What is Beowulf? Or rather—a more problematical problem this—why is Beowulf? What ought our attitude be to it today? In all this I am referring, of course, to the long eighth-century Anglo-Saxon poem only recently accorded the title Beowulf (the single extant manuscript in the British Museum is without one) and not to its phenomenally muscular monster-killing hero.

To a conscientious literary historian, busily ordering and classifying his specimens, Beowulf is certainly an infuriatingly anomalous poem—neither primary epic like the Iliad and the Odyssey, that is, a long heroic poem originally transmitted orally by professional minstrels, nor secondary epic, a non-oral imitation or adaptation of primary epic with an identifiable author, like Vergil’s Aeneid. Still less is it tertiary epic like Paradise Lost, with a multitude of self-conscious sources and models. Beowulf comes out of the Dark Ages still shrouded in their prehistoric darkness. It is anonymous, but like the Aeneid (which the Beowulf-poet may have known or at least known about) it was apparently never dependent on oral transmission. It had a single author, but one who refuses to be precisely located or labeled. A Northumbrian monk? A Mercian scop (professional bard)? Or even possibly a scop-turned-monk? We can’t be sure. His subject matter is consistently pagan and heroic, but Christian or quasi-Christian moralizing and a Christian supreme deity do keep on intruding.

But though the historians cannot be said to agree on all the problems Beowulf raises, their differences are minor compared to those of the embattled critics. Here, for example, is Burton Raffel—whose paperback translation now reappears splendidly printed and illustrated, and with an interesting “Postscript” and a new “Afterword on Translating Beowulf” thrown in—who tells us over and over again that Beowulf is “a great poem,” “great poetry.” And in the opposite corner, as it were, I can hear the blistering contempt of Kingsley Amis. Amis’s testimony will be found in a clever early poem that had the distinction of infuriating that stout Beowulfian C. S. Lewis. The poem is headed ” ‘There is not much poetry in the world like this’—Professor J. R. R. Tolkien“—a comment that can be taken in two ways. The way Amis took it may be gauged from a few characteristic lines:

Consider now what this king had not done
Never was human, never lay with women
(Weak conjugation)….

Someone has told us this man was a hero.
But what have we to learn in following
His tedious journey to his an- cestors
(An instance of Old English hark- ing-back)?

Tolkien was the Merton Professor of the English Language when Amis was an undergraduate at Oxford and the poem is partly a parody of the linguistic learning with which Oxford mixes the elegantly escapist literary criticism that found expression in Tolkien’s celebrated lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” (To Tolkien the critics were also the monsters.)

It seems prudent to split the difference. Most of us who are not actively engaged in what I once called “Beowulf and All That” will concede that Beowulf has great interest as a literary phenomenon. As poetry, however, it has suffered from what Matthew Arnold called the historic estimate. It is a genuine antique, but antiquity is no necessary guarantee of literary quality, let alone of “great poetry.” What Arnold called the personal estimate has also to be allowed for. How grown-up are you? F. R. Leavis may have overworked the criterion of “maturity,” but it can hardly be dismissed altogether.

The basis of Beowulf is two fairy tales, both about Beowulf: 1) the young prince’s singlehanded fight à outrance first with the man-eating monster Grendel and then with Grendel’s subaqueous mother; 2) the old king’s final battle with a fire-breathing dragon. There is nothing wrong with them as fairy tales, but blown up into the proportions of an epic, as they are in the poem, they suffer fatally from the absence of any real human interest. Beowulf’s muscles command respect, but he is a figure of wood compared to Achilles or Odysseus. Even Polyphemus arouses our interest and a measure of our sympathy; Grendel and the dragon fail to do either. And Amis’s objection that Beowulf never lay with women is a way of complaining about the total lack of feminine interest. What women were there for him to lie with? Only three make brief appearances and are even mentioned by name. Wealhtheow, the presumably elderly queen of the septuagenarian Hrothgar, and Queen Hygd, Beowulf’s aunt by marriage, must be presumed to be at least twice his age. Which only leaves Hrothgar’s daughter Freawura and she was already betrothed.

