24 Apr

Beowulf (soundtrack)

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Day 2: Beowulf

I started Beowulf and feel terribly confused. Too many H names. Too many family lineages to follow. I considered skipping it, but I decided maybe I was just too tired and that I should save it for another day.
So Day 2, Feb. 3, was not as productive as Day 1. But I will have lots of time on Day 3 to dedicate to it.

Day 3: Beowulf

Yes, yes! It was fantastic! How exciting this is. I’ve discovered what is beautiful and fun about Beowulf. Of course, I didn’t get half of it — the names, the family relations, a lot of the historical context. But the language was so clever.
I read in the Old English poetry section (page 4) about kenning, forming a sort of compound word. Instead of saying “body,” one could say “life-house.” The Beowulf author was particularly fond of this literary device. See the following words:

  • bed-companion
  • sword-hate
  • soul-slayer
  • night-horrors
  • sea-cliffs
  • sea-road
  • battle-brave
  • whale-fishes
  • flood-waves
  • war-stroke
  • battle-blade
  • sword-point
  • sea-streams
  • sword-wounded
  • victory-weapons
  • hell-slave
  • dying-place
  • gallows-grim
  • victory-blessed
  • life-injury
  • wonder-smiths
  • iron-blade
  • spear-death
  • war-evil
  • world-candle
  • boar-banner
  • head-sign
  • life-slayer
  • heart-streams
  • bone-house
  • war-flames
  • war-storm
  • war-armor
  • war-steam
  • sea-army
  • heart-care

The way the writer created such great visuals is really amazing to me. Check these out:

  • as Grendel opens the door of the hall: “Driven by evil desire, swolled with rage, he tore it open, the hall’s mouth.”
  • after Grendel opens the door: “Then his heart laughed: dreadful monster, he thought that before the day came he would divide the life from the body of every one of them, for there had come to him a hope of full-feasting.”
  • when Grendel first comes into the hall: “…starting his work, he suddenly seized a sleeping man, tore at him ravenously, bit into is bone-locks, drank the blood from his veins, swallowed huge morsels; quickly he had eaten all of the lifeless one, feet and hands.”
  • when Beowulf attacked Grendel: “he knew his fingers’ power to be in a hateful grip.”
  • when Grendel is on his way home after injury: “…weary-hearted, overcome with injuries, he moved on his way from there to the mere [lake] of the water-monsters with life-failing footsteps, death-doomed and in flight. There the water was boiling with blood, the horrid surge of waves swirling, all mixed with hot gore, sword-blood. Doomed to die he had hidden, then, bereft of joys, had laid down his life in his fen-refuge, his heathen soul: there hell took him.”
  • referring to Grendel’s hand stuck on top of the roof: “…the foe’s fingers. The end of each one, each of the nail-places, was most like steel; the hand-spurs of the heathen warrior were monstrous spikes.”
  • talking about a historic battle: “Heads melted as blood sprang out — wounds opened wide, hate-bites of the body. Fire swallowed them — greediest of spirits … their strength had departed.”
  • about Grendel’s mother: “after the bitter battle an avenger still lived for an evil space: Grendel’s mother, woman, monster-wife, was mindful of her misery … [ancester of Cain] From him sprang many a devil sent by fate.”
  • during the celebration: “Then Grendel’s head was dragged by the hair over the floor to where men drank, a terrible thing to the earls and the woman with them, an awful sight: the men looked upon it.”
  • during the dragon fight: “…hot and battle-grim seized all his neck with his sharp fangs: he was smeared with life-blood, gore welled out in waves.”
  • as Beowulf died: “That was the last word of the old man, of the thoughts of his heart, before he should taste the funeral pyre, hot hostile flames.”
  • during Beowulf’s cremation: “Heaven swallowed the smoke.”

Also, I thoroughly enjoyed the contrast between how the author described the “good guys” (Beowulf and the warriors) versus the “bad guys” (Grendel and his mother, and the dragon):

Good guys:

  • warrior fierce in battle
  • protector of warriors
  • great-hearted kinsman
  • great-hearted one
  • best of men
  • the hardy one
  • warrior glorious with gold

Bad guys:

  • wild ravager
  • foul ravager
  • dreadful monster
  • creature deprived of joy
  • hell-slave
  • loathsome despoiler
  • one without glory
  • life-enemy
  • hateful outcast
  • enemy of mankind
  • war-terror of a wife
  • wandering murderous spirit
  • awful creature
  • mighty worker of wrong
  • bloody-toothed slayer
  • deadly flying thing
  • the terrible guardian
  • life-slayer
  • awful earth-dragon

I found Beowulf confusing and uninteresting at first. But as soon as I let myself enjoy the language and not get caught up in the details about who was related to whom and what historic battle they were talking about, I discovered why it’s a classic: It’s a beautifully written piece that can be enjoyed by simpletons like me as well as by literary and historian scholars.

My third “day” of journaling was spread out over Feb. 4, 5 and 6. My next two readings are The Wanderer and The Battle of Maldon.

Editor’s Note: This was originally published as two posts, Feb. 4 and 7, 2009. It was part of an experiment in which I’d read and blog about another piece in British literature every day in 2009. I failed.


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2 responses to “Beowulf

  1. David

    April 27, 2011 at 1:17 am

    Glad you liked “Beowulf” too — I’m a fan of it! Well, I’m a fan of Old and Middle English literature in general, and also epic poetry in general. The Anglo-Saxons used amazingly powerful images in their poetry, with such life and energy. My most recent review is of “The Dream of the Rood,” in which the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is retold from the point of view of the Cross…that’s right, the Cross itself. And it’s an amazing story, very emotionally told.

    You’re right that all the names and lineages in “Beowulf” can bog a person down, even an amateur scholar like myself. I accept them as part of the culture and atmosphere, and move on to the gripping story and language. The end, with his kingdom mourning his death, is genuinely moving.

    • The Sidebar Review

      April 27, 2011 at 11:28 am

      Hi, David! Glad to have you here. I love your blog and will start following it!

      I just saw a one-man play of Beowulf that was really enjoyable ( It’s a great story that transcends time.


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