When we Ferrets sat down and discussed this series I knew instantly what I wanted to talk about for my post. And can you get much more classic than the oldest (surviving) epic poem in the English language?
I’ve read many classics over the years, and surprisingly few of them were under the dreaded label of ‘Required Reading’ though that may be in part due to my unorthodox school life. (That may also be why I often didn’t know I was reading a classic or something that might be ‘required reading’ material.) It may also be because I dove into them early.
Beowulf remains a stand-out among them in my memory for a number of reasons, though it wasn’t the first classic I read.
A Classic I Love
Remember how Rebekah talked about Wishbone in her post? Well, I’m bringing him back now. Someone (I don’t remember who, sadly) gave me ‘Be a Wolf!’ which is the Wishbone version of Beowulf, when it was newly-published in 1997.
I read it, I enjoyed it, and I told my mother I wanted to read the original Beowulf. She was pretty accustomed to me saying ‘I want to read [fill in the blank]!’ and didn’t bat an eye. (Then again, I spent most of my childhood immersed in Ancient Egyptian and Greek history and mythology. Maybe she was used to her child living in the distant past.)
Mother said ‘I’ll get our copy down for you’, and I was most pleased. Until I curled up and opened the book. I promptly returned to my mother with a complaint. This is not the original Beowulf. I want to read the original. I know it was born as an oral tradition, but someone wrote it down first, way back when, and that’s what I want to read.
(I was a strangeling child. My mother was an admirably patient and indulgent woman.)
My mother located a copy of Beowulf in the original Old English at our library and acquired it for my stubborn eight-year-old self, and only warned that I should bring our copy as well, for help understanding the Old English. I sat down happily to read at our kitchen table with both spread out before me.
Isn’t it lovely in the original text? Of course, what I read looked much more like this one on the right, but I would love to see the Nowell Codex in person someday.
It’s been nineteen years since that day, so I can’t tell you my first thoughts or how long I spent puzzling over the books. I do remember being ensnared by the language – I love the feel of Old English words still – and being wrapped up in the tale. I was happy, watching the story unfold and feeling a little like I was sitting in a hidden corner of a great king’s hall – as though a child actually there, tucked out of the way – listening to the heroes boast and the poets recite.
Reading Beowulf still makes me happy, and when I curl up with a proper poetic translation (my favourite is still having the Old English side-by-side, and reading it out from time to time) I still feel transported back into history – into legend.
One of the things I love about Beowulf is how well the two mesh – history into legend, saga into chronicle. I was familiar with the idea of it from Greek history (and mythology), but Beowulf did it differently. There was little feel of piecing it out and finding ‘ah, this is from legend, this from reality, this a hybrid of both’, it was simply another world, over a thousand years in the past.
Most stories that tread so vaguely around the ‘monsters’ would leave me frustrated, but in Beowulf it feels natural to have them both as the undefined spectre and the immediate menace. The narrative twins these two easily and flings Beowulf – and those around him – up against them as a challenge that defines both them and the story itself.
The story of Grendel and Grendel’s mother always felt more immediate to me (that child, hiding away in the shadows beyond the firelight, listening to the warriors boast and recount battles) whereas the much later battle of the dragon has always drifted like the closing of an era. Both more serious and more distant, Beowulf’s final boast and final battle forming a fading melody falling into echoes through history.
In a strange way I feel as though I am being eased out of that long ago world with the final clash of Beowulf and the dragon and the end of the tale – something like waking from a dream that reaches its own end.
Beowulf may be a slightly more off the wall classic, but it remains one of my favourites, and I recommend it to anyone who loves history, legend, and language, and the way they intertwine.
A Classic I Want to Read
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
In contrast to my immediate choice of Beowulf, this half took some time to decide upon.
Though this novel may or may not have appeared on any true Required Reading lists I might have come across even in a more structured school environment, given the number of times it has been banned, and the fact that it has still made the American Library Association’s ‘Most Frequently Challenged Books’ lists for 1990-1999 and 2000-2009.
I have never read Vonnegut’s fiction, only quotes and some (short) essays, and I have seen him speak in interviews. It was after one of the latter that my mother recommended I read Slaughterhouse-Five (which, as with so many others in my list of want-to-reads, I requested from the library and was then too busy to read – so it goes).
I enjoy the way that Vonnegut speaks and the style of his satire, and I generally enjoy books that play on the line between fiction and reality as long as they do it well. (Sophie’s World, for example, was wonderful and also kind of painful to read in the ‘not sure my mind is ready for this’ way.)
Also, I must admit, I love the opening line – all this happened, more or less.
(Like Lissa, I had originally thought to place ‘Brave New World’ here, but Michelle beat me to it! It was, like Slaughterhouse-Five, one my mother recommended I read to flesh out my literary background and general knowledge. Maybe I’ll get to both of them . . . someday soon.)