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If modern literature lacks anything, it's truly manly first lines. We get plenty of really long sentences, or emotion-packed statements of angst, but nothing on the order of "Hwat! We Gar-Dena in gear dagum." But, you might say, at least I can understand the long sentences and the angst.
To which I would reply: a) most long sentences these days are grammatically impossible; b) angst is lame; and, c) there are English translations of Beowulf, but the word hwat cannot be translated, and that's just cool. (Hwat! is intended to get the attention of listeners, to make them pay attention, to announce the beginning of a story.)
So, the first line of Beowulf in English: Lo! the Spear-Danes' glory through splendid achievements/The folk-kings' former fame we have heard of,/How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle. Okay, so that's the first three lines, and yes, the translator attempted to translate hwat, but you get the picture.
Many scholars now believe the closest corollary to the poetic form used in Beowulf is the modern rap music genre. All poetry is intended to be read aloud; this is especially true of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with its emphasis on the sound of words rather than on forcing them into some artificial metrical mode.
Unlike rap, however, Anglo-Saxon poetry doesn't rhyme. It expresses. Because Anglo-Saxon society was built around warrior culture, they wanted stories that would evoke images of combat, that would stir the blood, that would make them nostalgic for far away hills, lands unconquered, departed warriors, and great deeds.
Not only does it express, the poetry of Beowulf demonstrates. Instead of using ordinary words, the Anglo-Saxon poets (and the anonymous author of Beowulf was best at this) invented things called kennings. Instead of simply saying "ocean," the Beowulf poet says "whale-road"; a kenning, then, is a combination of descriptive words to replace a less expressive one.
This isn't simply an effort to show off. Kennings formed an essential element of Anglo-Saxon culture because they embodied the one thing those fiery northern fighters couldn't do without: riddles. At the outset of Beowulf, warriors meeting in Hrothgar's mead hall Herot engage in verbal sparring, and it's taken just as seriously as the impending battle with Grendel.
Which is to say, extremely seriously. Essentially, anything that resembled warfare intrigued and delighted the Anglo-Saxons and all their Germanic, Celtic, and Viking cousins. At the same time, there was no substitute for the real thing, and so the pages of Beowulf are mostly packed with descriptions of battle and man-versus-monster combat.
The narrative is essentially divided into three sections: the fight in Herot between Beowulf and Grendel, Beowulf's hunt for and duel with Grendel's Dam (or mother), and the battle between Beowulf and the dragon of Earnaness. Each fight highlights not only Beowulf's strength and bravery, but his wit and cunning as well.
This is fitting, given the hero's name—Beowulf is itself a kenning meaning "bear," from the words bee and wolf; bears were historically seen as strong, intelligent animals. Beowulf is the embodiment of the heroic ideal, though scholars still argue whether it's the pagan or the Christian heroic ideal that's in view.
J. R. R. Tolkien is credited with first identifying the Christian elements in Beowulf. Other prominent scholars have since supported and defended this view, and there are none who would deny the influence of the Bible on the author. One example among countless others: Grendel, as the personification of evil, is described as the descendant of Cain.
What are we to make of the pagan elements? Probably no more than that they offer a sort of local color in a story intended for Christian warriors whose world was still emerging from the darkness of paganism. In this sense, we can read much of the poem in a symbolic way, looking at Grendel, Grendel's Dam, and the dragon as sin, idolatry, and evil.
However you choose to interpret Beowulf, there's no denying that it's one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. Reading it simply on this level is no injustice, since it was primarily intended to entertain tired warriors in some dark meadhall in Daneland. While the Anglo-Saxon blood has long since faded, the nostalgia their greatest poem produces never will.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATIONS
Click here to view an exclusive comparison chart featuring five translations of Beowulf.
Renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney has a unique perspective on the world of translation. Slogging through line after line of Anglo-Saxon while crafting his own Beowulf, he encountered words he'd heard his parents and relatives use throughout his childhood. In an interview with PBS correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth, Heaney recalls how he would imagine one of his father’s cousins speaking as he translated: “this poem is written down, but it is also clearly a poem that was spoken out.”
Heaney's book is the only bilingual Beowulf we carry—the Old English text printed on the left-hand pages is a visual reminder of the story's age. We also carry an illustrated edition of the Heaney translation (not bilingual). It's full of glossy (often full page) photographs of Anglo-Saxon art and artifacts. This translation of Beowulf is used by the Veritas Omnibus II Program, Beautiful Feet's Medieval History course and the Progeny Press Beowulf study guide. For more commentary on Heaney's translation, you can read our review here.
A few prose sections are scattered throughout Rebsamen’s translation, intended to explain obscure passages difficult for the non Anglo-Saxon mind to grasp. While translating, Rebsamen was determined to stay as faithful as he could to the half-line structure and alliteration of Old English poetry. The first stress of the second half-line, Rebsamen explains in his introduction, must “alliterate with one or both stressed syllables of the first half line.”
