Announcing the Beowulf & Grendel Book Club

Starting the week after next, the League will be hosting the Beowulf & Grendel Book Club*.  Everyone and anyone is invited (nay, encouraged!) to participate.

For those not familiar with either work, Beowulf is an epic story of heroes and monsters, written by an unknown poet sometime between 700 A.D. and 1000 A.D. Set in ancient Scandinavia, the poem follows the hero Beowulf through three separate adventures: His battle with the monster Grendel, his subsequent battle with Grendel’s mother, and his battle decades later with an unnamed dragon.

Grendel is a retelling of the first of these adventures through the eyes of the book’s eponymous monster.  In less than ten score pages Gardner wrestles with such lightweight subjects as the nature of good and evil, man’s true nature, the power of storytelling and myth, the transformative properties of beauty and art, the relationship between religion and God, and the general meaning of life, the universe and everything.

The book club will take place over a six-week period.  The first three week’s we’ll tackle the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf; we will then take three weeks to go through John Gardner’s Grendel.   If you have limited time, fear not.  My version of Beowulf is about 200 pages, but half of those are the untranslated Anglo-Saxon; that means a very doable 35 pages or so a week. Grendel is about twice that length, but not being an epic poem it should read faster.

Our first “meeting” will begin on Friday, February 1 and will continue throughout the weekend until the discussion dies down.  We’ll meet each subsequent week after that.

First assignment:  Read Beowulf,  lines 1 – 1007 (Pages 3- 67 in the Norton paperback edition of Heaney’s translation)

If anyone wishes to recommend supplemental books, essays, media, etc, please feel free to leave them in the comments section.

* The actual goings on might still end up being at Mindless Diversions.  But we’ll have intro posts with links on the front page, so you will still be able to access it here.

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49 thoughts on “Announcing the Beowulf & Grendel Book Club

      • This probably goes without saying, but I am really hoping you’ll be doing this with us.

        In fact, if I recall correctly you were commenting the other day that you were looking for things to post about this year. I’m having a hard time thinking of anyone I’d rather do some of the section posts than you, BP.


        • No. OE predates Christianity.

          … gomela Scilding / elderly Scylding
          felafricgende feorran rehte· / well-informed of ancient times
          hwílum hildedéor hearpan wynne / often the brave warrior who loved the harp
          gomelwudu grétte· hwílum gyd áwræc / old wood he played and often sang songs
          sóð ond sárlíc· hwílum syllíc spell / truth and lamentation and often strange stories
          rehte æfter rihte rúmheort cyning· / told correctly, that kind-hearted king.

          -my own translation


              • There was no Christianity in Britain. It had long since been rooted out by the time of Beowulf, which is hardly a British story at all but rather a story from the still-unconverted proto-Sweden.

                Y’know, I’ve spent many long years studying linguistics and philology and the rise of the Romance languages. Far as I can tell, I’m the only person around here who can correctly conjugate a sentence in Old English, which may I add, isn’t really from England at all, but an import from what’s now Denmark and North Germany.

                Trust me, nobody who wrote Beowulf had even heard of Christianity.


              • The Old English period starts after the first Christian missionaries appear, but I’m pretty sure it’s widespread only after Old English is clearly a language itself separately from the Germanic origins.
                So I think one could go either way. It’s not as if the appearance of Christianity was an influence on the evolution of the language (or so the 1/3 semester of Old English taken 15 years ago led me to believe).

                That said, Beowulf’s author is pretty explicitly living in a Christian land and is, almost surely, one himself. On the other hand, he was working from source material that was absolutely handed down from pre-Christian Scandanavia, so the relationship is a pretty central part of lots of Beowulf studies.


                • No it doesn’t. The chief corollary to what happened to Britain was what happened on the East Coast of North America: the invaders pillaged and took over the entire east coast of Britain. We know exactly when Christianity re-arrived in Britain, in 597.

                  To say Beowulf comes after Christianity is rather like saying the Iliad and Odyssey didn’t exist before some Greek wrote them down. Beowulf was recited for hundreds of years before the Nowell Codex.


                  • I hear you Blaise, but I don’t accept your approach (I directly granted your points, other than getting picky that some missionaries appeared before what is generally accepted as the Old English period proper, but that’s even getting picky since it’s not as if the language sprung forth from nothing and certainly Christianity only became widespread a few hundred years later).

                    I’m taking Tolkien’s side here. The Beowulf that we’re reading is a specific work of art to be appreciated on it’s merits alone and not primarily as a version of an epic.
                    Yes, there was a Beowulf oral tradition that is, sadly, lost to us and so all you say here is true in a way. But this Beowulf was written down by a specific man in a specific time and place and this is his Work, not merely a jotting down of a folk tale and so I’m going to stick with my version of events. The author is clearly a Christian man living in a Christian England.


