- Let's face it, between English classes, lit classes, world culture classes, and history classes, there is no escaping the epic poem.
"The Odyssey", "The Iliad", "The Aeneid", "The Epic of Gilgamesh", "The Beowulf".
At some point, we're going to have to confront the lyrical beauty of big, strong men in big, strong armor fighting big, strong monsters and saving their kingdoms and loving on their ladies, or loving on their male best friend.
But that's a different poem.
(upbeat music) Today, we're gonna take a look at one particular epic poem and follow its long winding journey from way, way, way long ago, all the way to the present day.
And we'll interrogate its relevance to our lives in the here and now.
So come on Geats and Danes to the violent, bloody, mythic, mysterious world of "Beowulf".
To see Beowulf's malleability in action, look no further than the very first word of the poem.
"Beowulf" has a sort of once upon a time structure, where the narrator is telling us a tale.
He has to get our attention somehow.
So he starts off by exclaiming, "Hwet!"
Which, is Little John the narrator of Beowulf?
'Cause if so, would listen to the audio book.
A lot of older versions use stuffier translations like, lo!
or hark!, but you gotta party like it's 1999.
So Seamus Heaney begins his translation with, so, it's Friday afternoon, your lit teacher assigns you a five page book report due Monday on Jimmy Squibbles most recent Magnum Opus, ""Hype House Blood Bath".
Mwah, love it.
And he started with the basics, "Hype House Blood Bath" by Jimmy Squibbles, author, Okay.
Some historical context now.
Written at Jimmy's Salton sea lake house in the summer of 2018, check.
You know this book report ain't so hard after all.
I wonder why they didn't do it in the final season of "Game of Thrones", but that's a different story.
Now try that with "Beowulf".
"Beowulf" written in, hmm, when was "Beowulf" written anyway?
Let's try a soft ball.
Who wrote "Beowulf"?
Wait, was "Beowulf" even written at all.
Hey Siri who wrote "Beowulf"?
While scholars agree on all things, "Hype House Blood Bath", and how could they not, at such a tightly written piece of work.
They really don't agree much when it comes to "Beowulf", except for one thing.
The plot, the meat.
Pagan Scandinavia 6th century, King Hrothgar mead hall, mead is an alcohol made with fermented honey.
And a mead hall is a big building with one big room where you guessed it, much mead is enjoyed.
Rowdy places these mead halls, very rowdy.
Hrothgar is King of the Danes, a Northern Germanic tribe in Southern Scandinavia.
An area that today includes Denmark Proper and Scotland which is the Southern tip of the Scandinavian peninsula.
One night, a monster named Grendel comes to crush Hrothgar mead hall festivities and ends up killing most of Hrothgar men, not cool.
That's why you weren't invited Grendel.
Enter Beowulf, a mighty warrior charged with killing Grendel.
Beowulf is a Geat, another North Germanic tribe that resides in the land of the Geats.
And Beowulf does what anyone would do before they fight a fearsome of monster, he gets him to his birthday suit.
At least according to some translations.
Sometimes he has weapons, but we're gonna have him be naked for this one, because the way Beowulf sees it, if Grendel doesn't have weapons and armor, why should he?
Couldn't be me, but okay.
Beowulf slays Grendel, and there's much celebration and even more mead.
But then Grendel's mama is having none of that because Beowulf killed her boy y'all, she's like, look how they massacred my boy.
I want him dead.
I want all of his men dead.
So she attacks Hrothgar mead hall.
Beowulf kills her.
And there is much celebration and so much mead that I'm honestly concerned for their liver.
What was the life expectancy for Geats and Danes?
Anyway, Beowulf bids Hrothgar and his Danes farewell and returns home to Geatland and becomes King of the Geats.
50 years go by, then one day, boom, a dragon attacks.
It happens to the best of us.
By this time Beowulf is old and he isn't as spry as he once was.
Plus it's a dragon.
I feel like this is a job for that Hiccup kid, like he trains dragons.
Beowulf defeats the dragon.
I mean, this is Beowulf we're talking about, but not before the dragon mortally wounds him.
Beowulf's body is cremated.
Rest in power.
A tower is built in his honor, and I assume much mead is also had.
Beowulf the mighty warrior will live on in our memories and his legend will be told for generations, hence this video.
Now how that story is told is up for much debate.
Here's the opening line of Seamus Heaney's introduction to his 1999 translation of "Beowulf".
"The poem called "Beowulf" was composed sometime "between the middle of the seventh "and the end of the tenth century of the first millennium "in the language that is today called "Anglo-Saxon or old English."
Right off the bat, we're dealing with a window of 300 plus years as to when "Beowulf" could have been composed.
That's like comparing today to 1821.
We were only five US Presidents deep in by then.
