Sunday, 13 July 2008

Beowulf - Penguin Classics (Michael Alexander transl)

( I am unable to post a picture of my version, which has an enlarged version of part of a bowl from the Sutton Hoo collection in the British Museum. Mine was published in 1973, transl by Michael Alexander, Penguin Classics, 1973, paperback).

I had studied Old English in university, and very much enjoyed it. There was something about the use of alliteration that appealed to me: 'Him da Scyld gewat to gescaephwile,/ felahror feran on Frean waere.' (lines 26-27). If you say it out loud, as the bard would have recited it in the smoky halls long ago, you can get a sense of the rhythm, the recurring sounds that are almost hypnotic. It was a way to recall for the bard from memory the lay, and I think it also stirred in the blood of every listener ancient echoes of remembering. I did not keep my text of Old English dictionary and texts that I used, which I now of course regret since one of things I loved was translating the original old English directly, and then transforming it into modern usage. I could see the beginnings of our language, and my ancestry, in the Old English.

The lines above translate in my edition by Michael Alexander to: 'At the hour shaped for him Scyld departed, the hero crossed into the keeping of his Lord.'

This is an epic poem, and it is beautiful. I should have remembered how much I loved Old English, but over the years I had forgotten. And I love this version of Beowulf; I have Seamus Heaney's version, which I am going to read next month, so that I give a little time to sit in my mind this version before going with the award-winning version. From the bit I have peeked at though, I think I can say I prefer this version - Alexander's because it is as close to a direct translation of the Old English, which I have said above that I love. There is a directness to this translation, an immediacy that Old English contains in itself: 'It is a sorrow in spirit for me to say to any man/ - a grief in my heart - what the hatred of Grendel/ has brought me to in Heorot, what humiliation,/ what harrowing pain. My hall-companions,/ my war-band, are dwindled; Weird has swept them/ into the power of Grendel.'(473-478) I love the word 'Weird' for fate. I love the alliteration, I love how the words are used so that we have to say each of them - this isn't easy poetry that you can say hurriedly, you have to say each word, so you feel the poetry with your mouth as well as hear it.

All the way through the poem runs the Viking way of life, interspersed with the new Christian religion - we are seeing the usurption of the old Gods by the new one in this part (told by the bard in the hall):
'.......until One began
to encompass evil, an enemy from hell.
Grendel they called this cruel spirit,
the fell and fen his fastness was,
the march his haunt. This unhappy being
had long lived in the land of monsters
since the Creator cast them out
as kindred of Cain. For that killing of Abel
the eternal Lord took vengeance.
There was no joy of that feud: far from mankind
God drove him out for his deed of shame!
From Cain came down all kinds of misbegotten
-ogres and elves and evil shades -
as also the Giants, who joined in long
wars with God.
' (lines 101 - 115)

This is the first time I have encountered a recounting of what happened to Cain, and it is fascinating to see how the bard recounts how evil things are from Cain, so part of God's landscape, but not to be tolerated. This is only a side part of the poem, for the most part it is Norse, with the warrior's way of life paramount:
'For in youth an atheling should so use his virtue,
give with a free hand while in his father's house,
that in old age, when enemies gather,
established friends shall stand by him
and serve him gladly. It is by glorious action
that a man comes by honour in any people.
' (lines 20-25)

This is the Viking code, and it is repeated throughout the poem, and at the end has a special resonance because '
The band of picked companions did not come
to stand beside about him, as battle-usage asks,
offspring of athelings; they escaped to the wood,
saved their lives.
Sorrow filled/the breast of one man. The bonds of kinship
nothing may remove for a man who thinks rightly.
' (lines 2596-2603)

I was enthralled by this poem, and was transported back in time to halls of warriors drinking and laughing, shouting boasts and knowing their days are numbered by Weird so living knowing they are going to die one day.

