In one of the more curious publishing phenomena of the year, "Beowulf," an epic poem written over a millennium ago -- and loathed by high school students ever since -- has moved up to No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list. Meanwhile, over in TV land, the World Wrestling Federation continues its mystifying climb in the ratings. As of two weeks ago, the WWF's "Raw Is War" program on Monday nights is pulling in 7.7 million viewers, dominating cable in its time slot.
At first glance, "Beowulf" and the WWF don't seem to have much in common. But closer inspection reveals some startling similarities. Both feature ominously named, testosterone-fueled men who are capable of unlikely and bizarre feats of prowess. Both ostensibly revolve around blood-drenched free-for-alls but, in fact, mainly entail oversize guys boasting and shouting between fights.
Putting aside possible reasons for their convergent popularity, here's a more pressing question: How would Beowulf do in the ring against one of the WWF's reigning champs, say, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin? Let's compare:
Beowulf, aka "Prince of the War-Geats"
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin, aka "The Rattlesnake"
Place of birth
Stone Cold: Texas
What they wear
Beowulf: Hard-ringed, gold-filigreed chain mail
Stone Cold: Black lace-up boots, black leather vest, black briefs
What the writers say
Beowulf: "The mightiest man on Earth." (Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize-winning poet)
Stone Cold: "Stands head and shoulders above the rest." (Jorge Montenegro, contributor to Wrestling World magazine)
Best finishing move
Beowulf: The "grip of 30"
Stone Cold: The "stunner"
Beowulf: Engaged in an ocean-swimming contest with his childhood friend, Breca. Swam a full week while wearing armor and carrying a sword. Lost the race but survived an onslaught of "sea-brutes" before reaching the coast of Finland.
Stone Cold: Bled profusely and passed out during a "Submission Match" with his archrival, Canadian "Hit Man" Bret Hart. Lost the match but received exuberant cheers of "Austin! Austin!" from the sold-out crowd.
Beowulf: Tussled barehanded with the monster Grendel in the Mead Hall. Used his celebrated "grip of 30" to rip off Grendel's arm and throw it into the rafters. Later, tracked Grendel's mother to her underwater lair and whupped her, too, before lopping off Grendel's head.
Stone Cold: Smashed Hart over the head with a steel chair on "Raw." Later, brutalized Hart's knee with a wrenching "sharpshooter." Then hid in Hart's ambulance and attacked again, putting Hit Man out of commission for three months. After that, took on Hart's brother, Owen, and whupped him, too.
When not engaged in mortal combat
Beowulf: Peacefully rules the Geats for 50 years.
Stone Cold: Guest-stars on "Nash Bridges."
Beowulf: "Hand-to-hand is how it will be, a life-and-death fight with the fiend."
Stone Cold: "And that's the bottom line, 'cause Stone Cold says so!"
This would be a bruising, no-holds-barred grapple. On the verbal front, the edge goes to the foulmouthed Rattlesnake. His unprintable boasts are legendary. Also, nobody knows what Beowulf is bragging about most of the time. (What are sea-brutes, anyway?) In the ring, the thane's acclaimed breath-holding abilities will stand him in good stead when the 254-pound beer-swilling Austin sits on his face and corkscrews his left knee. Once the real brawling begins, however, the edge goes to the Geat. That grip spells sheer doom for Stone Cold's rotator cuff!