Wednesday, January 31, 2007


So I was down to the wire getting in on this challenge but I made it. And then I had to polish off Beowulf in exactly one day.

Fortunately for me, the thing is only a poem, though a long one at that. But I'm also a little familiar with the story, having read scraps and pieces in English Lit class in high school.

Writing and learning about poetry for years in university has made me appreciate language even more. So I can tell you that the person who wrote this and the groups of oral poets who spoke this to large groups, definitely had a complex way of going about it.

It's like the Iliad. Certain characters are described in the same way throughout the piece to help oral poets memorize the piece. That way, they have to remember fewer lines.

But the language is so full and rich and deep. And what makes it feel full in the mouth is the use of alliteration in the lines. For example: "Let him raise the lament then, a song of sorrow, while his son hangs there, a sport for a raven."

Looks at how many s's that lines uses and how it makes the line soft with a small hissing almost. The whole poem is like this and it also uses archaic language and things called "kennings". They're a type of metaphor that means "to express one thing in terms of another." For example, "whale-road" is a kenning that means sea. The word is first of all, way more interesting than saying 'sea' and it makes the poem seem more authentic to its historical period.

I loved it. I absolutely loved the story. I'm a little conflicted and bothered by the Christian inserts in the poem though. There are several mentions of a deity, Weird (Wyrd) the Germanic goddess of fate as well as mentiong the Christian god. Considering Christianity's monotheistic beliefs, these two mentions of different deities from different religions kind of clash.

Historically the characters in the poem would have been pagans because the time period takes place before the emergence of Christianity in Germanic culture. But again, the person/people who wrote this down most likely would have been Christian and associated with the church because in the year 1000 AD, they were the literate people in society.

So I can see why a monk would have inserted Christianity into the piece. Even though the majority of people couldn't read, those who could would now be reading a Christianized epic poem to large groups. But I still can't help feeling that something's been lost in the translation. We don't have the real story now. Who knows if anything else has been altered. But at the same time, if it hadn't been written down, we wouldn't have it today.

This book was part of my Classics Reading Challenge

This book was also part of my TBR Challenge

Rating: 4/5


booklogged said...

I wish I had the same background in college Lit classes. Alas, my major was biology. I love biology, but I wish I had a better language background. Beowulf sounds like a tough read. Way to go!

Chris said...

I keep thinking "Someday I'm going to read Beowulf." Sounds like you enjoyed it. I might have to add it to the 2008 TBR list.

The duck thief said...

I did enjoy it and I'm so glad that I have some background in poetry because I think I appreciated the piece so much better. The language in the story is so full, it's like eating chocolate cake and drinking a tall glass of milk.