Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits

Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits

by Jack Murnighan


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Feel bad about not reading or not enjoying the so-called great books? Don’t sweat it, it’s not your fault. Did anyone tell you that Anna Karenina is a beach read, that Dickens is hilarious, that the Iliad’s battle scenes rival Hollywood’s for gore, or that Joyce is at his best when he’s talking about booze, sex, or organ meats?

Writer and professor Jack Murnighan says it’s time to give literature another look, but this time you’ll enjoy yourself. With a little help, you’ll see just how great the great books are: how they can make you laugh, moisten your eyes, turn you on, and leave you awestruck and deeply moved. Beowulf on the Beach is your field guide–erudite, witty, and fun-loving–for helping you read and relish fifty of the biggest (and most skipped) classics of all time. For each book, Murnighan reveals how to get the most out of your reading and provides a crib sheet that includes the Buzz, the Best Line, What’s Sexy, and What to Skip.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307409577
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 05/19/2009
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JACK MURNIGHAN has a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance literature from Duke University. He is the author of The Naughty Bits and Classic Nasty and has written for Esquire, Glamour, and Nerve. He lives in New York City and teaches creative nonfiction at the University of the Arts.

Read an Excerpt

(c. 900 b.c.)
The Iliad

Because the gods of irony still rule the firmament, Homer happens to be the name of both the pater familias Simpson, cartoon mainstay of the living room box, and the acknowledged father of Western literature, oft called greatest writer of all time. Origins are a funny thing, of course, and while we point all our literature back to Homer, we neither know the exact time when he wrote (most modern scholars think between the 10th and 8th century b.c.) nor even whether the same person necessarily wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey (the latter of which is sometimes argued to have been written by a woman). Then there's the fact that this other guy named Hesiod might be even older than Homer and wrote a book called the Theogony where, among other things, the world is created and the gods come to be—one from hacked-off genitals floating in the ocean. You can see why most people prefer to leave him out of the conversation... .
But somehow or other, Western literature got itself going, whether by Homer, Hesiod, or someone else long forgotten or never recorded. As founding stories for a whole civilization go, however, The Iliad and Odyssey are pretty well suited, at least at first blush. Each appears to be a supremely heroic tale with a super-macho protagonist—Achilles in The Iliad, Odysseus in The Odyssey—offing his fair share of flunkies and weenie men. Most founding myths are based on just such triumphs at someone else's expense. The only problem is that anyone who reads The Iliad or The Odyssey closely will see that the heroes themselves are barely responsible for their actions; the gods interfere with nearly everything, handing out victories and failures whimsically and petulantly like demented children throwing bread to geese. It's a bit sad and bracing, actually, to find out that Achilles the great warrior really wins his battles less because of the strength of his arm or the trueness of his spear and more because higher forces come to his aid. In what many people think is the greatest tale of heroism and unmitigated studliness, it turns out that humans are just Cabbage Patch Kids tossed around by bratty, vindictive gods that hardly deserve the name.
That said, The Iliad is still as riveting and potent as anything you'll ever read. The story is familiar: scads of Greek troops have sailed to Troy (a possibly fictitious city in what is now Turkey) to take back Helen, the West's first great beauty, whom the fair-haired Trojan prettyboy Paris swiped away from her husband, the trollish Greek prince Menelaus. But the siege isn't going so well; it's already lasted ten years and the Greeks' best fighter, Achilles, is pouting in his ship because he wasn't given the slave girl he wanted. We follow the give-and-take of the battle until Achilles finally gets off his petulant heinie, and then the proverbial hits the proverbial.
The Iliad is action at its best, and whoever Homer was, he knew how to tell a story. Its taut dialogue and vivid narration make The Iliad unfold in your mind in Hollywood Technicolor (and it's a lot better than the big-screen Troy, the blockfizzler adaptation from 2004). When you think about The Iliad that way, you won't believe how much it reads like a screenplay: set piece after set piece, great characters, killer action, and the approaching thunderstorm tension as we wait for Achilles to pick up his weapon. But to make sure you feel all the bone-jarring power of Western literature's first masterpiece, I'll give you some selling points.
