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Foundations of Fantasy: Beowulf

More than any other genre, fantasy tends to examine ancient epics. Whether it’s the study of archetypes and ectypes, or a historical understanding of narrative itself, or simply a desire to experience myths and legends that have lived for ages, these books remain alive to us. This series of posts will be about some of the more important mythic texts in history, and how they relate to modern fantasy.

The Story Behind the Story

Beowulf by ChristianJBeowulf’s author is anonymous, and the time of its composition is unknown. We know it was sometime between the 8th and 11th century. It combines the Norse paganism with early Christianity. In particular, Grendel and his mother bearing the Mark of Cain are symbolic of this strange synthesis.

It was written in Old English, with alliterative verse—the lines of the song are based around the first sound in most of the words. Kennings—evocative phrases of normal objects—were used extensively, often to make the alliteration work properly.

It remained primarily a source for historical facts and linguistic interest for much of its existence. It wasn’t until Tolkien gave his famous lecture, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics in 1936 that the text was taken seriously. Tolkien believed that such a narrow focus undermined the power of the poem.

The most popular translation is from 1999, done by the late Nobel Prize-winner, Seamus Heaney.

Beowulf

Beowulf follows three separate stories of the eponymous hero. He is a hero of the Geats, coming to the aid of Hrothgar, chief of the Danes.

In the first tale, he must face Grendel, a horrific creature that has been slaughtering Danes in their hall of Heorot. Grendel is furious at the camaraderie of the Danes and their loud noises in particular anger him. Beowulf fights Grendel without weapons, so that he does not have an unfair advantage over the unarmed monster. Instead, he uses the extremely violent alternative of ripping Grendel’s arm off, killing Grendel.

Grendel's Mother by ndhillThe next tale involves Grendel’s mother, who is laying attacks on the Danes in retaliation for Grendel’s killing. She kills Aeschere, one of Hrothgar’s most trusted warriors. Beowulf and other warriors track her to a lake, and Beowulf swims to the bottom, doing battle with her. While his own weapon is useless, he finds a blade in her treasury that manages to behead her. Afterwards, he finds Grendel’s lifeless body that she had dragged back.

The final tale is a radical departure, as it doesn’t follow right after the battle with Grendel, but rather comes when Beowulf has become an old warrior and chief. A dragon has awoken and is killing his people. Beowulf gathers his best men and goes against the dragon. Most of his best men abandon him, though one, Wiglaf stays with him. Beowulf dies facing the dragon, while Wiglaf slays it.

Influence

The End of a Legend by Level20ArtistBeowulf is one of the most influential texts in history, and it has a particular relevance for fantasy. John Gardner, the famous writer, wrote a take on the novel from the monster’s point of view, called Grendel. In this, Grendel was a figure of existentialism and angst who dies at the hands of the hero. Gardner also used Beowulf as a key text in his writing guide, The Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft For Young Authors.

Michael Crichton wrote Eaters of the Dead, later turned into the film the 13th Warrior. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote a script for Beowulf that streamlined the narrative so that it followed causality, rather than the third tale being separate from the other two.

But of course, the most important reason that Beowulf is important as J.R.R. Tolkien. His love of Beowulf influenced Middle-Earth. Smaug is a literary descendant of Beowulf’s dragon, right down to the single piece of stolen treasure awakening him.

Title image by Andimayer.

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2 Comments

  1. […] Howse has provided a excellent brief summary of Beowulf and his contribution not only to Western culture but to fantasy fiction. The piece ends […]

  2. Beowulf continues to influence and inspire to this day. Reciting pieces of the poem in Old(er) English in a college course on the evolution of the language was one of my favorite and most memorable projects. Any fan of literature, fantasy especially, should read it if they haven’t already.

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