When J.R.R.Tolkien wrote, `There are many heroes but very few good dragons’ he was referring to the dragon who appears in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as `Beowulf’, which is this week’s recommendation. We’re lucky to have this epic about one hero’s fights with three monsters, since it only survived into modern times in a single, badly burned, manuscript. `Beowulf’ is set in Dark Age Denmark and Sweden but it was composed in England around 1200 years ago. I’ll suggest some translations in prose or verse at the end of this post, so don’t let the strange language or the great age put you off.  `Beowulf’  may not be an easy read but this poem has inspired many modern writers of Fantasy and there is plenty in it for Horror-buffs and lovers of Heroic Fantasy to enjoy.

The original poem doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative but here is the main storyline – After ruling in Denmark for many years the aged King Hrothgar builds a splendid banqueting hall which he names Heorot. All the feasting and music-making in this hall arouses the envy and anger of Grendel, a semi-human creature who lives in a nearby lake. Under cover of darkness, Grendel comes to Heorot and slaughters and eats many of Hrothgar’s warriors. He returns night after night and no weapon is able to stop him. News of the curse on Heorot spreads throughout Scandinavia.

After twelve terrible years a group of Geats from Sweden visit Hrothgar’s court. They are led by Beowulf, the strongest man alive, who vows to kill Grendel or die trying. A Dane called Unferth is sceptical of Beowulf’s claims to be an experienced monster-slayer but King Hrothgar allows the Geats to spend the night in Heorot. When Grendel comes, he and Beowulf wrestle. Grendel flees after Beowulf rips his arm off. Everyone assumes that the monster will soon be dead but their joy is short-lived. The next night Grendel’s equally monstrous mother attacks Heorot and carries off Hrothgar’s favourite adviser. Borrowing a famous sword from the treacherous Unferth, Beowulf tracks the monsters to their underwater lair. He endures a terrible battle with the water-witch but it is not the most dangerous fight of his life.  Many years later, when Beowulf is King of the Geats, a runaway slave is foolish enough to steal a cup from a dragon’s hoard. The fiery dragon wakes and Beowulf finds that he must face it alone…

You can tell from this summary  that `Beowulf’ features early examples of story-elements that have become standard in Horror fiction, such as the outsider who becomes a serial killer, the creatures who can’t be kept out by locks and bars or killed by ordinary methods, and the group of people who dare to spend a night in a haunted house. Nobody in the poem actually says, `There’s a monster around somewhere so let’s split up…’ but most of the Geats are daft enough to fall asleep in Heorot. What happens next is as gruesome as anything in contemporary Horror films. Grendel tears open the door with his talons, seizes one of the sleepers, rips him apart, drinks the blood and then devours the body `even the hands and the feet.’ Most film adaptations of `Beowulf’ add unnecessary complications to the plot and fail to replicate the tension and doom-ridden atmosphere of the original (`Outlander’, which is only loosely based on `Beowulf’,  is probably the best of the bunch). The scene in the poem in which Beowulf finds the severed head of Hrothgar’s friend beside a lake boiling with blood and swarming with reptiles is one of the creepiest in all Fantasy.

Grendel is particularly scary because he doesn’t belong to any of the standard types of mythical beast. We’re only told that this `unhappy being’ was forced to live in a fog-shrouded marsh because he is descended from Cain, the first murderer. Thereafter, the reader must put together a picture of Grendel from his victims’ horrified glimpses. The `Beowulf’  poet (we don’t know his name) seems to get under the skin of his villain and shows the pain Grendel feels at being excluded from the joys of human life. Besides, you have to feel sorry for an adult monster who is still living with his mother (There is a powerful novel, `Grendel’ by John Gardner, which retells the `Beowulf’ story entirely from the monster’s point of view).  The sudden appearance of Grendel’s mother is a brilliant `second monster’ twist and her anguish at the fate of her son is treated as very real. This `enormous water-hag’ proves a formidable opponent for Beowulf. Contrary to the daft 2007 film, she doesn’t go in for seducing heroes and looks nothing like Angelina Jolie. Beowulf seems to win a stunning victory over the monsters but we are told right at the start of the poem that Heorot is still doomed. Throughout `Beowulf’ the characters tell stories about contests, quarrels and wars that have taken place in the past or which may happen in the future. These `digressions’ all emphasize human pride, greed and treachery. A savage family feud is destined to destroy Hrothgar’s hall. Ultimately, the people in the poem are more destructive than the monsters.

Anglo-Saxon poetry is all about courage in the face of inevitable defeat. At the peak of Beowulf’s success, Hrothgar warns him that even the greatest of heroes grow old and that one day Beowulf’s great strength will fail him.  It does. The gloomy and cautious Beowulf who struggles to save his people from a rampaging dragon is very different from the boastful and confident young warrior we meet at the start of the poem. The actual dragon-fight is brilliantly done. If you’ve read `The Hobbit’ or seen the films, you’ll notice several borrowings from Beowulf, but it’s typical of Tolkien’s inventive use of his source material, that he chose to centre his story on the lowly `burglar’ who steals from the dragon, rather than on the aristocratic dragon-fighters.

I hope I’ve given you enough reasons to read `Beowulf’, or at least skim through it to find the best bits. If you fancy  a verse translation, why not go for the one by Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of recent times? You can get this as an ordinary paperback but there is also an illustrated edition with splendid photographs of Dark Age treasures and an essay on `Visualizing Beowulf’. It’s easy to find cheap paperback copies of the excellent prose translation of `Beowulf’ by David Wright, which has a helpful introduction and notes. Just out in hardback is `Beowulf  A Translation and Commentary’ by J.R.R.Tolkien. This volume (edited by Christopher Tolkien) contains the prose translation of `Beowulf’ which Tolkien produced as a young man and highly specialized notes put together from his lectures on Anglo-Saxon poetry. As a charming bonus there is a previously unpublished `Tolkien poem – `Beowulf and the Monsters’ – and `Sellic Spell’ – a story he wrote to `reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in Beowulf‘. If you want to learn more about this extraordinary poem , I suggest that you look at Tolkien’s famous essay `Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ which includes a defence of Fantasy literature in general. Until next week…