For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Beowulf - A Pagan Hero
A Modern Poetic Translation
  • Julie Boyden
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Beowulf - A Pagan Hero. A Modern Poetic Translation
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Beowulf: A Pagan Hero takes the poem back to its pre-Christian roots, revealing a warrior-society that valued duty, honor, bravery, and swift vengeance. Removing the Christian insertions shows us what is expected of heroes, of men who do not shrink before the hard decisions of life or death, and a society that valued fame above all other rewards. Remaining true to the Anglo Saxon language without hewing too closely to the rhythm of the ancient poetry shows us the power and beauty of that language that has been called 'more masonry than poetry', a burly language full of swift and beautiful metaphors and descriptions of ordinary life made ethereal.

About the Author

Julie Boyden studied English Literature at the University of Utah with a minor in Philosophy. Her studies of the Norse legends have helped her with this translation of Beowulf. Her aim is to bring Beowulf to a wider audience, to remove the obstructing veils of "scholarship" draping this fine work, and bring back a story that belongs to us all. She has been studying the Anglo Saxon language for several years, and finds that the first and most honest text of that study has been the poem itself.

About the Book

"Beowulf" the epic poem has become as legendary as the figure himself. As dramatic as any Greek tragedy, the tricks of Fate assail heroic figures through the perilous existence depicted, parried only by unexpected gleaming acts of glory and...

"Beowulf" the epic poem has become as legendary as the figure himself. As dramatic as any Greek tragedy, the tricks of Fate assail heroic figures through the perilous existence depicted, parried only by unexpected gleaming acts of glory and loyalty. Debates have arisen over whether this may fairly be called the first literary work in the "English language," but it is as good a place to start as any.

In preparing her translation, Ms. Boyden studied some 50 versions of Beowulf for accuracy of meaning, tone and temperament. In "A Note on Pronunciation" she explains how Old English–Anglo Saxon names are read; and the "Principal Characters" are introduced so that we can trace their relationships of trust and obligation, and the power of their personalities. The "Introduction" provides a quick look at Anglo Saxon society, the people's values, beliefs, customs and activities, placing Beowulf in a cultural context to round out the reading experience.

Scholars have asked whether the plot is coherent in the version that has come down to this day. Julie Boyden's conclusion, after much study, is that it is — once we remove the Christian elements that were almost certainly inserted by the monks who transcribed the oral poem. 

And then, there are always questions as to how best to make ancient writings, translations, and especially poems, accessible to modern readers. In many "modern" editions of Beowulf, the Old English has been disregarded in favor of a more modern syntax. Ms. Boyden  worked to avoid that while working on this translation; she wanted the strength of the original language to be apparent to any reader, and sought always to find the 'mot juste' in the original without resorting to any poetry she might invent on her own, as others have done.

Preface
Reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkien in the early 1960s. I understood his Elvish languages came from his own fertile brain, but it was the way he used English in his prose and his poetry...
Reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkien in the early 1960s. I understood his Elvish languages came from his own fertile brain, but it was the way he used English in his prose and his poetry that awoke something in my own mind. There was a deep and inexplicable sense of familiarity in the words and phrasing that drew me in. More research and reading about Tolkien led me to the knowledge of his mastery of Old English, the language of the Anglo Saxons. His prose sings with the alliterative sounds of that language, while his choice of words evokes a world so far behind us it is now almost beyond recall, a vast history full of mist and shadow. Years later, when I returned to school, glimmers of that long-ago world reappeared as I listened, spell-bound, to my English Lit professor recite the opening lines of Beowulf in its original language, igniting an unquenchable desire to learn Anglo Saxon. My translation of Beowulf’s ageless poetry is the years-long culmination of that desire.

Beowulf is an oral story infinitely older than the single surviving copy on display under glass in the British Library. It began centuries ago as a vibrant and entertaining tale told around communal fires to remind listeners of the glory of their fabled past and the strength of their lineage. For a meal and a warm place to spend the night, a wandering scop, or storyteller, enthralled eager audiences with the tale of Beowulf, a legendary hero and Monster Slayer. These listeners belonged to a pagan warrior society that trusted in the rule of Fate and the virtue of keeping sworn oaths. Their heroes were men who lived lives of loyalty, honor, bravery, devotion to duty, generosity, and swift, sure vengeance. Beowulf, in the poem, embodied all these desired qualities. In the poem, he becomes super-heroic, relying on an incredible gift (the strength of thirty men in the grip of one hand) to quell his enemies or swim home across a wide sea carrying numerous coats of mail from his fallen companions. His poem tells us he slew fearsome monsters, Grendel and his mother, not only to honor an unpaid debt owed by his dead father to a Danish king, but also to gain fame and personal glory for himself and for his own lord and ring-giver. Beowulf was a man once ridiculed in his youth by his own people for laziness and day-dreaming, an image he put to rest forever by sailing home from his monster-slaying in a ship laden with a hoard of gold and treasure, opulent, visible thanks given to him by a grateful Danish ruler. Eventually, some years after the death of his uncle Hygelac, Beowulf became the revered and respected king of his people and ruled them generously and well for fifty years in peace and prosperity. The poem ends with Beowulf as an old man at the end of his reign, and tells us he faced and fought a hoard-guarding dragon to the death of them both.

