Monsters, Anglo-Saxons, and ‘Beowulf’

[…] a wild folktale […]

David Crystal regards Beowulf as “the greatest poetic creation of the Old English Period”. This may well be true when one considers its influence, not only in literature, but cinema as well. Whether translated loosely or directly, each of its adaptations, while fundamentally similar, possess key differences that set them apart. Two of the most interesting translations and/or adaptations include that of J.R.R. Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, John Gardner’s novel Grendel, 2007’s film adaptation, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and the films Alien and Aliens. Today, we shall take a deeper look into the inner workings of this seminal piece of English literature, paying particular attention to the presence of Paganism and Christianity, the varying depictions of Beowulf himself, the monsters Grendel and the dragon, and the differences in form and semantics between translations.

The Old English Beowulf manuscript, part of the Nowell Codex.

The Beowulf poet begins by regaling us with an anecdote about great Danish kings from times long past:

Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in gear-dagum | þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon, | hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Poetry has always taken great liberties with syntax, and this is especially true in Old English. If we were to render a literal translation of these opening lines, it may look something like the following:

Lo! We Spear-Danes in old-days | People-Kings’ power have heard of, | How those princes valour accomplished.

As we can see, the sentence structure is out of order, making the lines sound very archaic. The Anglo-Saxon language did not rely on uniformity and “[was] not as strictly regulated as in Modern English” (Helmet Gneuss, p. 35). Ergo, it did not conform to any fixed sentence structure, and changed according to its use. Furthermore, the stress patterns in Old English “are those of speech, emphasis falling on the semantically important part of a word, [and] not on a grammatical element” (Donald G. Scragg, p. 59). This suggests that word-order was variable, and, through stresses, the speaker may have wished to place greater emphasis on certain aspects of a sentence as per their intended effect. While manipulating sentence structure in Modern English would likely lead to confusion, Anglo-Saxon audiences, it seems, were less likely to misunderstand a bard’s turn-of-phrase, given the greater flexibility of the language.

The most highly regarded of all Beowulf translations belongs to Seamus Heaney, who translates the opening lines as:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by | and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. | We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (Heaney, p. 3)

In place of the Old English interjection “Hwæt”, which we can also translate as “Listen!”, “Hark!” or literally “What!”, Heaney opts for something a little less interjectory. The sombre “So”, in his own words, “obliterates all previous discourse and narrative [while] [functioning] as an exclamation calling for immediate attention” (Heaney, p. xxvii). Moreover, “So” also intimates obligation, while sweeping away all that has gone before, which sets an ominous tone of uncertainty and dread for the story to follow. In fact, this preoccupation with destiny, as in Homer’s Iliad, colours the whole narrative. Beowulf’s death is foreshadowed early on by his hubris, the tragic flaw that eventually leads to his demise.

The late Seamus Heaney.

The text was produced during a time of great flux, its story taking place during the fifth and sixth centuries, a period consigned to legendary status by the time it was transcribed, around the year 1000. The poet “cast his time into the long-ago [as did Homer and Virgil], because already the long-ago had a special poetical attraction” (Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, p. 264) and in-depth analysis of the story sheds light on its dual footing in the glorious past and uncertain future. The declarative statement, “We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns”, implies a sense of discontent with the here and now, a yearning for days gone by, the spirit of which Heaney captures in his verse translation. By the time Beowulf has defeated both Grendel and his mother, and, later, as king, must defeat the dragon, he knows he is going to die and makes peace with it. But he can’t be blamed for feeling wistful.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s prose translation differs to Heaney’s, not only in form, but also in tone and style. Tolkien translates the opening lines as:

Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. (Tolkien, p. 13)

Tolkien opens with the archaic “Lo”, a vague interjection which corresponds to the modern O! or Oh! (OED). This is a more traditional interpretation of “Hwæt” and is “used to direct attention to the presence or approach of something, or to what is about to be said” (Ibid). Furthermore, it lends the prose a sense of fable, anticipating a fantastical story, as though it were being recalled fireside by an Anglo-Saxon scop (bard). The syntax and semantic choices here are also noticeably similar to the literal verse translation, maintaining some semblance of Old English rhythm, while the altered word order improves readability.

