Friday, October 16, 2015

The Battle of the Beowulfs

Beowulf fans have never had it better. Since JRR Tolkien gave his landmark lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics in 1936, then shot to literary superstardom himself, this long-obscure Anglo-Saxon epic poem has emerged as perhaps the twenty-first century's best-loved and most widely-read pre-Renaissance work so far. The splendid 1999 translation by Seamus Heaney did much to reinvigorate Beowulf's cultural clout, which in turn made other translations desirable. In 2013 I was delighted to hear about Douglas Wilson's Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering, but when in 2014 JRR Tolkien's long-awaited prose translation was published, I knew for sure that I would be writing this post.

I've already given Beowulf an in-depth review here, but this time I wanted to do something...a bit more comparative.

The Project 

Read the Heaney, Wilson, and Tolkien translations together, in as short a time as possible, and decide which of them is my favourite.

(Then, because we happened to have it and I'd never read it but liked what I'd skimmed, I threw Frederick Rebsamen's 1991 Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation onto the pile. It would also have been nice to include the Chickering and the Raffel translations, but we didn't have them and six might have been a bit unmanageable! Next time!)

Last week I finally sat down to sprint through all four, which I managed (sans all introductions, forewords, and commentary material) within five days.

The Contenders 

Beowulf: A New Translation by Seamus Heaney, 1999
Fingers were bursting,
the monster back-tracking, the man overpowering.
The dread of the land was desperate to escape,
to take a roundabout road and flee
to his lair in the fens. The latching power
in his fingers weakened; it was the worst trip
the terror-monger had taken to Heorot.
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.
Heaneywulf, as it's sometimes called, was the Beowulf I grew up on: devoured it as a child, listened to Dad reading it aloud after dinner, returned to it at intervals thereafter. Till last week, I hadn't read it for a number of years and was looking forward to revisiting it as the first stop on my tour.

The first thing to strike me was the tone. As I read it aloud, I found my voice dropping an octave and slowing considerably. Heaney's language is very direct, declarative, measured, and dignified. Beowulf is full of ironic humour and understatement (as in "the worst trip" in the quotation above) and this came out quite clearly in this translation.

Heaney uses few archaisms and few kennings, the poetic Anglo-Saxon metaphors. He does, however, make good use of obscure regional words, often Gaelic in origin, such as bawn for an embattled fortress or graith for harness. He also coins some kennings of his own--"wound-slurry" for blood.

Heaney was Irish and a poet in his own right, and both those things leave their mark on his translation.

Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation by Frederick Rebsamen, 1991.
The stone-cobbled road     ran on before them
as they marched together.    Their mailcoats glistened
laced by smith-hands--linked steel-jackets
clinked an armour-song    as they came to the hall
strode in their war-gear    straight to the door. 
They settled broadshields    bright by the wall
rounded and hardened    by ringing forge-hammers.
They bent to the benches    breast-coats in rows
life-guarding corselets.    They leaned ash-spears
ranked by the door    reaching above them
gray-tipped treelimbs.    Geats rested there
wealthy in weapons.
Reading this aloud, I found it much quicker and lighter than Heaney. Rebsamen uses a minimum of punctuation, relying instead on a strong rhythmic pulse and caesurae (the little spaces at the centre of each line) to cue us in on the arrangement of the thoughts. The tone is significantly more disjoined than Heaney, and more indicative than declarative; this translation tells a story, while Heaney's seems to pronounce facts.

Immediately, just from the short excerpt above, you can see that Rebsamen preserves a lot of kennings and Saxon-style compound words. "Armour-song," "thane-sorrow," "war-son", "shoulder-companion", "throne-warden" and "the Measurer" in reference to God are just some of the colourful Anglo-Saxon figures of speech you'll find here. As to the humour, Anthony Esolen referred (on the back of Wilson's rendering, actually) to the "palette of irony that ranges from grim understatement to barely suppressed hilarity" and while the understatement didn't come out anywhere near as well as in Heaney's translation, there was definitely a moment of barely suppressed hilarity that came along late in the poem and took my breath away, which I'd never even noticed in Heaney.

