Join the Beowulf Read-Along !

Beowulf Read-along

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!

From Wikipedia:

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!

Week 1: May 1st – 8th
Week 1: Lines 1 through 709
From the beginning of the poem to just before Grendel strikes: the last lines read: “One man, however, was in fighting mood, awake and on edge, spoiling for action.”
Week 2: May 9th – 16th
Week 2: Lines 710 – 1250
From where Grendel strikes to right before Grendel’s mother is introduced ~ another threat lurks in the night.  The last line reads: ” ….. to rally round their lord. They were a right people.”
Week 3: May 17th – 24th
Week 3: Lines 1251 – 2199 
From where they go to sleep & Grendel’s mother is introduced to where Hygelac presents Beowulf with a sword and land.  The last line reads: “….. and sway were inherited by the higher born.”
Week 4: May 25th – 31th
Week 4: Lines 2200 – End

From where times passes, Hygelac falls and Beowulf rules for 50 years to the end of the poem.

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!

(link to original image above)

33 thoughts on “Join the Beowulf Read-Along !

  1. Well, even though I should not plan so far ahead (e.g., the doctors warn me against buying green bananas), I think I might like to participate in your Beowulf read-along. Perhaps I should make note of it at my blog — Beyond Eastrod — but I defer to you for marching orders as this will be my first read-along. You lead. I will follow.

  2. Oh, super-fun! I've read the Heaney translation a couple of times, and I just got the Tolkien, so I think I'll do that. Maybe even read the Heaney or another poetic translation alongside. Oh boy!!

  3. I would love to have you read-along, R.T. although I realize that your plans must be capricious now. Any notes or posts are much appreciated. I'd be so happy to have you with us!

  4. Wow, I was hoping that you'd show up, but I didn't want to put undue pressure on you. I was thinking up means of subtle manipulation, but look, you beat me to it and saved me lots of work and brain power! It will be beneficial to have someone else who has read it before and therefore has a base. Some of my postings are going to include my own questions, so perhaps you'll be able to answer them. Either that or we can be confused together. I'm looking forward to it! (the read-along, not being confused ….. 😉 )

  5. It all sounds very exciting and I'm really looking forward to it. Thank you for the effort you're putting in to make it a great reading experience. 🙂

  6. Yay, Dawn! I'm so excited to have another re-reader. Which did you prefer? The Heaney or the Raffel translation? I have read Raffel's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but not Beowulf.

  7. I have put Tolkien's translation on hold at the library (all the copies are out at the moment). I hope to get it in time to pre-read it in April —- I'd still like to stick with my Heaney translation for the actual read because all my notes are based on it. For another option, I've order a copy of Michael Swanton's translation which has been lauded by a couple of scholars …… we'll see …….

  8. I preferred the Raffel. To me (in the US) it was easier to read. Heany used a few words that I had to look up, or ask my Irish friend to explain.Maybe for people outside the US, Heany would be easier.

  9. Thank You so much for getting this started Cleo! I do not think I could have read this all by myself so soon without you and Cat to lead the way! So Yay and Super Yay!! I will find the essay by Tolkien and I already own a Penguin Classic of the poem by Michael Alexander ….would that work?

  10. Hmmm …. now you've made me curious. I've ordered a few versions from my library to compare.

    One of the problems you can run into if the version is too simplified, is that it becomes an adaptation rather than a translation (I'm thinking about The Iliad and The Odyssey translations). You can also lose the grandeur and beauty of the poetry. However I believe that Heaney's translation is well respected, so I feel confident going with him. I'll let you know if I find any other interesting translations! 🙂

  11. I knew that you'd show up to the party! 😉 The essay is linked to the Monster and the Critics title in my post ….. with a previous comment I now don't know if it's showing up as "linked" ….??? In any case, it should be there if you click on the title or go to this site:

    As for Michael Alexander, I've only found this information on his translation:

    "One you are more likely to find because it is published for Penguin Classics—and the one I cut my own teeth on—is Michael Alexander's 1973 translation. It's alliterative verse with unmarked caesura, but relatively easy on modern ears, especially compared to earlier translations. It finds an acceptable compromise between slavishly following the original text literally (a trap too many earlier translators fell into) and being too creative in rewriting the lines in the modern idiom. It's been called a "taut, gritty translation in imitative verse, influenced by Ezra Pound, of whose poetry Alexander is a scholar". I couldn't say if the Pound connection is apt, but the work is indeed taut and gritty."

    Alexander actually saw Tolkien's original manuscript for his Beowulf version, which originally was in verse form and not the final prose form. However this poem is a hard, hard poem to translate and I know when comparing translations there can be different "slants" to certain parts of the poem. Sometimes the differences can be interesting to explore and sometimes they're just downright frustrating (unless, of course, you're familiar with Old English). In any case, we'll muddle through. 🙂 You may want to mark the weekly starts and stops in your version ahead of time to make your read smoother.

  12. Oh good! And reading the Heaney translation will make it easier for you to follow my comments. Plus the font in the Heaney translation appears to be bigger than other translations I've seen. A small consolation but I'm lately finding bigger font to be preferable ….. probably an indication that I'm getting old. 😉

  13. Wow, you clearly plan to put a lot of work into this. Fiiiiiiiiiiiiine, I'm in. It will count towards my Medieval/middle ages literary movement too, which I have been avoiding.

  14. Oooo, and you're in with such a good attitude! 😛 I was hoping to see your shining avatar. I'll have to see if I can change your mind about this one.

  15. How could I possibly miss this party? Thank You for the link…it does not hyperlink on your blog ;)…thank you also for researching on Alexander…I am sure we will more than muddle through….I will mark the weekly starts and stops to make the reading easier

  16. Sorry, that meant to come across with a little more enthusiasm than it did. I mentioned reading Beowulf before but you were keen to point out that I didn't actually READ it. If anyone can convince me to see it in a new light, it would be you. I've marked it down on my reading calendar. May is already shaping up to be a busy month.

  17. Oh, I'm quite happy to have you a little sceptical. It would be very boring indeed if we all felt exactly the same way about the poem. And it will make it all the more satisfying if, in the end, I can change your mind. 😉 Glad to have you aboard!

  18. I have time to think about this. I just read Tolkien's in January. However, next year, Beowulf is on my kid's medieval lit list. I could reread it for some good literary examination. I've not read this Heaney translation either.

    If I can get through this month and finish my four committed books, then I know I will be able to add Beowulf to May. To be continued…

  19. 😀 I think that you're in the same boat as me; a few too many books on-the-go and wondering how/if you'll get through them all. I hope you can participate and add your wonderful insight! I'm staying tuned ……. 🙂

  20. I'm in! I found a copy at a local second hand book store at the last moment and I've just started. I haven't read Beowulf before (I know) and your notes are really helping!

  21. Yay, Keely! I'm so glad you showed up! And I'm glad my notes are helping. I was planning to organize them under themes, but decided to go line by line to emphasis certain important parts of the work. We'll see how well it worked at the end, I guess. 🙂

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!