Friday, August 26, 2011

Beowulf translated by Burton Raffel



Why I read it: Memories of reading it in high school, and the notion I would do it justice as an adult when it was not a forced school read.

Summary: An epic poem from, purportedly, the middle of the first millenium. Beowulf, the world's most powerful man, faces Grendel, Grendel's mother and a dragon in one of the English-speaking world's first heroic tales, oddly enough, set in Scandinavia.

My Thoughts: It was wasted on me as a kid. I know that now. I'm glad I read it again. Of course, besides just being older, I'm also wiser than some, at least as far as this particular field goes. I say that without boastfulness. I studied at the knee of a medieval historian of everlasting influence on my life. It was thanks to him that I came away from this translation with questions.

The translator, writing in 1963, states that he has no doubt the work was by one man, and that man was Christian. I can go with the former, and kind of have to. I haven't read the Old English, and cannot comment on style in the slightest. I'm not qualified. But as to Christianity, well, I have questions.

Much of our earliest knowledge was carried through the Middle Ages by the monks who kept old documents alive by re-writing them time and again. This document, I felt, must have been one of those burdens. If so, who's to say that some monk along the way did not impress Christianity on it, inserting phrases here and there to take away from what may have been a fantastic pagan document? So I went to Yale. I asked a professor there (mine, sadly, having passed on) her thoughts. Christianity, she said, had been in the area for four centuries, and furthermore, certain specific words in the Old English were unmistakably Christian. She deftly defended Raffel's statement, and I accepted it.

On the other hand, she noted, we should question whether or not this was the work of one man, or perhaps even a woman. Not wishing to overstay my welcome in her inbox, I did not respond to this last comment. Women are portrayed, at times, poorly in this work, which is full of dragons and spears and shields and blood and big piles of gold and torn-off arms. I saw nothing womanly in the story, which is, of course, nearly mysogynistic on my part to say. But there are and have always been tomboys. What I don't know about the daily life of the people of seventh century England, well, let's just say it's a sizable thing, without getting into metaphors.

Beowulf's writer will always be a mystery, or so it seems, but as I told the professor, whether Christian or pagan, man or woman, it doesn't matter to me. I love Beowulf! Long may his poem live.

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