J.R.R. Tolkien.

Maintaining the cadences of Old English in translation can be difficult without the original syntax. The nuances of any source language are bound to be lost along the way, as many foreign words and phrases have no direct equivalent in English. Use of the Anglo-Saxon language in its literature was often highly lyrical, poetry falling into verse paragraphs that utilised both enjambment and frequent repetition (Crossley-Holland, p. 23). But Christopher Tolkien notes that having attempted and then abandoned a poetic translation of Beowulf, “imitating the regularities of the old poetry, [J.R.R.] […] determined to make a translation as close as he could to […] the Old English poem, far closer than could ever be attained by translation into ‘alliterative verse’” (Tolkien, p. 8). As such, by casting off the limitations of poesy, it is clear Tolkien intended his Beowulf to adhere closely to the sound and meaning of the original text, making his translation, quite literally, a prose poem.

The Tolkien text generally has a courtlier, Arthurian feel, describing the scop as a medieval “minstrel” (Tolkien, p. 13) – a term derived from Anglo-Norman and Old French (OED). His Geat protagonist follows suit, with Beowulf described as a “knight of Hygelac, esteemed among the Geats, […] noble and of stature beyond man’s measure” (Tolkien, p. 18). The term “knight” connotes honour, adventure and chivalry as opposed to, “warrior”, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “A person who makes war […] a persecutor.” But on the other hand, “knight,” in Old English, “cniht”, refers to “a boy, youth [or] lad” (Ibid). This gives one the impression of a medieval squire, contrary to Beowulf’s character in every way. Furthermore, the Old English text refers to Beowulf during this scene as “þegn”, or “Thane”, which means a military attendant, a retainer, a warrior and a brave man (Ibid). Similarly, Heaney also uses the term, describing the Geat as “Hygelac’s thane” (Heaney, p. 8), which confirms his agenda there as servant of his king, and not as a wandering adventurer.

Tolkien’s famous essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics argued the poem’s literary merit, having previously been dismissed by academics as a “wild folk-tale” of little import. He suggested that the reason behind Beowulf’s lack of decent criticism was its misrepresentation, and that those who had already written about it mistakenly supposed that the poem’s weakness “[laid] in placing the unimportant things at the centre and the important on the outer edges.” This was, for Tolkien, “profoundly untrue of the poem, but strikingly true of the literature about it” (p. 245).

While the poem had its defenders, most critics viewed the poem as either:

“a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning […] a product of the education that came in with Christianity […] [a] feeble and incompetent […] narrative […] the confused product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons […] a string of pagan lays edited by monks […] a wild folk-tale [or] a burden to English syllabuses” (p. 249).

The more enlightened Tolkien, on the other hand, regarded Beowulf as an important historical document, potentially inspired by “emulation of Virgil”, that distilled the essence of a nation in flux into one deceptively simple narrative. In his own words, Tolkien notes, amusingly, “The dwarf on the spot sometimes sees things missed by the travelling giant” (p. 250). Although, he does concede that, if Beowulf can be faulted, its lack of depth would be to blame. He quotes W.P. Ker: like the heroes of Greek epics, Beowulf’s hero “is occupied in killing monsters […] But there are other things in the lives of Hercules and Theseus […] [and] Beowulf has nothing else to do” (p. 251). Its construction, Ker suggests, “is curiously weak” but its true value is in “its dignity of style”, the moral and spirit of which “can only be matched among the noblest authors” (Ibid). Moreover, despite its dismissal as a “wild folk-tale,” the monsters, Tolkien believes, are essential to the poem’s significance: “A dragon [or wyrm] is no idle fancy […] but the conception […] approaches draconitas [a loose association of dragon-like facets] rather than draco [a full-blooded dragon]: a personification of malice, greed, destruction […], and the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune” (p. 259).