Yes! We have heard of years long vanished
How Spear Danes struck sang victory-songs
Raised from a wasteland walls of glory.
Then Scyld Scefing startled his neighbors
Measured meadhalls made them his own…
Rebsamen hopes his readers will pay attention to this structure: “If readers will pause from time to time and read a few lines aloud, slowly and emphatically and with slight pauses between half-lines, they may find a faint echo of what a recitation probably sounded like.” (Heaney also uses alliteration, but unlike Rebsamen never expresses a desire to adhere "strictly to the rules.")
Rebsamen's translation is used by the Greenleaf Guide to Medieval Literature, as well as the guide included in the Veritas Press Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation Teacher Manual. It is also included in the Reading Roadmaps 10th grade collection.
The third verse Beowulf we carry was translated by Burton Raffel. "Essentially," Raffel writes, "I have used a free four-beat line, without regard to the usual accent patterns of English verse..." Raffel alliterates in irregular patterns, hoping to convey the "force and flavor of the original."
(Our Signet Classic 1999 printingof Raffel's Beowulf contains a helpful afterword by Robert P. Creed anda glossary of names in the back. It was reprinted in 2008 with an afterword by Roberta Frank.)
Doug Wilson, who wrote an introductory Anglo-Saxon course for students (see below), has also put his hand to a Beowulf version. He's quick to say that he doesn't consider it a translation, but a "rendering," as he knows only enough of the language to be a "hazard." He is praised for energizing the text, and for being sensitive to Beowulf's muscular verse, profound humanity, and Christian faith.
Robert KayGordon published a prose Beowulf in 1926. We carry this translation in an inexpensive Dover paperback edition.This version contains very little introductory material, but does include a geneology chart. Some readers have objected to Gordon's wordiness and his choice to convert the epic to prose. Students may be initially intimidated by the verse renderings of Beowulf, but Gordon's translation isn't much easier to understand. It is used by Classical Conversations in Challenge II.
Finally, the translation by the man largely responsible for making Beowulf studies a respected academic discipline: J. R. R. Tolkien's prose Beowulf. Is it good? Of course it's good, it's by the author ofThe Lord of the Rings. Not only is it faithful in terms of word-for-word translation, it fully embraces the Medieval cadence of Anglo-Saxon. Some may be turned off by the somewhat archaic language, but fans of The Lord of the Rings will find it familiar and beloved. Tolkien's extensive commentary in the back is alone worth the price of the book.
If you want to introduce your children to the Beowulf story before they're ready for the poetry, we have a few we think you'll like. We carry Michael Morpurgo's adaption in hardcover, lavishly illustrated by Michael Foreman, one of the world's leading illustrators. There are plenty of paintings, but enough text to make it more than just an average picture book. For sensitive readers or very young children, please note there is gore depicted (blood, men eaten, arms wrenched off, monsters beheaded). Beautiful Feet uses this in its Advanced Intermediate Medieval History curriculum and Reading Roadmap prefers this edition for its 10th grade booklist.
Beowulf the Warrior is a verse adaption created by British novelist and poet Ian Serraillier. There are black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the book, making the roughly 800 lines more appealing to younger readers or listeners. Serrallier has produced an excellent blank verse translation which can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. It is this adaptation of Beowulf that Memoria Press uses to introduce the classic in their curriculum package.
James Rumfordwrote Beowulf: A Hero's Tale Retold, and illustrated it himself. This hardcover version with detailed pen and watercolor illustrations is a fantastic picture book for younger kids and would make a great gift. A fun note: Rumford writes in his afterword that while adapting, he attempted to only use English words which could be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon language.
H.E. Marshall published Stories of Beowulf Told to The Children in 1908. We carry it in paperback, but since it's in the public domain you can easily read it online. Librivox also has recordings of it. At the end of her introduction: "In the telling of the story I have tried to keep something of that old-time spirit, and when, later, you come to read the tale in bigger and better books, I hope that you will say that I did not quite fail." Marshall's version is an excellent choice for older kids who might not be ready for the real thing, but are too old for "kid" versions. There are a few black and white illustrations by J. R. Skelton scattered throughout which don't distract from the elegance of the text. Tapestry of Grace uses this book in their Year 2.
Lastly, we carry Beowulf: A New Telling, a chapter book adaption by Robert Nye. We know of no curricular use for the book.
Don't forget to check out our Beowulf Coloring Book, published by Dover! Full of beautiful pen and ink drawings waiting to be colored in, it's a fun supplementary activity to your reading time.
Want to learn some Anglo-Saxon? Doug Wilson's Rudiments of Anglo-Saxon textbook is a one-year course designed to advance an understanding of modern English. Students translate passages from Beowulf and the Gospel of Mark. Read our full review over here!
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