The Old English poem Beowulf tells, in a little over three thousand lines of verse, the story of a great hero of the Geat tribe, which long ago inhabited what is now part of Sweden. Beowulf hears of the protracted sufferings of the neighboring Danes at the hands of a monster called Grendel, a wildly destructive and cannibalistic ogre who bursts, night after night, into the great hall of Hrothgar, the Danish king, and tears both the place and its defenders apart. Beowulf, seeing an opportunity for heroism, resolves to go to the aid of Hrothgar and crosses the sea with the intention of taking on Grendel singlehanded. On arrival at the Danish court he does the required amount of boasting and feasting and when Grendel arrives that night Beowulf, scorning to use a weapon, wrestles with the intruder and tears off his arm.
Grendel dies, but a greater ordeal lies ahead; for his mother, a monster even more frightening to ordinary mortals though not to Beowulf, sets out to avenge him. She and Beowulf have a phantasmagorical struggle in her underwater lair, which ends when he happens to find a sword in her cave and uses it to kill her. Loaded with gifts and praise, he returns home and tells his story to his own king, Hygelac.
There follows a fifty-year gap in the story, and when we meet Beowulf again he is an old man and has himself long been the king of the Geats. Now his own kingdom is threatened by a terrible fire-breathing dragon who guards a hoard, quite in the manner of Wagner’s Fafner. Beowulf fights the dragon; all but one of his supporters flee, but the king, with this single helper, prevails, though at the cost of his own life. The dragon’s hoard is appropriated, and Beowulf is given a ceremonial burial, along with the treasure, in a conspicuous barrow on a headland. So the basic structure of the poem consists of three episodes—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon—though with a good deal of ancillary information concerning Danes, Geats, and other Scandinavian tribes and customs.
If you are prepared to admit that it was written in English, Beowulf is by far the oldest poem of its length in our language. When struggling through it as a student I preferred to call its language Anglo-Saxon, regarding the official description, Old English, as a trick, a means of getting into an English literature course a work in a remote Germanic dialect. My instructors could be thought to have a vested interest in the poem and the language; they had gone to a lot of trouble to learnabout them, and since teaching it was to be their chief means of support they were clearly in favor of making their study compulsory. Or so it seemed, no doubt unfairly; the poem is, after all, in the language that was spoken in England for centuries, and its greatest poem must be a legitimate object of historical and philological inquiry.
The interests of the teachers were indeed exclusively philological and antiquarian. Beowulf provided them with a great variety of complicated scholarly problems, and it was in these that they wanted to involve their students. They rarely found it necessary or desirable to speak of Beowulf as a poem, and when they did so they were quite likely to say it was not a particularly good one. Moving house a while ago I found an essay of mine, some sixty years old, on “The Fight at Finsburgh.” This is a poetic fragment, preserved by chance, of forty-odd lines, some baffling, from a lost longer work, not a part of Beowulf though obscurely related to it. Somebody must have believed that an attempt, however callow, to understand the problems of that relationship would somehow sharpen my wits. Of course I was not required to do any literary criticism.
Nobody knows, for sure, the date of Beowulf. Conjectures range from the early eighth to the late tenth century. Possibly it was composed in Northumbria but written down by monks in the south, perhaps long afterward. The culture of the time of writing was Christian, but the poem, though it includes some pious Christian sentiments, looks back to a pagan past, to heroic deeds performed in another country by men who could perhaps be thought of as remote ancestors. Wyrd, which is untranslatable but means something like “fate,” is a stronger idea in the poem than Christian providence. During much of the period when the poem was written down and read, Danes of a later vintage were persistent and successful enemies of the Anglo-Saxons, which suggests that it was possible to distinguish, in poems, between dangerous, ugly modern Danes and old-time Danes, whose antique heroic virtues belonged at least as much to the tradition of the inhabitants of England as to that of the modern raiders. There is a question whether the Christian material in the poem was there from the start or intruded into it later, which is not impossible, considering that the practice of writing came in with Christianity. And of course, as R.M. Liuzza suggests in the preface to his new translation, the poem may have undergone changes during its life of oral performance, changes of which we can know nothing, before it reached the hands of the final author.
