An epic poem written somewhere in the seventh to tenth century in Anglo-Saxon? Beowulf always sounded intimidating to me and sat on my shelf for years because of it.
I shouldn’t have waited. This is a great yarn told beautifully. Seamus Heaney‘s verse translation makes the poem exciting and accessible. It’s a gripping tale of heroes and monsters and dragons. But like all great literature, it’s also a lot more.
This poem tells of a feudal time before Christianity, a world before countries and their governments protected people. The fall of a king or a warrior could mean catastrophe. The bloody conflicts between the Geats, Danes, and Swedes bring a palpable sense of terror even more threatening than the monsters. An old woman’s worst fears at the end of the poem aren’t about monsters, but an invasion leading to slavery and abasement.
Beowulf is great not only for its story and its musings on glory, heroism, and aging, but also for the glimpse it gives us into a very distant past.