This “cruelty of fortune” pervades the narrative, as Beowulf himself is a man with “no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy.” Tolkien seems to concur that it is Beowulf’s hubris, charged with primeval masculinity, that leads to his downfall. This is its moral, and “It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of the tone […] Death comes to the feast” for all men, hero or not. And, as Tolkien argues, it cannot then be faulted for glorifying its trivial subject matter:

For Beowulf was not designed to tell the tale of Hygelac’s fall, or […] the whole biography of Beowulf, still less to write the history of the Geatish kingdom and its downfall. But it used knowledge of these things for its own purpose—to give that sense of perspective, of antiquity with a greater and yet darker antiquity behind. These things are mainly on the outer edges […] because they belong there […] (p. 275).

The historical-religious context comes second to the moral of the tale, while its biblical allusions to the “offspring of Cain”, “inmates of Hell” and “adversaries of God” reflect the Anglo-Saxon struggle to distinguish between the bogies of Scandinavian folklore and the scriptures to which they had only recently been introduced. Herein lies the poem’s tug-of-war: in the Norse religion “at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with […] the outer darkness. They gather heroes for the last defence” (p. 268). And yet a righteous man, supposedly, could make a place for himself beside the Almighty, if he abandoned the old ways, at the risk of eternal punishment and damnation, should he stray.

Grendel himself “hardly differs from the fiends of the pit who were always in ambush to waylay a righteous man” (p. 261), but is Beowulf such a man? If we view the poem from an emerging moral Christian context, Beowulf’s demise may well be entirely just. He falls prey to greed and pride, and his punishment, at the hands of a dragon (a creature of pre-Christian myth, yet often associated with Satan and other devils) could, from such a perspective, be considered righteous. Christianity, after cherry-picking what it could from various pagan belief systems, no longer celebrated the glory of men. For man was born in sin, and only the glory of God could save him. In making the Almighty omnipotent, man was stripped of his agency, yet made centre of the universe.

Grendel illustration by J.R. Skelton. Grendel is never directly described but tends to be depicted as a berserker-like giant, more than likely a descendent of the biblical Cain.

John Gardner’s novel Grendel takes a bleaker approach, as when, upon first landing in Denmark, protagonist Grendel draws attention to Beowulf’s disquieting presence:

His voice, though powerful, was mild. Voice of a dead thing, […]. He had a strange face that, little by little, grew unsettling to me […]. The eyes slanted downward, never blinking, unfeeling as a snake’s. […] His mind, as he spoke, seemed far away, as if, though polite, he were indifferent to all this – an outsider not only among the Danes but everywhere. (Gardner, pp. 109—110).

Grendel also describes his nemesis as having “grotesquely muscled shoulders – stooped, naked despite the cold, sleek as the belly of a shark and as rippled with power as the shoulders of a horse” (p. 110); “He was dangerous”, “He was insane” (p. 116), his mouth moving, when he spoke, “independent of the words, as if the body of the stranger were a ruse, a disguise for something infinitely more terrible” (p. 111). He watches Grendel “cold-bloodedly” (pp. 119—120), with a grip “like a dragon’s jaws […] as if his crushing fingers [were] charged like fangs with poison” (p. 120). Here the roles are inverted, with Beowulf depicted as antagonist to Grendel: the former a ruthless berserker and the latter a nihilistic pessimist. Furthermore, Edward B. Irving, Jr. notes that Beowulf’s name means “bee-wolf”, as in “an enemy to bees, a honey-eater, a bear”, drawing attention to “Beowulf’s peculiar habit of hugging his enemies to death” (Irving Jr., p. 13). Gardner’s story doubles down on the primal, animalistic side of the man, neither a noble warrior nor a sombre servant, but a bloodthirsty killer, differing greatly from both Tolkien and Heaney’s versions.

