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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I read Beowulf recently. I bought a used copy at my local (U.S.) library's used-book room. I'm at the office now so I don't recall the publisher or even the translator's name but I'm pretty sure the translation was done in the early twentieth century. I haven't really read anything about Beowulf, other than it is the oldest known epic written in a vernacular (as in, it isn't written in Latin) European language.

I thought I would put down a few comments before I go and find out what the various experts have to say about the poem. I read the poem over a week ago so these are not initial impressions, but rather impressions that remain after reading a book casually and then thinking about it a short time later.

1. It's interesting what the author is ignorant about, and what he seems to know things about. Or maybe I should say, it's interesting what the author would expect his audience to know and what he does not expect them to know.

A. For instance, Beowulf goes more than once into the water to fight monsters, and at one point swims a great distance because no ship is available. He does this in full armor, and sometimes holding a sword, and sometimes actually killing sea monsters with the sword while swimming. No mention is made of having to hold his breath, even when he fights those monsters underwater. I infer from this the author (and/or intended audience) are quite unfamiliar with swimming. I understand Beowulf is a essentially a superhero but that isn't my point. His great strength is acknowledged to require at least some explanation: he is said to be stronger than thirty men. The very fact that a description (strong as thirty men) of the ability is presented indicates the author knows the audience will want to know exactly how strong this fellow is. The lack of concern about even mentioning how well he can hold his breath, or any special power he might have to allow him to stay underwater, leads me to think the epic is written to people that don't know anything about being in the water.

B. Conversely, in his fateful battle with the dragon, Beowulf's sword deflects off a bone when he strikes the dragon. This is a detail that wouldn't even occur to most audiences today - we don't fight with swords so how would we know that sometimes the blade glances off bone and doesn't go in where you want it to? But the audience of the time would certainly immediately "get it". It would be (and still, come to think of it, is) a realistic touch.

2. The character Wiglaf is introduced at the end of the story and comes from nowhere to become a very important character. Is this simply because Beowulf in his twilight years simply could not be capable of killing the dragon by himself. Sword fighting is a young man's business. I don't know anything about the conventions of 12th (or 8th, or 5th, depending on who you ask) century epic literature but is this character in the story because the audience simply would not be able to suspend disbelief enough to accept a 70-something swordsman single-handedly killing a dragon? I don't know.

There is more that occurs to me but does anybody have any thoughts on these, or any other aspects of Beowulf?

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