Book Review: Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering

17722865I may as well begin by admitting that I am a rank amateur in all things Anglo-Saxon. The most dilettante of dilettante dilettantes. My favorite Anglo-Saxon word is probably merscmealuwe. Which means marshmallow. Which ought to tell you something about how many Anglo-Saxon words I know.

Having said that, I Love – yes, capital ‘L’ intended – the story of Beowulf. Read it for the first time when I was twelve. Haven’t stopped reading it since. It is the Ultimate Epic, and I began to Love it even more when I discovered Seamus Heaney’s translation. I’ve read that one four or five times now (and counting).

Yet lo and behold, my appreciation for this Saga of Sagas has been deepened further. I owe this deepening to Pastor Douglas Wilson, and to the very, very dear soul who sent me a copy of Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering.

In a Grendel-sized nutshell? This thing is amazing.

And I’m not just saying that because of the preposterously cool cover art.

You’ll notice it is called a “rendering” rather than a translation. Wilson explains why in the Introduction:

While I am limited in Old English, I do okay in New English, and know my way around, both with the regular stuff and in the reading and writing of poetry. So what I did was this. I took about five different translations of Beowulf, including my two favorites (Heaney and Chickering), got the sense of lines x, y, and/or z from them, and then cast that general sense into my own modern form of an Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative poetry. Then I did the same thing over again, and went on and on until I was done. Since I was making free to add words for the sake of the alliteration, and because I sometimes supplied my own imagery, the result is a loose paraphrase of the sense of the original and not a knock-off of any of the translations I used. At the same time, the poem can generally be followed “line by line,” give or take a couple of lines, and I am not saying I never looked at the original. What with one thing and another, this version of the poem has three more lines than respectable editions do. I don’t know. It was dark. They were big. Just think of it as more Beowulf than you would get with those other editions. But the sense of the original is there. 

It seemed pretty clear to me that Wilson had more fun with this than is, strictly-speaking, legal. I believe I had the same amount in reading it. It’s stylish, it’s elegant, it’s clear, it’s bursting with cinematic moxie, and I enjoyed the heck out of every line. So much so, in fact, that at the conclusion of the story I had to be confined to a chair with zip ties until the irrepressible urge to slay something – or at least rip its arm off – had subsided.

Yes. I have my moments.

Included at the back of the book are two essays, one on Beowulf as “the unChrist” and another on the poem’s chiastic structure. The former was of particular interest to me. Wilson makes a brilliant case for seeing the poetry of Beowulf, not only as an artistic triumph,  but also “as an evangelistic and apologetic tour de force.” Muchly good stuff.

So. It is with great delight that I see two versions of Beowulf – Heaney and Wilson – living side by side on my shelf. It’s like having a really awesome best friend, and then learning that he has a really awesome twin brother, and now they’re both chillin’ in your living room having a bloody good time with the pie and the Guinness and the dart board.

Or something like that.

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering”

  1. I’ve never read Beowulf before, but you have inspired me to find a copy of it and pick it up… looking forward to it!

  2. My admittedly stale impression of Beowulf from a reading or two many, many years ago: monster, nasty mama-monster, under the ocean, thrashings and bashings, Bloody Norse Hero. Maybe I need a re-hashing of all those thrashings and bashings. And Douglas Wilson may be just the one to provide.

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