This paper shall examine the modern treatment of Beowulf by Dr David Breeden with the traditional interpretation of this classic legend. The elements of character development and the use of plot and conflict shall be compared and contrasted between these two separate works. The text of Breeden’s work was chosen due to its presentation as a dual- language edition of the legend.
The modern interpretation of Beowulf is notable due to its forced consistencies with the older work: In translation, one of the best aspects of a translated work is the ability to keep the main points that are present within the original work. However, Breeden notes in several places that his translation of the original text was done with the intention of translating the meaning of the work rather than creating a direct word- forword language translation. The result is that, while the reader cannot compare and contrast the actual verbal meanings as presented by each separate word for the majority of the text, the meaning of the work is preserved. This is most highly evident in the character development and the use of plot and conflict found within both separate works.
In Breeden’s version of Beowulf, the character of Beowulf is subject to the greatest degree of development. Breeden first presents Beowulf as being exceedingly proud, where Beowulf announces himself at the gates of Hrothgar’s land as the only warrior that can bring down Grendel, where he states: "I am Hygelac's kinsman and warrior. I have undertaken many glorious deeds. I learned of Grendel in my native land…” (Breeden: 30) Yet in the original work, such posturing would not be seen as anything ignoble but instead mainly the right of the warrior: Beowulf was exactly what he claimed to be, an accomplished hero that was deservedly proud of his prowess in battle.
However, as the texts progress and Beowulf is confronted by Grendel’s armies, he soon realizes that this is a foe unlike any he has challenged before. Yet in both texts, Grendel is bested – easily bested – by Beowulf, where “That man, mightiest of warriors alive, held fast. He would not for any reason allow his murderous visitor to escape alive, to keep the days of his life.” (Breeden: 49 – 50) In both versions, the easy defeat of the mighty villain Grendel is only foreshadowing for Grendel’s mother, where the success over her son allows Beowulf to grow complacent. A similar fall occurs when Beowulf loses his life in his battle with the dragon at the conclusion of the tale. (Harris: 30 – 31)
As Breeden attempts to keep close to the original structure of the legend in terms of plot and conflict, the differences are less obvious than they were in the comparison of character development. The similarities help to denote that the process of conflict was frequently used as a means of conveying the tension of the story itself: The process of conflict is seen in Beowulf as being escalatory, where first Beowulf fights the lesser foe of Grendel, then fights Grendel’s mighty mother, and finally enters into combat with the mighty dragon. Similarly, it can be seen that the plot of the legend is likewise advanced through each successive measure of the story, where Beowulf enters the tale as the son of a distant nobleman and gains prominence with each successive victory. Beowulf challenges Grendel and becomes renown in the court of Herot, kills Gredel’s mother to become king, and then becomes a legend when he slays and is slain by the dragon. Beowulf states: I ruled the people fifty winters. Not one king among the neighboring peoples dared greet me with a sword; I feared no one. I awaited my destiny well: never did I plot a quarrel, never did I swear an unjust oath…. (Breeden: 86) As a wise and just king, no one challenges his claim to greatness and Beowulf does indeed become a legendary champion.
This paper has demonstrated how the traditional and the modern interpretations of the tale of Beowulf differ in terms of plot structure and in terms of character development. While it can be argued that the plot of both versions is similar, especially in terms of the conflict found in the structure of the plot, the treatment of the characters is different between these two period texts.
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