A deep part of me, some ancestral chunk of my mind, truly wanted to enjoy Beowulf. I thoroughly anticipated to be whisked away by an age-old skald of heroics and valor. There, on the pages before me, was a well-known epic which had always been brought up in discussions. However, as I sank my literary teeth into Beowulf, wanting to savor every word, I realized one thing: Beowulf is not Tolkien.
My imagination had always played with the concept of Beowulf. Ever since I was young, I had heard brief snippets detailing the deeds of its hero. In Fifth Grade, I had participated in a re-enactment of Grendel’s attack on Heorot. Yet such details were the extent of my knowledge. I always expected more, much more. When I heard the name Beowulf, a fantastic journey, full of intense action and glorious set-piece moments, reverberated throughout my thoughts. I now feel underwhelmed.
Beowulf in and of itself is not bad. I do not dislike the epic. I also wholly appreciate the work people like Seamus Heaney have put into translating the poem into a decidedly less Anglo-Saxon format. Beowulf’s journey through Scandinavia was a pleasurable experience, through which I was finally witnessing such a cornerstone of English canonical literature. I met Hrothgar, Unferth, Wiglaf, Grendel, and Hygelac. I witnessed the great mead-hall of Heorot, and the notorious dragon’s barrow, and the hideous lair of Grendel and his dam. I immersed myself in the warrior-code which guided all Geats, Danes, and Swedes, and felt the warmth of boasts and victory. But it all seemed so sudden, and so shallow.
I believe the problem rests in my own expectations and understandings. The former were too high, and the latter were nonexistent. Of course Beowulf is quick-paced and short. The story was written between the 7th and 11th centuries, composed in a time when novels were unknown. In addition, Beowulf is an epic poem, and is meant to be read aloud as a performance. Few people take the time to read a whole novel in one sitting, at least not to an assembled audience. And, as an epic, Beowulf is a fairly lengthy poetic work.
Even given the narrative’s limitations, I cannot feel myself completely engrossed by it. I have, I believe, been spoiled by modern culture. Movies and video games have provided engaging stories and intense action, allowing myself to be more greatly absorbed in their material than with Beowulf. In Bethesda’s TES V: Skyrim, I can assume the role of a character who is Beowulf’s equivalent. In Gladiator, I can watch as Maximus abides by his own code of honor and conduct, struggling against immense trials which only boost his fame and glory. Yet, I have been most affected by the literary works of writers like Tolkien, and especially Tolkien, who weaved a rich fabric of history and identity into their text.
Comically ironic, in this situation, is that Tolkien was heavily inspired by the work of Beowulf. Tolkien desired a mythical history for Britain, his homeland, and the work of Beowulf was a considerable factor in his pursuit. The Lord of the Rings, a cherished fiction of mine, could be seen as a veritable result of Beowulf and its impact on modern English literature. At this point, I must bring myself back to the limitations of the epic poem’s original creation. Tolkien had an abundance of text to draw inspiration from, and likely possessed greater academic insight than Beowulf’s composer, enabling him to create a more immersive and engaging work (the availability of paper is also a major bonus).
` If I were asked to summarize both The Fellowship of the Ring and Beowulf, I could probably do so in the same amount of time, even the same amount of sentences. The plots of both are manageable and memorable. Ask me to analyze the works, however, and I guarantee there will be a difference of length. While the themes and topics explored in Beowulf are just, I find myself more attracted to the substance of modern fictional creations, such as Tolkien. The Geats may be a proud and noble people, but I will take the Hobbits of the Shire any day.