One of the things that makes The Odyssey so important to read is the epic poetry format. This format is at the root of every good story ever told. Good writers, filmmakers, and storytellers know this format and use elements of it again and again. This brings us to our second assignment — Beowulf.
I’ve selected Beowulf for a variety of reasons. First of all a new film was released based on this story and although this is a lovely story I am skeptical in how it will translate to film. Secondly, it is widely considered one of the best epic poems ever written. You will recognize the same elements in Beowulf that you saw in the Odyssey.
While the Odyssey is set in Greece and deals with the ancient greeks and their traditions Beowulf is set in Denmark and is a story of the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf is a legendary hero – like Odysseus – and fights three great enemies; Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon. Like other fantastic heroes Beowulf is not of great physical strength – but he is smart and wisely uses the physical abilities he possesses.
You can buy a copy of Beowulf at any used bookstore and I would recommend buying a companion book -either Spark notes or Cliff notes. Why do I suggest this? Frankly, this is a difficult story to follow – much more difficult than the Odyssey. (The complexity of this story is the very reason why I DON’T think it will translate well to film). Once again, we are dealing with a story based in oral traditions – it was not physically written down until much later. As a result you are going to find a lot of repetition, many references to places and people that the orator assumes you know. A great example of this is in the bible – you know all of those “begets” well, it’s the same kind of pattern. So, be aware that as you read there may be large sections that seem repetitious, and that is because they are.
For those who are familiar with Beowulf but would like to read another great Medieval epic I would suggest “Song of Roland”. Honestly, I prefer Song of Roland to Beowulf. It is a bit easier to follow and is a great battle between the French Christians, led by Charlemagne and the Spanish Muslims (referred to as pagans in the story). It is the story about a wonderfully fallible hero who thinks he can do it all – his pride is the source of his downfall.
Both of these stories have either subtle or blatant references to Christianity – references that seem forced in a way. That is because many times they were. Since most of these stories were written down after the spread of Christianity, and since the only people who really knew how to read or write were Catholic priests they very kindly added Christian references.
The historical background of Beowulf is patchy at best. More than likely there was a person like Beowulf that existed but whether the battles unfolded like they did is questionable. This is very typical of medieval stories. Most of them have a kernel of truth but have been highly embellished as they have gone through the process of being retold orally again, and again.
This is a VERY high-level introduction but there it is. Enjoy your holiday and read Beowulf. I think next we may take on some of my favorite interpretations of hell.