If we exclude the kennings and the alliterative meter the general impression that Beowulf leaves is of “Jack and the Beanstalk” retold for the edification of schoolboys, a sort of superior Eric or Little by Little. And the scholars who have reveled most in it are such Peter Pans of criticism as C. S. Lewis. (There is more than a little of this Peter Pan element in Tolkien, too, as his Lord of the Rings has demonstrated.)


Mr. Raffel, however, will have none of this. Beowulf is “a great poem,” and its greatness is not in the fights but “in what makes a good fighter tick, what makes a hero heroic.” The author also has “descriptive genius”; but it is essentially “the poet’s insight into people” that “gives the poem its greatness.” And so when Raffel explains what his methods of translation are it is with some apprehension that we learn that his object is to re-create “something that is itself good poetry.” If Beowulf is not itself “great” poetry, as seems to be generally agreed, how much less than “good” poetry are we to be fobbed off with in the translation?

Can good poetry be made out of poetry that is less than good, or at best equally good? In other words, can a translation ever be superior to that which it translates? That there have been so-called translations superior to their originals need not be denied. Persian scholars have assured me that FitzGerald’s Omar is really much better, considered as poetry, than its original. And certainly in the three revisions FitzGerald made of the Rubáiyát the quality of the poetry declines in proportion as it becomes closer to Omar’s text.

It can almost be laid down as a critical rule that fidelity to the original guarantees a loss of literary quality. There is no mystery about this. It is not simply because prosodic complexities and the finer shades of meaning are hardly ever completely transferable from one language to another; a more insuperable barrier is the contradiction between creation and reproduction; a translation is unoriginal by definition. Or, to put the translator’s problem another way, the more mistakes a translation has the more successful it is likely to be as poetry. In addition to FitzGerald’s Omar I need only appeal to Pope’s Iliad and Pound’s Propertius—both pretty poems, as Bentley said of the former, but you must not call the one Homer or the other (as Pound indeed did) more than a “Homage to Propertius.”

Mr. Raffel might also have been wise to consider the moral of Pound’s version of “The Seafarer.” “The Seafarer” is probably the best of the Anglo-Saxon poems now in existence; there is also a general agreement today that Pound’s translation of it, in spite of its gross errors, is incomparably the most successful single translation of any Anglo-Saxon poem. (Tennyson’s version of “The Battle of Brumanburh,” though competent enough, is without any of the force and onrush of the original.)

A specimen may be welcome at this point. In his “Postscript” (dated 1971), which I will confess to finding of greater interest than the actual translation, Mr. Raffel gives lines 4 through 11 of Beowulf in the original text, in a strictly literal version, in a modern British prose version, and in his own metrical version. Here there seems very little to choose between the three levels of translation. The Raffel version (which aims at four stresses to a line, of which at least two alliterate) is spoiled for me by the bumpy effect created by ending a line with an adjective with its noun following at the beginning of the next line. Thus:

[We’ve heard] How Shild made slaves of soldiers from every
Land…. [lines 4-5]
… There was a brave
King! … [lines 10-11]

If he had consulted Pound’s “Seafarer” he would have found that Pound never divides adjective from noun in this way. The habit, which seems to me intolerably clumsy, is not justified critically in the discussion of the passage and seems to me unjustifiable. Moreover, the preoccupation with consonantal alliteration too often tempts Mr. Raffel to let the vowels take care of themselves. “Shild made slaves” is three stresses not two. Why not “Shild enslaved”? In general, although Mr. Raffel’s version is accurate and unpretentious, I can find very little poetry in it. I too often found my eyes wandering from the text to the vigorous drawings by Leonard Baskin that accompany it.

A more skillful and literal rendering of the first eleven lines of Beowulf will be found in John Gardner’s Grendel. His literary sense is much more acute than Mr. Raffel’s and he has at least faced, even if he has not resolved, the problem of what we can do with Beowulf today. Mr. Raffel modernizes by elimination. For line 5, for example, of the original—(rendered literally) “many tribes of mead-hall seats deprived”—all he gives us is “crowds of captives”; the benches in the mead-hall have been silently suppressed. Mr. Gardner restores them (“dragged away their mead-hall benches”), as he restores incidentally other realistic details. (Mr. Raffel is merciless to the stylistic kennings too: for “whale-road” he gives us a blank “sea.”)