The Neil Gaiman-penned film adaptation Beowulf (Zimeckis, 2007) portrays the titular Geat as similarly calculating and barbaric. For example, following his brutal defeat of Grendel, Ray Winstone’s Beowulf warns the monster, “Your bloodletting days are finished, demon!” to which Grendel replies pitifully, “I am not the demon here!” But Beowulf does not concede to Grendel’s cries of mercy, exclaiming, “I am ripper, tearer, slasher, gouger […] the teeth in the darkness, the talons in the night […] Mine is strength and lust and power […] I am Beowulf!” and then tears off Grendel’s arm. Gaiman’s adaptation, much like Gardner’s, blurs the lines between hero and villain, man and monster, while presenting a generally more authentic take on the story’s historical context, which, despite the fantasy elements, stays true to the pagan routes of its Norsemen, while hinting at the ongoing expanse of Christendom.

The presence of Christianity is prevalent in the poem, and yet, it concerns the exploits of Norse pagans – Danes and Geats – historical inhabitants of Denmark and Sweden. Olaf II of Norway is generally credited with driving the expansion of Christendom across Scandinavia a thousand years ago, during which time Norse and Germanic paganism were still widespread. Converting to Christianity was considered practical back then, offering escape from religious prejudice, and various other benefits, like trade with other countries. Britain was no longer allowing trade with pagan peoples, and after much conflict, mounting pressures would lead Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and eventually Iceland to convert.

As such, Beowulf was likely composed years prior to its transcription, perhaps even before Roman missionaries brought writing to England. Like the Homeric epics, it may have been embellished and altered over time as it passed from speaker to speaker, each of whom would have disseminated the story to many different audiences. It may even have been a translation of an earlier Scandinavian work, “a somewhat Christanized version, then reduced to manuscript, of an original composition of the fifth or sixth century which had come down by oral repetition among the Angles and Saxons, though they had deemed it right to purge it of its Pagan allusions” (Beowulf Redivivus, para. 2 of 7).

Similarly, R.W. Chambers also notes that if one understands Germania’s division into different warring units, it’s only logical that Germanic poetry must have been an international medium.

“For purposes of poetry there was only one nation—the Germanic—split into many dialects and groups, but possessed of a common metre, a common style, a common standard of heroic feeling: and any deed of valour performed by any Germanic chief might become a fit subject for the poetry of any Germanic tribe of the heroic age” (Chambers, p. 99).

“There is nothing peculiar [then in] […] that Beowulf celebrates heroes who were not of Anglian birth” (Ibid). Similarly, “The chief actors in the old Norse Volsung lays are not Norsemen […] [and] the Finnsburg fragment deals with the Frisian tribes of the North Sea coast” (Ibid), which furthers the hypothesis that Germanic poetry, Anglo-Saxon included, was transnational, admired by all tribes, regardless of to whom they were allied or opposed. According to Edward B. Irving, Jr., “fame was indeed the spur: to live and die bravely and publicly [was] all, for then something of a man [would] live on in the thoughts of other warriors. […] this drive toward fame [was] also the structural basis of heroic society” (p. 21). Furthermore, Chambers conjectures that because the action of the story is framed in a Scandinavian setting, and their closest parallels must be sought in Scandinavian lands, this makes it highly probable “on a priori grounds that the story had its origin there [and that stories,] whether in prose or verse, would spread quickly from the Geatas to the Danes and from the Danes to the Angles” (Chambers, p. 100).

Map of Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Map of Germania and Scandinavia.

Despite the historical context, the Christian imagery varies between translations and adaptions. This is observable as Hrothgar’s scop describes Genesis, the Christian creation story:

[…] the Almighty wrought the earth,

a vale of bright loveliness that the waters encircle; how triumphant

He set the radiance of the sun and moon as a light

for the dwellers in the lands, and adorned the regions of the

world with boughs and with leaves, life too he devised for

every kind that moves and lives. (Tolkien, p. 15).

