further posts I plan to look at the enduring appeal of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and its retelling in books. In this post I look at some of the straightforward renditions of the poem. In future posts I’ll consider some more imaginative versions and the attraction of the Anglo-Saxon tale.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

This recent translation was the work of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We get the whole poem including quite a bit of elaborated history, moments of glory, family events, repeated account of the heroic deeds, and interludes. Heaney has concentrated on telling the story, finding many synonyms for the characters and repeating the reminders that all this was done by God’s power.

In off the moors, down through the mist-band
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. (24)

Many of the characters are introduced by their reputation before we actually meet them: Beowulf, Grendel and his mother as well as some of the kings that Beowulf serves. The verse story confirms the two children’s versions I read.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber in 1999106pp

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff 

As you expect from this great writer, this retelling of the story is very accessible and full of the details for which she was famed. It is helped by Charles Keeping’s illustrations, which while being of their time add considerably to imagining this tale of impossible heroics. As in so many of her stories Rosemary Sutcliff stresses the loyalties that tied together the royal houses of the Danes and the Geats, respected by the kings, seafarers and warriors, as well as the debts that must be repaid when demanded. 

In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the king’s bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. (8)

Illustrated by Charles Keeping

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1961 and reissued by Puffin in 1966. 108pp

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo 

This is a more recent version than Dragon Slayer, and is written for slightly younger readers. The story is faithfully told, but without all the genealogical detail of the original and its many diversions. I find the illustrations by Michael Foreman to add less to the retelling than those of Charles Keeping. In this retelling again the  emphasis is on loyalty, courage and indebtedness. 

Hear, and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkness and beyond. (13)

Michael Morpurgo notes his debt to other translated versions, including Rosemary Sutcliff, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Alexander. 

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, published in 2006 by Walker Books. 150pp

See also Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf  by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

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The Exeter Book

When did English literature begin? Where, how did it begin? A contender for the honour can be found in a city in the South West of England: Exeter, in its Cathedral Library and Archive. It’s called the Exeter Book.

The Exeter Book has survived a thousand years, not always cared for, and not always intelligible. It is now in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives collection, and you can visit it on its monthly open days.

What is the Exeter Book?

Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book – or The Codex Exoniensis to use its Latin name – is first heard of in the library of the first Bishop of Exeter, Leofric, in 1072. It is not known how it came into Leofric’s possession.

Originally the Book had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included.

The Book contains 96 riddles and some longer poems. A few of the poems have Christian connections, but the collection is largely secular, despite its long connection with the Cathedral.

Another mystery is the reason for its original compilation. The anthology may have been a random collection of riddles and poems, or the favoured pieces of its first owner, surely a wealthy man. The preparation of the 130 parchment leaves, from animal skins, and of the ink from oak galls would have required many hours of labour.

Leofric’s described the Book in this way:

mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht (ie: a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things).

Leofric was a collector of books. He gave 66 to his cathedral between 1050 and 1072 when he died. The first page of his Anglo-Saxon Missal, now in the Bodleian, contains his ‘curse’, first in Latin and then in Anglo-Saxon.

Bishop Leofric gives this missal to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle in Exeter for the use of his successors. If anyone shall take it away from thence, let him lie under eternal malediction.

Why has it survived?

The survival of the Book is a good story in itself. It may have survived precisely because it was not valued. It is more than a thousand years old, but for 700 years few people, if any, could read Old English and the great tome was neglected. There is evidence that it was used as a stand for a pot of glue and to hold gold leaf. It bears the marks of significant neglect, such a scorch mark on the last few leaves, perhaps from a poker. It may have survived precisely because it was not valued. Despite his curse, in the 17th century many of the books from Leofric’s library, along with others from the Cathedral’s collection, were given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Exeter Book was left behind, perhaps unnoticed.

Why is it important?

Books were treasured articles in the 11th century. They required much labour to produce and sacred texts with their illuminations required skill and artistic sensibility. The Book has a very pleasing regular script, even if it contains no illuminations.

The Exeter Book is one of only four Old English books to have survived to the present. You probably know of Beowulf. In recent times, interest in the text has been reawakened. In particular, both WH Auden and JR Tolkien are known to have been influenced by the poems. The riddles have been translated into Modern English by Kevin Crossley-Holland and published by Enitharmon Press (2008). One of the riddles inspired Nicola Lefanu to compose a song (Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 27th April 2017).

Riddle 47

A moth ate words. That seemed to me
when I heard of that strange happening, a curious event,
that the insect, a thief in darkness, devoured
what was written by some man, this excellent language
and its strong foundations. The thievish stranger was not
at all the wiser for swallowing these words.

For the answer change the last letter of this blog’s name.

An Artist’s Treat

The book is kept in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives. I visited it in April 2017. There are monthly open days to view the book and talk to Archive staff. They are proud and enthusiastic about this precious volume: no lying ‘under eternal malediction’ for them. And, yes, visiting books is the kind of thing I do for fun, or as a Writer’s Treat.

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