Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review: Beyond Beowulf, by Christopher L. Webber

BEYOND BEOWULF
by Christopher L.Webber
ISBN: 0-595-37358-5, 2006 iUniverse, 124 pp., $10.95

The number of versions and translations of Beowulf that I have read in the past several years while doing research for my debut novelization of that epic poem might reasonably be described as staggering ("ludicrous" is a term that comes to mind). But of all these, no one in the all the span of time those works represent had attempted to pen a sequel to the original work, until now (or 2006 to be precise).

Christopher L. Webber's Beyond Beowulf is, in fact, the first true sequel to Beowulf, not only in terms of story, but also in its form.Webber wrote his continuation in alliterative iambic pentameter, a natural meter to bring the Old English mode into the modern age. And while the ancient Anglo-Saxon in which the original poem was composed employs rhythmic syllabication, the steady driving metre provided by its rigid system of stressed alliteration is amply mirrored in modern English through the clever intermarriage of these forms. The Old English poem was intended to be listened to, recited aloud by a poet before a hushed and rapt audience in a performance much akin to the one-man show in modern theater. The use of iambic pentameter enforces the sense of sound that audience would have experienced as part and parcel of this ancient tale.

Webber discusses this in his introduction to the sequel, noting how pervasive alliteration still remains in modern parlance, for example in such common phrases as "rant and rave" or "aid and abet." In adhering to this auditory sense of poetic composition, Webber alliterates such words as "ceaseless sounds," which do not scan visually, but only vocally, while "ceaseless cares" is just the opposite. This careful attention to diction is one of the many elements that render this work so impressive, both as poetry and sequel.

Less successful is his use of end notes. Although there is a fair amount of information given in the six pages of notes provided for specific passages, there is no reference in the work itself that an end note exists for a given line, so that the reader is forced either to keep constant watch on the note section while reading, or to simply ignore them altogether. In the end, I simply went through and entered asterisks on the relevant lines as should have been done to indicate an end noteexists.

Still, it is the story that matters, and here Webber succeeds admirably, taking up the tale where the original left off, with the imminent downfall of the Geats after Beowulf's demise. Much speculation and hypothesis has ensued in the last century concerning the fate of this once-legendary tribe of ancient Scandinavians, and best guesses have had them wiped out by the expanding clan of Swedes, or fleeing westward to new lands as so many northerners would do throughout the intervening centuries that lay between the 6th century and the 10th, when those earlier events were at last committed to a written form. Here Webber follows the prevailing winds and sends our tattered remnants sailing west and north through stormy seas to hostile foreign shores, where they meet with foes both human and unnatural, just as Beowulf had done before. And while the story constantly refers back to its predecessor, it is both reverential and unique in its approach.

Wiglaf, the last of Beowulf's bloodline, takes the reins unwillingly to steer his people toward a future only he seems able to envision: one where constant warfare plays no part and peace is what a man should strive for more than fame or glory. In their travels these exiles meet with many opportunities to prove their valor, only to find at every turn that what had once served to strengthen them is now of no avail, but only lessens them, in number and in value. Fleeing from one inhospitable harbor to another, the Geats come at last upon a monastery on the English coast where a brotherhood of monks bolsters Wiglaf's yearning for a better life for his weary tribe. And while Webber is careful in his presentation of a Christian system of belief - more so than the Beowulf poet himself, in fact - the sequel is clearly intended to show how the heathen polytheistic belief in warrior gods cannot support a people who would thrive and grow as they move into an unknown future. This moral eulogizing renders Beyond Beowulf - as with the original - a poignant work with as much to say about the past as it does about the present.

Rating: 4.5 of 5

Visit Christopher L. Webber's blog
An earlier review for Beyond Beowulf, with a short interview, is here