Blogging Beowulf: Concluding Thoughts

I had read Beowulf before this, but only in translation. My opinion of the poem from those translations was not all that high. There were some neat passages, but overall the poem was rather dull. The storytelling seemed primitive and the character development practically nonexistent—Beowulf, for example, seemed to be nothing more than a strong oaf. Even a masterful translation, like that of Seamus Heaney, failed to inspire.

This all changed when I read Beowulf in Old English and with references to critical commentary on the poem. The primary problem with translation is that the poem simply cannot be effectively translated into modern verse—at least not without abandoning all lexical and linear connections to the original. (A prose translation might be more effective.) The grammatical inflections in Old English give the poet great flexibility, a trait that doesn’t exist in modern English. The subject of a sentence in Old English verse, for example, can be at the end of a long passage, or a long sentence can be sprinkled throughout multiple accusative phrases, all referring to the same object. Modern English, with its dependence on syntax to denote grammar, does not have this flexibility. And then of course there is the vocabulary. Many gems in the Old English word-hoard cannot be translated succinctly; any attempt to translate destroys the meter of the poem.

More vitally, in attempting to shoehorn modern English vocabulary and grammar into the Old English meter the elements of successful storytelling are lost. Beowulf isn’t primitive storytelling; it’s remarkably sophisticated storytelling. The poet knows his audience and does not over explain, often relying on allusion to make a point. Of course, these allusions and references are lost on a modern reader, who must rely on critical commentary from outside the poem itself to fill in the blanks. The characters, instead of being flat, are rich and subtly drawn. Beowulf is not simply a strong brute, but a man of great war-fighting skills who is insecure about his social position as a result of growing up a foster child. He attaches his fierce loyalty to whatever lord or family will have him. In the Old English, the female characters of Wealhtheow and Hygd emerge as skilled political infighters, able to hold their own at court intrigues with any man. And Hrothgar is a sad character, a once-great king who is too weakened by age to fulfill his duties—and the tragedy is that he quite self-aware. And the poet does not simply tell a chronological story, but gives us a narrative structure that is highly complex. While the three main agons of the hero are told chronologically, they are surrounded by a myriad of nonlinear digressions, jumping backward and forward in time and shifting in location.

Finally, the Old English verse is an aesthetic marvel. The passages lamenting the end of the heroic age are hauntingly beautiful and the battle scenes and descriptions are thrilling; one can hear the clash of blade upon byrnie as one reads and the smell the sweat and the blood of the battlefield. And the driving rhythm of the poem’s meter impels the progress of the battle forward.

Beowulf holds an odd position in the ranks of the canon of English literature. In some respects, it is a rather new poem. This seems an odd thing to say for a work that was written over a thousand years ago, but in a certain respect it is true. In any survey course of English literature, Beowulf is one of the first works taught, sandwiched between Caedmon’s Hymn and The Canterbury Tales. But Beowulf is not really part of the foundation of English literature. It was unknown until modern times. No literary works in the intervening centuries cite or reference the poem; there are no allusions to it. And even the manuscript’s whereabouts cannot be traced earlier than the 16th century. The sole surviving manuscript (if there was ever more than one) sat gathering dust in various collections until the end of 18th century, when a Danish archivist discovered it in the British Library while looking for a genealogical record of Danish royalty—it had been miscataloged as such. And after its discovery, Beowulf remained largely a work of philological interest until J.R.R. Tolkien published his famous 1936 essay, Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, which awoke literary interest in the poem. In terms of literary influence, Beowulf is essentially a 20th century work, contemporary with Joyce’s Ulysses, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and FitzGerald’s The Great Gatsby.

This recency has given us the odd situation where if you collect ten random people off the street, chances are that at least one can tell you the basic storyline of the Iliad and Odyssey. And even if not, several will recognize that phrases like Achilles’ heel and Trojan horse come from those Greek epics. But you would probably have to collect a hundred or more random people before finding one that could tell you the story of Beowulf, and this despite the fact that Beowulf is several millennia closer to our time than the Homeric epics. Heaney points out this conundrum in the introduction to his translation. But the poem’s lack of influence on subsequent literature does not diminish its intrinsic value and beauty.

Reading Beowulf was an effort—I frequently complained to friends that this project was a “time vampire.” But that was unfair. Vampires suck the life-blood out of their victims; Beowulf, like any great work of literature, injected it. Beowulf is not only a beautiful work of art, but it is a window into an age long past. Perhaps this effect is enhanced, if not created, by its relative obscurity and difficulty in access. The poem is nearocræftum fæst, or secured by the art of making entry difficult. But the treasure hoard within is worth the effort needed to access it.

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