At that time it presumably took its place along with many other writings of the same sort, but the extant body of Anglo-Saxon literature is quite small; we can say that such poems as “The Battle of Maldon” and “The Seafarer” have a good deal in common with Beowulf, but it remains historically rather isolated. For a long time so little was known about the culture that produced such a poem that it must have seemed that all its talk of splendid gold ornaments, rings, cups, swords, and the like was mere fantasy, until the discovery, just before the outbreak of war in 1939, of the rich seventh-century ship-burial treasure near the East Suffolk town of Sutton Hoo. The effect on our sense of the civilization that produced it might be thought comparable to that of Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations at Knossos on the understanding of the Homeric world. We may even think the rich trappings of Beowulf’s burial chime with those of the Sutton Hoo treasure, but the experts warn us not to make too much of such parallels.
The unique manuscript of the poem, which is written out continuously, with no breaks between the verse lines, survived centuries of almost total neglect until Sir Robert Cotton acquired it early in the seventeenth century. In 1731 it was damaged by fire, but it is now in the British Library, legible except for a few charred lines. Interest in it was slight until early-nineteenth-century Romantic nationalists claimed the work as an early English epic, comparable to Homer, the Nibelungenlied, and the Chanson de Roland, and gratifyingly older than the last two. Scholars, by no means just the English but learned men and women of many nations—German, Danish, Icelandic, British, and American—have worked on it ever since. It has often been translated into modern English, in the nineteenth century by Longfellow and William Morris among others. But on the whole versions made in recent years are better, a development that may be explained, at any rate in part, by a rather striking scholarly event that occurred in 1936.
This was the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”1 It would not be easy to think of a parallel to this occasion, a professorial lecture that changed a generation’s attitude toward a document of national and historical importance. Tolkien noted that previous scholarship had treated Beowulf less as a poem than as matter for archaeological and historical inquiry. “The shadow of research has lain upon criticism,” says Tolkien; the current of interest had been antiquarian rather than critical. An unhappy consequence had been the erroneous assumption that the poem was “primitive” when in fact it looks back, from a much later civilized period, on a primitive heroic age long past. More impor-tant, the experts, obsessed with the idea of its primitiveness, had simply neglected the poem as a poem, or criticized it for its “thin and poor” story: Beowulf destroys the ogre Grendel, then he defeats Grendel’s ogre mother, and then, after fifty years have elapsed in a few lines, he kills a fiery dragon and dies of injuries sustained in the fight. Apart from anything else, the structure of the tale, looked at in this way, looked weak, “primitive.”
Tolkien, however, has no difficulty with the episodic structure and finds in the poetry a high seriousness, a grim understanding that monsters are evidence of what cannot be denied, the potential of evil in the world; they are the enemies of men and gods (and God). The poem is a celebration of the necessary defeat of even the greatest human valor; the tragic truth of mortality, a theme always valid, though in a poem set in a pagan past by an author whose Christianity is attested by some moralistic musings and the scriptural references to Cain (ancestor of the monsters who, like him, bore the wrath of God, godes yrre) and to the war of the giants against heaven.2
Tolkien commends the meter of the poem (the lines “more like masonry than music”) but particularly loves those monsters, “the evil side of heroic life.” Beowulf himself can be seen as a hero in a more general and more impressive way, not merely as a Germanic adventurer: “He is a man, and that for him is sufficient tragedy.” And Tolkien endorses the resonant account of the British scholar W.P. Ker: these heroes of the North offer “absolute resistance, perfect because without hope.” The mood is that of two famous lines, better remembered than most Anglo-Saxon verses, in the tenth-century poem “The Battle of Maldon,” which was originally in the same manuscript as Beowulf but was destroyed in the fire, though fortunately somebody had made a copy of it. In a version of the lines by W.H. Auden, from The Orators, “Heart and head shall be keener, mood the more/As our might lessens.”
