Mead and Beowulf

It’s inevitable once you start poking around in the mead world that you will run up against Beowulf.

In case you’ve forgotten, Beowulf is a Geat, which roughly corresponds to a modern Swede. Beowulf is a hero of the Geats, and when he gets word of the trouble befalling Hrothgar, the King in nearby Denmark, he decides to sail to Denmark with some of his buddies to see how they can help.

Eating, drinking, merriment, et cetera follow. Now, the actual connection to mead here is a little tenuous. Just a small fraction of the events in ‘Beowulf’ occur in a mead hall. Hrothgar’s mead-hall, technically, called ‘Heorot.’ Seriously…the mead-hall is closed for something like TWELVE YEARS.

There’s a couple of nights where Grendel (the villainous monster) attacks, and then Grendel’s mom attack, and the place is pretty much trashed. And beer and wine are mentioned about as frequently as mead in the actual text, so why doesn’t ‘Beowulf’ come up when you’re out drinking beer? It’s kind of like bringing up “The Caine Mutiny” anytime someone mentions strawberries.

And there’s another thing about our hero Beowulf. He is just about as dumb as a post. First, he decides to battle Grendel–the monstrous spawn of Cain who has been causing trouble and murdering fully armed and armored warriors–bare handed. Because ‘honor.’ Okay, whatever; Beowulf prevails and mortally wounds Grendel almost as soon as Grendel comes lurking and smashes the mead-hall door in.

Next, Grendel’s mom comes looking for some justice, and Beowulf chases her back to her underwater lair…where he decides NOW it’s a good idea to wear all his armor and mail and swords and stuff. Amazingly, he prevails again, becomes the big hero, yadda yadda. Feasting, drinking, merriment, sail back to Geatland.

FIFTY YEARS LATER, he decides he PERSONALLY needs to fight the newly awoken gold-hoard guarding dragon BY HIMSELF. Does anyone else see a pattern of poor decision making with our hero? Guess what–with the help of his buddy Wiglaf, who comes to his aid at the last moment, he slays the dragon…but is mortally wounded and dies, leaving his people leaderless and dragonless but with much more gold than they had before.

Really, the best telling of the tale might be John Gardner’s 1971 re-imagining in “Grendel.” So yeah, if ‘Beowulf’ is the only thing that comes to mind when mead is the topic, it might be time to re-read it. Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation is an easy and engaging read, but Burton Raffel’s 1963 translation still stands up nicely.

PS: If you want to see what what Heorot probably looked like in real life, check out one of the great halls at L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland; that’s much more likely than Meduseld in Edoras.