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The Literature Collection

Ringler, Dick / Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery (May 2005)

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In his important ethnographic treatise on the early Germanic tribes, written about 100 A.D., the Roman historian Tacitus mentioned with interest—and perhaps astonishment—"their ancient songs, which are the only kind of historical tradition among them" (carminibus antiquis, quod unum apud illos memoriae et annalium genus est). Today only fragments of this once-robust tradition of oral poetry remain to us, embodied in the much later written texts of the Old Icelandic Poetic Edda, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, and—most magnificent of all—the Old English narrative poem Beowulf.

The historical portions of Beowulf contain references to real persons who lived in or near Scandinavia in the 400s and 500s A.D. and to actual events which took place at that time.[1*] Subsequently memories of these persons and events were transmitted for many centuries in the form of oral poetry, and during this period they were subject to all the types of distortion that characterize oral transmission. Some of these oral traditions from Scandinavia made their way to England and it was there that the written text of Beowulf, as we have it today, took shape sometime in the mid- or late Anglo-Saxon period,[2*] during the time when oral and literary cultures overlapped.[3*] Scholars still debate whether the text of Beowulf is the considered production of a single anonymous individual or the result of a process of accretion and revision in which other people had a hand.

The single surviving manuscript of the Old English text, which was written by two scribes about 1000 A.D., contains many errors of a kind that suggest it is the end-product of a series of copyings and recopyings. The manuscript is kept today in the British Library in London, where its traditional designation is MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv. The poem itself bears no title in the manuscript, where its text is divided into forty-four sections, most of which are preceded by Roman numerals.[4*]

Though the written text of Beowulf is thus very old, and its historical subject matter older still, the poem did not become widely known or readily accessible to the world at large until the early 1800s. Hence, in spite of its early date, its entry into the canon of English literature is a fairly recent event.[5*]

The poem tells a simple and straightforward story in a complex and many-layered way. In the foreground stands Beowulf, a young hero who combines physical strength and prowess with great strength of mind and character. He travels from his own country—the land of the Geats—to fight Grendel, a man-eating monster who is terrorizing the hall of Hrothgar, a rich and famous king of Denmark. When Beowulf and Grendel clash the monster, who is part human, part giant, part hellish demon, is mortally wounded but escapes. The next night Grendel's mother attacks the hall and avenges her son's death. Beowulf pursues her to her underwater lair and kills her. He receives splendid rewards from the Danish king and returns home to be even more splendidly rewarded by his uncle Hygelac, king of the Geats. Fifty years later Beowulf, now an old man and king of the Geats himself, sets out to fight a flying, fire-breathing dragon that has been enraged by the theft of some of its treasure. In the battle that follows Beowulf, abandoned by all but one of his followers, slays the dragon, but at the cost of his own life. His grieving people give him a hero's burial in a great mound by the side of the sea.

This exciting story of a fabulous hero's battles with three fabulous monsters is embedded in a complex web of traditions about actual historical figures from late fifth- and early sixth-century Scandinavia. But whereas the story of the hero's three fights unfolds in a straightforward chronological way, the details of the historical backround are presented in more fragmentary nonlinear fashion (but not haphazardly!) and the narrative darts forward and backward in time as it weaves its elaborate tapestry of the kings and queens and wars and weddings of pre-Viking Age Scandinavia.

Whoever was responsible, in the later Anglo-Saxon period, for putting the poem together in its present form—let us call this hypothetical person "the Beowulf-poet"—was clearly a Christian, though s/he shrewdly avoids any direct reference to Christ or the events of the New Testament, probably because such references would have been anachronistic in a work that is ostensibly set in pre-Christian times. The poem is deeply concerned with values, both the nature and quality of the traditional values of the heroic society it depicts and the successes and failures of individuals to live up to those values. Like the gallery of figures who populate the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the early eighth century, the aristocrats in Beowulf are intended to be—at least in part—models, "exemplars," representatives of virtuous and vicious behavior, and the purpose of their exemplary presentation is moral and didactic: "For if history relates good things of good men, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; or if it records evil things of evil men, the devout and earnest listener or reader is encouraged to avoid everything harmful and perverse and follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God." (Bede, Preface). Beowulf is full of teachings of this kind, both explicit and implicit, and it would be a serious mistake to think these teachings and lessons are without relevance to a modern audience.

* * * * *

The standard scholarly edition of the Old English text is Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Fr. Klaeber, 3rd ed. (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1950). Its introduction and notes, though now somewhat dated, still cover most relevant bases. They are covered in more up-to-date fashion in Andy Orchard's invaluable Critical Companion to Beowulf (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003). For a handy edition of the Old English text with a Modern English translation on facing pages and plenty of helpful notes, see Howell D. Chickering, Jr., Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1977).


[1*] One of the central incidents in the poem, the seaborne raid of Beowulf's uncle Hygelac against a tribe called the Hetware, who were confederates of the Merovingian Franks and lived near the mouth of the River Rhine, can be dated to c520 A.D. thanks to a reference in the Historia Francorum of the chronicler Gregory of Tours. This date is the starting point for all scholarly calculations of the hypothetical dates of the reigns, figures, and events in the poem.

[2*] In the course of their migration to England and their oral propagation there for what may have been a considerable time, the Scandinavian materials were adjusted to their new geographical and cultural context. For example, the architecture of the dragon's barrow seems to combine elements of a neolithic chamber tomb and the ruins of a Roman building, both of which were fairly thick on the ground in England in the poet's day. It seems likely, moreover, that the poet thought of the dragon's hoard of "heathen gold" as a buried treasure from pre-Christian — and probably Roman — times; such treasures must have turned up even more frequently in Anglo-Saxon times than they do today. (Indeed, the elegiac emphasis on the vanishing of the earlier race that buried the treasure probably reflects—as do similar passages in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as "The Wanderer"—the awareness of the Anglo-Saxons that they were living amid the wreckage of Roman Britain.) As for the wild landscape of the Grendel kin's pool, it is much less likely to be a confused memory of Scandinavian crags and waterfalls (as was once thought) than a deliberate attempt to represent the confused and topsy-turvy landscape of hell—not unlike similar attempts by later artists such as Bosch and Brueghel.

[3*] The present translator likes to believe—but this may only be wishful thinking!—that the poem was composed at the highly literate court of King Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899) or his son Edward (899-824) or grandson Athelstan (924-939). The presence of so much Scandinavian historical material in an English poem might even be interpreted as the result of a court-directed effort to integrate and reconcile native Englishmen and Viking settlers.

[4*] Roman numerals are lacking for sections XXIX, XXX and XXXIX, and there is an unnumbered "prologue."

[5*] The first edition of the Old English text was published in 1815 by the Icelander Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, who was interested in it because of what it had to say about Danish antiquities. The first Modern English translation was published by John M. Kemble in 1837.

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