Here are a few surefire ways to love The Iliad:
1. Because you hear the sound of drums, the relentless booming drums of war, pounding pounding pounding. The poem itself has incredible rhythm (even in translation; see "Best Line" on page 8), and once you let yourself slide into its cadence, you can feel the battle building, the battle raging, the concatenated roar of the wounded dying beneath your feet. As you read, imagine the scene, imagine all those years of unsuccessful assault, of a city surrounded and assailed by an enormous unyielding force, day after day after day. No one goes anywhere; they just keep fighting. The drama only builds ("Here in the night that will break our army or else will preserve it") and everywhere there are bodies "lying along the ground, to delight no longer their wives, but the vultures." This is a war poem, and you have to feel it from within.
2. For the gore. How many world-class books contain scenes with decapitated heads still speaking; decapitated heads being bowled; pierced-through hearts still beating and shaking the spears that transfix them; spears stabbing through eyes, cheeks, tongues, teeth, jaws, and genitals; spears going in one ear and out the other; brains, entrails, eyeballs, noses, and blood strewn across the ground; eyes mounted on spears; men trying to hold in their spilling entrails; marrow gushing from neck bones; and other such delights?
3. For the macho taunts, as when an effeminate archer (i.e., not a hand-to-hand warrior) is mocked: "Foul fighter, lovely in your locks, eyer of young girls... Now you have scratched my foot and even boast of this" or when the Greeks are heckled: "Wretches... was it your fate then far from your friends and the land of your fathers, to glut with your shining fat the running dogs?" There are a couple dozen such disses to savor.
4. For the riveting monologues, like the Greek leader Agamemnon's renunciation speech to his soldiers and its trenchant "This shall be a thing of shame." Or that of Hector, the great Trojan hope, berating Paris: "Stand up against warlike Menelaus?... .The lyre would not help you then, nor the favors of Aphrodite, nor your locks, when you rolled in the dust." These are two early ones, but as The Iliad progresses, the speeches get more and more blistering.
5. For the similes: the incredible description in Book II of the Greek warriors streaming from the ships like bees from a stone; the same men as grain, shifting from one sentiment to another; the sound of the battle being joined like rivers crashing into one another, etc. Keep an eye out for long sentences that begin with "as"; these are Homer's great similes, the moments when he really swings his stylistic ax.
There are also a few other things to keep in mind:
1. Don't get confused by the multiple names for everything: Ilion = Troy; Paris = Alexandros; Danaans = Achaians = Greeks; Achilles = Aiakides; etc. Good editions will have a glossary in the back to help with the confusion.
2. Enjoy the word repetition—or at least don't let it drive you crazy. Athena will be referred to as "grey-eyed" and Hera as "ox-eyed" about nine trillion times. That's just the way they did it back then; think of it as the Homeric tic. Bummer for Hera.
3. Read the Lattimore translation, even though he spells the names funny. Many have translated The Iliad, but no one has rendered the stark supreme majesty of its language like Lattimore.
Now that we've got that all sorted out, you should have no trouble relishing the origin and apex of virility lit. Hollywood can send out its Stallone and Schwarzenegger myths of all-meat masculinity, but if you want it rough, tough, and literate, Homer has the first and last word.
The Buzz: It was all for a woman—no surprise there, right? When the Trojan prince Paris decided to leave Greece with a rather pleasant souvenir, namely Helen, he kind of ticked off a few folks. This is why Helen—who we call Helen of Troy though she was originally Helen of Sparta—is referred to as "the face that launched a thousand ships"; because of her, the Greeks sent their entire fleet in pursuit. Historians now tell us that if this invasion actually took place—and it might have—the Greeks didn't have anywhere near that many vessels to assail Troy's walls. Still. Her cuckolded husband and his homeboys came to get her back, didn't take no for an answer, and thus we have our story.