These lines echo the opening of Genesis in the Old Testament, illustrating an Eden-like image of Creation, in keeping with the fable-like nature of Tolkien’s translation. In comparison to this picture of Christian benevolence, on the other hand, Heaney’s translation subtly downplays the God’s omnipotence, implying that He merely quickened life instead of devising it in its entirety. Here, God is less a supernatural deity and more a personification of nature itself. This is indicative of paganism’s close ties to the natural world, in which all things are connected – as above, so below:

[…] the Almighty had made the earth

a gleaming plain girdled with waters;

in His splendour He set the sun and the moon

to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men,

and filled the broad lap of the world

with branches and leaves; and quickened life

in every other thing that moved. (Heaney, p. 5)

On the surface, the imagery maintains the same veneration of Christian dogma, yet retains a somewhat pagan flavour, as though Heaney had detected doubt in the original text. To describe the sun and moon as “earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men” downplays the mystical associations present in the Tolkien text, suggesting a greater understanding of the universe than Christianity would have allowed. Yet God works in mysterious ways (ironic ways, too, considering how Beowulf plays out). Perhaps the poem’s Anglo-Saxon author was loath to embrace Christianity and sought to undermine it by recalling the glory days of his ancestors. In fact, the similarities between images of crucifixes and Thor’s hammer Mjolnir exemplify a time “when the Viking world ha[d] one foot in the pagan past, and one in the Christian future.” (The Viking Sagas, BBC Four).

The Eyrarland Statue in the National Museum of Iceland. It is thought to represent Thor holding Mjolnir.
Saxon cross, Rosary Cemetery, Norwich, UK.

Beowulf, then, is a bleak tale: “[of] Man alien in a hostile world, engaged in a struggle he cannot win while the world lasts”. (Tolkien, p. 269.) But there is great integrity in antiquity, for it is a poem conceived “by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical.” (Ibid.)

The story is a distinctly pagan one, celebrating the power of emotion, reverencing battle, bloodshed, and the strength of men over the natural world – monsters and all – while the supernatural, for the most part, occupies a separate reality. The gods of the Ǣsir do not lift a finger to help Beowulf. He alone is called up, by his fellow men, to defeat corporeal enemies.

“Grendel […] eats the flesh and blood of men; he enters their houses by the door. The dragon wields a physical fire and covets gold, not souls; he is slain with iron in his belly. Beowulf’s byrne was made by Weland, and the iron shield he bore against the serpent in his own smiths: it was not yet the breastplate of righteousness, nor the shield of faith for the quenching of all the fiery darts of the wicked.” (pp. 265—266.)

Indeed, as Tolkien notes, the monsters in the story, despite the revisionist Biblical allusions, inhabit physical reality, and thus are bound by the same laws. When one dies, all his lost: there is no salvation for anyone. For, as in Norse mythology, when the slain Baldr finds himself in Hel “he cannot escape thence any more than mortal man.” (p. 268.) Ultimately, life was finite, but a good life and death were their own reward, and not prerequisite to life eternal.

Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother. She has more in common with the monster in Species (1995) than her character in the Old English text.

2007’s Beowulf stays true to its early Christian context, while taking various liberties with the source material. Grendel’s mother, for example, is depicted as a Lilith-like succubus, with whom Beowulf makes a Mephistophelian pact to be “Forever strong, mighty, and all-powerful” on the condition that he bears her a son. In doing so, Beowulf succeeds Hrothgar as ruler of Denmark after the old king commits suicide; later observing a skirmish, he remarks to Wiglaf, “This is not battle […]. This is slaughter. […] We men are the monsters now. The time of heroes is dead […]. The Christ God has killed it.” Beowulf’s pessimism and regret are echoed in Gardner’s novel and the line from Heaney’s translation, “We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.” With no virtue left in battle, all that remains is death and the fear of damnation.