This heroic story took its place among the sagas and wonder-tales of the Scandinavian North, and after many generations of oral recitation, it made its way to England with Nordic tribes from Denmark and Jutland plundering the Isles. The poem was eventually written down by an English poet, but there’s little chance of finding an “original” piece of that poet’s work. Whether or not he was a Christian no one knows, but he seemed very knowledgeable about his nation’s pagan past and equally well-versed in its growing faith in Christianity. But he, or someone like him, wrote out the ancient story of Beowulf. No one can say when Beowulf was told for the first time. No one can say when it was first written down, though the copy in the museum dates to around AD 1000. But was it the first? The fragile, yellowing manuscript in the British Library is a copy of a copy, and as it sits now, bears the handwriting and translation syntax of two separate people. Did the original poet interject his Christian beliefs into the story of a pagan warrior society? Or did the monks who made copies of that nebulous poet’s work interject the Christianity on their own? However it came about, if not for the literate and dutiful Christian monks who made copies of all the known writings of their day, perhaps there would have been no traces of what the Beowulf-poet wrote. And the literary world would have been poorer for it.

The North-men have a long and storied past; some of the stories are grim, even gruesome, but most are well-worth the telling or the reading. These are tales born in the long dark of Northern winters, entertaining tales of gods with human foibles; explanations of how the Norse gods created the world and why; tales of fantastically strong men; women of pale beauty given in marriage as peace-pledges to neighboring kings; dragons and dwarves; giants, elves, and orcs; shape-changers and were-creatures. They are stories of the value of a man’s word and his duty to seek and win the highest prize of all—eternal fame and glory for bravery in the brutal life-or-death clashes in the shield-wall of war. Oath-keepers and those who gained glory through great deeds were valued as the best of men, designated worthy of gifts from the lords of their nations and chieftains of their tribes. Deceit brought dishonor, not only to the deceitful, but to his clan and nation. Those tales sparked exploration, trading and colonization, but they also led to raiding, both on land and sea. Heroic stories from the fogs and mists of the Nordic cold were inspiration for songs, fairy-tales, operas, and sweeping epic novels.

So, why another translation of Beowulf? I wanted to tell the story of Beowulf as it might have been told in its beginnings, a story uninflected by any softening influences of language or Christianity. The best way to accomplish that, I reasoned, was to learn the language of the poem. Old English, or Anglo Saxon, is a language of burly power, yet startling at times in the alliterative beauty of its words and sounds, a language spoken by heroes and warriors who have long since passed into the realm of history. As I learned more about the language and the world of Beowulf, my desire also grew to tell the story as it must have originated around embered fires, in pagan minds and voices, with all the Dark Age ethos and ideals intact. I began by taking away the Christian insertions, even the poetic ones. Doing that revealed the absolute bed-rock of a culture and people who struggled with inhospitable lands, struck out on unknown seas, and discovered new worlds. Taking away the Christian overtones exposed the hard core of the Norse belief in the rule of Fate, an unpersuadable force that controlled a man’s unknowable but ultimate destiny. I discovered that by removing the Christian references, it brought me closer to the language that formed the poem as it was first written, its forceful and rhythmic sounds telling a still-popular story of courage, fearlessness, and honor.

In my translation, I have let the words and their poetry speak for themselves, seeking for the feelings of the poet who wrote it into history. I concentrated more on the words that poet wrote and less on trying to make my own words fit the Anglo Saxon alliterative rhythm. Nevertheless, Modern English alliteration seemed to fall naturally into place, but it didn’t maintain the four-count stressed rhythm of a line, followed by a caesura, and then a lesser stressed four-count line. It was the skalds reciting the poem who gave it the rhythmic, alliterative form we are familiar with, but the pages of the manuscript I have seen in the British Library do not look like that. The words follow one another in a nearly endless succession, seemingly without punctuation, very few capital letters, or rests between phrases. My biggest problem came from trying to fit the syntax of those early words into a more understandable form for modern readers. For the most part, I believe I have succeeded.

By retaining as much as possible of the feel and sense of the original Old English/Anglo Saxon language, and relying as little as possible on terms and words that began to filter into the English language after 1066, I hoped to bring readers not only closer to the culture of Beowulf’s society, but also to the poetry in the sounds of that language. Beowulf was meant to be recited. Its language demands it. And Beowulf still has much to teach us. Beowulf is a journey story, a journey full of peril and danger and ultimate triumph, a victory at great cost. It is a journey along a glory-dappled road from youthful strength to thoughtful old age. It is a journey into the most perilous territory of all—the human psyche—to find wisdom and redemption and immortal glory.


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Pages 178
Year: 2014
BISAC: POE022000
BISAC: POE014000
BISAC: LCO009000
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ISBN: 978-1-62894-069-5
Price: USD 19.95
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ISBN: 978-1-62894-070-1
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