What People Don't Know (But Should): We all have heard how Troy fell: the Greeks left the Trojans a "present" of a giant wooden horse that they allowed into the city—the only problem was that it was filled with Greek soldiers who then opened the gates. But none of that actually happens in The Iliad, and it's only briefly alluded to in The Odyssey (we know the story from later retellings, especially in The Aeneid a millennium later). No, The Iliad is Achilles' tale, culminating in his eventual mano a mano encounter with Hector—good stuff. Pretty amazing though that the hero can wait almost three-quarters of the book before he straps on his armor. Yes, he's literature's great tough guy, but he sure had a bee in his bonnet about not getting that slave girl.
Best Line: As mentioned, note the rhythm and buildup in this quote (and, yes, Lattimore spells Hector with a "k"): "But the Trojans, gathered into a pack, like a flame, like a storm cloud, came on after Hektor the son of Priam, raging relentless, roaring and crying as one, and their hopes ran high of capturing the ships of the Achaians, and killing the best men beside them, all of them" (XIII, 39-43).
What's Sexy: Instead of going to fight Menelaus when he's challenged, ladies' man Paris asks Helen to go to bed with him, saying that he was never as turned on as then. (I guess when the hubbie comes back to eighty-six you and take back his wife, that can be something of an aphrodisiac.) There's also an impressive sex scene between Zeus and Hera, making it clear how much it helps one's game to be all powerful: Zeus first causes crocuses and hyacinths to grow so high and thick as to make a bed, then he "drew about them a golden wonderful cloud, and from it a glimmering dew descended" (XIV, 349-50). Oh my...
Quirky Fact: In Plato's dialogue Ion, the title character is what was called a rhapsode, a traveling performer who could recite the entirety of The Iliad or The Odyssey from memory. That's about a few days of recitation to memorize—and rhapsodes could start up from any point in the story. A lot of people use this to argue that, with the rise of technology, our ability to remember things has faded. But thinking of how many rock songs most of us can sing, I'm more convinced that there was simply less to keep in one's brain back then, and today we just don't realize how much we know.
What to Skip: By and large The Iliad makes for a brisk, white-knuckle read, but there are a few passages that lag. Don't worry if you jump ahead at II, 494-759 (a list of warriors and where they came from) and IX, 529-99 (story of an unrelated side battle). You won't miss anything.

(c. 900 b.c.)
The Odyssey

So you've just composed the poem that 2800 years later will still be considered the greatest action story ever; where do you go from there? It's hard not to feel for Homer—talk about being set up for a sophomore slump. But assuming he is the one who wrote The Odyssey, Greece's greatest poet triumphed again his second time around, managing to come up with one of the better follow-up plots this side of The Empire Strikes Back.
Having already chronicled the ultra-manly warrior Achilles, this time Homer gives us a hero of a very different stripe. Odysseus is studly, sure, but he's more famous for being finagling and wily (he is sometimes called Polytropos—a Greek way of saying "he of the honeyed tongue"). The Odyssey tells of Odysseus' struggle to get back from Troy to his home in Ithaca (Greece, not upstate New York). It's the archetypal tale of wandering, of trials and tribulations, detours and deferrals, menacing sea monsters and horndog goddesses who just won't let him out of their bowers of bliss. We follow the crafty one (called Ulysses by the Romans, giving Joyce his title), who, having already spent ten years away from his wife and son in the sacking of Troy, loses another ten being buffeted around isles mythic and real, all because he managed to tick off the sea god Poseidon—clearly not a good idea when you're trying to sail back to your fatherland.
