The book you meant to read

Beowulf (858? AD) by Anonymous
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Plot: Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon folk epic set in Scandinavia. Hrothgar, leader of the Scyldings decides to build a mead-hall. Here warriors hang out, tell tales and get drunk. A relative of Cain, Grendel, decides to spoil the fun, crashes the party and eats the guests. Beowulf comes to the rescue. He lies in wait for the mad troll and, after a bruising punch-up, Grendel slinks home, partially dismembered. Grendel's mother turns up, none too pleased. Snatching a warrior, she bolts for her swamp where Grendel is alive, but ailing. Beowulf takes off for the mere. He dives in and kills both Grendels after a struggle. Everyone returns to the mead-hall for more boozing and boasting. Fifty years pass. Beowulf has ruled the Geats wisely but his people are harassed by a dragon. Helped by young Wiglaf, Beowulf slays the monster and is fatally wounded. The poem ends with Beowulf's funeral.

Theme: "For any nobleman death is better than a life of shame." A grim code of heroism structures the action: the warrior must keep faith with his lord and fight to the limits of courage. Darkness and nasties are all around. Only Christian belief provides illumination.

Style: Old English verse is neither stanzaic nor rhymed but instead uses an alliterative four-stressed line. The language has barbaric splendour entwined with riddling difficulty. The digression and brisk transitions hint at a range of ethical and historical reference that is lost forever.

Chief strengths: No other epic so combines the primitive with the allusively sophisticated. Beowulf's alien mixture of Christianity, paganism and martial valour constantly startles: the descriptions of violence achieve a repellent beauty.

Chief weaknesses: The compulsive showing off can grate. Nobody accepts a goblet of mead without launching into a catalogue of past triumphs.

What they thought of it then: The poem is buried among other monster tales in the Cotton manuscript: possibly enjoyed as a yarn, it wasn't highly regarded.

What we think of it now: Without Beowulf, Old English specialists would be out of work. The poem has been interpreted as folk legend, Christian allegory, political elegy and a satire on the heroic code. Most critics tend to rubbish the last third.

Responsible for: The genre of fantasy fiction. Tolkein wrote the Lord of the Rings under Beowulf's shadow.

Gavin Griffiths

.Gavin Griffiths