Tag Archives: beowulf

Book Review: Boys of Blur

18209370“When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame…”

Every now and again you get your hands on a book that feels older than it really is.  The pages are appley crisp, the publishing date not long past, but you’d swear there’s an old soul humming inside the polished dust jacket. I felt that way about N.D. Wilson’s first novel, Leepike Ridge, and I feel that way about his latest, Boys of Blur.

It takes a special kind of nerve to mix football, Beowulf, panthers, and grave-robbing into any kind of coherent narrative, let alone one with emotional tonnage, but NDW – like his father, never lacking in the Chutzpah Dept. – does both in Boys of Blur. It’s a parable and a romp. I do wish the Gren were allotted more “screen time”, and a few of the plot points could’ve used more time in the oven. Despite these faults, I liked the story enormously, and it grows on me even now, a week after finishing it. There’s something Wilson has always had going for him: staying power.

His writing, too. There are scenes rendered with such magic and perfection – boys gone rabbit-hunting through fiery cane fields, Charlie chasing a panther across a crowded football stadium – that they seem immediately aged, enduring as Tom Sawyer and whitewashing and fences.

I mentioned Beowulf. Wilson tips his helm more than once to that ancient saga, especially near the end. Boy, was that delicious.  “Thanks to my pops,” Wilson writes in the acknowledgements, “for first introducing me to Beowulf and the growling rhythms of Anglo-Saxon, and for his own brilliant verse rendering.”

I’ll drink to that. Pass the mead.

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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.

Abide and Endure and Exert Valor Always

Bold Beowulf replied, that brave son of Ecgtheow,
“Sovereign king, do not sorrow – it seems better to me
To finish the feud as friends wreaking vengeance
Than sorrow in silence. We simply decide
To abide and endure and exert valor always,
To find dignity in death. When his days are all done,
The worthiest warrior is well remembered.”

Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering by Douglas Wilson

Book Review: Beowulf

9780374111199In off the moors, down through the mist bands,
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping…

If you consider yourself a reader, a bibliophile, or a bibliomaniac, but you haven’t read Beowulf – fie for shame.

If you consider yourself a lover of all things Truly Epic, but you haven’t read Beowulf – fie for shame.

If you consider yourself a manly man (or, if of the fairer sex, an admirer of manly men), but you haven’t read Beowulf – fie for shame.

If you consider yourself all of the above, but you haven’t read Beowulf – fie for shame3.

I went through Beowulf for the first time when I was twelve, and I’ve revisited it countless times since. It’s a staple on my bookshelf. Grand, thoughtful, exhilarating, tragic, beautiful; a tale of action and high adventure, but also a sobering meditation on courage, honor, faith, and mortality. If you’re at a loss for which translation to use, let me heartily recommend Seamus Heaney’s. Use it only if you are prepared for the pages to come alive in your hands.

Beowulf got ready,
donned his war-gear, indifferent to death;
his mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail
would soon meet with the menace underwater.
It would keep the bone-cage of his body safe:
no enemy’s clasp could crush him in it,
no vicious armlock choke his life out.
To guard his head he had a glittering helmet
that was due to be muddied on the mere bottom
and blurred in the upswirl. It was of beaten gold,
princely headgear hooped and hasped
by a weapon smith who had worked wonders
in days gone by and adorned it with boar shapes;
since then it had resisted every sword.
And another item lent by Unferth
at that moment of need was of no small importance:
the brehon handed him a hilted weapon,
a rare and ancient sword named Hrunting.
The iron blade with its ill-boding patterns
had been tempered in blood. It had never failed
the hand of anyone who hefted it in battle,
anyone who had fought and faced the worst
in the gap of danger. This was not the first time
it had been called to perform heroic feats…

Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke:
‘Wisest of kings, now that I have come
to the point of action, I ask you to recall
what we said earlier: that you, son of Halfdane
and gold-friend to retainers, that you, if I should fall
and suffer death while serving your cause,
would act like a father to me afterwards.
If this combat kills me, take care
of my young company, my comrades in arms.
And be sure also, my beloved Hrothgar,
to send Hygelac the treasures I received.
Let the lord of the Geats gaze on that gold,
let Hrethel’s son take note of it and see
that I found a ring-giver of rare magnificence
and enjoyed the good of his generosity.
And Unferth is to have what I inherited:
to that far-famed man I bequeath my own
sharp-honed, wave-sheened wonderblade.
With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die.’

Yeah. Go read this book. It’s still the ultimate epic after all these years.

Books Every Guy Should Read (Pt. I)

The title says it all. And this is just part one. Let’s start with some old-timey classics…


Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
A tale of brave warriors and savage beasts, battle and bloodshed, heroism and sacrifice. It’s one of the greatest manly-man epics ever told. Period. I personally prefer Seamus Heaney’s translation, for its richness and clarity.

The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
One of the best, most vibrant pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever read – and I’ve read a lot. Doyle manages to combine meticulously researched history with a marvelously entertaining tale of chivalry and epic adventure in a way that flawlessly balances both aspects. The book never reads like a history textbook, and yet it never reads like a fable, either. The blend is perfect.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Pirates, ships, buried treasure, sword-fights, gun-battles, a talking parrot, and non-stop adventure. What more do you need to know?

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Yes, yes, a classic in every sense of the word. An unforgettable story of desperation, ingenuity, and survival. And make sure you read the unabridged version – the abridged cuts out references to God and the main character’s profound Christian faith.

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
The powerful story of a boy who goes from selfish and spoiled to selfless and hardworking.
Kipling’s best work, in my opinion.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
At this point, the guys are probably shouting, “But that’s a girl’s book!”. So shoot me. It’s a nicely-told love story, frequently funny, seldom boring, and exceptionally well-written. And yeah, I think guys should read it. If that isn’t enough to convince you, think of this: reading it will probably give you an edge when you’re courting your future wife.I haven’t tried it myself (yet), but I would imagine such to be the case.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life needs no introduction from me.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Did you honestly think I wouldn’t include these? The choice was elementary. For goodness’ sake,
they’re stories featuring the most awesome detective in literary history!

Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne
Verne is recognized as an author of science fiction, but he also dabbled in the genre of historical fiction. This is one of those dabbles. It’s a spy-versus-spy story that will keep you turning pages far into the night. Great stuff.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
My personal favorite of all Scott’s books. An iconic tale of knightly deeds and derring-do and fair maidens in need of rescuing. Yeah, it’s a must.

Penrod by Booth Tarkington
One of the funniest books ever written. It’s about a boy named Penrod Schofield… and man, does he get into a lot of trouble. From mixing dubious “secret elixirs” to gluing hats to people heads, this kid will make most mischievous boys look like angels in comparison.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
A grand and utterly magnificent fantasy trilogy. If you haven’t read it, you’ve just gotta. But before you do, you should read the prequel, The Hobbit, first. With that under your belt, you’ll appreciate the trilogy a whole lot more.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
An espionage thriller from the father of the genre, this fast-paced adventure features murderous villains chasing our hero from town to town and over the Scottish countryside. Awesome? Oh, yeah.

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
One of those books you read and then immediately reread because it’s so good. Again, you need to read the unabridged version – I’ve little doubt the newer editions seek to water down the powerful Christian message of the original.

Have any recommendations of your own? Any book you think should be featured in future installments of this list? If so, be my guest and share ’em down in the comments section.