Beowulf the Warrior

Ian Serraillier - Published 1954

The literary career of English writer Ian Serraillier has been long and varied, spanning five decades from the 1940s to the 1980s. His works include poems for adults, adventure novels for young adults, verse narratives for young adults based on classical and medieval sources, plays in verse for broadcast on BBC radio, picture books for younger readers, and a nonfiction introduction to the age of Chaucer for high school and college students. His poems have been broadcast in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere, and his novel The Silver Sword was serialized for BBC television.

Serraillier was born in London on September 24, 1912. He attended a private boarding school in Sussex and then Brighton College, where he became fascinated with classical mythology. He won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied from 1931 to 1935, taking a master's degree in English language and literature. During his studies at Oxford he developed an interest in medieval literature, which provided the sources for several of his most important later writings.

Although Serraillier always aspired to a writing career, during the first half of his adult life he wrote more as avocation than vocation. From 1936 to 1961 he held a series of teaching positions and devoted most of his vacations to writing. His first published poems appeared in a 1942 collection, Three New Poets: Roy McFadden, Alex Comfort, Ian Serraillier. Shortly thereafter two volumes of poetry for younger readers appeared—The Weaver Birds (1944) and Thomas and the Sparrow (1946). In 1946 he published his first adventure novel for young adults—They Raced for Treasure (later abridged and reissued as Treasure Ahead). He followed this quickly with other books of suspense. Most of these early novels now seem rather dated, with one major exception—The Silver Sword. This novel (later reissued as Escape from Warsaw) is loosely based on actual events in the lives of four refugee children from Poland who traveled through Europe during World War II in search of their parents. It is Serraillier's most acclaimed work.

During the 1950s Serraillier began to pursue a more singular theme in his writing—the celebration of heroic human achievement. One narrative poem from this period commemorated Thor Heyerdahl's perilous voyage across the Pacific on the Kon-Tiki; another concerned Sir Edmund Hillary's conquest of Mt. Everest. Also during this period, Serraillier published Beowulf the Warrior, the first and perhaps best of his reworking of medieval literary materials.

His most important works from the 1960s and 1970s are narrative-verse renditions of classical myths and medieval legends. These include the Greek stories of Perseus, Theseus, Jason, Daedalus, and Heracles; The Song of Roland from Old French literature; and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Robin Hood ballads, and Havelok the Dane from Middle English literature. Serraillier retells some of Shakespeare's plays in The Enchanted Island, and his interest in the works of Chaucer led him to produce a major nonfiction book, Chaucer and His World, and to retell selections from Canterbury Tales. More recently he has written primarily for younger readers.


Beowulf the Warrior is a remarkably faithful retelling of the central narrative events of the epic poem Beowulf, the greatest Old English work that survives from the early medieval period. This epic continues to be held in high regard not only because of its antiquity but because its hero's exploits, in victory and in death, are as stirring for modern readers as they were for medieval listeners. Central to the meaning of the poem is the code of conduct it exalts, often referred to as the 'heroic ideal.' According to this ideal, the true hero is one whose life reflects the virtues of courage in the face of adversity, of strength and skill in defeating one's enemies, and of loyalty and generosity toward one's companions and kin. The hero's goal is to perform exploits worthy of praise in songs and poems, leading to enduring fame. The valor and heroism of Beowulf can inspire the pursuit of these virtues in younger readers.


Although this epic was composed in England during the eighth or ninth century, its setting is southern Scandinavia. The events of the poem, to the extent that there is any historical foundation at all, would have taken place several centuries earlier.

The Old English text begins with a short preliminary episode not directly related to Beowulf's adventures. Serraillier bypasses this scene and begins retelling the poem by describing Heorot, a magnificent mead-hall constructed by King Hrothgar of Denmark. The joyfulness of the Danes in their splendid new hall provokes the savage attacks of a spiteful monster named Grendel. The monster ravages the countryside.

The youthful warrior Beowulf of Geatland (which may represent either southern Sweden or the island of Zealand near the Swedish coast) hears of the slaughter and destruction wreaked upon the Danes by the monster. With a group of his most trusted companions, he sets out across the Baltic Sea to aid the king and battle Grendel. After defeating Grendel and Grendel's monstrous mother, Beowulf returns to his homeland, where he becomes the powerful and respected leader of his own people. The action of the poem then skips ahead fifty years. Now well past his prime and no longer eager for fame, Beowulf must protect his own country from yet another monstrous threat. This time he faces a fire-spewing dragon, more terrible by far than anything ever confronted in his youth.