All the while, dozens of suitors are assailing Odysseus' wife, Penelope, and more or less turning Odysseus' house into a Cornell frat: eating up his livestock, guzzling down his cellar, and being insolent and cavalier in the extreme. But their day is coming; oh, is it coming. Time and again we're told that there will be some serious reckoning when the big O gets back; in fact, one of the great joys of The Odyssey is reading the various lines describing what the suitors are in for ("If they ever see that man return to Ithaca, they will pray they are nimbler on their feet"; "They do not know the black fate that is near them, to destroy them in a single day," etc.). As with Achilles' wrath in The Iliad, we know there's an ass-whupping on the horizon, but Homer makes us wait, letting the bloodthirsty anticipation build and build in the minds of what's now almost three millennia of readers. In Achilles' tale, it takes him a full 17 books (of 24) before he goes and puts the smackdown on the Trojans; in The Odyssey, it takes Odysseus 21 books (again out of 24) before he makes it home and begins waxing those pesky suitors. In both cases, even though the grim results have long since been announced, we still turn Homer's pages, getting more and more antsy for the "heroes" to show us their chops.
Beyond salivating for the suitors' comeuppance, the other key to enjoying The Odyssey is to read it like you're watching a movie. Like its big brother, The Iliad, it's exceptionally cinematic (it has been adapted, in part or whole, numerous times. The best—though the connections are pretty thin—is the Coen brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou?). Although Odysseus is forever recounting his tribulations, he's a pretty efficient storyteller; the dialogue tends toward the spare and the action speedy, so it's important that you let the reel run on your cerebral scrim as you read. To get the most out of The Odyssey, you really have to imagine the suitors sloshing honeyed wine and gnawing sheep joints, not knowing Odysseus is coming home to settle the bill; you have to see the alluring nymph Calypso and her fair braids and smell the citron and cedar in the air; you have to imagine the bewitching enchantress Circe and her handmaidens bathing and oiling poor Odysseus; you have to shudder as Cyclops splatters the heads of Odysseus' men on the ground then devours them whole, bones and all; and you have to visualize Odysseus in Hades, the land of the dead, pouring out a pool of blood to attract the spirits of the deceased so they will come and speak to him. Translations and historical texts use language that typically has less force than things written in our time and mother tongues, so it's that much more important to help them along by visualizing. That said, the plot of The Odyssey is eminently palpable, so it should make for easy mental staging (maybe imagine Christian Bale as Se–or Honey-Tongue; I think he's got the right combo of machismo and seeming wiliness, plus the dubious likability I'm about to tell you about...).
The tough part about The Odyssey is that Odysseus comes off much of the time as an annoying blowhard, always bragging but rarely accomplishing anything without help from his protectress, Athena, the goddess of war. Even his supposed craftiness and cunning tends to play out in pretty lame ways. But that's the thing with these Greeks: their gods weren't especially heroic or moral, so how could their mortals be? To me the best way to enjoy The Odyssey is to minimize the role of Odysseus; let him simply be the central figure who sets the action in motion, and let the action be the story. As you'll see in "The Buzz" below, the important parts of the story have little to do with him. He is the title character of one of the most famous tales in world history, but he might also be among literature's most disappointing heroes.
The Buzz: Many of Odysseus' adventures aren't particularly interesting in themselves, but they are iconic. Here's the list of the significant gods and monsters he comes across and what you need to know about them:
Aeolus: God of winds. Gives a bag filled with breezes to Odysseus; his men think it will have gold in it and open it prematurely, blowing them off course. It's a classic parable of greed.

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Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
RJennings More than 1 year ago
I really loved this book. It is so much fun and such a pleasure to read, but there is a serious side to it, too. A friend and I once had a long discussion about the fact that, if you wanted to, you could not come up with a better way to ruin literature for readers than the way it is taught in American high schools and colleges. If that is true, Murnighan is our very own Virgil or Beatrice, our wise and wonderful guide through the literary Inferno that this terrible system makes of these great books. Along the way, with equal parts wit and wisdom, Murnighan rehabilitates these books for us--pointing out the offenders of every kind--and reminds us the point is to like reading, and that means that we, the readers, have the right to judge and choose, and no just to accept what our betters tell us. I promise you'll be a convert. That, and its beautifully written, too.
