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Sunday 14 August 2016


Adaptations of the epic Anglo-Saxon tale of Beowulf are plentiful, possibly because few of them are any good. ITV's latest effluent entry isn't worth speaking of any further, but it did prompt me to complete a long-standing item on my to do list and read the original poem.

The Thirteenth Warrior, movie version of the Eaters of the Dead, is an under-rated adaptation with an epic soundtrack.

Well, I say original. Of course I can't read Old English so I went for a modern translation. However, my online searches seemed to find two versions : colloquial prose or truly archaic poetry that could only be called "modern English" because of the vocabulary. I want something in the middle. As a poem it simply does not work in modern English (scholar's opinions be damned) : line breaks appear entirely at random, and there's no rhythm to the sentences. But the language ! It's as beautiful as anything Shakespeare or Homer ever came up with.
Themselves had seen me from slaughter come blood-flecked from foes, where five I bound, and that wild brood worsted. In the waves I slew nicors by night, in need and peril avenging the Weders, whose woe they sought - crushing the grim ones. Grendel now, that monster cruel, be mine to quell in single battle !
It quickly became clear that in order to have the Beowulf I wanted to read I was going to have to do it myself. What I want is something that has the beautiful language of the poem but reads more like prose. I don't want something that's full verse, nor reads as fluidly as modern prose. I want a challenging read, but not a struggle. It should feel old and archaic, but it doesn't have to be unintelligible.

I opted to take as light a touch as possible. It certainly won't please everyone, but that's not the point - I want something that I can read, and if anyone else enjoys it that's a bonus.

First, I removed those infuriating line breaks. I then had to create paragraphs because a wall of pure text is just awful. I also had to edit the punctuation, particularly commas. I don't know if it was the fault of the original poet, the translator, or both, but the original, poem has commas placed, more or, less at random, and far too often. I tried to do this only where I thought it absolutely necessary. Occasionally, I replaced some of the commas with hyphens to more correctly structure the sentence in prose form. Sometimes commas were replaced with "and" because it's just better that way. I also removed a lot of semicolons, as the original translation seems to have been written by someone who forgot they weren't writing Turbo Pascal.

The poet was wont to reverse the usual adjective-noun structure, so that a hardy warrior becomes a warrior hardy. Most of the time this is used to tremendous poetic effect. On a few occasions, however, I deemed it necessary to revert to the modern convention : an "atheling excellent" just doesn't make any sense in modern English. On even fewer occasions whole sentences sounded simply too much like Yoda-speak, and really quite ugly. The poet surely did not intend this, so very occasionally I edited the structure of whole sentences. This usually happens when the description of a character suddenly follows after what it is they've done (or even in the middle of a sentence describing what they're doing), which is distractingly confusing.

Words too I tried to preserve wherever possible, but I did make a few changes I found necessary (obviously, American spellings have been replaced with the correct British versions). Hrothgar cannot be called, "helmet of the Scyldings", because that sounds bloody daft : he's now their chieftain or king. One major change I did make was to replace "Geats" with "Weders", since I simply don't like the sound of, "Geats". It sounds too much like a goat-sheep hybrid. Historians probably won't be happy, but never mind.

A lesser replacement was to change "worm" to "wyrm" as I think the latter is more normally understood to refer to a dragon. "Beer hall" became "mead hall", again appealing the standard modern expectations of the Viking era. "Henchman" became various different words because it has far too many James Bond villainous connotations for modern use. "Recks" became "heeds" because the word works equally well and is more readily understood. "Gripe" usually became "grip" since the modern meaning is too different. "Hied" became "hurried". "Welkin" becomes either "sky" or "heaven". "Wyrd" became "fate" or "destiny". "Swan-road" became "whale-road" because it's found in alternative translations and sounds infinitely better. "Bale" usually becomes "bane", because bale is usually taken to mean a bale of hay (or a group of turtles, though that's not a very likely interpretation*). "Bairn" became "son" or "child", because bairn is no longer used outside Scotland. Wherever possible, replacement words were chosen to preserve the alliteration. And while I've mostly kept things like, "o'er", "o'erwhelming" was just too much for me.

* Or so you might think. Their are scholars out there - and I swear I'm not making this up - who genuinely interpret passages of the text to mean that Beowulf spent a lot of time killing walruses and even hippos. So why not frequent attacks by vicious turtles too ? Or great fires made out of turtles if we take 'balefire' literally ? Skip to page 15 for my thoughts on this.

I inserted a few missing words too : "messenger, I" became, "messenger, am I" which is hopefully not too Yodaish when read in the proper context. A minor change from the original text I'm using was to remove double hyphens and the colon/hyphen combination. Simpler formatting works just as well.

I've also kept the original notes that were present in the online text, but I've added a few of my own as well. Some notes have been removed entirely because they're pointless, while others have been edited. My own notes and the edits are clearly labelled.

Well, that's it. Start the appropriate soundtrack and go and read it !

But is it any good ?

Artwork from the interweb.

What ? Oh, yes, I suppose I should say something about this while we're here. Yes, it is good, otherwise I would have given up the effort. But it's not really anything has sophisticated as Homer or Shakespeare except in terms of the aesthetics of the language.  Characters are all (pretty much) zero-dimensional archetypes. Beowulf is a good Viking warrior who solves most of his problems by hitting things very hard, which he can easily do because he has the strength of ten men, thirty women, and at least three thousand hamsters. His men love him because he always does the right thing. Grendel is evil because that's just what Grendel is. The dragon is a big (15m, so about the size of a dinosaur) scary flying reptile that breathes fire and hoards gold, and that's it. Tolkein's Smaug would make short work of his literary ancestor. On the other hand, Smaug would never have existed without these much earlier stories.

But that's the thing, of course. Beowulf was written 1000-1300 years ago in Dark Age England - or possibly earlier with the single surviving manuscript being a transcription. This was not a time when people were into characters with complex moral ambiguity. Try reading the stories of the Mabinogion, for example, which Wikipedia describes as "fine quality storytelling". They're not. They're awful, full of characters who make no sense with random superhero abilities. Beowulf at least tells a self-consistent story of a brave hero slaying a demon, who then goes on to rule his people justly.

What it does have more in common with very contemporary stories is the need for backstories. It didn't work then, and generally it doesn't work now. Instead of telling a simple linear tale, every so often a character will talk at length about some other past battle, usually totally irrelevant to the current events. This is particularly confusing given the language - it's not always easy to tell where the story-within-a-story ends and we get back to the main tale.

But whatever weaknesses the language has to modern ears, its strengths are infinitely greater. This is poetry, after all.
Then flamed up to heaven the fiercest of death-fires, roared o'er the hillock, heads all were melted, gashes burst, and blood gushed out from bites of the body. Balefire devoured, as the greediest spirit, those spared not by war out of either folk : their flower was gone.
So  yes, it's very good, if you like melodramatic language. Which I do. Don't read it expecting some great complex work that will give you deep insight into the English character. It isn't and it won't. What it is is a work of entertainment. Bugger any deeper analysis, it's just a bloody good read.

EDIT : Some years after doing this, I discovered Tolkien's magnificent essay explaining why Beowulf is indeed actually very sophisticated, in its own way. You can read my analysis of his analysis here.

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