Beowulf: Epic Adventure or Tale of Loss?

Boys of Blue and Beowulf

Beowulf is one of my favorite stories, and I’ve reread it again and again in different translations, trying to see it through different eyes and interpretations.  Translating Old English is not necessarily the simple task that non-experts might assume it to be; some words might appear in only a few or even one text, making their meanings unclear.  Readers can see this just from the poem’s famous opening word Hwæt, which has been variously translated as “Lo!,” “Listen!,” “Hark!,” “So!,” etc.  Yet despite the different versions of the text I have encountered, trends of interpretation seem clear; readers frequently seem to believe that the most interesting aspects of the text are either the historical context or the fights with the monsters.  This is not true for me.

Though Beowulf is, of course, an epic with swords and battles and boasting and great feats of arms, I’m attracted to the sense of sadness and loss in the poem, the sense that all these great things are passing away.  It is not the defeating of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon that move me, but rather the passing of Beowulf himself at the end of the poem.

There is a sense of glory in the story, of course.  It is inspiring to hear Beowulf boast, exhilarating to watch him live up to his words and do deeds that no one else can do.  Beowulf is the exemplary warrior—skilled, but also honorable, interested in fairness and protecting others.  He appreciates rewards of treasure, of course, but such was Old English culture; he is equally as free with giving his wealth away to those who deserve it.

This is fun, and I appreciate that J.R.R. Tolkien was instrumental in helping Beowulf to become appreciated as a story, one that features exciting fantasy monsters who epically meet their demise.  But Beowulf isn’t interesting because it features a lot of wrestling and sword-waving (really, no story is interesting solely because of that).  I love it because it ends with the sense that these times are passing away, that all of this is being lost.  The heroes are dying, and the world is moving on.  It’s less safe and less certain, and things will never be the same.

The end of the poem reminds me of other Old English works like The Wanderer, which includes the lines:

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that 
time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

(Translation by Michael Alexander)

These are exactly the types of questions one expects Beowulf’s people to be asking once he is gone, and it’s tragic.  There is some hope in Wiglaf, the one warrior who stood by Beowulf’s side and did not flee while he fought the dragon, but it’s not enough.  Beowulf’s time is ending, and a new age is beginning.

I don’t think I’m the only person who thinks Beowulf is a sad poem, but it’s a point I rarely see emphasized.  The story is moving and memorable not simply because Beowulf is great but because no one else will ever be great in quite the way he was.

Briana

15 thoughts on “Beowulf: Epic Adventure or Tale of Loss?

  1. Isobel Necessary says:

    I really enjoyed reading “The Wanderer” – it reminded me of a hymn I used to sing at school, where the first verse began “When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old”, and concluded “back into storyland giants have fled / And the knights are no more, and the dragons are dead”. The core theme was being a knight for God, heading out on adventures and having honourable values like knights did.
    I really loved the imagery in the hymn, and I think there’s a similar idea to “The Wanderer” in the final lines, the idea of knights and monsters being lost to the past. In the poem I suppose, it’s a more historically immediate concern – perhaps the sense that the defending forces of one’s own time are slipping away, which I think enhances a sense of vulnerability.

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  2. shelts89 says:

    I have taught Beowulf at school a few times, but only ever read children’s versions of it. I have to admit that, having read that poem at the end, I can see where Tolkien got his inspiration for the Last Ride of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings! It’s so similar!

    Anyway, great post and I really liked your take on what made the story so special to you. 🙂

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  3. Michael J. Miller says:

    Do you think this read is so rarely emphasized because we’d rather see it in the adventurous light? Like, it’s more fun that way then to dwell on the sadness? Or do you think, following from Tolkien’s popularizing of it, it just sort of got “stuck” in that mold and that’s endured? Because what’s fascinating about approaching it as a tale of loss is it makes it far more universal. Sure, the epic approach is fun and exciting to read. Who doesn’t like stories of battling dragons and whatnot? But the idea of an “age” (be it the halcyon days of our youth, an old romantic relationship we once took comfort in, friends we’ve lost touch with, etc.) passing away and our wrestling with what’s to come next is a universal pain/experience.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      That’s a really good question! I do think there is a component where people just like action stories. (I actually have an upcoming post about people who think the appeal of fantasy is magic/swords/actions and apparently nothing else.) But I think there could be Tolkien’s influence, as well. Of course his essay was released a few decades ago, but he was really instrumental in getting people to think about Beowulf as a story rather than a historical document, and his focus was on the monsters and taking fantasy seriously, and I do think academia can get entrenched in some ideas and take a while to move away from them. On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings has the same sense of sadness and things ending that a lot of Old English texts have, that I have to think Tolkien himself was pretty aware of the sadness of Beowulf.

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  4. Jackie G. says:

    It’s been nearly TWO DECADES since I read Beowulf. I read it in 9th grade, and I hated reading it. But sometimes I think about revisiting those loathsome required reads. Maybe life experiences (or just the sheer patience I’ve gained in “old” age [im only 31] would help me appreciate it more.) so, I’m happy to have read this post because it kind of makes me want to revisit Beowulf.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I was a weird child and read it on my own in middle school and was annoyed we only read an excerpt in high school. (I mean, does it even make sense if you’re not reading the whole thing? It isn’t even that long really.) But I do think it’s possible that it might not appeal to kids but could be a better read for adults!

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