Getting into the Spirit

So there’s a new version of Beowulf out, which made me think first that it’s been a while since I re-read that, second that it really is a good poem for the end of the year, what with all of the grimness, and third that it would be an excellent way to get back into the mindspace for working on my Arthurian stuff again in 2021.

Much as I enjoy all of the later additions that make up the bulk of the Arthur material, I am most interested in the deep Dark Ages origins of these stories. If there was any actual person at the root of the legend, it seems likely that their experience of the world would have more closely resembled Beowulf’s than Malory’s or Chretien’s.

There is a tantalizingly alien feeling to these old stories. The people in them are recognizably people, but the world is difficult to imagine. It would have been a small world, one barely populated after Rome’s withdrawal, plagues, and wars, a world concerned with the doings of a small number of people in a small area. In another sense, the world would have seemed much larger, so much of it unknown and without maps. A deeply immediate world, without much use for the long term. When I work on my Arthur-inspired stories, it’s the gap between that world and ours that fascinates me.

But that’s for another day. Back to the poem.

There are obviously lots of interesting passages in Beowulf, but the one that currently has my attention isn’t actually part of the story as such, but the tale of the swimming contest between Beowulf and his friend Breca. There is something utterly timeless about a couple of youths challenging each other, and at the same time the details of the swim are outsize, mythic, and populated by casual monsters.

Again and again the angry monstersTime and again foul things attacked me,
made fierce attacks. I served them welllurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
with my noble blade, as was only fitting. gave as good as I got with my sword.
Small pleasure they had in such a sword-feast,My flesh was not for feasting on,
Dark things in the sea that meant to eat me,There would be no monsters gnawing and gloating
Sit round their banquet on the deep sea-floor.over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.
(Howell Chickering, Jr. translation)(Seamus Heaney translation)

The new version seems to be making quite a stir, and I should probably pick up a copy and see how different it is. For the time, though, while the year wends on to its nadir, I’ll flip back and forth between these two and contemplate a world brimming with monsters.

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