Beowulf: Introduction

Mar 1, 2017 | 6 minutes read

Tags: History, Literature, Books, Beowulf, Scandinavia

(Note: Still missing the header image)

Vendel Era Helm on display at the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities.

The epic for March is Beowulf.

When I began thinking about its place among the epics I chose for the year, I thought I might focus on Beowulf’s elegiac quality, something that not all of the epics share, at least not in the same way. On second thought, however, it is clear to me that Gilgamesh also possesses this quality, especially in the Sumerian poems, which refer to him as Bilgames. Both are concerned with gaining lasting fame through deeds, though it is true that Gilgamesh is vastly more focused on action than introspection. Where they diverge most, however, is in their views on death. Whereas Gilgamesh undertakes a quest in search of eternal life (a quest he fails), Beowulf wastes little time in resigning himself to death, so long as he can die in a blaze of glory. Both come around to the idea of death in their own way, but Gilgamesh is famous for his existential angst in this regard.

Contrast these attitudes with those from Shahnameh, which also cannot help but examine the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Time and again the characters of Shahnameh caution and counsel one another not to put too much stock into life, the world, possessions, and the like, because God, the heavens, fate, or whatever forces have been set in motion cause one to rise and another to fall. The death scene of Dara (whom we must interpret as representing Darius III) provides particularly evocative passage in Shahnameh. It’s worth quoting the whole speech:

When he heard Sekandar, Dara said, “May wisdom always be your companion! I think that you will find the reward for what you have said from God himself. You said that Iran is mine, and that the crown and the throne of the brave are mine; but death is closer to me than the throne. The throne is over for me, and my luck has run out. So the high heavens revolve; their turning is toward sorrow, and their profit is pain. Look at me before you say ‘I am exalted above all this great company of heroes.’ Know that evil and good both come from God, and see that you remain grateful to him for as long as you live. My own state shows you the truth of what I say. Look how I, who had such sovereignty and glory and wealth, am now despised by everyone. I who never injured anyone, who had such armor and such armies, such splendid horses, such crowns and thrones, who had such sons and relatives, and so many allies whose hearts bore my brand. Earth and time were my slaves, and remained so while my luck held. But now I am separated fom good fortune, and have fallen into the hands of murderers. I despair of my sons and family; the earth has turned dark for me, and my eyes are white like the eyes of a blind man. Our own people cannot help us; my one hope is in God the Creator. I lie here wounded on the earth, fallen into the trap of death, but this is the way of the heavens whether we are kings or heroes. Greatness too must pass: it is the prey, and its hunter is death.”

Arriving as this does slightly more than halfway through the Dick Davis translation of Shahnameh, it is hard to read this as an elegy for Iran, even though that’s sort of what it is. This segment of the epic portrays the ascendance of Sekandar, or Alexander the Great, over the Persian empire, an eclipse of the old with the new. Dara’s conscious elegy here is common throughout Shahnameh, as generations rise and generations fall, but it has additional import because the changing of the guard is from one empire to another. This, perhaps, renders Shahnameh the real outlier in this set of epics so far. Nothing in Gilgamesh can be construed as concerning itself with the rise and fall of particular civilizations; indeed, Gilgamesh’s most pressing concerns involve only himself and, before his death, Enkidu.

Beowulf, on the other hand, has an air of the rise and fall of civilizations about it. By the end of the work, when Beowulf has reached an old age, enemies of the Geats are crowding ‘round awaiting his death. His lack of a natural heir and his deathbed choice of the inexperienced thane Wiglaf as heir leaves Geatland in a precarious position, one his people cannot help but notice. This brief passage from Seamus Heaney’s translation occurs during Beowulf’s funeral:

A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement.

This is, indeed, the ending note of the work. Had Shahnameh ended with Sekandar’s conquest of Persia, or just on the eve of conquest, in the moments after Dara was struck down by his kin, it might have carried this same note. But whereas Beowulf ends on a low note, Shahnameh continues on, largely unconcerned with the fates of individuals and even civilizations in the larger scheme. I imagine this is a consequence of Persia having continued on, never really having lost its sense of identity, the security of which Shahnameh helped retain.

About the Text

The story of Beowulf contains many elements that may be familiar to many of us today. Composed between 1000 and 1300 years ago, it tells the story of the Geatish hero Beowulf and his various exploits. If you have seen the adequate but not terribly noteworthy 2007 film of the same name, then you know more or less what happened in the first part of the epic: arriving in Denmark, Beowulf and his companions offer to rid Hrothgar of the predations of Grendel, a monster who hunts and eats Danes. In so doing, he provokes Grendel’s mother into a fit of revenge and must likewise defeat her. Successful, he takes his spoils back to what is modern Sweden, where he later rules as king of the Geats. As an old man, having ruled for 50 years, he ventures forth one last time to rid his land of the scourge of a wakened fire-breathing dragon, and though victorious, he perishes in the battle. It deals with themes of bravery, legacy, and death, and offers up some curious examples of early medieval kingship.


Because I already owned it, I will be reading Seamus Heaney’s bilingual edition of Beowulf. I am also interested in the posthumously published translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, who undoubtedly drew heavily from Beowulf; since I don’t own it, however, I will have to put off reading it until later. Finally, a friend pointed me to an interesting experimental take on Beowulf, the translation by Thomas Meyer, which I would love to pick up at some point.

Other Resources

As with previous works in the sacer-epic reading list, Beowulf has been covered elsewhere. I was quite happy with the three-part series that aired recently on the Myths and Legends podcast. You might enjoy it as well.

(These are mp3 links)

60A — Beowulf: I’m Kind of A Big Deal

60B — Beowulf: The Depths

60C — Beowulf: Unknowable but Certain

Note: This is part of a series of posts dealing with the reading of one sacred/epic work per month in 2017. See below for more information on what I’m doing and how to follow along.

2017 Sacer-Epic Reading Journey