Book Review Mini: Beowulf (Heaney)

What’s it about? (SPOILERS!)

The first page of Beowulf

The hero Beowulf sails to the great hall of Heorot where the people are being terrorized by the monster Grendel. After a some courtly conversation, boasting, and insults, Beowulf and his men go to sleep in the hall. Grendel attacks and Beowulf rips off his arm, leaving the monster to limp home to die. Beowulf then leads an expedition to track the monster, swims down to an underwater lair, and battles Grendel’s mother. He returns victorious.

Years later, Beowulf becomes king of his people. A dragon emerges from its treasure hoard when a thief steals a trinket from it (Bilbo?). An aged Beowulf battles the dragon, and with the help of a young warrior Wiglaf, kills the dragon, though it mortally wounds Beowulf.

What did I think?

I’ve always liked the tale of Beowulf, and I am fond of the Heaney translation. The story is short and straightforward, but still evocative of a time, a place, and a people. It carries a lot of viking-esque flavor, along with some courtly drama and fantasy monsters. I also recommend the Michael Crichton version Eaters of the Dead, and the film version The 13th Warrior.

Can I use it in a tabletop RPG?

Absolutely. Beowulf gives us a clear depiction of life in a post-classical hall, with warriors and royalty who live by strong codes of behavior. A royal court should always have an old ruler who needs a young hero, some trusted advisors, and a young upstart who thinks he’s better than the hero to make trouble.

Then the hero kills a monster not with his sword but in a contest of strength. He wins his way into the lair, finds an ancient sword, defeats another monster, and uses the head to claim his treasure not from the monster but from the king. These are great adventure elements that can help tie a scenario together, so it isn’t simply a dungeon hack or a fetch quest, but an evolving relationship with the people who need a hero.

If you like that sort of thing.

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