Tuesday, December 9, 2014


by J. D. Popham

Back when I was an undergrad I learned to read Old English. What can I say.  I was young, foolish and had no sense of the practical. Of course, back then practicality was only beginning to be the sole point of undergraduate studies.  Discovery and extending the boundaries of what you knew was important for its own sake. In those days a youthful fascination with dead languages, like butterflies, needed no excuse.

As a result of my ill-spent youth and linguistic dalliances, I've had the good fortune to read Beowulf in its original Old English as well as in a number of modern English translations. While the original and the translations tell the same story and describe the same sequence of events, they are very different literary experiences.  Until the Normans wandered across the English channel and steeped Old English in French for more than a few generations, English was a primal, hard hitting language full of 'skull' words. We retain enough of the old words that one can still hear in the better modern English translations the echos of primal monsters and heroes from Scopic songs. However, I assure you, if you've read Beowulf in translation, whether it's by Tolkein, Chickering or Heaney, you haven't read Beowulf.

Like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf was originally oral poetry, intended to be performed for an audience.  It's set in the 600s and the oldest written version that survives was written down a bit after the turn of the first millennium, CE.  At that time the literate folk in England were almost invariably churchmen, and so I like to think that the two scribes who recorded it for posterity were a couple of reprobate Benedictines who preferred a good yarn about heroes, mead-halls, mere-walkers and dragons to chanting Vespers.  By adding a thin overlay of Christian forms to Beowulf's original Scopic sensibility and pitching it as a Christian morality tale, the two saved a decidedly pre-Christian tale from being forgotten and lost to future generations.

Once, when my son was very young, about eleven years old, he had a few friends overnight.  They did the usual things.  They bedded down in the living room with their sleeping bags, flashlights and snacks.  They watched videos and played board games and told the sorts of really horrible jokes that are uproariously funny to the eleven-year-old mind but utterly lost on anyone else.  And finally, as the night wore on and the sugar rush wore off, they pulled their sleeping bags into a circle and asked if I knew any good ghost stories.

"Hwæt!" I said to them. "Listen!" And I had their attention. "We have heard of the Spear-Danes, in days gone by, and of the of the brave kings who led them to greatness," I went on. "And of their king Scyld Sceffing who defeated many enemies and threw over the benches in their mead-halls."

What followed was a very abridged retelling of Beowulf, pitched to the ear of the modern eleven year old.  (In case you're wondering, I left in all the grisly bits. No one appreciates grisly like an eleven year old.)  My Old English professor, who looked the very model of an aging Saxon Earl who'd set aside his armor and spear for a brown wool suit and a red editorial pen, would have frowned in disappointment at the resulting translation.  The kids, however, were riveted, their eyes wide and in rapt attention as Grendel and Beowulf each came to Heorot, Hrothgar's mead-hall, and to battle with one another. Sometimes the boys cast nervous glances at the dark beyond the windows, the idea of a mere-walker lurking outside in our flower beds to peer in at them having moved into the realm of the possible.

It is a primal thing, gathering together in the dark and telling scary stories.  It seems etched into our DNA, undiminished by the ongoing march of written and digital entertainments.

A few weeks ago my son, now just shy of his thirtieth year,  mentioned that he and his friends still recall that telling of Beowulf, and that it was a happy and stand-out moment in their childhoods.  Praise from an audience of eleven-year-olds doesn't get any higher than that.  And their reaction, echoed across the span of twenty years, may explain why a couple of reprobate monks spent time and ink recording an old pre-Christian epic, likely risking the ire of their monastic superiors in the process.

And in my minds eye, the old Saxon Earl cum Old English professor finally ceased to frown and has put up both his spear and red editorial pen.  There might even be the trace of a smile.

1 comment:

  1. I also read English at Uni, including Anglo-Saxon and indeed Beowulf is a wonderful tale in its original form.

    Shame the recent film did it such poor justice.