Friday, July 31, 2009

Beowulf - Howell D. Chickering

Beowulf A Dual-Language Edition
Trans. Howell D. Chickering Jr.
DAW
Copyright Date: 2006
978-0756404260

The jacket blurb:
The first major poem in English literature, Beowulf tells the story of the life and death of the legendary hero Beowulf in his three great battles with supernatural monsters. The ideal Anglo-Saxon warrior-aristocrat, Beowulf is an example of the heroic spirit at its finest.

Leading Beowulf scholar Howell D. Chickering, Jr.’s, fresh and lively translation, featuring the Old English on facing pages, allows the reader to encounter Beowulf as poetry. This edition incorporates recent scholarship and provides historical and literary context for the modern reader. It includes the following:
  • an introduction
  • a guide to reading aloud
  • a chart of royal genealogies
  • notes on the background of the poem
  • critical commentary
  • glosses on the eight most famous passages, for the student who wishes to translate from the original
  • an extensive bibliography
Although I've wanted to read Beowulf for years, I finally got around to reading it just now for the Pre-Printing Press Challenge I set up earlier this year. I've also mentioned some of my thoughts on this translation/edition over the Heaney translation of the poem earlier this month here.

Over half of this edition of Beowulf is comprised of the introduction and the commentaries, both of which were incredibly detailed and thorough. The introduction contains all kinds of information on Old English poetry conventions, naming, vocabulary etc. Part of this is in the form of a pronunciation guide, explanation of stresses and alliteration and much more. The introduction itself has a short bibliography.

Also part of the introduction is a section on critical interpretations, which discusses issues such as how Christian the poem is thought to be. I found the various references to Tolkien and his lecture on The Monsters and the Critics to be rather neat, but I am rather a Tolkien fan.

As to the poem itself, well, I'll admit that I stuck to the modern English translation, even though it doesn't stick to the alliteration. In the years since I took that class in Old English, I've forgotten most of it. Still, there were times I could pick out a line or two.

There's a majesty and dignity to Beowulf that makes it an amazing read, and even the modern English cries to be read out loud. I did find though, that after Beowulf's return from killing Grendel's mother, I lost the thread of the poem and really had a hard time picking it up again.

The greater part of the book is the commentary, where the translator discusses each section of the poem in great detail, including the various interpretations and emendations that have been made over time. Each time, Chickering gives clear references to the original arguments so it is possible to go and find them easily. Quite a bit of the commentary hinges on interpretiations of specific words, and goes into quite a bit of depth.

All of that makes it into what is probably a very good edition for any student of Old English and of the history of the fifth to eleventh centuries in Europe. It's definitely worth the read, and not just because of the place that the poem holds as one of the earliest poems in the English language.
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