Beowulf Is The Greatest Classic Book, And I Will Not Be Taking Any Questions At This Time
There's always someone out there trying to prove that one book or another is the all-time, stone-cold-est, greatest classic book of all time.
And they're all fools, because unlike me, they didn't pose Beowulf, which is absolutely, 100% the greatest classic book.
Monster kills people, badass from another land kills monster, monster’s mom gets mad, badass kills mom, cut to many years later, elderly badass fights dragon, the end.
Beowulf doesn't saddle you with 50 characters to keep track of (The Iliad). It’s way more about physical action we get to witness than it is about thoughts and feelings we have to be told about (Pride and Prejudice). Its straightforward nature makes people way less likely to concoct wild interpretations that have no real relevance to the story (Shakespeare). You don’t need a complete history lesson of its era to understand it (Chaucer). And it's not The Yellow Wallpaper, so points there.
Reading Beowulf is kind of like watching a martial arts movie made in a language you don’t speak: Even though you don't understand every word of dialog, and even though there's some cultural context that's lost on you, the ass-kicking action and clear through lines make it a great experience.
It’s Complicated in the Right Way
I would venture there’s one complex aspect of Beowulf: We see a warrior descend into old age. He’s not able to do the things he could do before.
It’s The Dark Knight Returns from before Frank Miller was a twinkle in a twinkle in a twinkle...
It's Rocky Balboa from many, many years before Stallone could get screwed out of his rightfully-deserved Oscars.
This one, simple, universal complication of aging and giving things up punches a reader in the gut. Because it's not a story we're used to, something where we watch the hero go from absolute legend to doddering fool.
To put it in simple terms: STUFF HAPPENS.
Which doesn't seem like a big deal, but when we're talking classics, THINGS HAPPENING is a pretty big bonus.
Movie Effort, Classic Novel Credit
It’ll probably cost you 3 hours to read Beowulf, give or take.
It’s got to be one of the fastest, easiest to comprehend classic books.
And yet you get all the intellectual credit of reading any of those old-timey books with their antiquated language and boring social situations.
Kennings Are Dope And Underused
A kenning is kind of a compound of two words that's used in place of a single word, and they're all over the place in Beowulf.
For example, calling a "spear" a "slaughter-pole." That's fucking metal.
"Raven-harvest" instead of "corpses."
"Battle-sweat" instead of "blood."
Why aren't more people using this shit!?
It’s Its Own Best Self
I don’t hate the 2007 Zemeckis movie and its "Uncanny Valley As Aesthetic" vibe the way some people do, but even still, you'd be hard pressed to find a stronger case for "The book was better."
The monsters work better as horrid, unknowable beasts, hidden in darkness. They’re much scarier in your imagination, much more threatening before they're given shape on the screen.
And Beowulf works better in a book, a character who is larger than life in a non-literal way. When he’s flesh and blood and basically looks like a Sean Bean mannequin, it kills this idea of an unreal dude with forearms like tree limbs, a torso like a tree trunk, and an ass like...like a beautiful ass that just formed on a tree somehow. Nature finds a way.
With Shakespeare, a performance is the best version. With lots of other classics, their movie adaptations are pretty damn good.
Beowulf's best version is the book.
It Meets Realistic Expectations for Readers
After working as a librarian for over a decade, I have a harsh truth for you.
We should stop trying to turn non-readers into readers.
We're always at this one, making a book-hater into a reader overnight. It's impossible.
Instead, the move is to connect them to single “Well, except for…” books:
“Books suck. Well, except for Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
“I hate reading. Well, except for Percy Jackson.”
"Everything we read for school is stupid. Well, except Long Way Down."
"Books are boring. Well, except for Lee Child."
“Classics are trash. Well, except for Beowulf.”
I think Beowulf can be that “Well, except for…” book for a lot of people.
Try it sometime. Instead of trying to change someone’s entire mind about books and reading, just try and find one book that can fit through the holes in someone's armor.
If they hate mysteries, don't make them a mystery reader. Just find them a mystery that forces them to say, “Okay, that was pretty cool.”
Somebody who hates comics, hand them a comic book that is so good they say, "I still don't really like comics, but that one was worth it."
Classics are the toughest nut to crack. And Beowulf has the grip strength to do it, no problem.
And for the love of god, don’t then fuck it up by trying to get them straight to Charles Dickens from there. You’ve got a good thing going. Don’t blow it.
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