DVW75 More than 1 year ago
I cannot recommend Beowulf on the Beach strongly enough! If you love reading, if you hate reading, if you just want to know enough to get by (think of it as cliff notes for dinner party'll know enough to sound like you know what you're talking about) or if you really want to be reintroduced to the classics, the best writers that have had such tremendous influence on our world, not to mention some absolute beautiful literature, this is your book. Jack Murnighan has made literature accessible, relevant, incredibly interesting and downright fun. My only complaints are that I stay up too late reading it, becoming sleep deprived and I've woken up my roommate laughing because Beowulf at the Beach is hilarious. Not to mention my reading list has grown by about 50 books. Everyone from high school on should read this will help you discover some of the world's greatest literature, understand how to approach reading each writer & book and make you laugh. What more can a person want?
Anna_Louise More than 1 year ago
This book is fun and easy to read. Great conversation piece about literature. Loved the different parts and definately added to my library.
midlfig More than 1 year ago
I loved the witty take on the classics spun in Beowulf on the Beach. The book unequivocally snips away the excess bits and pieces of all those great books that one "could've, should've, would've read" if you had the ambition. The best part of this insightful look at tales ranging from the Canterbury Tales to the Illiad, is it's broad appeal. Many of my co-workers, male and female, scanned sections regarding books that have always intrigued them. I would highly recommend Beowulf on the Beach as a companion guide to many of the great works - whether it is your first time through them or you're just headed back to revisit a classic.
IX-XXVI More than 1 year ago
Let me preface this by saying, I really liked this book, and will probably use it as a reference and recommend it many times over. Murnighan has a way with words, that will not be debated. As well, he obviously did his homework, and a lot of it. However, it seems to me that the good Dr. is just a LITTLE too centered on the "sensual" and a little less so on the actual relevance of the great works he discusses. Murnighan relegates the Old and New Testaments of the Bible to entertainment. Whether you appreciate the Bible from a fundamentally religious perspective or not, you MUST acknowledge its relevance to the shaping of Western Society and it's impact on the History of the last 2000 years (for better or worse, depending on which way you face when you pray, if you pray at all). Talking about Jesus, a man (some say God) that effected the life of every man woman and child (positively or otherwise) since his death, in the way he does is, to some, irreverent, and to anyone paying attention, just a little weird. As well, Murnighan's discussion of Chaucer's Tales is a bit "sex-centric". It is almost as if when we go to read the classics that we need to do so with the same attitude with which we watch our modern television. Yes, the classic work by Chaucer is filled with innuendo and sensual descriptions. As well, in our own lives, whether we admit it or deny it, there is a large proportion that tends toward the sexual. However, sex is not what we remember our lives to be about. It's not what we consider important when we are thinking about lost loved ones or what men and women have done that has made a lasting impression (well, MOST of the time, Bill Clinton and Caligula might beg to differ). No, we think about and remember other things. Don't get me wrong. I laughed out loud. I marked certain places to go back and read. I recommended it to several friends before I even finished the book. It's a well done work and it's almost invaluable to anyone that appreciates literature (classic or otherwise), almost. So, don't take all my negativity to be something that it isn't. I just wish Murnighan had taken the time to point out a little more of the Life that is contained in some of these classics and a little less of the gratuitous sex (to tell the truth, the sexual scenes and references in most of these works doesn't really need any explaining). Certainly I recommend this book, but with a disclaimer attached. By the way, it STILL makes you sound uneducated to use bad language, I don't care how many letters you have after your name. Unfortunately, Murnighan proves it.
AmyElizabeth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While I have yet to read the entirety of this book, I have read his sections on the books I own, and I thought his descriptions were spot-on. I really enjoyed his take on the classics, especially his sections of his favorite quotes and "what to skip." Not that I would skip anything just because he said I could, but it's nice to know that there really are parts of the classics that are just not relevant to the story. I will be using this book in the future when I pick up the rest of the classics Jack evaluates.
391 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I mostly enjoyed this book, and I thought Murnighan's passion for literature was sweet, but I also got annoyed more than a few times when his arguments became either condescending or dismissive.
