A Review of “Beyond Beowulf”

Authors should probably not comment on reviews of their work, so I will only say that I was surprised by the way this one focuses on Wiglaf’s character rather than the elements I would have thought would interest an Anglican reviewer. Readers are welcome to review the review! This was printed in Good News: the Newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.

Kent C.Smith
Christopher L. Webber, Beyond Beowulf, iUniverse, Inc., 124pp., $10.95.

Here’s a modern verse epic about a hero and his people struggling through perilous times in sixth-century Scandinavia and Britain. The story tells of bloody attacks by seaborne raiders. raucous feasts in mead halls, terrifying journeys through northern seas, of savage strife against vicious sea-monsters, dragons, water-sprites, and trolls, tense parleys and wars with hostile people, bitter power struggles over tribal leadership, and constant fears about the onslaughts erf starvation, war, disaster, and nameless dark forces.
Christopher Webber wrote his Beyond Beowulf as a modern sequel to Beowulf, the great classic of Old English literature. In that Anglo-Saxon epic, the brave but compassionate hero Beowulf leads his people, the Geats, as they rescue the neighboring Danes from the depredations of Grendel, a fierce and horrific monster. Beowulf slays Grendel, rejoices in victory, then rescues the Danes once again by polishing off Grendel’s even more terrifying mother. Finally, Beowulf loses his own life while killing a fire-breathing dragon who has been robbing and slaughtering humans right and left because one of them stole a cup from his hoard of gold. Beowulf ends with the Geats building a burial mound for Beowulf and mourning their fallen hero.
This is where Beyond Beowulf takes up the story. The Geats simmer with fear that their neighbors the Swedes will fall upon them in revenge for past wrongs. Webber’s hero is the young Wiglaf, who alone among Beowulf’s warrior comrades had stood unflinchingly with him during the mortal encounter with the dragon. Wiglaf assumes leadership of the Geats only after a boastful, aggressive chieftain has led a rash and vain preemptive strike the Swedes. Wiglaf himself had urged restraint and absented himself from this venture.
Wiglaf counsels his countrymen to try to understand the reasons which lie behind the resentments of the Geats’ human enemies. Against continued resistance from many of his own people, he struggles to free them from the cycle of “futile feuds that yield only death unending.” He warns that chasing after gold and revenge yields no lasting happiness or peace.
Webber paints a fuller portrait of Wiglaf and his qualities than the original epic offered about Beowulf. He focuses on Wiglaf’s characteristics as a leader. Wiglaf’s leadership style is patient and collaborative, involving listening to all points of view, cooperating with all potential allies. He encourages the participation of his whole community rather than slavish obedience to one heroic leader. He works always to inspire hope but eschews facile optimism. He admits the impossibility of foreseeing how perilous adventures will turn out. Cautious and moderate though he is, when push come to shove Wiglaf faces all dangerous trials and looming obstacles with bravery despite his being forsaken in crises by those who had trumpeted their own courage.
Above all, Wiglaf has a vision of a better future. He seeks to lead his people to “a haven in a heartless world,” a place where they can dwell free from the fears which lead to conflict and destruction. The pursuit of gold, glory, and fame, he says, can only lead us into trouble. Wiglaf sees that the dangers which stand in the way of reaching that place come from within the self as well as from without. But he believes that men and women “yearn for something far beyond.”
Webber’s book is a gripping, vivid, fast-moving story set in a world truly remote from ours. It reflects a deep and loving familiarity with that setting and its language and history. Webber has crafted his verse engagingly, in a meter familiar to us and different from that of Old English verse. At the same time he has effectively and elegantly managed to evoke some of the sound of Old English verse. Try reading his verse aloud, savoring Webber’s gifted use of alliteration, as in:
I dread the danger lying deep within,
The foe we cannot often find or flee,
That swings no sword and throws no spear: the self . . .
Beyond Beowulf probably will never appear in screen version at your neighborhood theater, but it does represent a thoughtful and moving contribution to a growing revival of interest in Norse and Anglo-Saxon lore. In 2000 Seamus Heaney’s modern English translation of Beowulf reached the bestseller lists. This summer the opera, “Grendel,” was performed at Lincoln Center, and next year we can expect a full-length film, “Beowulf,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie, All of this follows upon the phenomenal box-office success of the three Lord of the Rings films, based upon the books of the great scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, J.R.R.Tolkien.
Christopher Webber writes that Beowulf is one of those classic texts which speaks to the human condition, particularly about how human beings seek to impose order, a civilization on our lives. That’s a task all of us face as we encounter the forces of chaos which arise from within and without.
Clearly he hopes his Beyond Beowulf will be of service to his readers as we too make our way through daunting times. His own approach is profoundly Christian, and in fact, quite Anglican, with its emphasis on restraint, caution, compromise, cooperation, tolerance and reliance upon reason. Beyond Beowulf clearly has implications for leadership and politics in our world, but it presents no easy, glib recipes for banishing the perils that beset us.
Beyond Beowulf ends with Wiglaf dead like Beowulf before him, mourned by his followers and, eventually, forgotten. Or is he? Here, after all, is Webber telling the story of Wiglaf’s courageous and persevering witness to humane virtues, those embodied in Christian faith. In this latest of many fine books, this distinguished priest and prolific author has once again reminded us that our Creator plants within us both hope and truth.

—Kent C. Smith is a retired priest of the diocese (of Connecticut), currently clergy-affiliate of Christ Church, New Haven.

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