Beowulf: Thriller 101

Here is a photo of me as a fierce, honorable, and kinda-hot Viking Spear-Dane:

Viking Barbie

Okay. So it’s actually a photo of Viking Barbie from a website where they sell Barbies of the World. But on days when life gets tough, and the writing’s not going well, this is how I like to think of myself. And I blame Beowulf.

Have you read Beowulf, the early Anglo-Saxon epic poem? I disliked it the first time I read it, back in tenth grade. Who knows what terrible translation my English class was forced to read. My dislike probably also had much to do with the fact that we read it right after the French epic Song of Roland, which—at the time—I thought was a total snooze. (Can you tell I was all about Stephen King and Charlotte Bronte in tenth grade?) It wasn’t until I read Seamus Heaney's brilliant 1999 translation that I realized that Beowulf was actually one of the earliest and most exciting thrillers ever written.

It’s commonly agreed upon by many thriller fans, like Steven Bennett, that Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, is a prototype for the modern thriller. But given Bennett’s excellent description of one type of thriller in which “the hero, who may even be an ordinary citizen drawn into danger and intrigue by circumstances beyond their control faces danger alone or in the company of a small band of companions,” I’d have to say Beowulf was right there near the beginning of the genre.

Here’s the plot: King Hrothgar is holed up in Heorot, his fabulous mead-hall, when a monster named Grendel starts showing up—night after night, year after year—to maraud and murder Hrothgar’s Ring-Danes. Hearing of Hrothgar’s trouble, the heroic Geat knight Beowulf sails in with his men and slays the monster. But Grendel has a terrible, fierce mother who attacks Beowulf and the troops in revenge. (Don’t even get me started about Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother in that annoying, quasi-cartoon film adaptation from 2007.)  Beowulf and his small, hardy band track Grendel’s mother to her watery lair, where Beowulf finds and uses a magic sword to behead her. Grateful Hrothgar gives Beowulf plenty of treasure as a reward, and Beowulf returns home. He becomes king of his people, and rules long and happily until he must defend them from a dragon. He is victorious, but dies from his wounds.

Beowulf is not just an ordinary man drawn into circumstances beyond his control. Beowulf is an old-school hero. He unhesitatingly takes others’ troubles on as though they were his own. He inspires enormous loyalty. Loyalty only goes so far, though. His bands of helpers get smaller and smaller with each task until, at the end, he has to face the dragon with only one other man by his side.

At their hearts, all thrillers are about doing battle. If they’re done well, they make us fret and make our blood pound in our veins as we read, watch, or listen. The violence and passion in Beowulf are bloody, intimate, and raw. It’s a bare-knuckle fighter of a story, a modern thriller stripped of corporate bad guys, crooked judges, drug lords and psychotic serial killers. There’s plenty of Shakespearean-style, court-intrigue and treachery among Hrothgar’s men, but Beowulf’s true enemies are simpler and easy to spot.

Our monsters are not like Beowulf’s. We cower before them until one of us is interfered-with in a personal way, and then we’re swept into a cause. Only very occasionally do contemporary thriller heroes set out to just kill the bad guy. There’s much ado about bringing wrongdoers to justice, and lots of victim counseling. It’s complicated. But, as in Beowulf, it almost always comes down to one hero against one monster.

Antonio Banderas as Ahmad ibn Fadlan in One of my favorite interpretations of the poem’s elements is the film The 13th Warrior, based upon Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, his own elaborations from a journal written by Ibn Fadlan in 922. A.D.  It’s not just because Antonio Banderas is the tale’s handsome, homesick narrator. I love the gorgeous cinematography of the film, the polite but generous way Banderas’s cultured emissary observes the action. Also, the rugged setting. Hrothgar’s digs are far from glamorous or comfortable. He lives more like a fading alpha dog watching over an enormous kennel of battle-hungry, soldier-puppies than a king.

Worth a look, too, is John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, which tells the story from the point of view of the monster. It’s more of a psychological study, but it’s gritty enough.

Oh, and there’s even an audio version of Beowulf that’s read by Heaney, himself.  

For a girl who likes to imagine herself wearing bronze armor, a helmet with wings, and high heels, real life can’t get any more thrilling than that.

Laura Benedict is the author of the supernatural thrillers Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts. She currently lives and writes in Southern Illinois, where even the Vikings feared to tread. You can find her at her website: or at her blog, Notes From the Handbasket .


  1. Clare 2e

    First: I need a metal corset like Spear Dane Barbie!

    Second: Sometimes I do want to read about a solid whupping without a phalanx of grief counselors following the army with handkerchiefs..

    Third: That 2007 movie tried to elaborate a plausible reason for Grendel’s rage, but I like it better without clear reasons. Kings with muscular names like Hrothgar and Beowulf are enough reason for me to expect a showdown.

  2. Dr. Lewis Preschel

    Beowulf and Song of Roland, I remember reading stories when heroes were role model of epic stature. Ah, writing a thriller before the age of PC Nazis who want everything to be justified and fair. Where is the rule written that no group ethic, demographic or otherwise should be disrespected even if that disrespect adds depth to the characters, making them memorable, and could it be possible, more realistic. What does that say about writers who refuse to use character in their fiction with traits of people from the real world, because in real life that character’s trait/opinion is repugnant. Some of the world’s greatest triumphs of justice have occurred in spite of laws and ethics. Recent events proving this to be so on a worldly scale.
    Maybe great writers today are constricted by the terms that society, and or commercial success impose on them. Oedipus might have never be written if such restraints had been observed. The world would never know that Greek tragedy.
    As writers, sometimes we need to move our stories outside the box to where fiction tells the truth about life in the real world.
    Even in mysteries and thrillers we need protagonists that arc and change and remain human with desire and destinies that are greater than we can hold for ourselves.
    While reading your essay, I could not help but think about The Writer’s Journey – Mythic Structures for Writers by Christopher Vogeler. With all its character types and the steps that hero follow to reach their goals. Seems truly great writers intuitively know the steps and the trail. That’s what makes their writing classic. Beowulf, or Song of Roland, heroes fighting larger than life antagonists, stir the minds of ordinary people who read because the heroes are extra-ordinary, and in that extra-ordinariness they remind us of what we can aim to be.
    Thanks for reminding me of that.

  3. pile foundation

    Thnaks for Shaering it

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