Mr. Gardner’s Grendel is interpretation and elaboration rather than translation—a sophisticated version of what Beowulf is ultimately about in modern terms. The device that he uses is to present us with a subjective autobiography by an extremely self-conscious Grendel before and immediately after Beowulf’s arrival in Denmark. In the original poem Grendel and his mother are simply descendants of Cain, monsters like the dragon of the second adventure who survive mysteriously in swamps and hills. To Emil Antonucci, Mr. Gardner’s illustrator, Grendel has the actual features of Neanderthal Man, memories of whose cannibalistic habits may have survived in folklore. Not so, however, to Mr. Gardner himself, for whom Grendel is both more sympathetic and more horrifying. (The two names are practically anagrams of each other.)

In an episode of his youth this Grendel is inextricably caught between two trees, where he is repeatedly charged by a huge bull until finally rescued by his loathsome, stinking mother—a brief reminiscence perhaps of The Tempest. But Caliban’s Setebos is less metaphysical than Mr. Gardner’s Destroyer. And with the entry of a Shaper (maker, poietes) the book becomes both autobiography, poem, and treatise:

The harp turned solemn. He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed.

Later, in what is probably the most brilliant passage in the book, Grendel reports (to himself?) a long dialogue between a prince and a peasant on order and violence. And a horrible dream is then “imputed”—by Grendel, but in excellent verse—to Hrothgar, the Priam of the Beowulf epic. But by this time the narrative is becoming chaotic, and it is with a certain relief to the reader that Beowulf and his Geats now appear upon the scene.

In his last two chapters Mr. Gardner retells, through the mouth of Grendel and in Grendel’s special idiom, the climax of the Anglo-Saxon epic. As the strangers are challenged by the Danish coast guard, Grendel spies on them. The leader has a chest as wide as an oven and arms like beams. But “violence is truth” and the world is divided into “things to be murdered, and things that would hinder the murder of things”; the Geats, Grendel decides, might be either. They are welcomed at any rate by Hrothgar, and in due course the king and his queen and the lesser Danes retire for the night, leaving the mead-hall for the strangers to sleep in.

Mr. Gardner then accelerates the original process of events. Grendel bursts open the door of the hall and seizes a sleeping Geat, whom he rapidly devours. But Beowulf, who was to have been his second victim, is already awake. “It’s a trick,” Grendel says to himself disgustedly, as the wrist he had gripped nails down his arm. And when Grendel attempts a vicious kick he slips on the blood on the floor and Beowulf twists the monster’s arm behind his back. Beowulf was having all the luck, and the reader begins to agree unconsciously with Grendel at this point: “If I’d known he was awake, if I’d known there was blood on the floor when I gave him that kick….” But Grendel’s complaint about the unfairness of things is interrupted by a sudden spasm of pain as Beowulf now tears Grendel’s whole arm off at the shoulder. Minus the arm the monster escapes into the night to the sinister pool in whose depths he and his mother had lived. As he reaches its side animals gather round to watch him. ” ‘Poor Grendel’s had an accident,’ I whisper. ‘So may you all!’ ”

And so the book ends and Grendel dies. Mr. Gardner has a disturbing talent. There can be no doubt about that. Grendel, in addition to being the narrator, is much the most sympathetic figure in Grendel—in spite of his outrageous behavior and often deplorable opinions. What remains questionable is whether the literary object upon which Grendel is parasitic can carry the weight Mr. Gardner imposes upon it. Beowulf, for all its historic interest, remains obstinately secondrate as a work of literature. Great fleas have little fleas, as Swift once pointed out, drawing a critical conclusion from this zoological phenomenon. But per contra can a great flea survive on only one lesser specimen of the genus?

This Issue

December 30, 1971