Reading Beowulf for the third(-ish) time really shows how the story doesn’t belong to anyone, and yet belongs to everyone simultaneously.
Why third(-ish)? Well, to make a short story long…
I’ve read Beowulf for three years in a row, for the following courses: Lit 12, ENG 110, and ENG 220. And the experience has been different every time.
For those of you who don’t know the story, Beowulf is a prince of the long-extinct Geats who fights a man-eating monster of the moor, Grendel:
who has a son with a witch?
Uhh…NO. (Why Neil Gaiman, why?)
And, fifty years later, an angry fire-breathing dragon called Wyrm that ultimately takes his life:
Disney aside, people have really taken freedom with the story of Beowulf. The first two photos above were taken from movie adaptations, and has several more have been produced in all kinds of media and translations.
For example, my first time reading Beowulf, the translation tried to mimic Anglo Saxon verse on the page, following what I came to remember as NO SACK FOR BEETS:
FOR BEETS = 4 beats per line
What was great about the first time reading it was that I got to read it as, how i imagine anyway, the original audience would have heard it: an epic tale about a hero for pure entertainment. The lines were literally split in half across the page, almost forcing you to keep the rhythm in your head. Yes, I had to study the structure and the religious discontinuities (pagan and christianity…but that’s for another time) but in the end, that was what Beowulf was to me, a work of fiction meant to entertain. We even spent two classes watching the movie adaptation where Grendel is more humanized (first image). The only sad part was I never got to read the whole poem, only up to Grendel’s defeat and then fast forward to Beowulf’s funeral.
Hence, the “-ish”.
The second time I read Beowulf, I read the whole story, but I didn’t actually “read” it. It was the graphic novel by Gareth Hinds and I loved it. I mean, look at this artwork:
Where the poem can be slow at times, constantly interrupted by songs, boasts, and repetitive speeches, this graphic is fast, and, in many ways, poetic in itself. Not to mention, it’s a significantly shorter read.
That’s where part of the (for lack of a better word) problem is. While there were passages and dialogue in the graphic novel, the majority are these beautiful illustrations. While the language somewhat mimics Old English, the structure was completely off. And while I don’t mind that personally, I think it takes away from the original aesthetic of the story.
Hence the “-ish”.
When Beowulf was first presented, it was presented. Scops stood in front of you and wasted about three hours of your life telling you the story of Beowulf and losing their voices in the process. Granted, I’m probably exaggerating and the story changed every time (I recently found out that *gasp* Scops made it up on the spot though never strayed from Grendel-Sea Hag-Dragon), so the story was shorter than the edition I’m reading now.
The Beowulf I’m reading now is the translation by Seamus Heaney, in it’s entirety. While not visibly on the page, it’s structurally sound (wow, now it’s architecture). It was/is a lot like the first time I read, except for one big difference. I’m reading the illustrated version, which has pictures and captions containing historical information relevant to the story. For (what seems like) the very first time, I was reading it from a historical and political point of view.
I constantly found myself think about what Beowulf is as a warrior versus a king, and how his pride and thirst for glory kind of ruins that in the end. I found myself think about war leaders versus peace leaders, and how one may be suitable for one situation, but not another. I was more critical of his character this time, constantly matching his values with my own, comparing the past with the present. For example, physical and battle prowess versus mental prowess.
So I’m calling it my third(-ish) time reading the poem, because my perspective and interpretation of the story has just gotten bigger and more defined by reading it this third(-ish) time around. I’m not just reading the story again, I’m reconstructing it in my mind.
And the brilliant thing is is that this is why Beowulf belongs to no one and everyone. We’re always told that no one knows the author of the story, no credit is given to anyone. And yet, because we can read it from so many points of view and the story itself can be presented so many ways, and those representations can be accepted so many ways, each individual interpretation of the story belongs to the interpreter.
Just the other day, I told my dad and brother that I was reading Beowulf for class. My brother knew it was about a guy who fights a monster, his mother, and a dragon. My dad thought it was about a guy who was fighting for a queen (he’d watched the 2007 movie)(no worries, my brother and I gave him a quick recap of the plot). And yeah, their interpretations seemed to represent opposite ends of the scale of real vs. wrong, but that’s what Beowulf is to them–in both cases, a really awesome adventure story.
In that way, the story is owned by all, each in their own way.
Except for Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother. Just…no.
“He was a good king.” -Beowulf (2390)