The Chronicle of a Thousand Books

Being the Chronicle of a Thousand Books, kept faithfully and diligently by thy humble servant, in this most excellent repository of worthy works, the marvellous and justly famous Library of Mare Caelorum. "He who measures his wealth in books shall never be robbed of it, not by fire nor knaves, if only he should preserve them in his memory."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Beowulf in Prose

"I now would wish to hand over my armour to a son of mine, were it my luck to have had an heir of my body to come after me. I have reigned over this people for half a century, and there was not a king of any neighboring nation who dared to attack me with an army or to threaten me with war. The destiny allotted to me on earth I endured; what was mine I defended well. I did not pick quarrels nor swear false oaths. Though wounded to death, I can rejoice in all these things; because when life quits my body God cannot accuse me of the murder of my kin." - Beowulf, A Prose Translation (Penguin Classics, David Wright edition, 1957)

And with those words, Beowulf, King of the Geats, launched the pantheon of fantasy heroes in the English language. He was among the first to carve the epitaph of great adventurers from King Arthur (who belonged first to Wales before being annexed by the Anglo-Saxons, along with everything else) to Aragorn son of Arathorn (the creation of Tolkien, Beowulf's greatest champion in modern times), and a legion of others, up to our own day, where fantasy and the English language have both come into their own.

The valediction of the Slayer of Grendel and the Dragon's-Bane not only maps out the hazy boundaries of the shining land where heroes spring from - the dreams of hope and just reward for the brave and good - it also serves as the guidepost for all those who came after, following in the track of one of the earliest heroes who held destiny in his hands like an ornately runed blade, not content to be a plaything of the gods, as were their distant ancestors in Homer and Virgil.

So it could be fairly said that for all his piety and reverence of the Christian God, Beowulf was probably the first existential troublemaker in English literature - his "birth" possibly marks that pivotal moment when Heroic Man began to replace the Supernatural God as the focus of myth, legend and story, with far-reaching consequences that still echo today (and which range far outside the realm of fantasy). When his poet-biographer set quill to scroll, the pagan gods of old, displaced by the new God, were no longer the objects of wonder for a mankind hungry for tales and legends. But the Christian God didn't take their place in tales of the new age, having had His heyday in the Old Testament, and generally been silent in the stories of men following the New Testament, in which He was a mighty background character. (With the exception of portions of the wonderful literature of miracles and the lives of the saints.)

So the coming of the Christian era left a void in song and story. And since nature and mankind both abhor a vacuum, men were left to fill it themselves - and it fell to Beowulf to become the "lawgiver" of Anglo-Saxon fantasy, and its later English offspring.

All the hallmarks of the heroic figures that followed in English-language fantasy (today's descendant of the mythic tales of the Dark Ages) can be found in the prince of the Geats. He sets his will against the fate that everyone else accepts, he puts his trust in himself and his strength and skill, and doesn't care much about the ultimate outcome or personal consequences, or have much need for others. He would have recognized John Carter of Mars, Conan of Cimmeria, and thousands of others as own brothers. Tolkien, too, not only acknowledged the literary debt owed to this Scandinavian adventurer (see his "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics"), but close readers of the story will find a couple of pilfered gems that later found their setting in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I first heard the Beowulf myth in prose, sitting on the carpeted floor of an elementary school reading room, listening to our elderly and beloved storyteller. She had a vast collection of children's stories from around the world, and we would spend an hour a week in her charge - a wicked horde of unwashed third-graders who to my certain knowledge caused the breakdowns of at least two teachers - silent and utterly spellbound by the voice contained in this frail old woman. Even the most illiterate among us were moved by the story, and some even wept at Beowulf's funeral. Although her text wasn't elegant poetry, it got the point across.

The same can be said for David Wright's prose translation - inelegant in places, but simple, and the heart of the story isn't lost. He even achieves part of what he set out to do in his introduction - strip away Beowulf's language to its core essentials, and show the outlines and early foundations of the heroic story, devoid of ornament.

This clarity, however, comes at a price. In his notes on the translation, Wright deplored the injection of what he called "the bankrupt currency of nineteenth-century romantic verse" (words such as "fain" and "blithe", et cetera), as it "strips the work of its force and dignity, without capturing the tone of the Anglo-Saxon poem." Unfortunately, there are clearly places where Wright himself succumbs to contemporary jargon, for example using the word "parallel" at least once or twice, as well as other unsightly modern words that the epic could have done without.

Despite this, Wright achieved what he set out to do - create a clean, crisp and coherent translation, that is easily readable. But here is a sample of what was lost, to the regret of lovers of old words everywhere. Wright renders Beowulf's first words to Hrothgar thusly:

"The leader of the band began to speak. 'We are Geats by race, and eat at the table of Hygelac.'"

A marvel of accuracy and conciseness, to be sure, that cannot be faulted on the technical merits.

Yet it fails to stir the blood. Consider the following lines from John Lesslie-Hall's 1892 edition:

The chief of the strangers rendered him answer,
War-troopers' leader, and word-treasure opened:
"We are sprung from the lineage of the people of Geatland
And Higelac's hearth-friends."

In laying bare the foundations of Beowulf, archaeologist-fashion, Wright has also stripped away many of the tapestries, mosaics and stained-glass windows whose ancient and beautifully obsolete designs held powerful magic for those of us who revel in archaic language, in all its shining mail-coated glory. Still, his Beowulf retains much of the essential character of the first hero of English letters, and is a valuable blueprint of modern heroic fantasy.


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