The Books of My Numberless Dreams

“Beowulf” improved

Posted on: November 5, 2007

The first 1400 (or so) lines of Beowulf weren’t all that great for me. The problem, I later found out, was that I didn’t have a grasp on the language: the syllabic metres, the half-line metres, the reasoning behind naming, the compound words, even the alliteration. I had no grasp on the Germanic aesthetic and so my reading experience at that point was nice enough, but no great shakes. All I had was the story (thank goodness it was an epic poem and therefore had one, in a conventional sense) and I do like my battles, quests and monsters. However, I was finding parts of it a bit cheesy, primarily whenever they had feasting and drinking after various speeches were made. It recalled too closely a friend’s derisive description of the late Robert Jordan’s Wheels of Time series: they just walk around on a bunch of quests and then he ends every book with lots of feasting and drinking. I imagined all of the cheesy Hollywood movies with crappy costumes and terrible wigs.

The only thing I found exciting was any connection with Tolkien’s work: the poet’s descriptions of the men’s battle gear, or the craftsmanship on a ship or sword, the burial rites, and the differences too in the depiction of heroes. I remembered how I promised to compare Tolkien’s songs to Beowulf, so at the library I looked for a copy of The Lord of the Rings, as I had left mine at home. All copies were loaned out except a lone Fellowship of the Ring and right before I sighed, about to turn away from the shelf, I spied The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien by Lee & Solopova . (The actual book has a nicer cover.) I knew it was likely that such books existed but I was stubborn and wanted to do things for myself without any aids. Still, I’m not one to turn away when an easy path is put right in front of me, so I took the book downstairs and read the introduction.

What an introduction that was! Stuart D. Lee and Elizabeth Solopova included the Old English, Middle English and Old Norse excerpts in their original form facing the translations; because of that they spent a much longer time on the language than Michael Alexander did in his introduction. His gave me a good idea of the historical, religious and social context of Beowulf and therefore I discerned easily enough the “social themes” of loyalty and community, as he told it, and picked up on the Christian commentary as filtered through the poet. He spent a notably less number of words on the style and especially the verse, so I had some vague notion of the break that usually occurs in the middle of each line, and something about four syllables. (On review I see that the way he explained the alliteration rules was a jumbled mess in comparison to Lee’s and Solopova’s, poor thing.) He was quite dismissive of the emphasis so many people made of the alliterative verse in Beowulf anyway, asserting that it applied more to the later medieval period. Perhaps I was too easily led, since this made me dismissive as well, and I didn’t pay any attention to it when reading the poem.

Lee and Solopova did the complete opposite. They wrote this book for beginners and they took me by the hand like the ignorant babe I was. The apposition and variation with the names of characters were clearly defined. They spent much more time on the metre, provided the general metrical rules, compared it to Modern English, and used examples from Shakespeare and, more importantly, Tolkien; they used songs from both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. (They did not include The Silmarillion due to lack of space, which was too bad since I can’t stand, and so barely remember, The Hobbit.) Lines from Beowulf were put beside Rohirrim songs and they showed how the latter echoed the first, and overall, followed Old English’s metrical and alliterative rules. They explained compound-words — why they were used, what was their purpose –and showed how Tolkien incorporated it into Treebeard’s Ent song. Even the process behind composing names was addressed, how the Germanic people had similar aesthetic principles in their names, as well as their poems, and so they acted like mini-poems or stories in a way, describing the bearer, with family trees showing alliteration, variation and synonyms.

They discussed an epic’s characteristics and even that was different. They used M.M. Bahktin’s definition which had a different focus than Alexander’s and the more varied perspective enriched my approach. It was all so illuminating. Suddenly, I was reading the poem and noticing things, garnering deeper meaning, paying attention to where stresses fell, which words were alliterated and when variation popped up. Beowulf became exciting.

For some reason I also began searching for reviews of Michael Alexander’s and Seamus Heaney’s translations: academic, not newspaper stuff. The results were meagre and not what I wanted, but I did stumble on something else that proved to be exactly what I wanted, without knowing it. In an early 90s issue of College English, John D. Niles wrote a 22 page article examining the whole process of translating Beowulf: the problems Old English poses, textual issues, the choices translators have to make and so on, using Michael Alexander’s as one of three examples. I skipped some paragraphs and skimmed more, but one thing that he did drive home was that accuracy was not always the best policy, if not an improbable goal.

