Back in the days of the early Cretaceous, when we lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my husband and I used to have Saturday lunch in a place called Grendel’s Den. The food was very good and not overly expensive for a graduate student and a teacher.
I remembered vaguely who Grendel was (the foe of Beowulf ) from my AP English class. I’m sure my Classics graduate student friends (Old English and Hittite and Sanskrit, oh, my!) could have told me a good deal more about him, much more than I really needed to know.
Grendel, for those of you who didn’t do Anglo-Saxon literature, is the first antagonist slain by Beowulf in the epic poem that bears the latter’s name. Grendel has been attacking and killing (and drinking the blood of) the warriors of King Hrothgar’s hall, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Beowulf, an outsider from Geatland (southern part of present-day Sweden) mortally wounds Grendel by ripping off his arm, after which Grendel staggers back to the den he shares with his mother beneath the marshes near the king’s hall. And dies.
The second antagonist is Grendel’s mother, who comes to the hall to avenge her son’s death. Because we don’t know what many words in the Anglo-Saxon lexicon mean, it’s not clear whether she is a hideous monster or a woman warrior.
Beowulf is dragged into her home under the marshes and almost killed, until he finds a sword there and cuts off her head, and then Grendel’s, to take back to the hall as trophies.
Late in his life, Beowulf, now the king of the Geats, fights his third antagonist, a dragon who burns everything in sight because a gold cup has been stolen from his hoard. He and Beowulf fight, and both are killed.
Isn’t this a nice story to complement a peaceful Saturday lunch? I’m glad my Classics colleagues kept their mouths shut.
Anyway… good tales full of blood and gore and clanging swords never go out of style. If you are the academic type, there’s Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf – English and Old English on facing pages (don’t even try the Old English, it’s unintelligible unless you’ve been trained to read it). If you want to know all kinds of fascinating details of this epic, look at the Greene Hamlet website – it won a prize for being the Best of the Web for Students.
Meanwhile, if you just want to read for fun, here are a couple of suggestions. I saw a new book entitled The Coming of the Dragon, in which an orphan tries to protect his adopted land from a dragon and finds out he’s related to Beowulf. I skimmed the review too fast and ended up thinking that he was related to Grendel!! But what a great hook for a story – the good guy related to the bad guy – like Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father! In any case, it’s a good read; a coming-of-age story about a boy who sees himself as a coward but learns what courage is.
For those who like graphic novels, and the old epics are perfect for them, try Gareth Hinds’ adaptation of Beowulf. Much “glorious and gruesome detail;” Hinds is an excellent graphic artist for teens who like the ripped heroes and the deluge of blood and guts.
And one more thing. There is a series of graphic novels for younger kids, entitled Kid Beowulf, by Alexis Fajardo, in which Beowulf and Grendel are BROTHERS – and they face off against Roland (of the Song of Roland, totally fictitious) and Ruy Díaz de Vivar in the Song of the Cid (largely factual, from the 11th century). And let’s not forget Gilgamesh, older than the Old Testament (and with a global flood). What a hilarious idea – just mix up the heroes and the villains, and throw in a few thousand years of epic tales!
The library doesn’t have these Kid Beowulf books (yet), but we can get some of them from other libraries. Stop by the Children’s Desk and ask us about them, or about any other epic stories. And by the way, all medieval tales are not as gory as the original Beowulf. Try Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, for a lovely Arthurian story about breaking enchantments by giving people what they want.
Many of the tales about El Cid, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Merlin, Roland, the Round Table, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are wonderful too. After all, there’s a reason why all these stories have lasted so long.