An number of months ago, Cat from Tell Me A Story, Cirtnece from Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices … and I talked about reading Beowulf together in May and, since I’ve already led a discussion on it previously AND I have never hosted a read-along before, I’ve decided to make Beowulf my first official read-along!
Beowulf is an Old English epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines. It is possibly the oldest surviving long poem in Old English and is commonly cited as one of the most important works of Old English Literature. It was written in England some time between the 8th and early 11th century. The author was an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, referred to by scholars as the “Beowulf poet”.
Beowulf has a certain amount of controversy attached to it, in that there is disagreement over whether the poem was altered, and therefore over what the poet was attempting to convey. J.R.R. Tolkien has a wonderful essay on Beowulf, called The Monster and the Critics, where he addresses some of these issues and more. I encourage participants to read it to give you some background for the poem.
I’ve decided to run this read-along a little differently than most other read-alongs. At the beginning of each week, I’m going to post some information with regard to the section of the poem that we’re reading. Nothing too fancy, but just some thoughts, ideas, vocabulary and questions to help readers target certain aspects of the poem that make it unique and interesting. In this way, I hope participants will get the most out of the poem and gain an appreciation for a wonderfully tragic, yet uplifting, Old English tale.
As for translations, I’ve found Seamus Heaney’s version a highly enjoyable read; it even comes in an audiobook version with Heaney himself reading; the drawback of the second choice is that it’s abridged and in one particular section misses a part that I think is important to gain a deeper understanding of the poem. J.R.R. Tolkien also has a new translation that some may want to try. Unfortunately it’s a prose translation, so while you’ll understand the meaning of the poem, you’ll miss the experience of the beauty of the poetry, which is part of the learning and the enjoyment. The only other translation that I’m familiar with, is that of Professor Lesslie Hall who, I believe, translates the Project Gutenberg edition, and it is considered a solid translation though perhaps more archaic. Translating literature is always a notoriously difficult task and even more so when you’re dealing with Old English poetry. There will be no perfect translation. In spite of some of the criticism of Heaney, I would recommend this edition for first-time readers. For those interested in further investigation into the various translations, please see here.
Now for the schedule. The read will be done over the month of May; the poem is not long and the schedule gives us lots of time to read, so this event won’t be particularly burdensome if you have other books that you’re reading alongside it. I’ll post the line numbers and also a written guide, so those reading translations other than Heaney’s will hopefully know where each section begins and ends. I know that some people enjoy reading at their own pace, but for the maximum enjoyment and for getting the most of out the poem, I encourage everyone to stick to the schedule and read my weekly pre-posts. Plus, it’s fun to read together!
I think that’s all for now. Somewhere around April 26th, I’ll put up a background post to help us get started. So come one, come all, to a journey back in time …….. enter the Mead-Hall, meet the Monster and experience the bravery of one of the most courageous heroes in literature!