‘A Companion to Beowulf,’ by Ruth A. Johnston

A few days back I posted a review of a book on the Viking Age which had disappointed me. Author Ruth A. Johnston, who happens to be a Facebook friend, then mentioned her own book on Beowulf, which I’d already read. I hadn’t noticed that it came from the same publisher.

Ruth’s book, A Companion to Beowulf, is much, much better.

A Companion to Beowulf is, as you would expect, an introduction to the poem, useful for students or history buffs or Tolkien fans. It’s well written and comprehensive, and includes a list of modern adaptations, a glossary of names, a list of works cited, and even a chapter on Tolkien.

For some reason, she fails to note my theory, mentioned on this blog, that Beowulf is “refugee literature.” I’ve also been inclined to give credence to theories that Beowulf’s “Geatish” tribe may have been someone other than the Gotlanders. Johnston states flatly that they were Goths. But that may be because she knows more about the subject than I do, hard as that may be to believe.

I did catch what I think are couple small errors. She says the spear was the symbol of a free man — I’m pretty sure it was the seax. A spear is what a slave would be most likely to carry. She also speaks of Vikings wielding “two-headed fighting axes.” That should be “two-handed fighting axes.” They never fought with double-bitted axes.

But those are the sort of small mistakes you’ll find in any book — even mine. All things considered, this is an excellent introduction to a wonderfully alien work of literature. I recommend it.

5 thoughts on “‘A Companion to Beowulf,’ by Ruth A. Johnston”

  1. I should check this book out for my book group. We just watched Benjamin Bagby’s performance of Beowulf (at my insistence), and for many of them, it was the first time they really connected with the work. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

  2. Lars, sorry for not noting your theory in my work. Did you published it before 2004? That’s the year I was actually writing this book, and I really did try to include everything I could find. The link to your theory didn’t take me to the correct post, I think, so I’m still unenlightened.

    I don’t think I said that Geats were Goths, who were located much farther south and blended into Italy. Identifying them with Gotland is not meant to define who they actually were; the identification is made in the opening pages of very general information. If you want to argue that Gotland and Geats were not the same, or that Hygelac’s people were something else again, that’s fine.

    The “two headed” axes probably is, as you point out, an instance of a typo.

    But thanks for otherwise appreciating my work.

    Ruth Johnston

  3. Oh, well. I note that at the end of the poem, it speaks of Geatish maids weeping, slayings, terror, ruin, and “thralldom’s bond” (Tolkien). I theorize on that basis that Beowulf is refugee literature. The Geats were dispossessed of their lands by their enemies, and blamed their defeat on having fallen from the greatness of their ancestors (like Beowulf). At least some of them immigrated to England, and the legend was passed down so that the children would remember the greatness their people once knew.

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