Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Beowulf


“{Fate} often preserves one not domed to die, if his courage is strong!”  Beowulf, line 572-573

Have you seen the 2007 CG film Beowulf? You know the one in which Angelina Jolie gives voice to the mother of the monster, Grendel?


It’s loosely (very loosely) based on the oldest surviving heroic epic poem in British literature. Believed to have been written between the 8th and early 11th century, the Beowulf manuscript housed in the British Library in London is the only one in existence, surviving the destruction of religious artifacts during the reign of Henry VIII. In the 18th century, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton counted it among his collection of medieval writings. In 1731, a fire swept through the building housing his literary treasures. Fortunately, Beowulf survived, although it did suffer damage.  Time, as with all things, continues to degrade the manuscript. Efforts to preserve the ancient document continue.

Beowulf is the tale of a Geats warrior who journeys across the sea to aid Hrothgar, King of the Scyldings, who’s Great Hall is terrorized by the monster, Grendel, believed to be a descendant of the biblical Cain, who killed his brother Abel and was cursed by God.

Grendel is an outcast, living on the moors, disturbed by the feasting and reverie within the walls of Hrothgar’s Great Hall.  When all have fallen asleep, Grendel sneaks inside and kills thirty nobles. Thus begins a twelve-year reign of terror.

Beowulf arrives at the Great Hall seeking fame and fortune. He boasts that he will kill Grendel and he does. Beowulf must then face Grendel’s mother, and eventually a dragon in Beowulf’s own kingdom many years later. These three epic battles mark the life of a Geats warrior who becomes a king.

The first printed edition of Beowulf appeared in 1815.  Over the years, many translations and reprintings followed. As did the debate of its origins.

Many believed that Germanic tradition forms the basis of the story. However, Wilhelm Grimm (yes, one-half of the Grimm Brothers) linked Beowulf to Irish traditions. Other academics supported his belief, citing the Irish Feast of Bricriu  or Táin Bó Fráech as the foundation of the tale.

Some considered the story a paganistic work with Christian influences added later by scribes; while others insisted it was a Christian historical novel with bits of paganism intersperse to add local color. JRR Tolkein was noted to have said that Beowulf was written with “too genuine a memory of Anglo-Saxon paganism to have been written more than a few generations after the events.”

Beowulf is one of my favorite legends. To me, the core of the story is a warrior’s coming of age. He matures from a proud, young adventure thrill-seeker to a respectable, noble king who is more concerned with his people’s safety and prosperity than his own fame and riches.

But, could Beowulf be more than mere legend?

Archeological excavations at Lejre, the seat of Scylding according to Scandinavian traditions, have uncovered a large building, circa mid-6th century—the time period of Beowulf. The structure contains three halls, each fifty meters long, similar to the ones described in the epic. Discoveries at the Eadgils’ mound in Uppsala, Sweden seem to support the existence of Beowulf as a real man and his sagas.  Birger Nerman—Swedish archaeologist, professor, and author, identified the barrow of Skalunda as the Beowulf’s final resting place.

Beowulf's Burial Mound: Photo Source
So, if Beowulf was real person and his adventures true events, then what about the monsters he battled? Were they real? And what were they?

In Christian medieval culture the term “monster” referred to individuals with birth defects. Their deformities often seen as an ominous sign from God signifying punishment for some transgression or a foreboding of evil to come.

Beowulf’s anonymous author describes the monster Grendel as a shadow-glider with flaming eyes, a hellish ravager, a spell-weaver who seized his victim,
“a sleeping warrior and slit him wide open,
biting into the body, drinking blood in streams,
swallowing huge mouthfuls—till soon
he had eaten the entire man’s corpse,
even feet and hands.” Beowulf, lines 741-745
When I envision Grendel, I see VAMPIRE. He comes out only at night, drinks his victims’ blood and devours their flesh. He’s super-human stronger, able to rip apart limbs with his bare hands so he has no need for weapons. Even when Beowulf defeats Grendel and finds him dead in a lair, Beowulf beheads the monster, to ensure the unholy creature never rises again.

Could the ancient manuscript of Beowulf substantiate the existence of vampires in medieval times?

If Grendel wasn’t a vampire, what do you think he might’ve been?

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3 comments:

shelly said...

Hmmm...good question. Maybe a city or village that practiced blood-letting or impaled people or were cannibals.

Dawn Marie Hamilton said...

Hi, Kristal. Interesting post. I must admit the Beowulf movie creeped me out. I'd have to go with Grendel being a vampire.

Kristal Lee said...

Shelly, Dawn ~ Thanks for stopping by. I hope you like the new design and direction of the blog. Hope to see you again.
~k

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