                    • If you must talk about Beowulf’s “authors”, the drudges who worked on the Nowell Codex, there were two of them. And we know they were working with an old Norse saga, Böðvar Bjarki, another monster-slaying hero, parts of which are all over the records of those times. Pretty much all the sagas of the era featured monsters of one sort or another.

                      The Scyldings were the mythological kings of Denmark. All sorts of stuff comes out of that trove, including eventually Hamlet. The Swedes have their own mythological kings, the Ynglings. Compare to King Arthur, etc.


                  • We know there were Christians in Britain as early as the second century, and there were Christian communities in England in the 3rd century. Old English comes about in the 5th century, after the effective end of Roman rule (the Romans brought Christianity). So, it’s a few centuries after Christianity came about, and slightly less time after Christianity had made its way to Britain. In no sense did Old English precede Christianity. This is not controversial.


                • This much we do know about the Christian influence on Beowulf, the text is all larded-up with Christian references. But all the while, the old stuff is still peeking out at the cognisant scholar:

                  wonsaélí wer weardode hwíle / the miserable thing spent a while
                  siþðan him scyppend forscrifen hæfde / since the Creator evicted him
                  in Caines cynne þone cwealm gewræc / with the kin of Cain, whose murder avenged
                  éce drihten þæs þe hé Ábel slóg· / the eternal Lord, he who slew Abel
                  ne gefeah hé þaére faéhðe ac hé hine feor forwræc / this feud annoyed him for [God] drove him far away
                  metod for þý máne mancynne fram· / the Lord, for this crime, from mankind.

                  … but here comes the real stuff, not the Christian hoo-hah about Cain and Abel.

                  þanon untýdras ealle onwócon / then awoke unspeakable descendents
                  eotenas ond ylfe ond orcnéäs / ettins and elves and orcs
                  swylce gígantas þá wið gode wunnon / and giants who fought with God
                  lange þráge· hé him ðæs léan forgeald. / for many years. God rewarded them for all that.

                  See, Beowulf is about those eotenas ond ylfe ond orcnéäs. The Cain and Abel stuff, that’s all glommed on to pass muster by the time of the Nowell Codex in the 800s or 900s. But Grendel arises from far older roots. We only see it through the light of some “antiquarian monks”, as Tolkien put it.

                  The real Heorot, like the real Troy, and for that matter, the real Beowulf and the real Grendel, have more solid roots that we suppose. This is not a mere story. It contains a myth, a very powerful one, with bones and skin and nails, and swords, too. Never laugh at live dragons, JRRTolkien said in the Hobbit.


                  • Much of the debate over the origins of Beowulf concerns the Christian influence, depending on whether it comes from an oral tradition or whether it was originally composed for the written word (the only people who would likely have been able to write it at the time would have been monks).


                    • Look, read Beowulf for yourself.

                      fyrene ond faéhðe fela misséra, / felony and feud for many seasons
                      singále sæce· sibbe ne wolde / endless conflict, he wanted no peace
                      wið manna hwone mægenes Deniga, / with any man of the Danish people

                      This was never an English story. It was an ancient Danish holdover, full of Danish and Swedish origins, no more English than the man in the moon. This is a poem I know rather well, as you may have worked out by now. A few shaved-pate monks copying down a bastardised version of an ancient Danish story is what we have on offer. You may make of it what you will.


                    • Considering the low literacy levels, epic poems were made to be easily memorized, and Beowulf certain qualifies in its heavy use of alliteration in its lines.

                      I’m not really aware of much real debate over Beowulf being ever composed for written or oral tradition as most scholars will admit it was oral in tradition.

                      Given the history of English literature, most older literature was meant to be told out loud and thus written in a way conducive to public speaking until fairly recently in history.

                      I mean, a good chunk of Chaucer’s tales, if not all, were just retellings of existing tales according to class, and at least one was a bawdy tale like you would hear in an inn or pub at night.


  1. Lo! We Gardena!

    I would suggest looking at old English text to get a feel for poetic structure and to listen to a recording of at least the opening in old English. This is somewhat important to understanding how these stories were told in the oral tradition and how the meter helped people memorize it without the written.


  2. Does the Norton have the Old English Text? The FSG edition (either the pictured cover is the FSG or the Norton shares the art) of Heaney’s translation does and it happens that line 1007 also ends on page 67, so I’m guessing it does?

    I’m going to recommend reading Tolkien’s lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics – it’s a watershed in Beowulf criticism that opened the way for appreciation of Beowulf as a work of art instead of solely as a document of language and history. I’ve not read it since college but I came across it the other day and bookmarked it to re-read again when the Book Club started (which is now!)


  3. You guys are in for a treat. Gardner’s novel has one of the best final lines in all of literature. Took me two tries to get to it, though.


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