Introduction: Beowulf, Book Review #theclassics
The central theme in Beowulf is fate and how we deal with the fact that we are going to die, therefore we should do all the good we can, and strive to be as great as possible. It is a story about the eternal struggle between good and evil. Beowulf is the first great work of English literature, the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon epic.
There are some biblical references in the book, such as mention of the creation story, as well as Cain killing his brother Abel, and being banished by God. But you do not need to know these stories to understand the book.
UPDATE: First Published in February 2014
What is Beowulf About?
The monster, Grendel, a descendant of Cain, terrorizes the Danes, and enjoys killing them. He commits these atrocities, night-after-night until the finest houses stand empty. The prince, Hrothgar, is very troubled by Grendel’s actions, which continues for 12 years. During the nights, the monster roams Heorot, committing grievous acts against the innocent, but the throne is untouchable because God prevents him. Grendel wages war against Hrothgar and his people.
Once upon a time, Hrothgar, the prince was a mighty warrior, but with age, one often loses might. He has always been a fair ruler so the people love him dearly. In the south of Sweden, a seafaring clan, the Geats, hears of the suffering of the Danes. Beowulf, a young warrior, and 15 of the bravest men sail to Denmark to assist the Danes by slaying Grendel. Beowulf goes in search of adventure and fame. The book reminds us of Gilgamesh, both warriors accept the challenge and go on the Hero’s Journey.
Have you read?
As usual, Grendel arrives in the night, and this time he kills Hondscio, one of Beowulf’s men. It is quite gruesome because Grendel rips the young warrior apart and eats him. “… but swiftly grasped, in his first gesture, a sleeping warrior: he tore him up furiously, bit into his muscles and drank the blood in streams, swallowed huge morsels, and quickly consumed the entire corpse, even feet and hands. He moved along further and reached toward the hero where he lay in his bed. The fiend grasped at Beowulf, who saw his hostile plan at once and sat up, pitting his weight against the monster’s arm…”
The battle begins, and both Beowulf and Grendel know that only one of them can survive the battle. Before the battle, Beowulf had learned that Grendel fights with his bare hands, so he decides that he will not use a sword to defend himself against the monster. When Grendel realizes that Beowulf is a worthy opponent, he wants to escape, but the young warrior has an iron grip that is mightier than his own. The battle is loud and fierce, waking up the Danes, but they dare not leave their chambers because they do not know who is winning the fight. The monster knows he is going to die, and he escapes, leaving one of his arms and shoulder behind. His life force is slipping away as he escapes to the moor where he roams.
The following morning, the Danes see the bloody tracks the monster leaves behind. There is much rejoicing, and Hrothgar bestows Beowulf with many gifts for releasing his people from Grendel’s reign of terror. Many come from afar to join in the celebration because they are aware of all the Danes suffered at the hands of Grendel over the years.
There is much merry-making until they decide to go to the sleep. Talk about bad luck! That same evening, the unsuspecting Danes are attacked by Grendel’s mother, who is avenging her son’s death. The monster kills Aeschere, Hrothgar’s wise counselor. Beowulf is not aware of what happens during the night and finds out the next morning. Beowulf, his 14 men, along with some of the Danes go after the she-monster who resides underwater. Beowulf knows that it is possible that he will die during the battle and leaves instructions for his gifts. Beowulf is not an arrogant person and recognizes his mortality.
The warrior goes underwater, and there is another battle. Beowulf is underwater for a while. They see blood mixed in with water – no one knows who is winning the battle. The Danes believe that Beowulf has perished so they return home leaving behind Beowulf’s 14 men. After what seem like a long time Beowulf returns to land with the head of Grendel’s mother. His men are very happy to see him. He takes the head to Hrothgar. The men receive more gifts, then they sail home.
When they arrive home, Beowulf relates his experiences to his kinsman, and ruler, Hygelac and shares the treasures and gold that he received from Hrothgar. At some point, Hygelac is killed in a battle and Beowulf becomes ruler and reigns for 50 years. He is described as “a wise king and venerable guardian of his land.”
In the land of Geats, a dragon guards great treasures, and one day a man enters the lair and takes a golden cup. When the dragon awakes from slumber, it notices that the cup is missing. The creature decides to exact revenge by setting fire to buildings. Now old, Beowulf gathers 11 companions, in addition to the one who took the treasure, to find the dragon. As usual, Beowulf goes in alone to fight the dragon, but his sword doesn’t work and he is injured. Wiglah, one of the 11 he retained goes in the lair to assist his King. Both Beowulf and the dragon die, but before he dies, he gives instructions to Wiglah for his burial.
Out of the 11 companions that Beowulf chose, only one is brave. Before he dies, Beowulf gives Wiglah his “golden helmet, ring and coat of mail, and bade him to use them well…” Beowulf is a story about honor.
Final Thoughts: Beowulf
I recommend Beowulf, it doesn’t end the way that I’d like, but death is a part of life – we born, we live, and we die!