Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Beowulf, Singing the Song
On a morning like this (fur-thick and snow-deep) I want to say a few things about the Old English epic poem, Beowulf. It certainly helps explain that I spent again an inordinate time yesterday sorting and perusing all my Beowulf material. This consists of various treatments and translations with commentary (seven of them), two film treatments on DVD (Beowulf and Grendel, and Zemeckis' Beowulf), and one audio two-CD set of Seamus Heaney reading from his translation. I sometimes revisit the poem in hypertext on the McMaster website. I can no longer find the interesting guide by Mike Walton, Beowulf-Country, which seems to have disappeared from the net.
Partly this post exists to explain, to you and to myself, my ongoing interest because I feel it on several levels. The first is historical.
It tells the story of a hero, a Geat from the Swedish peninsula, who becomes through his heroic deeds king of a tribe of Danes. Like most legends, it is probably based on some truths and portrays life and customs of that region (NW Europe) outside of Roman and later Christian influences. It fits into the same type of frame as the Norse/Icelandic and the Germanic legend poems. Though some of the tribes mentioned are unknown historically, one which figures in the narrative still exists as a distinct people today, the Frisians. I am a Frisian. This legend is probably the earliest part of our history on record.
The second level is that of language. The only language extant that is closely related to English, a near kin so to speak, is Frisian. I understand Frisian; I read it; I can speak it; I sometimes try to write in that language. I am intimately aware of the connection. As for Old English? Frisians had settled in Kent, were among the warriors imported after Roman rule disintegrated, spoke a tongue the Angles and Saxons from the mainland understood. Their basic roots were the same or very similar. Perhaps this, too, is one of the reasons for my continuing interest in language.
The third is its poetry. I have come to love the sound of the language. The rhythm of four alliterative stresses to the line, halved by a pause. The roar and the rumble, begging to be read aloud. The kennings; the deft descriptions of daily occurrences; the believable character portrayals. When I read it, it sounds like bells inside my head. The voices are distinct. All that is missing is the strum and stroke of the harp. Perhaps one day I will hear that too.
Beowulf has found a place to live within me. For me, the poem lies in the territory between my head and my heart, with strong tendrils rooted in each.