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The tale of Beowulf, Is it myth? legend? history?
by C. R. May
Everyone knows the tale of Beowulf, if not from reading the poem itself then most likely from one of several movies which have been produced over time: superhuman warrior, monster killer, the biggest badass ‘till Arnold Schwarzenegger came along to wrest the crown from his blonde head.
HWÆT, WE GAR-DENA in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
SO, THE SPEAR-DANES in days done by,
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those prince’s heroic campaigns.
The man who first wrote down those words has been dust for at least a millennium and almost certainly far longer: the poem itself and the events which it records is five hundred years older still, that’s about the distance in time which separates us today from Henry VIII and Christopher Columbus. What an opening! Beowulf has always been one of my favourite tales, and when I was looking for a subject for my first ever novel, in some ways it was the obvious choice. I had always been captivated by the tale of Beowulf, and what could be easier than to add new flesh to the dusty old bones of a famous tale? But…
How wrong I was!
On the surface it is a simple tale, and certainly the movie versions both recent and not so recent, make it so. A blustering hero, blessed with muscle mass if not cerebral depth, gathers a war band and sails from the frozen north to slay a monster which has terrorised the Danish kingdom for a decade or so. That’s it…roll the end titles.
So…Hwæt!… off I went like a simpleton. But it seems that I was wrong. The further I researched the poem, the greater, the richer it became. Regicide, fratricide, war sweeping in waves across the Scandinavian lands: the machination of the gods, the first flowerings of kingdoms we know to this day, Sweden, Denmark, my own country of England, Angle-land.
Suddenly I was part of a detective story, teasing apart the weft and weave of a tale which was already ancient long before King Harold planted his feet beside the white dragon flag of Saxon England and fought the Norman invader on a windy Sussex ridge.
Is it myth? legend? history? Rather fantastically, not only is it all of those things, it is one of the folk-memories of the great migration, the dark ages, the time which the people of present day Germany still call the Völkerwanderung of the northern peoples.
So, I decided after my initial research that I would write a trilogy in which I would make sense of this hotch-potch of historical events and myth, but quickly discovered that that did not work at all. Halfway through the first book it became obvious that it was just not possible to completely remove all the fantasy elements from the story without ripping the heart from it. It was almost as if Batman no longer took the Batmobile to the latest emergency but hopped on the bus: more realistic but not really the stuff of fantastic tales as he fumbled inside his utility belt for his travel card.
There were boasts and events contained within the tale that could not be explained in any other way than that they must be the work of supernatural beings, gods, and my story changed with it: no longer just the tale of Beowulf the Geat, but Beowulf – Sword of Woden.
Woden the Allfather, better known now by his later name of Odin, came to the fore to weave his spells and manipulate men for his own ends: Frey in his great temple at Uppsala in Sweden, Thunor (Thor) the thunder god. Other events and boasts contained within the poem were explained as I had originally intended, the fight with trolls became a struggle against a remnant neanderthal population, a fight with sea monsters an attack by conger eels.
Another Englishman was the first to record the old words on parchment at a time when viking armies roamed the land. AlI I can hope is that I have helped in a small way to open up this fantastic tale to a wider audience.
JRR Tolkien mined the poem to produce the Lord of the Rings and other works of greatness. I will leave the last word to him:
When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart which sorrows have that are both poignant and remote. If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo. There is not much poetry in the world like this; and though Beowulf may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its tradition, it has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity; it would still have power had it been written in some time or place unknown and without posterity, if it contained no name that could now be recognised or identified by research. Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.
C. R. May is a English writer of historical fiction, working primarily in the early Middle Ages.
One day I was taken aside by my boss who told me, ‘people who work for me don’t read Archaeology Monthly. I don’t want to see you doing it again.’ In a moment of clarity/madness I realised that I agreed, resigned on the spot and never looked back.
I have always had a passion for history, and we moved as a family through a succession of dilapidated houses which I single-handedly renovated before selling on to pay off the bills. These ranged from a Victorian townhouse to a Fourteenth Century hall, and I learned about medieval oak frame repair, lime plastering and childcare on the way. I crewed the replica of Captain Cook’s ship, Endeavour, sleeping in a hammock and sweating in the sails and travelled the world, visiting such historic sites as the Little Big Horn, Leif Erikson’s Icelandic birthplace and the bullet scarred walls of Berlin’s Reichstag.
Now I write, and you can discover more about myself and my work on my website:
Geatland in the first decades of the sixth century was an island of peace amid the upheaval which marked the death throes of the Roman Empire in the West. Under the benevolent rule of King Hrethel and his sons the King’s grandchild, Beowulf, the only child of his daughter, is carefully groomed by the family in the skills and duties of the warrior elite.
As Beowulf reaches adulthood a death suddenly tears the family apart. Torn between family loyalties and the freshly sworn demands of his warrior code, Beowulf must choose between those he loves and his personal ambition as the dynasty begins to tear itself apart. Sensing weakness the Geats most feared enemy appears on their northern border and Beowulf must fight his first desperate battle to save the Kingdom.
Skilfully interwoven into the fabric of the old English poem we know as ‘Beowulf’ lies the tale of a great but ultimately doomed people, the Geats. It is a tale of decay and renewal as the old order is swept away and the new nations of Europe struggle to emerge from the ensuing chaos in an age when it was common for Kings to die in battle. Sword of Woden, Sorrow Hill, is the first in a trilogy of novels which seek to unravel the threads contained within the original poem by recounting the early life story of Beowulf and his family.
Geatland – Late Summer 517 AD
Fresh from the desperate defence of the Northern borders of the Kingdom, Beowulf is appointed by King Hythcyn to lead the greatest ship army in the history of his people,carrying fire and sword to the ‘Black Heart’ of their enemies. But all is not as it seems. Hythcyn’s actions have thrust a flaming brand into the delicate balance of power in the Scandinavian lands, setting a series of events in motion which quickly spiral out of control.
As Beowulf begins to understand that the Allfather is carefully grooming him to confront the Grendel, a mysterious affliction begins to cast its long dark shadow across his soul, causing him to fear for his sanity.
In an enthralling tale of brutal battles, love and betrayal, Beowulf and his closest kin are swept up by the storm and scattered to the winds. From the mountainous rollers of the North Atlantic to the frozen forests of Swede Land and the bloody temple at Uppsala, Beowulf and his fellow exiles, the Wraeccan, gather their strength and prepare to confront King Hythcyn in the final battle for Geatland.
As the cataclysmic events unfold at Ravenswood, Beowulf is left fighting his own very personal war against the forces of Hel. Finally cured with the help of the wizard Asgrim,Beowulf and the men of his comitatus gather their forces and travel to Heorot to finally confront the monster, Grendel.
In a journey which sweeps across the north, from the depths of the great Swedish forests and the marshes of Frisland to the gentle hills surrounding Sutton Hoo, Beowulf finally discovers that killing Grendel was not his sternest test after all. Woden has one more, even more powerful fiend to confront as the Gods vie for ascendancy over middle earth.
Sword of Woden, Monsters, is the conclusion of a trilogy of novels which seek to tell the early life story of Beowulf and his clan, the Swertings.