With its close adherence to Anglo-Saxon linguistic quirks, Rebsamen's translation felt to me the closest experience I've had to personally reading the original Anglo-Saxon.

Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering by Douglas Wilson, 2013
My final breath is bartered, a bargain I call it,
To gain all this gold. Give yourself to the task,
Care for the commonwealth. I can tarry no longer.
Build me a barrow, with all my battle friends,
When the pyre's heat is past, on the proud headland,
At the wide Whale Cliff, a witness to glory,
A memorial for men, my memory to keep,
So crews under sail coming by may call it by name,
Calling it Beowulf's barrow, as breezing homeward,
They work their white-throated ships over the wine-dark sea.
The first thing to note is that this is not actually a translation, but a rendering by a serious Beowulf fanboy and accomplished wordsmith working from his five favourite translations--Heaney, Chickering, Lehmann, Raffel, and Hall, and occasional reference to the original. In his Introduction, Wilson modestly admits "I never want to get a phone call from Seamus Heaney inquiring into just who exactly it is I think I am." In the final analysis, I have to say that the author of this rendition has much to be modest about.

The rhythm of Wilson's rendition is somewhat choppy, sometimes fast, sometime slow, and sometimes stumbling around in a welter of short uncertain syllables that don't quite scan, and not in a good way. I didn't find the humour so clear as in Heaney's translation, and didn't care for the regular use of repeated words and phrases for little other discernible reason than to make the lines scan properly.

However, this is a respectable amateur attempt, and maybe Wilson's best verse so far (I enjoyed his poetic renderings of the Song of Songs and the Book of Revelation, and think this is better). Where Wilson soars into poetic beauty, he does soar. Also, Wilson is a classical scholar, and so his translation pays homage to other classics (eg the "wine-dark sea" nod to Homer in the passage quoted, which I think works marvellously well).

He's also a theologian, and I particularly enjoyed his perspective on some bits of typology--particularly the comparison of Heorot and Grendel to Eden and Satan in lines 90-109, and the rendition of Heorot's compliments to Beowulf's mother taking on the tinge of a Marian blessing (although Tolkien would not have agreed).

Finally, the Appendices to this version are highly valuable. The first is an essay originally published in Touchstone, concerning the Christian apologetic of the poem (and after reading the thing four times in just over four days, and then taking in JRR Tolkien's commentaries, I'm far more convinced than before that Wilson is right on target in this evaluation). Another Appendix outlines the complex chiastic structure of the poem, explaining something of where it gets its incredible literary power--almost in itself worth the price of the book.

 Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2014
To the abyss drew me a destroying foe accursed, fast the grim thing held me in its gripe. Nonetheless, it was granted to me to find that fell slayer with point of warlike sword; the battle's onset destroyed that strong beast of the sea through this my hand. Thus many a time deadly assailants menaced me grievously. With my beloved sword I ministered to them, as it was meet. In no wise had they joy in that banqueting, foul doers of ill deeds, that they should devour me sitting round in feast nigh to the bottoms of the sea; nay, upon the morrow they lay upon the shore in the flotsam of the waves, wounded with sword-thrusts, by blades done to death, so that never thereafter might they about the steep straits molest the passage of seafaring men.
I usually can't stand prose translations of poems, but I should have known that Tolkien's wouldn't be...well, prosy. Instead, it's highly declamatory--simply made for reading aloud. It rolls. It flows. It alliterates. It's the closest thing I've read to the Authorised Version of the Bible in a long time. It never lets you forget that you're reading a poem.

