On Rebsamen’s Translation of Beowulf

Beowulf is the first great poem of Old English written between the 6th and the first third of the 9th century. Rebsamen created a new translation of the classic heroic saga of the Geat (pronounced Gate?) hero Beowulf (pronounced Baywolf) and his battles with three monsters-Grendel, Grendel’s mother and The Dragon). This version published in 2004 restores a better poetic sense to the ancient literature.

Beowulf the epic story brings a sense of history with it. We read of his mano y mano swimming in the ocean contest with a peer through seven days of wintry waves wearing nothing besides a sword with which Beowulf final battles seven sea sprites before being tossed onto the beach. One learns something of the sociology and culture of the day, and of the job of the coast guard.

Beowulf deliver’s the Danish King Hrothgar’s fine beer hall from the power of Grendel-a predatory monster eating the Danish thane/warriors partying there nightly.

The introduction to this translation of Beowulf presents an excellent summary of the history of Anglo-Saxon England from the 5th century until the Viking invasions after about 930 C.E. The district of Kent was converted to Christianity in 597, and the poem has numerous references to God. The first Church in Sweden at Uppsala wasn’t constructed until 1000 a.d. Maybe the invasion of England returned something of the word of Christ to those previously pagan people regarded in antipathetically by Dane, North Germans and Angles of the era.

One finds an example of the relationship of the illiterate warrior class to God as the omnipotent power controlling the allotment of reality. I would think that the Moslem development of a warrior relationship to God was somewhat similar in Muhammad’s 6th century Arabia though tempered by more Judaic scriptural references. In Old English there were more than sixty different name-references to God.

Rebsamen mentions that more than 30,000 lines of Old English poetry remains. The era of Angles, Jutes and Saxons migrating to England brought the North Germanic form of poetry along. The hymn of Caedmon was one of the first to bring Christian ideas to North Germanic verse structure in Anglo-Saxon England at this time. Another early poem- The Poem of Holy Rood was carved in runic on a large, elegant stone cross at Dumfriesshire Scotland in the 8th century. Beowulf was composes sometime in this era as well by an unknown court poet before the Viking invasions.

Reading this poem aloud in this translation brings it to a story normal expression without the stumbling along verbal cadences of inexpertly trying to read Old English. Beowulf is a no-brag just fact destroyer of monsters-even those descended from Cain such as Grendel-who journeys over the whale-paths through the wave-rolls of the sea and time to meet destiny from the wyrd. This book is worth shelving for its intrinsic value as well as the fact that it was the first epic poem of this scale written since the fall of Rome.