15 Books: Beowulf

Seamus Heaney's translation is better than the Christopher Lambert movie.

We’re reaching number 12 in my list of 15 books that have stuck with me in some way, shape or form, and the mileage I’m getting out of this months-old Facebook meme is definitely satisfying to me.  I’m going to try to knock out the rest of the posts in this series at a rate of at least two a week, so that we can get this done before the end of the year, but as I’m about to go through an inter-continental move, that may be disrupted.

Now, hit the jump for some nostalgic musings on an ancient old-English epic.

I was ten or eleven years old the first time I read Beowulf, and if you had asked me then, I would have told you that it was one of the top five most exciting things that had ever happened to me, right up there with my first karate lesson and meeting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at an amusement park.

A costume head from the T.M.N.T. Coming Out of Their Shells tour
Some aspects of that memory are much more horrifying out of context.

As a child, I spent entirely too much time in front of the TV. Cartoons, sitcoms, movies, videogames–I was in front of the tube a lot. On snow days, I spent at least as much time watching TV as not. (I think I was the only nine-year-old in my school to know the lyrics to the Dear John theme.) I know that I read a lot as a child, but until Beowulf, whatever fiction I read was mostly either slight, young-adult novels or barely-disguised first drafts for screenplays by Michael Chrichton and Stephen King.

Beowulf, on the other hand, wouldn’t work as a movie. Even at the age of ten, I could tell that this was a story that would be disjointed and alienating on film: A big guy on a big boat shows up at a bar, talks about how strong he is, rips a monster’s arm off, kills his mother and then thirty years later gets killed by a dragon. End of story. Roll credits. It was, to my adolescent sensibilities, more primal than Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, more exciting than Jurassic Park and as heartfelt and human as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Beowulf was my initiation to the power of thoroughly uncinematic literature, and I’m a better (though probably less tolerable) person for it.

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