By the time I hit Tolkien, I was used to one thing all the translations so far had had in common. Some passages are just tricky to render, and in all the translations I had difficulties with all the same passages--in reading, my brain would stop and say, "Wait, what?--Oh." Tolkien, of course, by far the most apt of all the wordsmiths featured here, wins every time; he snaps his fingers and the words just dance; he makes each of the tricky passages crystal clear. And meanwhile, the delicate irony of the poem survives better in Tolkien than in anyone else save Heaney. ("With my beloved sword I ministered to them"...heh.)

As a lifelong scholar of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien probably knew this poem and the language it was written in better than any of the other translators featured today. This is a good thing in some ways, but it's a drawback in others, especially when his perfectionism runs away with him. Here he opts for an almost amplified translation style that gets a little wordy after a while, and some passages at worst made him sound like the Florid Sword in Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga or the Thesaurus in Bored of the Rings.* ("Maim!" roared the monster. "Mutilate, mangle, crush. See harm.")

Since finishing the translation proper, I've gone on to read through Tolkien's extensive commentary on the poem, collected in several excerpts in the same volume. It's a wonderful guide to many of the poem's different aspects--linguistic, cultural, religious--and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to study Beowulf in a little more depth.

* Not really a recommendation!

The Verdict

In the end, I have to say I didn't achieve my goal, which was to decide which of these four Beowulf translations was best. All of them have wildly different strengths and wildly different weaknesses. Forced to rank them, I'd probably put Heaney at the top, closely followed by Tolkien and then Rebsamen, with Wilson bringing up the rear.

I'd call Heaney's the best experience and the current can't-miss-it translation, if you want to understand why so many people love the story today. Tolkien's is of course a must for any Tolkien fan, as well as anyone who'd like to delve a little deeper into the full meaning of the poem. Rebsamen, with his wonderful use of Anglo-Saxon-style expressions, would be a good choice for lovers of odd words and phrases, or folks wanting to reproduce Anglo-Saxon diction. And Wilson's will appeal to Christian readers wanting to grasp the poem's theological aspects a little more clearly.

Perhaps the very best thing I got reading four different translations of Beowulf in less than a week? An amazing, full-orbed, sometimes staggering appreciation of the wonderful complexities and nuances of the poem. It seemed to get bigger and deeper each time I read it.

Here's an example. After Beowulf's fight with Grendel, a minstrel sings a song in his honour. As part of this song, he retells two stories--one of Sigemund the dragon-slayer, the other of Heremod, a Danish king who falls through greed and selfishness. By the third time through, I realised the amazing significance of these two tales. (Spoilers!) At the end, Beowulf falls slaying a dragon. The tale of Sigemund foreshadows the dragon battle at the end, while the tale of Heremod, with more complexity, puts an almost allegorical slant on the tale: in real life, the dragon of greed, selfishness, envy, and suspicion is the real bane of kings. This interpretation gains traction from multiple instances in the poem where we are admonished, as in lines 20-25, or where Beowulf is admonished, as when Hrothgar warns him against falling into Heremod's mistakes as he prepares to return home, to win and keep loyalty through free and generous giving. There is a definite parallel intended between Heremod, who falls because of an internal dragon, and Beowulf, who falls because of an external dragon. (end spoilers.)

This is just one of the things I noticed reading Beowulf this time, along with the wonderful chiastic structure and the astonishing extent to which Tolkien drew on the poem in building his world, especially in The Hobbit and in the Rohan scenes of The Lord of the Rings. It was a real pleasure, to say nothing of an eye-opener, to get the opportunity to experience this amazing poem in such a way.

What about you, folks? Have you read Beowulf, and in which translation(s)? Which do you like best?


Kate said...

The only translation I've read all the way through is Tolkien. I love it. I love the cadence, and how easily it flows. I think Tolkien really captures the idea of alliterative verse.

I tried to read Heaney, but didn't make it very far. After Tolkien, it felt pretentious.

Jamie W. said...

I've only read Heaney but definitely enjoyed it. May try Tolkien on your advice (and the general principle of always reading Tolkien).

(My copy of Heaney has the cover which appears in your original post on it, and for years I thought that was a thumb poking through chain-mail. Years after reading the book.)