The epic is named for Beowulf, its dominant figure, who is portrayed at two distinct periods of his life. He first appears as an ambitious young warrior eager to test his courage and skills against the might of Grendel. He recounts an earlier adventure with a youth named Breca that foreshadows his heroic potential. At the same time, Beowulf is contrasted with Unferth, a character who talks about performing heroic deeds but fails to back up his words with actions. Beowulf's proud boast to King Hrothgar—'[I will] rid you of the Brute/ That nightly robs you of rest. I am no weakling.'—represents not idle boasting but a commitment to fulfill the deed or to die trying. Later, a tired and aged King Beowulf faces another monstrous foe, which he vanquishes to save his people but only at the cost of his own life. Nothing is said of the intervening years between youth and old age, which is unusual in epic narratives of this period.

By contrasting these two distinct phases of Beowulf's life, the poet seems to present two ideal patterns of behavior—a youthful Beowulf who provides a perfect model for young people to imitate, and a mature, kingly Beowulf who provides a model of the ideal ruler. The Danish King Hrothgar is portrayed in a favorable light, yet he never achieves the heroic standing of Beowulf and ultimately fails as a model ruler. His inability to protect his people from the attacks of Grendel stands in stark contrast to the old Beowulf's success against the dragon. Something else that emerges from the poem's unusual narrative structure is the suggestion that life is fleeting. Youth leads too quickly to decline. No one, regardless of his or her earthly prowess, remains a hero for long. Therefore, people must make the most of the brief time allotted to them.

Other characters in the poem are presented as worthy of emulation, such as Wiglaf, the only one of Beowulf's men who does not desert him in his final hour. Passionately, Beowulf proclaims to him, 'O valiant, valiant knight/ Who at King's peril never did falter! Such/ Should a warrior strive to be.'

There is a sizable cast of supporting characters. Beowulf is continually surrounded by companions in his youth and courtly retainers in his old age. The first group follows him to Denmark, accompanies him into battle, and faithfully awaits his re-emergence even when it seems their leader has not survived his underwater struggle with Grendel's mother. In the final section of the poem, King Beowulf's retainers fail him. Fearing for their lives, all but Wiglaf flee. Other significant minor characters make their appearance at the Danish court, such as Unferth, an official who taunts Beowulf but lacks the prowess to perform heroic deeds himself, and King Hrothgar's beloved friend and advisor, Aeschere, who is attacked by Grendel's mother the night after Grendel's death.

Hrothgar's wife, Wealhtheow, who serves the guests in Heorot, is one of the few women in the poem. The limited presence of women is characteristic of the poetry of this period, which was chiefly concerned with depicting a male-dominated warrior society. There is one important 'woman' in the poem, though—Grendel's mother. In spite of her ferocity, at least her motivations are simple and understandable. Whereas Grendel's actions are motivated by jealousy and mean-spiritedness, his mother attacks the Danes because of her maternal feelings, which Serraillier emphasizes: 'She . . . brooded upon Grendel/ Her son—her only son—whom long ago/ By the lapping water tenderly herself had suckled;/ Whom as a babe she had fended from brute assault/ And loved more than her own life.'


Beowulf is considered an epic because it is a lengthy narrative poem that follows the adventures of a single great hero. It does not, however, reflect all of the formal characteristics of other great literary epics such as Homer's Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, or Milton's Paradise Lost. Differences stem from the fact that Beowulf was originally composed, probably for oral recitation, in a Germanic verse form known as alliterative verse. In contrast to the poetry most familiar to modern readers—which is written in regular metered verse forms such as iambic pentameter and usually has end-rhyme—a line of alliterative verse has no set number of syllables. Instead of end-rhyme, it uses an internal repetition of initial sounds.

This adaptation of Beowulf is unique among the several modern versions because it is written in poetry rather than in prose. Few others have attempted versifying this difficult poem, but Serraillier succeeds admirably. Although his forms do not strictly accord with alliterative verse, he captures its flavor very well, using vigorous and stirring language as befits a folk epic. Serraillier freely paraphrases the original, translates few verses directly, and through abridgement reduces the Old English epic to less than one third of its original length. Yet few things pertinent to the main story have been omitted. Much of what has been left out belongs to the so-called 'digressions' of Beowulf, which are typically stories alluded to in passing or ballads sung by bards that have been inserted into the main narrative. These stories would have been familiar to Anglo-Saxon audiences and would surely have had thematic relevance to the plot, but most modern readers find them intrusive and often puzzling.