Beowulf’s influence is tangible across countless works of literature, though some inspirations are less evident than others. Close readers of both Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Beowulf will notice the glaring similarities between two key scenes in each text. During the second part of Beowulf, once our hero has succeeded Hrothgar as king, “an old harrower of the dark happened to find [a] [dragon’s] hoard [of heathen gold] open, […] and hurried to his lord with [a] gold-plated cup”. But this first theft begets further rifling of the dragon’s treasure, until the beast wakes, and wreaks havoc on the Geats. (Heaney, pp. 72—73.)

Conversation with Smaug, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien borrows heavily from this scene in The Hobbit when Bilbo Baggins, upon first entering Smaug’s lair under the mountain, removes a similar cup from the dragon’s treasure trove. As in the Old English text, greed begets mayhem, and chaos ensues when Smaug awakens to find he has been robbed by an invisible burglar. Indeed, “if a dragon does not live in a mound, old and proud of his treasures, you can hardly be sure it is a dragon” (Paul Cavill, Maxims of Old English Poetry, p. 47).

But it is not Bilbo who pays the price, but Thorin Oakenshield, for it was his pride and avarice that prompted the expedition in the first place, costing him not just his own life, but the lives of many of his dwarven brethren. Here, again, the same tragic flaws appear, exemplifying the legacy Tolkien’s work owes to the unnamed scribe who committed Beowulf to paper, though Smaug has far more of draco in him than draconitas.

Finally, besides its own film adaptation, Beowulf’s basic premise has informed countless monster stories, including, surprisingly, Ridley Scott’s slasher-movie-in-space Alien, and James Cameron’s action sequel Aliens. Beowulf, after all, is the archetypal monster story, and we can divide the narrative into three simple scenarios:

  1. A hero protagonist is called upon to defeat a monster.
  2. The hero protagonist, after defeating their initial foe, enters the monster’s lair, and defeats its mother.
  3. A minor character enters the dragon’s cave, disturbs or removes something, and unleashes mayhem.

Elements of these three scenarios appear frequently in Alien and Aliens, as well as other science fiction and horror films. The hubris of the characters, a classic tragic flaw, is often the inciting factor in the story. For example: Victor Frankenstein believes he can play god, and, in doing so, creates a monster. As for Alien, when Kane (recalling the biblical Cain) enters the derelict spacecraft on LV426, he disturbs one of the xenomorph eggs, is paralysed and impregnated by a facehugger, which then leads, not only to his own death, but most of his crewmates’ as well. In doing so, he brings the monster into their home, where it proceeds to run amok. Interestingly, they are also called there by a mysterious distress signal, which they later realise to be a warning.

Moreover, in Aliens, two colonists enter the derelict and, again, disturb the contents, bringing mayhem with them, while Ripley herself is also called upon by the colonial marines to assist in their operation. And what greater comparison to either the dragon or Grendel’s mother could there be, than the Queen Alien?

Aliens GIF
Mother of monsters, the Queen Alien (20th Century Fox).

By no means is she a passive reproductive vessel, but an agent of aggression with strong maternal instincts. Again, hubris comes at a high price when the colonial marines enter the dragon’s cave, and are torn apart, but Ripley overcomes the monster’s mother, returning to rescue Newt, and later blowing the Queen out of the airlock.

Ellen Ripley, an inversion of the Beowulf character (20th Century Fox).

Ripley may be the story’s hero, but she is also an inversion of the Beowulf type. She has no tragic flaw. Her strength comes from within. She has nothing to prove. Just as Beowulf’s greed and ambition mirror the dragon’s lust for gold, so does Ripley’s maternal strength mirror the Queen Alien’s unstoppable capacity for reproduction. Ripley is both a voice of reason and a figure of motherhood. Female strength incarnate. It’s no wonder then that she survives where all others perish. From the very beginning, she’s smart enough to realise: rifling a dragon’s cave is never a good idea.


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Written by Michael Conroy

Copyright © 2020 Sirius Editorial | All Rights Reserved

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