Beowulf, on this view, is not to be described as an epic poem or a lay poem but as “an heroic-elegiac poem,” its climax the death and funeral of the hero in the last lines.Somebody else had said Beowulf was “small beer,” but Tolkien, in what became a famous phrase, described it as “a drink dark and bitter, a solemn funeral ale with the taste of death.” And after this the poem, we were counseled, should never be treated as it had been hitherto; it was henceforth to be studied as great literature. “There is not much poetry in the world like this,” Tolkien wrote.
Naturally, some of Tolkien’s views have been called into question in the years since 1936, but we can assume that translators coming after him will have his work and his estimate of the poem, at least to some degree, in mind. He offered his own views on the problems of translation. First he ruled out prose translation, except when legitimately used by a student as a crib, and that is surely right; without the strange, strong, halting movement of the verse, its ceremonial, archaic quality, the solemnity of the boasts and promises, the rituals of the mead hall so stiffly recalled, there may be very little left to interest us, only a fairy story of ogres and dragons, of repetitive boasting and drinking and gift-giving.
So the translators must use verse. But here there are fearful obstacles, such that Seamus Heaney tells us that for a while he gave up the attempt. Anglo-Saxon verse resembles nothing in modern English prosody, and attempts to imitate it with any exactness may seem barbaric, unless managed with the virtuosity of Auden in The Age of Anxiety. Each verse is divided by a caesura, a pause at about the middle of the metrical line, and each half-line has two stresses. Alliteration, or what Tolkien prefers to call “head-rhyme,” is an agreement between stressed elements beginning with the same consonant or lacking consonants. Tolkien provides a few lines of an English version that obeys these rules, marking principal and subordinate stresses, showing that the half-lines are themselves divided, and stressing the head-rhymes. The lines are from a passage early in the poem which describes Beowulf and his men setting forth on their mission of mercy to the Danes:
Time pássed a|wáy. On the tíde | flóated under bánk | their bóat. In her bóws | móuntedbráve mèn | blíthely. Bréakers | túrningspúrned the | shíngle. Spléndid | ármourthey bóre | abóard….
Probably three thousand lines of this would be tiring, but it still seems clear that a translation ignoring the rules altogether and converting everything into modern iambic pentameters, for instance, would fail, if only because it would be constantly proclaiming its own anachronistic character. R.M. Liuzza, in an appendix, gives twenty versions of another passage (lines 229-257, the Danish watchman’s challenge to Beowulf as he and his men disembark on the shore of Denmark). Some have the alliteration but not the break, others try for both but are unfaithfully wordy. The earliest example that sounds a bit like the original is Charles W. Kennedy’s of 1940, but Ruth P.M. Lehmann’s of 1988 and Frederick Rebsamen’s of 1991 are more ambitious and more successful.
On the whole the versions now un-der review would seem to be better than their predecessors. Seamus Heaney in his elegant introduction pays his tribute to Tolkien, who would certainly have enjoyed Heaney’s account of the monsters, especially the description of Grendel’s mother, “a creature of sea-slouch and lunge on land if seal-swift in the water,” and of the dragon defeated by Beowulf in that terminal encounter:
There is something glorious in the way he manifests himself, a Fourth of July effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him.
