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Monday, September 24th, 2007

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5:57p
As if this needs an introduction ...
So, of course I've read Beowulf before. It seems like everybody has. On LibraryThing it would be the 95th most popular book if it wasn't for J.K. Rowling, but I assume that this is from a lot of basic highschool and college English courses requiring it and not a factor of raw popularity. Frankly, I'm surprised that I don't already have a couple of copies in my logged-in library, as I recall a couple of different versions from school, but they must have gone "elsewhere" at some point.

I picked up this the other day when I was ordering a bunch of the Dover Thrift Editions books because it seemed to be a good lead-in to another book I was getting, and it was all of a whopping $1.50 addition to the order. Unfortunately, the Dover edition of Beowulf, translated by R. K. Gordon, is probably less "accessible" than other versions that I remember, as it neither attempts to render the Old English into modern English verse (as many do), nor does it try to create a modern narrative of the story, rather this seems to attempt providing the "feel" of the Old English, which makes following the tale a bit of a challenge.

Beowulf was set down in Old English sometime around 1000 ce, although the story it tells dates to as early as 500 ce and deals with figures from the Danish, Swedish, and Geat (part of modern Sweden) kingdoms. One of the reasons that this book has the attention that it does is that it is a rare example of an early surviving text in a "European vernacular", and it also preserves a "pure" Germanic English linguistic thread, soon to be muddled via the Norman invasion of England in the century after this was set down.

One of the challenges of coming to a "not excessively annotated" version of Beowulf is that, to the initial audience for this story, it was a familiar tale from an already "mythic" age, and so a lot of the "back story" of the characters (and their assorted inter-relations) would have been already familiar from an oral tradition; where, to the modern reader, it's just a lot of very odd names (Healfdene, Hrothgar, Hygelac, Ecgtheow, Ongentheow, Eadgila, etc., etc., etc.) who live in hard-to-pronounce places (well, aside from Denmark and Sweden), doing stuff that was at times sort of hard to figure out. An example:

Weohstan slew him in battle with the edge of the sword, a friendless exile, and bore off from his kin the bright gleaming helm, the ringed corselet, the gigantic old sword that Onela gave him, his kinsman's war-trappings, ready battle equipment.
Yeah, picking through in context you can eventually get what's going on (the one guy killed the other guy and took all his good stuff), but it requires a good deal of re-reading to stay caught up!

Needless to say, I'm torn on this point. While it's "special" to have the "feel" of the Old English original, it does make reading it a bit of a chore, but it brings an antiquity to the experience ... on the other hand, a more modern version would provide the details of the action, but would lack that "oldness". Of course, there are dozens of versions of this book, there are something like fifty different covers on its LibraryThing page, so there are more than enough to choose from!

Again, I picked up the Dover Thrift Edition "because it was there (for a buck and a half)" and fit into some of my current reading ... as Dennis Miller says: "your mileage may vary". However, if you're one of those non-Liberal Arts types and feel that your education in medieval epics is lacking, here's an inexpensive way to fill in those gaps! As noted in previous postings, while these are in print, you local store is unlikely to be carrying them, but you can order them ... but all the better to have a buck-fifty title like this ready to go the next time your Amazon or B&N order is hovering just south of free shipping!


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