Getting ready to read Beowulf

Some people have watched the CGI movie, some people have studied the ins and outs of the book in class. When it comes to me, my own knowledge of Beowulf resides on the old painting I saw in a book on literary monsters that depicted the mighty warrior slaying the ferocious Grendel – half human, half beast. Ever since I have been interested in reading the famous epic poem, but somehow never getting around it. Undeniably, the thought of plunging into a work written in Old English for a medieval audience seemed daunting, scary, and just plain crazy, but the curiosity got the best of me. I have to thank Reading the Middle Ages by Theodore L. Steinberg, that is currently on my nightstand, for finally setting gears in motion and giving me that last push I needed in order to start.

First, I had to choose the edition. With old text like this, it was important for me to find a good translation that would transition well for a modern reader, yet maintain the feel and atmosphere of days long past. Reading the Middle Ages recommends two editions that provide unique insight into the poem. The first one is a verse translation by Frederick Rebsamen that apparently promises to capture the the true sound of Beowulf. Perhaps it will be best for those who are looking to read the poem aloud and enjoy the adventure the way it was meant to be heard. The second is by E. Talbot Donaldson, who offers a very literal prose narrative. This one would provide a great opportunity to ponder over details that otherwise might have been overlooked in an effort to decipher the flowery verse. For the purposes of this little study of mine, I think I will read both editions: first the prose one to get an idea about the storyline, then the verse to complete the experience.

Another decision I had to make was the pace of reading. Since I never speed read, I found comfort in the Steinberg’s suggestion that medieval literature was always meant to be read slowly and aloud. He actually goes as far as to say that “in his Confessions, St. Augustine mentions one oddity about his teacher, St. Ambrose: when Ambrose read, he did so silently and without moving his lips. Apparently, even reading to oneself was a kind of oral exercise“. (p.14) Perhaps I will follow the old tradition and recite the poem to myself. Of course it would require extra time, but I am not in a particular rush. As you might know, I am a big advocate of careful reading, so time is not much of a concern here. I already ordered a copy of Donaldson’s prose translation through inter-library loan program, and hopefully it will arrive soon so I can start. Meanwhile, I better finish Reading the Middle Ages.


  1. Hey, I read it way back in high school. Thought it was “auld” age mumble jumble, and didn’t really understand it. Now that I’m older(like to say more knowledgable), and I’ve studied history, I like it! I think it is very imortant to have a good editor, and to read the preface of the book for assistance. Also, where I usually am not a big fan of footnotes, footnotes were very helpful to me when I reread it. It made me go out and buy the movie the Thirteenth Warrior (look it up if you haven’t seen it); It put me in the mood for the old school, hero saga. One more reccomendation, and I’ll leave you alone. Try Grendel by John Gardner: great book.

  2. Jillian ♣ · ·

    I love that you adhere to careful reading. I think I must too, and sometimes I feel like the world is reading past me. It’s good to know others take it slow too. I was thinking of reading this one soon. I might also read aloud. I have the Seamus Heaney translation.

  3. jdgarner68: Thank you, I am actually planning to read Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton on which the Thirteenth Warrior is based, so I am definitely going to check out the movie adaptation once I’m done. Also, the premise of Grendel sounds fun, I will have to put that one on TBR list too. Great recommendations!

  4. Jillian: I noticed that reading peed is somewhat of recurring theme in your blog posts. I totally know how you feel. I often feel so guilty for not finishing a book fast enough. But I think both of us deserve to reward ourselves for things we’ve accomplished already, instead of punishing for things that could have been done. After all, we both read and blog for our personal enjoyment and not for some editor with a tight deadline.

    I’ve heard that Heaney’s new translation is very good. I am actually considering substituting Rebsamen’s edition for that one. Hopefully I will see your thoughts on it soon.

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