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Monster run: ‘Beowulf’

Beware: The dragon Smaug in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The English we speak is an Anglo-Saxon language, unlike the Latinate ones (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese), which are also called Romance languages. English is closer to Germanic. The form we are familiar with is modern and descends from Old English. The most famous example of a work in this language is the epic poem Beowulf, which is likely to be 1,400 years old.

I have the Penguin Black Classics edition, translated by Michael Alexander in 1973. Translated from what, one might ask — isn’t Old English similar to English? Only to linguists. To you and me, it will sound like a foreign tongue, if not outright gibberish.

The modern version’s opening lines go:

Attend! We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark,/ how the folk-kings flourished in former days,/ how the royal athelings earned that glory.

This is understandable (atheling is an Anglo-Saxon prince). Now let’s have a look at the words in the original:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,/ þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,/ hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon./Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,/ monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah/ egsode eorlas.

It reads like something from TheLord of the Rings (indeed, Tolkien wrote an essay called ‘On translating Beowulf’). Beowulf in the original survives in a single manuscript — a codex, made of animal skin or vellum. The story has two parts. The first part describes a drinking hall in Denmark, owned by King Hrothgar. The noisy revellers anger a monster named Grendel. He descends on them each night, makes off with some of them, and eats them (it is unclear why the others return to drink in the same place the following night).

Victorious hero

Grendel is slain by Beowulf, who is a visiting hero. Beowulf fights the monster without a weapon, but tears off his arm at the shoulder. Mortally wounded, Grendel runs off to his lair, where he dies. Beowulf displays the arm as a sign of victory. The following night, the men again gather for a feast in the hero’s honour.

Into this gathering comes Grendel’s mother seeking revenge. She slays one of Hrothgar’s most loyal soldiers and leaves. Beowulf follows her to her lair in the lake. He kills her too and finds Grendel’s corpse, whose head he takes back with him.

The Danes gather again for more drinking. Beowulf returns to his home and to his king, Hygelac.

Anglo-Saxon pride

In the second part of the book, Hygelac dies in war and is succeeded by Beowulf, who rules the state for half a century. The peace is ended when a man steals a golden cup from a dragon, who becomes enraged (Lord of the Rings fans will note the similarity with the plot of The Hobbit), emerges from its lair, and ravages the land.

An old Beowulf fights it, this time with more difficulty than he had while battling the monsters in his youth. Nonetheless, he is able to overcome it, though not before it bites him fatally. Beowulf is cremated. As the subjects mourn his passing, they also fear that without the great hero, their land will be vulnerable to invaders.

This is how it ends. It is a simple tale but its antiquity and language have fascinated scholars down the decades.

The English people take great pride in the origins of their language and its avoidance of Latinate words. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson points out that in the conclusion of Churchill’s famous speech from June 1940 — “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets... we shall never surrender” — there is only one Latinate word (surrender). All the rest is Anglo-Saxon.

Aakar Patel is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 6:43:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/monster-run-beowulf/article37000694.ece

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