VirginiaGill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My copy of this book has become a well thumbed resource. I not only enjoyed reading it but loved rediscovering books I thought I hated, and plunging head first into ones I thought were just too difficult. Thank you Mr Murnighan!
jmaloney17 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was curious what a prof. of lit. would think about the classics and if the ones I avoi are really worth reading. Beowulf in particular is one I avoid. I of course had to read the Grendal bit in college, but I have been avoing the rest. Thank goodness Murnighan said that I do not need to read the rest of it.One other book I was interested in reading about was [Madame Bovary]. I hated that book. Well, Murnighan hates it too. I am so glad he agrees with me.This is not the greatest book in the world, but I enjoyed reading it to see what he thinks about certain books. One thing he said that made me feel better is that no one will understand everything written in these books. This is especially true for [Ulysses] and a few others he mentions. He says not to worry about it. That is just the way it is.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I do not think there could be a person on earth (1) who obviously loves reading as much as I do, yet (2) who has completely and totally opposite reading tastes. Let me make one thing clear: Jack is a GUY. He is looking for action in books. Plot. Fighting. Killing. Plunder. You know. That sort of stuff.I could care less about plot. I want to get inside people¿s heads. I want to understand people. A group of intriguing people, sitting around in chairs, talking? Excellent book for me. So Beowulf at the Beach had nothing for me. Jack looked at fifty classics and showed all the violence and action you didn¿t know was there. The good news is that I think I can safely cross about twenty books off my list of Books to Read Before I Die. I¿m just not interested in ever reading Blood Meridian or Lolita or Tropic of Cancer or, really, Faulkner. I can get that on the six o¿clock news or the latest blockbuster movie. So that is a kind of usefulness, Jack. Thank you for that.
Suvorov More than 1 year ago
Let me start out by saying that Beowulf on the Beach is the reason I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am so glad I did. I have always hated any work by Tolstoy and claimed he is highly overrated, and I am a Russian major, but this book has convinced me to give Tolstoy another shot. Beowulf on the Beach is funny, tells it like it is and is actually a great read just by itself. I laughed out loud at many parts, including the Isabel Allende comment. It has made me want to re-read a lot of classics that I just read because I had to for a high school class or college course. It gave me a whole new perspective and I am actually excited about reading some of these books. I understand Murnighan wrote other books and I will look into those as well. I hope he wrote a book or will soon write one about contemporary fiction to include Young Adult fiction.
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maggiesaunt More than 1 year ago
This is an Englsh teacher's dream! Once you've accepted the reality that not every word from the pen of a great writer is equally good and that perhaps a little more editorial discretion was in order, this is a wonderful and entertaining read. Having told students over the years that not all parts of masterpieces are worth their time, I found this right up my alley. Murnighan's tone is contemporary, his choices typical of the "canon", his suggestions apt. For any teacher who wants to have students enjoy great literature -- without the "weak parts" -- this is reassuring and informative. I'm willing to bet anyone who has taught for more than a few years has at least thought what Murnighan says, if not put his "you-can-skip-this" principle into practice.
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A_Trevisani More than 1 year ago
As an English Lit major in college, I had to slog through many of the 50 books on Mr. Murnighan's list. While I truly do love to read, I have to say that I logged many boring and uninterested hours when reading some of those archaic classics - unable to understand much of what I was reading and unable to care. Reading this book, however, was magic... Mr. Murnighan honestly has me running for the bookshelves for another visit. He provides a fresh, funny and often compelling perspective on each book he writes about. He gives the good, the bad and the ugly about each, and it really feels as though he breathes new life into the old greats. This book is not only insightful and intelligent, it is also one of the funnier books I have read in a long time. My sister and I were practically in hysterics while reading his takes on some of literature's most heralded protagonists. (Man-crush on Jesus, anyone?) He takes down the giants of literature and makes them accessible to anyone who has ever wondered what the big deal was all about.
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