Dragon-slaying tale that still fires readers

March 1, 2002

Michael Alexander on revising a literary classic.

"Beowulf" Reduced
There once was a hero called
Whose descendant decided to
A magnificent hall
With seating for all,
But some of his best friends got

A visitor, Beowulf the Geat,
Whose strength was surprisingly great,
De-armed the de-mon,
Then beheaded its Mum,
A yet more remarkable feat.

Much later a Dragon awoke,
Sent Beowulf's hall up in smoke,
So his fifty not-out
Was all up the spout.
But he killed it, then died.
What a bloke!

The second edition of my Beowulf: A Verse Translation appeared late in 2001. The first, published in 1973, taken together with its Penguin Classics predecessor The Earliest English Poems (1966), has sold well over half a million copies. The success of such translations may seem surprising, yet Beowulf has made its way in the modern world with an increasingly striking success. The text of this poem of 3,182 lines, surviving in a single damaged manuscript, was published in 1815, a millennium after its composition. It has since reappeared in 26 different learned editions. Since its first translation into modern English in 1837, 70 English translations have been published. Counting translations into 22 modern languages, there are hundreds of modern Beowulfs . It is said that there are more learned articles about Beowulf than about Hamlet .

Of these two English works set in medieval Denmark, the play can be expected to remain more popular. Yet Beowulf is popular. Its appeal owes more to poetic quality than to historical and cultural interest. Poets like it. Tennyson tried his hand at a few lines of it in 1830. William Morris translated the whole thing into verse, as have Edwin Morgan and, recently, Seamus Heaney. The Scott Moncrieff who translated Proust did a prose Beowulf . Admirers have included Longfellow, Pound, Auden, Borges, Tolkien and Geoffrey Hill.

My Beowulf was commissioned by Betty Radice of Penguin Classics in the late 1960s. Penguin had liked The Earliest English Poems , which the venerable E. V. Rieu had accepted from me as an undergraduate. Radice's successor, Paul Keegan, invited me to edit a glossed text of the original poem, for Christopher Ricks's series, the Penguin English Poets.

The manuscript text, the poetic language and the complex background of the poem present many problems. The sole manuscript (c. 1010), an imperfect copy of a distant original, has lost words and letters as a result of a fire in 1731. Edited texts include over 1,000 emendations, and their apparatus can deter.

Beowulf: A Glossed Text (1995) glosses almost every word in the poem on a facing page, but severely reduces footnotes to a minimum, keeping the background in the background. At the end there are a page of notes and a list of textual variants. This Glossed Text has also sold surprisingly well. As the text I arrived at differs in detail from the eclectic base text of the Verse Translation , a new edition of the translation was now needed to bring it into line with my text.

I made about 40 small changes to the translation itself. Most take account of new readings or interpretations. Alternative readings also appear in the expanded notes. The introduction is new, and the whole book has been reset. As the poem is more concerned with human history since Cain and Abel than with physical geography, I have promoted genealogical tables to the front and relegated a map to the back. The new introduction is longer but, I hope, lighter. I reduce the discussion of the poem's genre, drop a diagram of its structure, and add a history of its reception. I argue that the draw of Beowulf for its original audience was that it showed them their ancestors, and the old way of life across the North Sea, the feasting and the feuding. For the poet, that old life was heroic but also tragic, and Grendel's descent from Cain represents monstrous human possibilities.

I try also to define the ambition possible to verse translation, something not widely understood. Full or perfect translation is impossible, and translation aspires at best to equivalence. My aim was equivalence not only of meaning but also of metre, diction and style. High fidelity should not unduly force idiom or cramp rhythmical life. Old English verse has a different music, using a selection of stress patterns pointed by regular alliteration. Working with this pattern of initial lettering constrains word-choice. Yet to the reader's ear it has to come as a living interchange of movement, idiom and meaning. That, at least, was the aim, and that is why each line of the poem had taken me, on average, about an hour to translate.

During my revision, Oxford's English course made the study of Old English optional, and Heaney brought out Beowulf: A New Translation . I contributed to the chorus of welcome. Heaney is a poet I respect. His attractive introduction is good on the latter part of the poem, and revealing about the translator's task and his approach. Leaving aside the Irish aspect, one difference between our versions is that Heaney streamlines the syntax for propulsion and immediacy of idiom, where I keep a more formally regular movement and style. Perhaps Heaney brings out the adventure in Beowulf , while I more strictly meditate the thankless Muse?

Michael Alexander is professor of English literature, University of St Andrews.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.