D. Loon said...

I like Chickering - read it to my daughter when she was five and she loved it too. Not sure how well we understood everything, but I enjoyed Chickering's verse structure with the caesurae. The Chickering edition we have includes the original Old English on the facing pages, which is fun to look at.

We got Tolkien's translation for Christmas and I read that to my daughter too, and we loved it. But I haven't read the Heaney. After reading your review I think I must get a copy. Thanks for this!

Suzannah said...

Kate - maybe it's one of those things where you'll always love your first read best! Heaney really does deserve the effort, though. You might be picking up on the declarative tone--which is one of the things I like most about Heaney's translation: how he delivers the poem, and the truisms in it, with a weighty simplicity.

Jamie - yes, the Always Read Tolkien Principle, that's a good one to live by. :D

C - I'm really looking forward to Chickering; I hear such good things about his translation. Hope you do read Heaney.

Joseph Jalsevac said...

When I skimmed through Tolkien's translation at the store, I thought it was unreadable, not being a fan of prose translations. But when I you pointed out that it was meant to be read aloud, suddenly that changed it completely. I really enjoyed the excerpt, and now I will try reading the whole thing. I reminds me of the heavy dramatic language of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien never seemed to tire of talking about doom and starlight. I can hear his deep, rich voice and accent when I read those kinds of passages.

The translation I read as a kid that made me fall in love with the poem was by Charles W. Kennedy:

"To Hrothgar was granted glory in war,

Success in battle; retainers bold

Obeyed him gladly; his band increased

To a mighty host. Then his mind was moved

To have men fashion a high-built hall,

A mightier mead-hall than man had known,

Wherein to portion to old and young

All goodly treasure that God had given,

Save only the folk-lands and lives of men.

His word was published to many a people

Far and wide o'er the ways of earth

To rear a folk-stead richly adorned;

The task was speeded, the time soon came

That the famous mead-hall was finished and done.

To distant nations its name was known,

The Hall of the Hart"

I don't know what your more informed opinion would think of it, but it was my first love. It also had a wonderful cover illustration:

This is definitely a poem that I will read to my children. Now that I think of it, I just realized that my mom read it to me! Otherwise I can't imagine I would have read it on my own. The moral of the story is read things aloud that were meant to be read aloud!

Suzannah said...

Glad I convinced you to try the Tolkien translation again, Joseph. Love the Kennedy quote :)

Anonymous said...

What an admirable and profitable undertaking: well done!

I read Raffel, and then, I think, Donaldson's prose translation, before eventually translating most of it myself (from Klaeber's edition) in William Alfred's class! (I have his prose translation, too, but, crazily enough, have ranged around in it without ever reading it right through: similarly, I've only ranged pleasantly around in Chickering in trying to reread bits of the facing-page original). I've enjoyed the recording of Heaney reading substantial excerpts from his version (but never read the rest...), and am still looking forward to Tolkien. (I've also enjoyed listening to Kemp Malone's recording of the whole poem in Old English, his own copy of which, amazingly, one of my high school teachers gave me! - my friends and I also used to play it at parties in our undergraduate mead-drinking days...)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

David, I get the feeling I would have had WAY MORE FUN at university if it had involved sitting around with you and your chums drinking mead and listening to Beowulf in Old English...

:D I don't have enough Old English to attempt a translation, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting closer to the poem through reading such a lot of different translations. I'd never realised it was such a sophisticated poem before. Glorious.

Anonymous said...

You would have been welcome! Waes thu Suzannah hael!

Glorious and sophisticated indeed! Before going to a lively lecture on Reading Old English by Andy Orchard the other week, I stopped in a second-hand charity bookshop and ran into a copy of - A Critical Companion to Beowulf by Andy Orchard! I've only browsed around in it a bit so far and then started reading right through, but it seems really enjoyable and helpful - see if a library nearby has a copy and take a look, sometime!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

Thanks for the recommendation!


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