I love the dragon at the end. Beowulf is such a hero that he kills Grendel with his bare hands (which turns out to be the only thing that can kill Grendel), then Grendel's mother, and then, at the end, a dragon. I admit here that while I knew Tolkien lectured and studied on Norse myths, I did not know that almost his entire idea of Smaug was taken from Beowulf. I was stunned when I read it:
....Men did not know
of the way underground to it; but one man did enter,
went right inside, reached the treasure,
the heathen hoard, and his hand fell
on a golden goblet. The guardian, however,
if he had been caught sleepig by the cunning of the thief,
did not conceal this loss. It was not long til the near-
dwelling people discovered that the dragon was angry.
(lines 2214-2220)

I suppose that it is an honour to Beowulf that Tolkien almost directly copied how Bilbo creeps down the tunnel and discovers Smaug asleep on the hoard of treasures, and how, after Bilbo escapes him, Smaug torments the people of Dale until one man slays him - in the same manner that Beowulf's dragon is killed by Wiglaf, the one man who stands beside Beowulf in his last hour of need:

'His hand burned as he helped his kinsman,
but the brave soldier in his splendid armour
ignored the head and hit the attacker
somewhat below it, so that the sword went in,
flashing-hilted; and the fire began
to slacken in consequence.
The king {Beowulf}
once more took command of his wits......
and the Geats' Helm struck through the serpent's body.

So daring drove out life: they had downed their foe
by common action, the atheling pair,
and had made an end of him. So in the hour of need
a warrior must live.
' (lines 2696-2709)

The last line, for me, is the key to the whole work, and my favourite line. It is, I think what has become the motto for most fantasy work, and any epic poem ever written: who comes in the hour of need to save the people? As much as I personally am against war, I admire heroism, I admire facing death bravely, so in my deepest heart I admire some of the Viking culture. (Plundering and raping and killing women and children, no.)

And even if Tolkien did borrow the dragon and dragon-lore from Beowulf (and didn't mention it), that dragon-lore has passed directly into our literature. We all know how to kill a dragon - though I will admit that Tolkien embellished by saying there was a tiny part on Smaug's chest that was not covered with scales, where his heart could be hit by an arrow flown true (I think it's safe to say I know The Hobbit by heart now!!) I still love Smaug, too, as well as this nameless dragon from Beowulf. Monsters from the dark, brave heroes facing death to save their people, loyalty - and cowardice -, treasure, courage, there is not much to not like in Beowulf. I know why it's a classic now. I'm just sorry it took me so long to read it.

However, before I close, I want to talk about how we recreate myths, how over centuries we rework these myths; because, to my surprise, last night I finished Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman, and the last story, The Monarch of the Glen, is about - Beowulf again:

"There was a cold wind, a sea-wind, and it seemed to Shadow that there were huge shadows in the sky, vast figures that he had seen on a ship made of the fingernails of dead men, and that they were staring down at him, that this fight was what was keeping them frozen on their ship, unable to land, unable to leave.
This fight was old, Shadow thought, older than even Mr Alice knew, and he was thinking that even as the creature's talons raked his chest. It was the fight of man against monster, and it was old as time; it was Theseus battling the Minotaur, it was Beowulf and Grendel, it was the fight of every hero who had ever stood between the firelight and the darkness and wiped the blood of something inhuman from his sword."


I am not going to talk more about Fragile Things here, I am saving that for a separate post. As most everyone who reads Neil Gaiman knows, last year he co-wrote Beowulf, a new movie version of the epic poem. I still have to see it, as I was saving it until I'd read the original poem. Now I am going to see it, and then read Seamus Heaney's rewritten version, and will do a post later. For now, I love how Gaiman ties together old myths and creates new ones; Monarch of the Glen is of course a novella of American Gods, which I think might eventually become considered a fantasy masterpiece. (I read it before I began blogging, so when I reread it, I will post about it then!) Now I know more, because I've read Beowulf; now I know more about fantasy's roots, which I did not expect, and I've remembered that, once upon a time and always, we have told each other stories about the dark, and about the heroes who fight the things roaming in the dark.

