This year, I decided to go for a mini reading project which would take me away from the grey London winter and into the realms of ice and snow. My January was truly illuminating as I discovered books and rediscovered authors from Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. We’re well into February now and it’s time to come home, but before I really claim the project is complete I feel the need to revisit a crucial part of my own English literary heritage.
Though set in (roughly) sixth century Scandinavia, Beowulf was written in England between the seventh and tenth century and it’s generally credited with being the longest poem surviving from this place and time. My first real encounter with it came when I ‘read’ sections as an English undergraduate. It wasn’t really reading though, it was a filling-in-the-gaps exercise during a unit on Old English. Without wishing to go into too much detail, Old English really is a foreign language (unlike ‘Middle English’ as written by Chaucer or the technically-modern-but-nonetheless-archaic language of Shakespeare). Old English looks like this:
Cóm on wanre niht
scríðan sceadugenga scéotend swaéfon
þá þæt hornreced healdan scoldon
I am no Seamus Heaney and I’m pleased that my scrappy attempts at translation have all disappeared. I do think such matters are best left in the hands of experts; Heaney gives us the above lines as:
Then, out of the night
Came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift
the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts
I can’t help feel that reading this version gets me far closer to the intended suspense, tension and excitement than my own painstaking and crippling slow cross-referencing ever could.
If you’ve ever been tempted to go back to the earliest of English stories, I really recommend this modern English version. Heaney makes use of powerful and vigorous language, echoing the formal style of the original poem (two balancing halves to each line, each half containing two stressed syllables). Rather than rhymes, the poem is built on this pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Couple that with the relentlessly flowing alliteration and you’re left with a poem so invigorating and dynamic its easy to imagine listening spellbound to the bards as they wove their magic over long winter nights.
For lovers of more modern classics, Beowulf was one of the ancient texts loved by Tolkien, and its monsters, gold hoards and heroes were a template for his own larger-than-life creations. Its legacy still holds, and on this reading I was delighted to spot several connections to Harry Potter (because underwater adventures are always crowd-pleasers). I may never have sat in a mead-hall terrorised by hellish monsters or been saved by ring-giving heroes, but for the 3,000 or so lines of the poem I could image that I had. It may not be seasonally wintry, but a legend like ‘Beowulf’ never goes out of fashion and it has been the perfect conclusion to my Nordic winter reading.