I first discovered Beowulf when I was around ten years old. On rainy weekends, when my brother and I started to wreak too much havoc inside the house, my father would round us up and read us poetry. I’m not sure if he felt that poetry would have a calming effect on us, or if he was just trying to instill some culture, but poetry was his weapon of choice. He had gone to the University of Illinois on the GI Bill, and had studied English Literature. It wasn’t a very practical choice from a career perspective, but he did get some good books out of it. Of particular interest was a big two volume anthology of English literature which has long since disappeared from the family library. It was Volume One of this anthology that he opened up one rainy Saturday, and read us Beowulf.
I don’t remember if I had nightmares afterward, but I do remember that Beowulf impressed me more than any other poem that I had heard up to that point. At first there was the question of the mead hall. I wasn’t exactly sure what a mead hall was, or what mead was, but I had observed my German grandfather and my uncles drinking beer during Sunday dinner, so I had a general idea of what was going on. Then, as my dad read, the poem got scarier. The warriors, after they had drunk their mead and gone to sleep, were killed and eaten by Grendel. Grendel! The name still strikes fear into my heart. As my dad intoned the various ill deeds of Grendel, my brother sank further and further into the couch. This was scary stuff. Then Beowulf showed up on the scene, and I remember this vividly: in weapon-less battle with the monster, Beowulf ripped off Grendel’s arm! High-fiving was not yet invented, but if it had been, my brother and I would have high-fived.
Now we flash forward many, many years to Paris in 2007. As I traveled about the city, I noticed posters in the metro advertising Beowulf the movie. I was intrigued. How will they pull this off? Will my childhood memories of Grendel hold up to Hollywood? I started to ponder what Beowulf could mean in this day and age, when legends have been debunked, when people are obsessed with the lives of the star of the moment, when heroes have lost their allure. I decided to get a copy of the original poem and read it. I headed to the W.H. Smith bookstore on rue Rivoli. Sure, I could have searched for a used version of Beowulf among the shelves at Shakespeare and Company, but I had a need for a fresh, clean, up-to-date copy. I found it. The Norton Anthology has a version of Beowulf that was translated from the original Old English by Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. It was fresh, it was relevant, and it was only sixteen euros in paperback. I bought it. For the next several days I read the book. After that, I planned to see the movie.
Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is very easy to understand compared to the version that I remember from the big two volume anthology of English literature. I noticed also that Beowulf was an important work of literature. How could I tell? I counted the pages of the poem itself. There were 76. I looked at the last page of the book. Page 256. There were 180 pages in addition to the poem. There were more than 2 times as many non-poem pages as poem pages. What did this mean? It could mean that Norton felt that it was a rip-off to sell a poem of 76 pages for sixteen euros. But what I think it really means is for a poem to be an important work of literature, the accompanying text