We will always need heroes, and American Gods shows Gaiman taking the old myths and stories and changing them again, to take in the new myths of the New World. It has taken 400 years for Norse myths to start being combined with North American myths, and that is part of why I think Gaiman, and Charles de Lint (who blends Celtic fairies from the old world better than almost anyone else with the North American myths), and are among the forefront of creating hybrids of new and old myths. We need the old - we brought them with us - and we need to know the myths of where we live, so we recognize the gods here, even if they wear different faces - Spider Woman, Trickster - and now, we are bringing them together in new ways. So they live, as Shadow does in Monarch when he doesn't kill Grendel; the old myths are let free. In Beowulf's time Grendel had to die; in our time now, Grendel has to live so the old gods live. Something is changing, and I wonder what Joseph Campbell would say now, about the Hero's Journey? Where are we now? For we need myths, we need stories, we need legends, and our world desperately needs heroes. That's why I think Beowulf is still relevant now - he's slaying the monsters of the dark, and we each are on a journey to slay our own monsters now. I'd rather have Beowulf (or Shadow)......I think I am going to have to reread American Gods sooner than I thought, because Shadow is bigger than normal, as Beowulf was, and it occurs to me that Shadow might actually be Beowulf in modern form......and why does it feel right that Shadow frees the characters of Norse myths, that he doesn't kill Grendel? It does, and I know the teller of Beowulf wouldn't approve, so what has changed between 700 AD (when the poem was finished) and now?

14 comments:

Charlotte said...

I own a modern translation of Beowulf (Seamus Heaney, I think) but have never read it. This wonderful post has inspired me to do so! Thank you.

Rebecca Reid said...

your post has likewise encouraged me to read Beowulf! Thanks!

Andrea said...

I haven't read Beowulf before, although I'm sure I will get around to it someday. It is also fascinating that Tolkien used the dragon scene for The Hobbit. Keep us updated on how you like the movie "Beowulf" and the other translation.

Isn't it interesting how you have to have a knowledge of Biblical stories and teachings to understand so many of the classics? In my World Lit. class in school we discussed the Bible story of Job while reading Faust. It was amazing how many of the students had no clue who Job was. They never would have really understand the basis for the drama.

Bibliophylia said...

I studied Old English in college as well! Like you, I really enjoyed it. Luckily, I was taking German at the same time, and it helped a lot.

Jeane said...

I read a translation of Beowulf a number of years ago- I tried to get one as close to the old language as possible because like you, I love the flavor of the language. Although it takes me a long and careful time to read it! I remember feeling just as surprised as you when I came upon that scene of the dragon, realizing immediately where Tolkien got his source.

Susan said...

charlotte: Let me know what you think of Heaney's version, which I am going to read next month. Glad my post could inspire you! :-)

rebecca: same for you, glad my post has encouraged you. It really is fun to read. I hope you enjoy it! Let me know :-)

andrea:that's interesting way of linking Faust with Job! I hadn't heard that one before. I actually took a Bible in literature class, but unfortunately I don't recall much about it! This was 20 years ago. I guess it's sad the decline of knowledge of the Bible. I am surprised so few students had heard of Job!

bibliophylia: It's a fascinating language, old English, isn't it? And it gives me a sense - studying languages - how the speakers think, their mind-set.

jeane: I was so shocked I gasped out loud, when I read that scene! I was stunned that it was *borrowed* so heavily by Tolkien. I loved hearing my prof speak Old English, too. Did you find an Old English copy of Beowulf to read?

Emily Barton said...

Right. Time to re-read Beowulf (who also showed up when I was recently reading Caitlin Kiernan's Threshold).

Susan said...

emily: how was Caitlin's book? Just the title and knowing it referred somehow to Beowulf made me tingle. Must find this soon!!

Rhinoa said...

What a great review! I am rubbish with languages and am very jealous you were aboe to study and learn old english. I have the Seamus Heaney translation which has the modern english one one page and the old english on the opposite page so you can get a feel for the original language. It would be great to hear it recited by a bard (and to understand it!).

Emily Barton said...

It was good. Spooky and disturbing and very intelligent (although I'm still trying to figure out its YA classification).

Susan said...

rhinoa: thank you! when I do Seamus Heaney's book - I'm reading it next month - I'm hoping I have the edition with the old english on one side, too. It would be great to hear someone who speaks old English recite it, wouldn't it? I'll let you know when I review so we each can add it to our blog :-)

emily: ok, now I am definitely going to have to find this book! I'm piling up creepy books for RIP3, and this sounds like it will fit in.

Manny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Manny said...

I have blog an essay I did on Beowulf.

http://mannylarson.blogspot.com/2008/07/beowulfs-vanquished-monsters.html

Kim L said...

I read the Seamus Heaney version and really got into. I didnt' think I would enjoy it too much, but it was interesting to see how much influence it was on other works (such as Tolkien, like you said.)