Review: Beowulf translated by Michael Alexander

To be honest, I can hardly say that Beowulf ranks among my favorite books. As far as epics go, there is much better to be found in the Classical epics (IliadOdysseyAeneid) and the Christian epics (Divine ComedyParadise Lost). As far as medieval literature goes, there is much better to be found in, for example, The Canterbury Tales or, again, The Divine Comedy. When compared in either of these categories, Beowulf appears flaccid, superficial, and inarticulate.

With that said, Beowulf is, nonetheless, if taken by itself and freed of its lagging place in the literary categories into which it might be placed, at least a very interesting reading on some levels. While the surface story of a Danish hero defeating monsters reads more like a Steven Seagal film (read: action-packed but unintelligent and with a plot that has more holes than Swiss cheese) than anything else, below the surface there is something fascinating happening.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. This is, for me, the one aspect of the book that makes it exciting to read. While there is little philosophical discourse or religious reflection here, as one might expect to find if one approaches this having read some of the great Classical and/or Christian epics, the narrator buries the religious themes in the onslaught of activity. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history and there were even hints of an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code.

Ultimately, I believe the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great (it is remarkably difficult to find much worth redeeming in pre-Christian northern European thought and religion) and his attempts are insufficient (merely linking figures from his inherited mythology to biblical figures and sprinkling the occasional symbol of baptism or crucifixion). The result, however, is equally fascinating. Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, we are presented with something of a bridge figure, a man who embodies the greatest ideals of both the pre-Christian and Christian northern European peoples, who is a great warrior seeking after fame and fortune and filled with pride, but is also charitable and compassionate and dies to save his people. If nothing else, what makes Beowulf an interesting read is that Beowulf himself is a sort of proto-knight. In him we see the emergence of the code of chivalry adhered to be the Christian warriors of the High Middle Ages. The idea remains incomplete and underdeveloped in Beowulf but anyone with a modest understanding of medieval history and a keen eye for detail can catch a glimpse here of the emergence of a new and powerful ideal.


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