Monday, April 26, 2010

Epic Poetry and the Swedish Chef--National Poetry Month

[This is a public domain image from Kip Wheeler's homepage at Carson-Newman College. Kip Wheeler declared its status thus: "The original image of the Beowulf manuscript comes from the anonymous Anglo-Saxon scribe who wrote the 'Nowell Codex', Cotton Vitellius A.x.v. 129 r. It appears here as reproduced in Julius Zupitza's Beowulf: Autotypes of the Unique Cotton MS Vitellius A.xv. in the British Museum with a Transliteration and Notes. E.E.T.S. O.S. 77. London: Trubner & Co., 1882. This image is public domain."]

Epic poetry, like today's epic novels, sweeps across landscapes and generations. Many epic poems, such as the most famous early English epic, Beowulf, tell of historic heroics, with a dash of myth thrown in. Ordinary people have been drawn to the story for its action adventure, but scholars have poured over it for other reasons. How much is historical? Was it written in the 8th century or later? Who wrote it? Was it told orally before it was written?

What we do know is that Beowulf is a tale of a hero who fights dragon Grendel, Grendel's mother, and an unnamed dragon over the course of his life in ancient Scandinavia. The poetry is not rhymed or metered like modern poetry. It is alliterative, with emphasis on initial word sounds. This is a sample of what the lines look like typeset:

Beowulf and Grendel's Mother
Lines 1357-1382

Hie dygel lond
warigeað, wulfhleoþu, windige næssas,
frecne fengelad, ðær fyrgenstream

under næssa genipu niþer gewiteð,
flod under foldan. Nis þæt feor heonon
milgemearces þæt se mere standeð;
ofer þæm hongiað hrinde bearwas,
wudu wyrtum fæst wæter oferhelmað.

Hear Beowulf in Old English by clicking "audio" toward the bottom of this page.

Something about the way this sounds has always reminded me of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets, which, while not epic, is adventurous in its own way.

What do you think? Is the Swedish Chef a descendant of Beowulf?


  1. LOL!!!
    Seriously, one of my English professors was a scholar and read part of this to us aloud. Amazing to think how far it reaches across time.

  2. Ha! I love it and can totally see it--Swedish Chef as a Beowulf descendent.

  3. My students thought so, too. :) Thanks for the comment, Jenn!