Musing on Beowulf: Introduction
I’m going to be musing my way through Beowulf, bit by bit or chunk by chunk, and writing about it here in different installments. I don’t have a solid plan other than just reading and letting my thoughts go and I invite you to read along.
If you are a Christian then Beowulf is your heritage. That goes doubly if English is your mother tongue. And triply if you are of Anglo and/or Scandinavian ethnicity. All of which I am and revel in the heritage of my faith, my tongue, and my people. Of course, you don’t need any cultural connection to the tale in order to enjoy it. At its core it is a story about a hero who rescues people from monsters. Anyone can enjoy that!
My plan is to start reading Beowulf and write when I find something interesting or something that strikes my fancy, or maybe something that sparks a thought that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the text itself. Maybe a theme will develop, but I don’t have one from the outset. We’ll see. I’ll indicate which line or section I’m commenting on by the line numbers indicated in my copy, which should jive with most translations, give or take a few. But it should work well enough for anyone who wants to follow along.
There are many worthy translations out there and I recommend most of them, but during this series I’m going to lean on one translation throughout. This will be Beowulf by John McNamara published by Barnes & Noble Classics. I have the hard back version. I chose this one for a few reasons. First, this is a ‘poetic’ translation and more or less follows the original line by line, and therefore will serve as a relatively accurate way to easily indicate where we are in the tale throughout this series. Second, what prose translations gain in accuracy they lose in feel and tone, something poetic translations do a better job of capturing, which, in my mind is important. But some poetic translations shoot over the mark and don’t just sacrifice accuracy but mangle it. The great thing about McNamara’s translation is that he strikes a very good balance between capturing the feel using a poetic structure, but deferring to accuracy over poetry. Which means a line may not quite work within the poetic structure in order to maintain the accuracy of the poem. I find this ‘middle way’ rather attractive in and of itself, but also helpful for this series.
I’m not a Beowulf scholar, just a lover of the tale, and that’s how I’m approaching it. And that’s how it should be, right? We shouldn’t think of Beowulf only as a dusty tome that even dustier eggheads care about. Beowulf is for the people! I want to respect it, but I also want to delight in it and riff off it. This tale was told, or rather sung or chanted, by a bard, called a scop. His voice, accompanied by a harp, reverberated around the fire-lit mead-hall, enchanting all who heard it. Read it by a fire. Read it with a mug of ale or mead. Read it out loud. It still stirs today as it did then.