Daytime TV: Of Hell and hounds

Gary Day is inspired by the language and imagery of Beowulf, but is brought back to earth by a dogs' tale

November 19, 2009

Listen! Well, all right then, read. This is not a mead hall, this is Times Higher Education and I am no bard about to begin a tale of heroes and monsters, but I am to speak of Beowulf, which begins with a demand for attention (Michael Wood on Beowulf, BBC Four, Thursday 12 November, 8pm).

Michael Wood's cheery exploration of the most important poem in Old English, and indeed the first major poem in a European vernacular language, was a treat for those, like me, who would love to read the poem but probably never will. I couldn't justify it in terms of research impact, you see. Ah well.

With his soft blue jumper and pink scarf, Michael seemed a rather odd choice to front a programme on Beowulf, a man who would probably bring a mailed fist down on top of Michael's skull should a hole ever open in time and the two encounter each other in the fens. But perhaps the pastel colours and dyed hair just served to make Beowulf an even more imposing figure by contrast.

"The poem is at the root of our great English language and literature," smiled Michael. "Cor lummee!" he gasped as if to demonstrate the greatness of said language. This jewel of Parnassus was inspired by the interior of the great hall at Wychurst, where members of the Kent Branch of the Regia Anglorum society had gathered to hear the actor Julian Glover give a rendition of Beowulf.

The audience were dressed in Anglo-Saxon costume. Shields were hung round the wall, a fire blazed in the middle of the floor, a hand slipped fur from a bone and men drank deeply from horns. The only thing missing was the "gruesome" Grendel, the "grim, greedy" creature who crashes into Hrothgar's hall and makes off with 30 of his thanes. Instead they had to make do with Michael asking about costume and jewellery and saying "golly".

There was barely time to draw breath before we were in the British Library. Julian Harrison, curator of medieval manuscripts, tiptoed towards Michael with the original copy of the poem, rebound in the 19th century after being damaged in a fire in the 18th. Some things just take time, you know.

The fire, which destroyed a large collection of books, was at Ashburnham House. Michael joked about the appropriateness of the name. Julian laughed and leaned close to him. "The burning scraps of paper", he whispered, "were like butterflies in a breeze." He was repeating the words of an eyewitness to the blaze.

I'm guessing, but I doubt you'll find such imagery in Beowulf. There are screams, smoking steel, severed limbs, gore-spattered faces and a great flood of blood. Without the slaying of Grendel, his mother and the treasure-guarding dragon, there would have been no Ted Hughes.

Michael could barely contain his excitement as Julian creaked open the book. "This is a big thrill for me," he squeaked. But dull would we be of soul if we, too, did not feel something akin to awe looking at those pages. Each word was as beautifully crafted as an Anglo-Saxon sword. Beowulf is a work that proves you can be hard and write poetry. Michael began to read in a guttural voice. Quite loudly in fact. But no one says "hush" in the British Library anymore.

Seamus Heaney talked about his translation of the poem. Beowulf is about tests. Grendel and his mother are warrior tests, but the dragon is a spiritual test. The hero's intelligence "has been schooled by the pains of the world into a soul, his valour transformed into what Virgil would call the tears of things". Maybe Michael did have a point about the language after all.

In 1577, a huge black dog appeared in the church at Bungay in Suffolk. Apparently it was annoyed by hymn singing. Was the congregation out of tune? Dogs have excellent hearing. Anyway, it terrified the parishioners in much the same way that Staffordshire bull terriers terrify everyone except their owners.

Seven Pups for Seven People (Wonderland, BBC Two, Thursday 12 November, 9.45pm) followed the attempt of Jackie to sell her young "Staffs" to, well, anyone really. The breed is very popular in East London. Jamie wants one because he thinks it will keep his family safe. Maria takes one because she thinks it will help her eldest, Dominic, overcome the death of his father. It doesn't. "I do feel a failure as a mum," she cries, meticulously ironing the cuff of his shirt.

Jamie finds it hard to stay out of trouble. When we see him next he has a cut on his forehead. He won't commit petty crime, as that will make him feel petty. He is Beowulf without the eloquence and without a monster to fight. No one will write an epic about him. He'll be lucky to get an epitaph.

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