The following passage describing Grendel's abode reflects Serraillier's success in capturing the somber and haunting qualities of Old English alliterative verse; the alliterating sounds are indicated by italics:

. . . the lonely land
Where dwell the dark spirits, by paths of peril,
By cloud-haunted hills where wolves go hunting,
By winding cliffs where swollen torrents tumbling
Plunge headlong into the misty deep,
The grumbling under-water.

Old English poetry is also characterized by the presence of several common poetic devices. One of these is a special kind of compound metaphor known as the kenning. Serraillier retains a few of these in phrases such as 'the whale road' and 'the swan's path' for the sea, 'God's beacon' for the sun, and 'the life-house' for the human body.


One of the controversial aspects of Beowulf for scholars is the poem's blending together of pagan and Christian elements. The story itself was originally a pagan story that was 'christianized' by a later poet. This matter, however, need not concern readers of Serraillier's popular adaptation.

An element of the poem that cannot be played down is its considerable violence. The Germanic world recreated in the poem was a violent one in which few men died a natural death—certainly not those who attempted to fulfill heroic aspirations. One aspect of the violence that is prevalent in the original poem stems from the constant warring among the Germanic tribes. In Serraillier's version, this dimension of the poem is largely omitted, as is the strong sense of doom for Beowulf's people that hovers over the conclusion of the poem. Serraillier does preserve, necessarily, much of the original poem's violence that occurs between men and monsters. This violence can be rather graphic, as when Grendel devours one of Beowulf's men: 'pouncing on the nearest/ [he] tore him limb from limb and swallowed him whole/ Sucking the blood in streams, crunching the bones.' As graphically realistic as Serraillier's retelling sometimes is, it represents an appropriate treatment of the poem's original subject matter.


1. The Old English poem Beowulf is usually considered to be an epic. What epic qualities are found in Serraillier's retelling of the Beowulf story? What qualities found in other famous epics does it lack?

2. In the world created in the poem, what qualities is the hero expected to possess? Besides Beowulf, what other characters have some of these qualities? Which qualities do they have?

3. Why is Beowulf eager to come to the aid of others in the poem?

4. Does Beowulf change in the course of the poem?

5. Which particular human emotions are most often revealed in this poem? Which common human emotions are absent from the poem?

6. In the original Old English poem, the desire for revenge is especially important. How important is revenge in Serraillier's version of the poem?

7. What is the role of material goods and possessions in the poem?

8. What roles do women play in the poem?

9. To what extent can this poem be viewed as a 'conduct book'—one designed to influence human behavior?


1. There are several other modern adaptations of Beowulf—by such authors as Rosemary Sutcliff, Kevin Crossley-Holland, William Leonard, Burton Raffel, Stanley Greenfield, and Robert Nye. Compare the depiction of a single scene or a single character in one of these other versions with Ian Serraillier's handling of the same scene or character. Which do you prefer? Why?

2. Consider the use of violence in the poem. Is it necessary? What does it contribute?

3. Compare the figure of Beowulf with the figure of Roland in Serraillier's Ivory Horn, an adaptation of the Old French epic The Song of Roland. Is it necessary that both of these characters die?

4. Compare the 'heroic' qualities of Beowulf with the 'chivalric' qualities of Sir Gawain in Serraillier's Challenge of the Green Knight, an adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a famous Middle English romance. What characteristics do these two 'codes' have in common? How do they differ? For which of these heroes do you have greater sympathy?

5. Where is realism found in the poem? What does it contribute to the poem? What is its effect on the tone of the poem?


Among Ian Serraillier's other writings based on medieval sources are several verse narratives that relate the exploits of a famous central character. The Ivory Horn, an adaptation of the Old French epic The Song of Roland, depicts the heroic actions and death of Roland, the most preeminent of Charlemagne's knights. In The Challenge of the Green Knight (adapted from the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), Serraillier retells one of the greatest adventures involving the figure of Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur's most valued knights. The adventures of the quasi-historical figure Robin Hood are treated in two of Serraillier's volumes, Robin in the Greenwood and Robin and His Merry Men. These volumes are based upon the ballads of Robin Hood that originated in early times.

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