September 22, 2007 - Beowulf (Howell Chickering Jr., Ed.). This particular edition includes the poem in Old English side-by-side with a modern English translation. Needless to say, I read the poem in modern English. The book also contains scholarly background, insights and analysis. Most helpful was a family tree to help sort out the who's who in this poem with names a plenty.

No one knows for sure when Beowulf was written or who composed it. The only written manuscript is currently housed in the British Museum. Based on the handwriting, it appears to have been transcribed by two individuals sometime around A.D. 1000. The origins of the poem, however, are thought to date back to the 7th or 8th century.

The poem is about 3182 lines long, but I'll summarize briefly: Beowulf is a Geat (maybe somewhere in Sweden??). He sails to the land of the Danes, where Grendel is wreaking havoc in Heorot, King Hrothgar's once merry mead-hall. When Grendel comes to Heorot that very night, Beowulf rips off the monster's arm with his bare hands and hangs it from the rafters. Grendel slinks back to his swampy abode to die.

The following night, Grendel's pissed-off mama visits Heorot, gobbles up a Dane and retrieves Grendel's arm. In the morning, Beowulf tracks her to the edge of the swamp and dives in. Grendel's mother grabs him and drags him into her cave. They fight, hand to claw. Things look bad for Beowulf, but he manages to grab a sword made by giants and slice the she-monster in half from the neck to the navel. Then, for good measure, he cuts off Grendel's head and carries it back to shore along with the bejeweled hilt of the gleaming sword.

Fast-forward 50 years. We're back in Geatland where Beowulf is now the king. He's an old man but, when a fire-breathing dragon begins to terrorize the land, Beowulf knows he has one more job to do. Beowulf and his trusty thane, Wiglaf, slay the dragon in his loot-filled lair. But, Beowulf is mortally wounded in the battle. Beowulf is burned on a funeral pyre, and his remains and the dragon's gold are entombed in a giant barrow overlooking the sea. The end.

Having last read Beowulf some 20 years ago, I think I forgot more than I remembered. For example, I forgot that Beowulf is basically a monster story. There's Grendel and his mother, of course, but I totally forgot about the fire-breathing dragon and the assorted sea monsters that our hero conquers. Even Beowulf himself is something of a monster - a man with the strength of 30 men.

I also forgot the Old English style of poetry, where each line is broken into two halves and each half contains one accented syllable. I think Chickering, the editor, did a good job of maintaining this structure in his translation. Beowulf, like other Old English poems, is also filled with hyphenated metaphors. For example, the dragon is also referred to as "hoard-keeper;" kings are "ring-givers;" a queen is a "peace-weaver." These variations add detail and nuance to the story.

What I most remembered about the poem is its sense of "wyrd," the Old English word for fate. There are many references to the Christian God, but God's will is intertwined with fate. Beowulf is an example of someone who shows courage in the face of danger and trusts in fate to deliver him safely - or not. The main thing, however, is to fight the fight as best you can. It struck me that this sentiment is very similar to one expressed centuries earlier in Homer's The Iliad. Achilles says: "So I likewise, if such is the fate which has been wrought for me, shall lie still, when I am dead. Now I must win excellent glory."