17 Feb 2014

The illustrated Beowulf


The monster wrenched and wrestled with him

but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,

the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:

He relied for help on the Lord of All,

on His care and favour. So he overcame the foe,

brought down the hell-brute. (1269-1274)


Jemimah and I finished reading the inimitable Seamus Heaney's translation of the gripping Old English epic, Beowulf, this afternoon. We loved it.

Composed in Anglo-Saxon somewhere between the seventh and tenth centuries (a muckle big time range), Beowulf tells the story of a hero from the land of the Geats (in Sweden) who saves the Danes from a seemingly invincible monster called Grendel, and later from Grendel's mother. It is a thrillingly exciting story, and it very beautiful - even when translated by Heaney into modern English blank rhyme.

I read it aloud - as it is meant to be read - from the illustrated edition edited by John D. Niles. In this edition, each facing page of Heaney's text is illustrated with a photograph of some Anglo-Saxon artefact relevant to the action of that part of the poem. The images add so much to the enjoyment of the story.

Beowulf's men have boar- shapes on their helmets, maybe like this one, mounted on a helmet from Benty Grange in Derbyshire.

The Danish Princess, Freawaru, may well have worn jewellery as beautiful as this pair of sixth century eagle brooches.

Exhausted after his underwater fight in Grendel's mere, Beowulf retires to bed. The King and queen spend the night in a separate longhouse, maybe reclining in a beautifully carved bed like this one, a reconstruction of one from 800-850.

Most of the illustrations are artefacts - helmets, spears, swords, but there are also photos of reconstructed mead halls and long houses and tombs, as well as landscapes, showing the country. Some of the pieces are extraordinarily beautiful - gold jewellery looking just as it would have done in Beowulf's time, drinking vessels of exquisite glass, magnificent swords. Viewing a reconstruction of the Viking-era fortress at Trelleborg on the island of Zealand, as you read about King Hygelac's hall, makes you appreciate the magnificence of the structure, just as photos of the snow make you appreciate the hardships.

This illustrated version of Beowulf is more than just a pretty picture book, although it is certainly that. It is all your google image searches bound into one book, but with an expert selecting the images because they illustrate the poem's lines perfectly, not just because you need to find another picture of a helmet or a gold ring. If you have an opportunity to read from this book, I thoroughly recommend it. We loved it.



  1. Don't you wish you could have gone to school like this yourself? Marvelous book!

  2. lol This is why I sooo love archaeology! Looking at these things all cleaned & ready for use gets me excited. Have you seen the Lewis Chessmen?

    Can you imagine playing with those? The Queen's disapproving expression cracks me up. ☺


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