Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: Beowulf

I don't like poetry. Many poems are very, very well written; I simply prefer prose. Epics are particularly challenging for me, being very long poems with lots of repetition. While I can appreciate a short poem and have made my way through various epics, the prospect of reading Beowulf was one of completing a "work" book rather than one of pleasure. I read it for the prospect of one day assigning it to my children as part of their homeschool curriculum; I intend to be familiar and probably read each of the books that will one day be required reading for them.
The advantage of Beowulf over other classic works such as the Aeneid lies in 1) the worldview of a Christian perspective vs. that of a pagan Greek poet and 2) the broadening of historical perspective from a Greco-Roman tradition to one including a greater variety of cultures. I believe in the importance of exposing my students to epic poetry but I wasn't thrilled about that exposure being focused on the numerous gods featured in the Greek and Roman classics. Beowulf is a step removed from that, giving a lot of the same superhuman strengths to the hero that are found in other epics, but attributing them to God's blessings rather than the temporary favor of an Olympian. As for my second reason, I find the history covered in most U.S. schools to be incredibly self-centered. My kids will be studying the normal history of our nation, including what we've borrowed or inherited from the Romans, but they will also be studying basic history of other cultures as I'm able to give it to them. This particular epic describes a Scandinavian people from well over a thousand years ago. It can play a part, small as the role may be, in presenting a perspective to my children of the importance of all people in the eyes of the Lord, and the importance they should therefore have for us as Christians.
This illustrated edition of Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, was an extremely helpful version for me, being so far removed from the culture described and so disinclined in many ways to read the book to begin with. A photograph of an item described in the epic faces nearly every page of poetry, with a description of the item to help identify what I'm reading about. Those pictures help translate the poetic descriptions into something understandable and imaginable for those of us who have never seen the objects in person. While some suggest what the poet might have imagined for a purely imaginary landscape, most depict actual items from the time period, uncovered through archaeology and held now in museums or replicas built in countries I'm not ever likely to visit myself.
The story itself revolves around the hero Beowulf, who rescues those distressed by inhuman monsters without apparent fear for his own life. His reward? honor, gold, political alliances. His motivation seems to be the challenge itself, as he boasts early on that a swimming competition which he is accused of losing was reshaped by the nine sea monsters which he defeated in the midst of the ocean while his competitor swam on. He chooses to engage in the battles described in this epic; they are not dangers which seek him out but rather monsters endangering other people whom he chooses to rescue. While his exploits are certainly not real, there are solid lessons that can be learned from them about the description of a true hero as rescuing the helpless, with God's grace, without concern for the real danger. I would much rather hold up Beowulf as a hero for my children, along with many saints throughout history, than the pop heroes of today's music, movies, and sports.
I would not bring out Beowulf in our homeschool before high school, and we may not quite get to it after all the other books that are also on my "required reading" list. But after having read it, I'm much more inclined to assign this book than any other epic poem I've encountered so far.


  1. Kudos to you for reading it. I'm not sure if I could slog through it without wanting to cry. But, it's not my cup of tea. So what else is on your required reading list?

    1. No, not my cup of tea either...
      I'm always adding books to the "required" list, although I don't expect they'll all actually be assigned. They're classics (The Hobbit), faith-focused (Mere Christianity), character building (I Kissed Dating Goodbye), a particular literature style (Daddy Long Legs), potentials for textbooks (The Thinking Toolbox), and some that will depend on when we study a particular topic (William Henry is a Fine Name--will be assigned if we study Civil War and slavery when the girls are old enough to read this book but will be dropped if we study it while they're still youngish).