Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spotlight on the Classics: Beowulf by Anonymous

[Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead]

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Goodreads Summary:

The national bestseller and winner of the Whitbread Award. Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the classic Northern epic of a hero’s triumphs as a young warrior and his fated death as a defender of his people. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed in the exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels in this story to the historical curve of consciousness in the twentieth century, but the poem also transcends such considerations, telling us psychological and spiritual truths that are permanent and liberating.

Beowulf is considered to have been composed between the 8th and the early 11th century. According to Wikipedia, it was first PUBLISHED in 1814 in a version by John Josias Conybeare.

Classics have a certain stigma in our day. As Mark Twain once said, "'Classic'--a book which people praise and don't read." Nowadays, most people view classic novels only as unpleasant homework assignments and not beautiful stories that can be enjoyed just as much as the hottest new publication. My mission is to change that stigma by reviewing classics that I enjoyed exactly as I would any other novel.


Beowulf is a strong hero (your typical macho man) who travels to a distant land in order to save them from the terrible monster Grendel, who has been eating people left and right. The story recounts his great feats of bravery as he completes this task, then goes on to tell a story of how, later in life, he fights a dragon.  

Any fantasy fan will appreciate the classic fantasy elements brought forth in this novel, from the sword-swinging heroes and the hideous monsters to the grand feasting and legendary swords (plus the dragon of course). J.R.R. Tolkien, who studied the Anglo-Saxon language in great depth, was heavily inspired by the story of Beowulf as he wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Beowulf definitely as a King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table feel to it, though since it predates those stories, it maintains the feeling of a wild, pagan Britain.

The story is easy to follow while still remaining engaging. There are no dozens of characters with similar-sounding names such as in Shakespeare, no lofty discourses on philosophy and the meaning of life as in other works from the Middle Ages. But it still manages to really ram hard some life-lessons, such as how pride always goes before a fall.

Just like in The Aeneid, the writing is lyrical and smooth, ideal for reading out loud. Anglo-Saxon poetry (since this is a work of poetry after all) was written in alliterative half-lines, and in my edition (translated by Seamus Heaney, as pictured above) the English version often maintains some of that alliteration. Not only that, but in my edition, the original Anglo-Saxon is printed alongside, making it super fun to compare and look for similarities in words.


It's not super easy to connect emotionally with the characters in the book, especially as Beowulf is really the only character that is fleshed out significantly. This meant that I wasn't particularly sad when [Beowulf dies in the end]. (Highlight between the brackets for a spoiler.)

Sometimes the narration will follow little bunny trails and tell other little anecdotes, most of which I found confusing (although I suppose they were related to the story somehow).

Overall though, this book is a very fast and entertaining classic to read, easy to understand and a perfect adventure story.

Plot: 4
Complexity: 4
Creativity: 4
Believability: 3
Surprise: 5

Characters: 3
Depth: 2
Personality: 3
Believability: 4

Writing Style: 4
Description: 4
Tension: 4

Overall Score: 4 

Happy Reading!


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