Beowulf Redux!

We probably all know the role the heroic Anglo-Saxon tale Beowulf has played in creating modern fantasy. To recap: a poem from the late tenth century, written in Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English–not, as some think, that older type of English written by people like Shakespeare, but a completely different language related to German and Norse), recounts the thrilling deeds of the 6th century semi-mythical stalwart warrior Beowulf. It exists in a single manuscript nearly destroyed by fire in the 18th century but translated in whole or part over the years by toiling scholars. It didn’t come to popular attention, though, until a twentieth century Oxford philologist studied and translated it. That man, J.R.R. Tolkien, may have studied and taught philology as his day job, but we all know what he did for fun: write epic fantasies like Lord of the Rings, inspired by the early literature–such as Beowulf--that Tolkien studied. As a result, the fantasy reading (movie-going/gaming/etc.) world has never been the same.

Illustration copyright Jeffrey Thompson,

Generations of graduate students in English have groaned when they’ve been made to learn Anglo-Saxon, but there is a huge payoff! I say this as a person whose own grad program didn’t make me. Now who’s sorry? I am.

Why? Because Beowulf By All, a new community project, gives a wonderful way for (as the Stanford University web site puts it) “students, interested members of the public, scholars from all fields, librarians and archivists, long-time medievalists, lapsed medievalists, outraged inclusionists, and joyous fans of Old English” to essentially crowdsource a translation. Get the workbook! You can find it through Dr. Varnam’s web site (above), or download a free pdf version from the Stanford web site (above).Get cracking!

Here’s a great sample, which begins, “Heyla! We have a story about the Spear-Danes, from the old days/When they were big. . .” Some of these lines were translated by enthusiasts on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, others in other places. I’ve written about this on my poetry blog, too, but Dr. Varnam’s web site is the best place to find out about the project.

In Anglo-Saxon, the poem famously begins, “HWAET!”

Beowulf opening page of manuscript
Find information about the manuscript in the British Library.

Listen to how it sounded!

Well, you COULD just go with Leslie Hall’s nineteenth-century translation: “Lo, the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements. . .” Free through Project Gutenberg.

Tolkien’s translation is great, of course: “Lo! The glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old. . .”

I like Seamus Heaney’s translation: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by. . .”

Or what about this one, by Maria Dahvana Headley, which begins not with “Lo!” or “So!” but with “Bro!” Here’s a great read about that translation. I can’t wait to read Headley’s modern-day retelling of the Beowulf story, The Mere Wife, by the way. And of course, for re-tellings, nothing beats John Gardner’s amazing Grendel, told from the monster’s point of view. Here’s how Headley’s translation of Beowulf begins: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings! In the old days. . .”

That sounds great. Recently, though, I was enthralled by the lines from from the Beowulf By All people. Seriously. Know Anglo-Saxon? Get the workbook! Give us more!


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