Heaney needs no prompting to present Beowulf as a great poem, one that demanded considerable technical resource of its author, and something similar of its translator: “Often…the whole attempt to turn it into modern English seemed to me like trying to bring down a megalith with a toy hammer.” But he eventually persuaded himself that he had the means, reflecting that the first poem in his first published collection was made, unconsciously, to comply with the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics: “The spade sinks into gravelly ground:/My father, digging. I look down….” The conceit upon which the effect of that poem partly depends (the poet himself digs not with a spade but with the pen in his hand, “snug as a gun”) sounds, for a moment, remote from Anglo-Saxon poetry, but then one remembers that Anglo-Saxon poetry has its own conceits, even its own jokes and puzzles, such as the riddles, sometimes obscene, found in the Exeter Book, a tenth-century collection preserved in Exeter Cathedral; and also in the kennings (“whale-road” or “swan’s path” for the sea, “sky-candle” for the sun, etc.) that are frequent in Beowulf and sometimes set more problems to its translator.
As for alliteration, Heaney knows something of the trick of it, having started out as an imitator of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He claims a further advantage: he could draw on the Irish English of his Northern Irish youth, in which certain words survive that have died in English-English, for example the verb “thole,” meaning “suffer,” which is found in Beowulf (and in a poem of John Crowe Ransom’s) as well as in Irish dialect. Heaney felt that this historical accident justified his use of other Anglo-Saxon words and locutions in his translation. The first word of Beowulf is Hwaet, a call to attention, usually translated as “Lo!” or “Listen!”But Heaney’s version begins “So,” which “in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak” is an idiomatic way of inaugurating a new topic. He says he knows a little Anglo-Saxon, but not much; his qualifications as translator were quite different; he is an exceptionally good Hiberno-English poet.
His version of the lines given above in Tolkien’s translation are as follows:
Time went by, the boat was on water,
in close under the cliffs.
Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,
sand churned in surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons….
The second line has a bit missing—“in her bows mounted,” the sense being loosely included in the line that follows. The third line, newly arranged, does not alliterate. “Sand churned in surf” is as good as Tolkien’s “Breakers… spurned the shingle,” but the adjective that should go with the armor is missing. R.M. Liuzza gives us
The time came—the craft was on the waves,
moored under the cliffs. Eager men
climbed on the prow—the currents eddied,
sea against sand—the soldiers bore
into the bosom of the ship their bright gear….
This has more of the original substance, and more of the alliteration, but at the cost of some diffuseness. And “sea against sand” is surely weaker than the rival versions. It could be said that the Liuzza lines explain more, but lack the brusqueness of the original.
Heaney admits in his introduction that
in one area my own labours have been less than thoroughgoing. I have not followed the strict metrical rules that bound the Anglo-Saxon scop. I have been guided by the fundamental pattern of four stresses to the line, but I allow myself several transgressions. For example, I don’t always employ alliteration, and sometimes I alliterate only in one half of the line. When these breaches occur, it is because I prefer to let the natural “sound of sense” to prevail over the demands of convention: I have been reluctant to force an artificial shape or an unusual word choice just for the sake of correctness.
This means he grants himself a fair amount of license and relies on a poet’s apprehension of “the sound of sense.” In other words, we are required to trust him as a poet; fortunately he has given us cause to do so.
Liuzza’s book is in some respects more useful than Heaney’s. Understandably he doesn’t demand unqualified confidence in his own powers as a poet; he is not a Nobel laureate, and in any case his attention is modestly concentrated on the object poem. Liuzza, who teaches English at Tulane, takes account of recent scholarly research and provides a commentary, a collection of supporting texts, and an excellent introduction to this “Christian poet’s bittersweet elegy for the doomed heroic life.” His account of the peculiarities of Old English poetic style is particularly helpful. Here he discusses the difficulties for the translator of the “profusion of synonyms”:
Alliterative poetry required a number of different ways of saying the same thing in different lines: depending on the meter, context, and the necessity of making an alliterative link, a king might be called a cyning, dryhten, hyrde, raeswa, sigedryhten, peodcyning, weard, or wine. Of course these words are not quite synonyms, any more than their nearest equivalents in Modern English (“king,” “lord,” “shepherd,” “prince,” “victorious lord,” “king of the people,” “guardian,” “friend”), but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that their use in Old English is only partly determined by the nuances of their connotations. At times metrical necessity must have played a decisive role. The aged and ineffectual king Hrothgar, for example, is called helm Scyldinga “protector of the Scyldings” [Danes] in lines 371, 456, and 1321, presumably not because he is such a great protector of his people—under the circumstances the title could at best be regarded as a courtesy—but because helm alliterates with Hrothgar. But the elaboration of synonyms is part of what gives the poem its notable formality, another instance of the recurrence-with-variation that is the essence of its art.