And to further complicate matters.
We don't even know what form of composition that took.
It very well could have begun as a story passed down through oral tradition, perpetually evolving and changing only to then be later written down.
This oral tradition theory opens up a whole can of worms for scholars and is, you guessed it, up for much debate.
See if "Beowulf" began as a story told around the campfire, it would be nearly impossible to trace it back to a so-called author because it probably wouldn't even have one.
The trackers of the oral tradition theory said a number of issues, not the least of which is the sheer complexity of "Beowulf".
To them, the sophisticated language structure and themes are so complex that had they somehow been verbally passed down they would've had a nearly impossible chance of surviving the messy game of telephone, that is oral tradition.
Regardless of how "Beowulf" came to be written down, we do have a manuscript, says translator, Seamus Heaney.
"We know about the poem more or less by chance "because it exists in one manuscript only".
And boy oh boy, is she a scrappy survivor, barely making it through a fire in the 18th century, our dating for the manuscript is between 975 and 1025.
A window of only 50 years, which for "Beowulf" is like a dang bulls-eye.
And whatever mysteries already surrounded "Beowulf", they ballooned exponentially when the text was then transcribed and titled, re transcribed and edited, translated, and adapted, interpreted and reinterpreted until it had become canonical.
Fanfic writers, you know how it is.
And even though "Beowulf" is fantastical as all get out, it is deeply interwoven with real life elements that not only muddy the waters as to what aspects of "Beowulf" are historical, but also give some levity to some of the more outrageous stuff.
These historical figures, clans and events, certainly make it tough to untangle the historical from the fantastical.
All this talk of monsters and dragons and the use of historical elements as a way to level believability to fantasy.
Guess it's only a matter of time before we talk about the man himself, J. R. R. Tolkien.
"Beowulf" was a huge influence on Tolkien and his work.
So much so that he is widely regard as the man responsible for kick-starting modern criticism of "Beowulf".
Tolkien's argument was that scholars had been so wrapped up in the historicity of "Beowulf", that they were neglecting its value as a piece of literature.
in his 1936 lecture, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" Tolkien noted that.
"Beowulf" is in fact so interesting "as poetry in places poetry are so powerful, "that this quite overshadows the historical content".
Indeed the allure of "Beowulf" is so powerful that it can transform a bored student into a bonafide translator.
Maria Dahvana Headley who's vibrant 2020 translation of "Beowulf" views the poem and its characters through a modern lens, admits that even she didn't really take to "Beowulf" at first.
After reading an old translation pre-Seamus Heaney's 1999 version, she reflected, "I'm not gonna lie to you.
"I read it.
"And I thought, "all of the elements are here for this to be thrilling."
"And instead it feels just kind of flat."
Headley's experience with Beowulf is a prime example of the now self perpetuating legacy of the poem.
It's been studied and translated so often that younger generations continue to discover new ways of connecting with the material.
While the poem has been translated into 38 other languages, the number of translations and adaptations varies, true Beowulf style.
We can't even agree on the number of translations.
In British academic, Andy Orchard, 2003, "A Critical Companion to Beowulf", he cites 33 representative translations in his bibliography.
Also in 2003, an edited list from the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies cites more than 300 translations and adaptations.
The Beowulf's Afterlives Bibliographic Database online list an ever-growing number of translations and adaptations.
And as of the time of this recording, the numbers at seven hundred and forty, seven hundred and forty four.
"Beowulf" is so popular that I'm 745.
Going to have to remake this very video every month on time.
"Beowulf" is the gift that keeps on giving, continually evolving as each of us bring our own experiences to it.
We change the text and the text changes us, "Beowulf" scholar, Chris Jones, likens "Beowulf" to other poems, "which move through time, "being kept alive by readings, "misreadings re imaginings and accruing stories "and significance around themselves as they go.
"They are stories as well as telling stories."
"Beowulf" he says, "is not an object fixed in the past".
Even if we never ever, ever find out anything more about "Beowulf", who wrote it, where it came from, when it came from, we still have "Beowulf".
So of course, historical context matters.
Cultural context matters, religious context matters, but it's not everything.
There is clearly something accessible here for audiences, especially when you break it down to cool dude fights monsters.
I mean, that's basically anime, which means don't be scared of "Beowulf".
Yes it's old like your grandma, but it's precisely because of its oldness that it's so incredibly fascinating.
Again, like your grandma it's been studied till death and yet its origin still remains so mysterious.
And because it's so old, it's influenced over the stories we read, watch and tell today is so deeply rooted that we've all already experienced "Beowulf" and its legacy, whether we know it or not.
So let's raise a glass to King Beowulf, Slayer of dragons, monsters, and the monster's moms, whoever gets in his way.
The end, I'm done.