Discussion Post: Beowulf

November 26, 2009 at 12:10 am Leave a comment

A much better cover than the Seamus Heaney version for SURE.

Welcome to the Beowulf discussion post! Remember, those interested in entering the drawing for the beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic must participate in at least one discussion before December 11th. Next week, we’ll be discussing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Beowulf is a poem written by a Christian monk who sings the praises of a pagan hero. How is this tension between the two religions shown? Is the ideology of Beowulf finally Christian, pagan, or both?

First, let me clarify that the protagonists of Beowulf are ostensibly Christian and make many references to the Will of the Lord, etc. As the events of the tale take place in roughly the 6th century, historically the characters should be Norse or Germanic Pagans. The poem as we know it today was composed or transcribed by a Christian monk for a Christian audience somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries, which explains the discrepancy.

The tension between Christianity and paganism in this poem is impossible for a pseudo-casual reader like me to resolve. Ultimately, I believe the poem owes its war-like, heroic spirit to Norse legend and paganism, and was merely covered over with a veneer of Christianity to make it more acceptable to an audience. But I’m quite willing to be proven wrong in this theory!

As you know, Beowulf was originally written in Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. Translator Michael Alexander notes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition that it’s nearly impossible to translate poetry from Anglo-Saxon to Modern English without losing something, whether in meaning, structure, or meter. To what extent do you believe this compromises both the poem and the readers’ experience?

Michael Alexander deserves canonization. I didn’t understand until I read the introduction how difficult translating alliterative verse really is. The rules of stress and alliteration are extraordinarily complex, and as Old English and Modern English don’t share the same stress patterns, one cannot translate Beowulf and expect to preserve every poetic nuance.

However, Michael Alexander pulls off a translation that (mostly) conforms to at least the alliterative pattern, if not stress patterns. Where he’s sacrificed alliteration or meter, it’s in favor of clarity of meaning.

As he says in his introduction, his intention is not to produce a literal translation, but to provide a way for readers to understand why Beowulf is viewed as a great work of literature. He argues that his translation is meant as an alternative but not a substitute for the original poem, but for the casual reader, it’s close enough. As Michael Alexander is both a poet and an Anglo-Saxon scholar, I have full confidence that his translation is as accurate as possible in both form and meaning.

Does this poem’s role as the only surviving English epic make it worthy of study? Is it important enough to take its place beside other epics, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad?

I’m not sure it’s fair to compare this epic with The Odyssey and The Iliad, both of which strike me as much longer and more closely tied into myth and historical events. They are also older, and so far as I can tell, rose from a broader literary tradition (i.e., there was a lot more literature going on in Ancient Greece than in Anglo-Norman England, or at least more Classical literature has survived). Anyway, these epics come from two different cultures and traditions, so I’m not precisely sure what I was thinking when I asked this question.

Beowulf should be studied by high school and college students, which is really what I was getting at. Not to be Anglo-centric, but I think it’s important for students to understand the heritage and history of English literature, of which Beowulf is definitely a part.

Also, as an aside, anyone who wants to better understand The Lord of the Rings should read Beowulf, as J. R. R. Tolkien was kind of a Beowulf nut and borrowed a lot of elements of this poem for the LotR trilogy as well as The Hobbit.

And that’s done with! Happy Thanksgiving to all, and don’t forget to check for the Uncle Tom’s Cabin discussion questions next Tuesday!


Entry filed under: LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , , , .

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