This summer we went to the British Museum for the Viking exhibition. After drooling over the real longship, the weapons, the rare shields, wallowing in pagan relics, and wowing over executed Viking skeletons (with authentic defensive wounds) we had coffee and split down gender lines to see different highlights. Morgenstern and K went off to look at Egyptians. Kurtzhau — 10 — and I marched upstairs to see the new(ish) Dark Age gallery.
I lost track of my son for a few minutes then found him staring at the Sutton Hoo helmet:
Last time he was this transfixed, it was four years ago, a Summer evening on the Isle of Mull. Mesmerised by the dark waves lapping the rocky shore, he waded into the cold water still wearing his shoes. The West Coast being somewhat damp, the shoes took a week to dry. Sometime during those seven days, I read him Rosemary Sutcliff’s Beowulf which helped to kick off his love of the Dark AgesHe was 6, so this was legend without spoilers. Here’s the old LJ entry:
* * *
The wind howls outside the holiday cottage, and Beowulf nails Grendel’s arm to Heriot’s roof beam.
As the hero makes his way home across the foam-flecked whale-road, all to the soundtrack of Jethro Tull’s “Broadsword” album (on to drown out Morgenstern’s War Against Sleep in the next room, rather than to provide mood), Kurtzhau bbecomesrestive:
“I’m bored Daddy.”
“Oh. OK. I’ll stop for now,” I say, closing Rosemary Sutcliff‘s “Beowulf”.
Like the original poem, it’s a work of genius. She’s done what I would do for the Battle Abbey Sword; pared away the Christian accretions and given us back the authentic original. In this slim volume, a pagan Beowulf bestrides a pre-Christian north, invoking the All Father and Wyrd more fittingly than he would ever have invoked a deity of Mediterranean origins.
Shorn of a more civilized viewpoint character – her usual gambit – Sutcliff still manages to capture the unremitting otherness of the milieu, and carve out a tale of mighty-thewed warriors that would sit well between the best of Robert E Howard and Harold Lamb – a hell of an achievement, given she was a wheelchair-bound Telegraph reading English lady, trained to paint miniatures, rather than a Texan brawler, or a real-life Indiana Jones.
(It’s also a book I recognize. I must have read it – but when?)
However, the language is rich and difficult, and Kurtzhau is only six and –
“No, Daddy. I don’t mean stop. I just mean I Want To Play while you read.”
“OK.” I’d rather he didn’t because it seems disrespectful, and “I am not a TV”, but he seems to follow whatever I read and parrot it back with unerring accuracy if I spot check.
Before he can leave the bed, I start the next chapter and the narrative skims 50 raiding seasons and suddenly Beowulf is an old king and a dragon stalks the land.
The rain hammers the window, loud enough to be heard over Jethro Tull.
Kurtzhau stops with one foot on the floor. “What happens next, Daddy? Does he kill the dragon? Does he survive?”
I smile. “You only get to hear this story for the first time, once. So, I’m not telling.”
He squirms, but he knows the rule. Me, I’m envious. Imagine experiencing Welch’s “Sun of York” and not knowing how Tewkesbury will turn out? Or, his “Knight Crusader” and not knowing whether anybody will survive Arsuf, given how badly the Horns of Hattin went?
And the finale of Beowulf, in all its forms, packs a punch on the first reading, and Kurtzhau somehow can’t quite make it to the floor where his Playmobil knights and galloglasses are at war.
The white-bearded king dons his ringmail war-sark and his boar-crested helmet and prepares to go alone to what will be his final battle. As they arm him, he sings his death song. Kurtzhau huddles closer—
–and just then the track changes to “Broadsword“.
Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding.
Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.
The story resonates with the song’s theme of fighting for hearth and home, and – damn me – now there’s a lump in my throat and I struggle to read on.
The two of us together live through the dragon fight, the flight of Beowulf’s thanes, all except Wiglaf who tips the balance in his lord’s favor. Now Beowulf lies dying, poisoned by dragon venom.
Kurtzhau and I both hold each other, sharing a blast of emotions from our ancestors’ cold Dark Ages.
Abruptly, Kurtzhau slips off the bed and rummages with his plastic figures.
“Oh well,” I think. “He’s done pretty well for a—”
He bounces back to join me and thrusts a Playmobil barbarian at me. “This guy can be Wiglaf from now on. Now read the end!”
Afterwards, he’s outraged that the story is so short, and we talk about how lucky we are to have the story at all, and about bards and praise singers, and the irony that the two episodes of Beowulf’s life to come down to us are the ones that emphatically did not happen.
“What happened to Wiglaf?”
I shrug. “Was there a theory he lead a Germanic tribe to Britain? Sorry – I can’t remember and we’ve no Internet access here. But if there were any poems about him, they’re lost.”
Kurtzhau considers. “Somebody ought to write a sequel.”