¹ When we read Beowulf in translation, we are confronted by a paradox. During the past fifty years, at the same time as the study of Old English has shifted to the margins of the graduate curriculum of most departments of English, Beowulf has entered the mainstream of literary studies. The more the poem is read, the less it is read except in translation. Readers of the poem are therefore increasingly at the mercy of translators, just as their critical understanding is dependent on the work of the distinguished scholar-critics who have have helped to establish the Old English text and define its likelihoods of meaning.

The problems faced by readers who approach Beowulf in translation are made more acute by the special nature of its verse. The poem is composed in an artful language that was set apart from ordinary speech even during the Anglo-Saxon period. This language within the language had its own diction, syntax, rhythm, and style distinct from the norms of prose. Thanks to the accidents of manuscript transmission, Beowulf happens to be unique in its sustained display of the resources of the Old English art of heroic poetry. Even more than the language of other Old English poetry that has come down to us, the ornate language of Beowulf renders translations inadequate.

In the examples he showed how a short passage was translated by three different writers. The first was a E. Talbot Donaldon’s prose translation which, in defiance of my misguided disdain towards prose translations of verse, was generally regarded as one of the most accurate. It was also, of the three, the most soporific. As Niles put it, “To praise a prose trot of an extravagantly poetic work by claiming that it is “faithful” adds a wry twist to the concept of keeping faith.” Alexander’s came off very well and Stanley Greenfield’s was clearly Niles’ favourite, although too liberal for my tastes. At the end I was a few steps closer at understanding the heavyweight task with which translator’s were faced and therefore much more appreciative of their creativity.

Having written that I now remember why I began looking for reviews. In the introduction to The Keys of Middle Earth, the writers quoted from Seamus Heaney’s translation and, well, I was not impressed. I grumbled about how a certain phrase sounded a tad contemporary to me, something about a sword hilt being “engraved all over”, a minor thing, you might say, but I became suspicious. I went to Amazon to use the “Search Inside” and it was worse than I thought. It’s not that it was too modern — it was too BORING. Take a look at Alexander’s exciting opening. I admit that the first word made me giggle a bit because I imagined some weird jester sort in tights calling out in court, but at least it got my attention. It is more accurate, judging from the literal translations of two scholars, and it sounds…Olde Englishey!

We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark,
how the folk-kings flourished in former days,
how those royal athelings earned that glory.

Here is Heaney’s.

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

Whoa, whoa, don’t fall asleep there, grab a coffee. Could he sound more bored. “So”? “SO”? Who starts anything like that, I ask you! He might as well have flicked his wrist, rolled his eyes, and turned on the tv before he continued. On the other hand Alexander does not only depend on “Attend”, but uses the words “thriving”, “flourished” and “glory” to lend great energy and force to the lines. I never, ever seem to get the popular, critically acclaimed translations. But I will buy the stupid thing: I made a vow to give Old English translators a break, and the local store has an illustrated edition which promises a lot of pretty, pretty pictures. (Personally, I would have been satisfied with photographs of the Sutton Hoo artefacts, but I guess that was not flashy enough.) Beowulf sparked my visual imagination and I was excited about a John Howe illustrated edition, until I saw it was some crappy modern retelling; I’m not that desperate. Also, I just noticed that John D. Niles himself has something to do with the Heaney book. It all comes together.

So. If you try the book and are having problems, I would suggest finding a point of interest that can act as an entrance into the work. That strategy has worked wonders for me. For a few minutes, I even abandoned all sense and considered learning Old English.

¹Niles, John D. “Rewriting Beowulf: The Task of Translation.” College English 55.8 (1993): 858.


5 Responses to "“Beowulf” improved"

Whoa is right. The Alexander seems much more lively.

You could also get the bilingual edition

Sylvia I’m half-convinced to never trust a newspaper/lit mag review of any epic translations. The Heaney comes in a bilingual edition too, so I could get that to help me go to sleep….

The Chickering doesn’t look half-bad: I bookmarked a site that, among other things, has excerpts of just about every Beowulf translation into Modern English. So I had a look at his here.

Still, pretty, pretty pictures! Maybe Heaney wakes up eventually? I’ll get to examine it to see if the illustrations are worth it…. Thanks for the links.

Holy kennings, Batman, what a site! Thanks!

I just got this joke, btw, after doing some more readings. You know too much, why don’t you give away bits of your brain? For mankind!

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