It has been an incredibly long time since I have read poetry.
When I requested this book from Netgalley, the logic was that I would be reading something a little different.
Beowulf tells the story of a Scandinavian hero who defeats three evil creatures—a huge, cannibalistic ogre named Grendel, Grendel’s monstrous mother, and a dragon—and then dies, mortally wounded during his last encounter. If the definition of a superhero is “someone who uses his special powers to fight evil,” then Beowulf is our first English superhero story, and arguably our best. It is also a deeply pious poem, so bold in its reverence for a virtuous pagan past that it teeters on the edge of heresy. From beginning to end, we feel we are in the hands of a master storyteller.
Stephen Mitchell’s marvelously clear and vivid rendering re-creates the robust masculine music of the original. It both hews closely to the meaning of the Old English and captures its wild energy and vitality, not just as a deep “work of literature” but also as a rousing entertainment that can still stir our feelings and rivet our attention today, after more than a thousand years. This new translation—spare, sinuous, vigorous in its narration, and translucent in its poetry—makes a masterpiece accessible to everyone.
Beowulf is an incredibly old text; the original manuscripts are thought to date back somewhere between the 10th and 11th century, a period in which there is a lot of Scandinavian influence in Britain as a result of the Vikings, uh… permanent, self-imposed visitation rights. Invasion – yes, that’s a good word too!
I have a Danish work colleague, and I think it is funny to compare ideas on these things. From the British perspective, the Vikings invaded, pillaged, murdered… eventually settling with us. From the Danish view, men and women were seeking a better life for their families. Farming was near impossible in the Scandinavian climate and life was harsh. British soil offered security.
Anyway, that’s a bit of background for you. Back to Beowulf!
I imagine (and am assured by other reviews) that any physical editions are presented so that the original text is on one page, with Stephen Mitchell’s translation on the other page. Sadly, as I was reading an ebook version, this did not translate (pardon the pun) at all. The readable, English paragraphs were broken up with Olde English, so the text lost it’s flow.
I wanted to read this epic poem for two reasons – one, because I am hugely interested in the historical period it is believed to have stemmed from; two, poetry is not an everyday read for me. Reading Beowulf reminded me of just why that is. Turns out, my competency of poetry extends about as far as mastering Green Eggs and Ham – but that’s all. Other reviews gush over how Mitchell maintains some alliteration, which structures the poem, but I’ll admit it passed me by.
So whilst I enjoyed the historical context and the story in it’s own right, I couldn’t fully appreciate the poem and it’s construction for what it is. I just don’t get it. I rated the book three stars, because I still enjoyed reading it. Anyone with a better eye or ear for poetics will probably have a better time of appreciating this than me – but all the same, Beowulf’s acts of strength and heroism were an intriguing read.