Posted on March 28, 2013

BEOWULF: A Thousand Years of Baggage from Banana Bag & Bodice storms its way into Mayfest 2013. But what if you don’t know your Grendel from a Griddle Iron? Fear ye not – Mayfest’s very own bluffer’s guide to this ancient epic is at your very fingertips … 

#1: What exactly is Beowulf?

Beowulf is an epic poem written in England in Old English, but set in Scandinavia. Consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines, it is one of the most important works of the Anglo-Saxon world. The English language has changed so much since it was written that it is unintelligible to speakers of modern English – as the first lines of the poem show; Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

#2: Who exactly is Beowulf?

Beowulf is the hero of the poem – a warrior from the Geats, a Germanic tribe in southern Sweden. The area is now called Götaland.

#3: When was it written?

The poem was written between the 8th and 11th centuries. It survived in one single document called the Nowell Codex that was almost lost to fire in 1731. Beowulf was not widely read or celebrated until it was reprinted in 1815 by an Icelandic-Danish scholar called Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin.

#4: Who wrote it?

No one knows – no record of who the Anglo-Saxon author was survives.

#5: What’s the story about?

The great hall of Hroðgar is suffering regular attacks by the monster Grendel, Beowulf, a hero of a neighbouring tribe comes to help. Beowulf, ever the hero, slays Grendel with his bare hands and then goes and kills Grendel’s mother too, with a giant’s sword that he finds in her lair. Years later when Beowulf is king of the Geats, he finds himself in a similar position, his kingdom terrorised by a dragon. He takes a band of servants to attack the dragon, but they fail, so he decides to follow the beast into its lair. Only Wiglaf, a young Swedish relative is brave enough to join him. Finally, after a great struggle, Beowulf slays the dragon. However, he is mortally wounded and dies, to be buried in a mound by the sea.

#6: What are the main themes?

Bravery, great deeds, loyalty – all the great staples of the early medieval epic poem are there in spades. The poem is also a history, of sorts, elaborately mapping out lineages, marriages, alliances, debts and and valiant deeds to repay them.

#7: What’s a good quote that’ll make me seem like I really know my Dark Ages onions?

“So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world.” To be said knowingly when the good times, inevitably, end.

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. Banana Bag & Bodice. The Trinity Centre, 17-19 May. Book your tickets here.