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The earliest extant poem in a modern European language, Beowulf was composed 400 years before the Norman Conquest. As a social document, this great epic poem reflects a feudal, newly Christian world of heroes and monsters, blood and victory and death. As a work of art, it rings with a beauty, power, and artistry that have kept it alive for more than twelve centuries.

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Nov 2, 2007

Worth reading

Epic narrative poems have been recurrent in Western Literature since Homer and Virgil. They tell us stories of a hero?s great deeds and travels, always seeking fame and the glory of his country. A wonderful example is the poem Beowulf, having been the first ever written in English, by an anonymous writer around the 9th century. It had to be translated into modern English due to the huge changes the language has suffered through time. Among the dozens of translations available, I?ve read the one by Burton Raffel, an American poet who makes the story quite clear to our modern patterns. And it?s a fascinating one!
The hero, Beowulf, is a Geat prince ? the King of Geatland?s nephew ? who travels to Daneland (Denmark) to help the Danish King, Hrothgar, an old friend of his father?s. Hrothgar had built a great hall to celebrate his victories in war, but every time they celebrated, a terrible monster, Grendel, came and killed his men while they were sleeping. This had been going on for years when Beowulf came with his men. He managed to kill the beast, but on the next night, its mother showed up to avenge her son and killed one of Hrothgar?s best men. Having followed her to her den in the bottom of a lake, Beowulf defeated her and returned to his country. His uncle died a few years later and he became the new King. After fifty years, his land was attacked by a dragon. Beowulf kills it with the help of a young relative, Wiglaf, but loses his life in the process. Wiglaf is then crowned King.
The book?s greatest strengths are its exciting action and the narrative itself, which, despite being fictional, gives a nice picture of how life was in the 9th century Europe. Its themes of honour and loyalty may appear old fashioned, but today?s readers could learn a lot from them. One weak point is that the narrative is often interrupted by secondary stories which are part of Northern peoples? folklore but are barely related to the main storyline. Contemporary readers might find these parts dull and unnecessary.
All in all, Beowulf is undoubtfully still worth reading. In fact, it?s a must-read if you want to understand English literature and culture. I believe Beowulf?s bravery and loyalty are inspiring examples to us all, and the book?s well told battles make it one of my favourite epic poems.

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