“They have seen my strength for themselves,
Have watched me rise from the darkness of war,
Dripping with my enemies' blood. I drove
Five great giants into chains, chased
All of that race from the earth. I swam
In the blackness of night, hunting monsters
..But I will fight again, seek fame still,
If the dragon hiding in his tower dares
To face me!”
These lines are attributed to Beowulf, a Norse king of legendary strength and infallible honour whose adventures make up the epic poem of his name. Comprised of more than 3,000 lines, ‘Beowulf’ was written in England before the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, making it the oldest and longest Old English poem in existence.
If you’ve never read Beowulf or any of its translations, its impact on centuries fantasy fiction literature and popular culture means it’s still likely that you already know Beowulf’s story. Read on to learn how and where to recognize hints of Beowulf in great works today:
Connections Between Beowulf and Game of Thrones
The story of Beowulf details his journey to defeating the monstrous Grendel, Grendel’s vengeful mother, and a rampaging, treasure-hoarding dragon.
Beowulf is set in the pagan world of sixth-century Scandinavia, with echoes of Christian tradition and Old English folklore, and embellished with themes of good versus evil and honor above all. These are all hallmarks of the literary genre we now know as ‘swords and sandals fantasy.’
Fans believe Beowulf’s dragon mirrors Drogon, one of the dragons hatched by GOT’s Khaleesi.
Beowulf’s particular themes and context might remind you of the Game of Thrones (GOT) series and Song of Ice and Fire books by George R. R. Martin. Fans of the series who study great books have drawn connections between Beowulf and GOT’s enchanted weapons, dragon descriptions, and the Beowulf-like King Baratheon character.
The Tolkien/Beowulf Connection: Clear to Those Who Study Great Books
Tolkien described Beowulf as one of the "most valued sources" for his writings on Middle Earth. Many of his place names, character names, and plot points in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books directly parallel those in Beowulf.
For example, Bilbo was reluctantly enlisted to retrieve a piece of treasure from a dragon, just as Beowulf "did not of his own accord plunder the treasure." As Tolkien wrote, "The episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same."
Tolkien is also one of the only writers to translate Beowulf into modern English for publication.
Magic In The Study of Great Books: Beowulf and Harry Potter
In Beowulf, the antagonist Grendel is protected against death—"no battle sword could harm him - he had enchantment against the edges of weapons"—and can only be defeated by one man’s strength—Beowulf’s. It’s also said that for Beowulf and Grendel, "each was hateful to the other alive."
Author J.K. Rowling is said to have been inspired by this with her series’ prophecy about Harry Potter and villainous Voldemort—“neither can live while the other survives.” The Voldemort character does have supernatural protections against death, his only chance of defeat being at the hands of Harry himself.
Fans have also drawn parallels between Grendel and Grindelwald, another “dark wizard” villain in the Harry Potter books.
The huge success of Harry Potter and the works mentioned above are a testament to the lasting strength of Beowulf’s themes and characters. Building your education on great books foundations by studying epic texts like Beowulf can enrich your understanding of English literature, language, and the world around you—book by book.
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