“Beowulf and the Grendel-kin – Politics & Poetry in 11th century England” by Helen Damico

West Virginia University Press, 345 pp., $49.99

Helen Damico discusses, signs “Beowulf and the Grendel-kin” at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13 at the UNM Bookstore, on campus at 2301 Central NE.

By David Steinberg

Helen Damico recalls the day more than a decade ago that set her on the path to writing her book “Beowulf and the Grendel-kin.”

Damico was at London’s Institute for Historical Research.  She was there researching queens in early England.

“I was in the institute’s library and pulled books off open stacks. One was ‘Encomium Emmae Reginae.” Emma was queen to Cnut. I was leafing through “Emmae” and there was a passage with several similarities that reminded me of Beowulf. I thought it was strange,” she said in an interview.

“Beowulf” is the most famous, most discussed epic poem of Old England.

Those apparently similarities led the intellectually curious Damico to study the relationship of history and poetry, particularly events and figures in 11th century Anglo-Danish England with events and figures in the poem.

“Vernacular epics are always related to history,” she said.

Damico’s book is concentrated on the first two-thirds of the 3,182 lines of “Beowulf.“

“There were a lot of issues I had to investigate to see if they had any value. For instance, the issue of ‘Emmae.’ It was a satire of Emma’s marriage to Cnut. Emma was looked upon as achieving the throne and Cnut had a concubine,” Damico said.

Her book presents “Beowulf” as an historical allegory containing parallels with the political events of the first half of 11th century England.

“‘Beowulf’ is usually thought of as a tale, a folktale, as a monster tale. (Beowulf kills the monster Grendel). It’s not that at all. It’s an historical epic,” Damico said.

In that way, “Beowulf” is like  two earlier epic poems, “The Iliad” and “The Aeneid,” which ransformed reality into a poem, she noted.

“‘Beowulf’ has been around for 1,000 years and next year will be the millennium of the poem and of Cnut’s reign as King of England, Damico said.

There is evidence of the poem’s continued popularity to the present.

Damico cites this evidence – 85 translations of the poem into modern English, a comic book series, movies, an opera, recordings of readings, a still-extant 16th century facsimile, a story from Grendel’s viewpoint and any number of dual-language (Old English/modern English) editions.

Dermic is professor emerita of English Medieval Language and Literature at the University of New Mexico and a founder of UNM’s Institute for Medieval Studies.