It might be added that there is a Homeric flavor about this epithet for Hrothgar, as when Achilles is “brilliant” or “swift-footed” because at a particular point the meter, though not necessarily the sense, requires it. As Milman Parry demonstrated, these formulaic epithets have a mnemonic function and belong to the tradition of oral poetry, still practiced, at any rate in his day, by illiterate Yugoslavian bards.3
Few readers will ignore the obvious appeal of the Heaney translation, knowing from his own poetry that he has the resources to do the job and has by now won the vote of the public, which has made his book a slightly surprising best seller. Here is part of his version of Beowulf’s wrestling match with Grendel:
And now the timbers trembled and sang
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury,
the two contenders crashed through the building.
The hall clattered and hammered, but somehow
survived the onslaught and kept standing:
it was handsomely structured, a sturdy frame
braced with the best of blacksmith’s work
inside and out. The story goes
that as the pair struggled, mead-benches were smashed
and sprung off the floor, gold fittings and all.
Before then, no Shielding elder would believe
there was any power or person upon earth
capable of wrecking their horn-rigged hall
unless the burning embrace of a fire
engulf it in flame.
Where Heaney writes “hall-session,” Liuzza translates ealu-scerwen literally as “ale-sharing” and explains that it probably means “panic” or “terror,” though he cannot explain why the word for such an innocent-sounding activity should come to mean those things. Heaney avoids the difficulty by simply saying the Danes were “harrowed.” Liuzza continues:
It was a great wonder that the wine-hall
withstood their fighting and did not fall to the ground,
that fair building—but it was fastened
inside and out with iron bands,
forged with skill.From the floor there flew
many a mead-bench, as men have told me,
gold-adorned, where those grim foes fought.
The Scylding elders had never expected
that any man, by any ordinary means
could break it apart, beautiful, bone-adorned,
or destroy it with guile, unless the embrace of fire
might swallow it in flames.
You could compare these passages line by line and say that Heaney wins some and loses some.On the whole he is neater (“the story goes” for the more literal and literary “as men have told me”). And perhaps Liuzza is more confident in the strangeness of the literal:”bone-adorned,” which is more literal, for “horn-rigged,” though they are perhaps equally odd. Heaney’s “any power or person upon earth,” though rather free, is better than Liuzza’s equivalent, “any man, by any ordinary means.”
The point of these comparisons, however, is simply that the less celebrated translator can be matched with the famous one; which of the two is Beowulf and which is Grendel is not easily decided. Given that Liuzza’s book contains a perfectly good and well-informed translation as well as much valuable ancillary material, and that Heaney has long since earned the right to be carefully attended to whatever he chooses to do, the answer to the problem of choice is simple enough: since each book in its way enriches the pleasure to be had from the poem, the best plan is to buy them both. The edition of Heaney’s book here reviewed has the Old English and modern versions on facing pages, which gives him an additional advantage since anybody with a smattering of the language can at least play at checking the new against the old.
July 20, 2000
Republished in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1984), pp. 5-48. ↩
Much has been made of the fact that the biblical references are to the Old, not the New Testament, as if the author, though professing Christianity, betrayed ignorance of or an indifference to its central doctrines, which of course depend on the New rather than the Old. ↩
For an easily accessible discussion of this function, see Bernard Knox’s introduction to Robert Fagles’s translation of the Odyssey (Viking, 1996). ↩