If Tolkien's analysis opened readers' eyes to "Beowulf" as a poem worth reading, and if Seamus Heaney's Beowulf a New Verse Translation resuscitated it for the 21st Century, then Professor Howell D. Chickering, Jr.'s version lets it walk tall, on its own two feet, with the aid of his elegant, faithful rendering. He also gives readers a chance to not only see the millennium-old Old English text, naked and beautiful, but to take it for a spin with some helpful guides.
As a British national epic, the advertising blurb for "Beowulf" could read something like this: "From the culture (and era) that brought you the English language, the Sutton Hoo burial ship and the setting for Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom series comes... a poem about a mythical Scandinavian hero." Basically, "Beowulf" is a darned old (over 1,000 years) Anglo-Saxon poem set down on sheepskin vellum in England ca. 750-1035 A.D. (accounts differ on the dating), likely by monks in a monastery recording an even older oral poem while interweaving it with Christian elements. Aside from being the English language's oldest surviving poem, the story -- broadly, about the legendary exploits of a glory-seeking Geatish monster fighter who becomes king and dies fighting a dragon -- provides the touchstone for everything from The 13th Warrior to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and beyond (J.R.R. Tolkien famously loved it).
The fact that this thing exists at all, in its original manuscript form, is a miracle; a library fire in 1731 nearly reduced the world's only known copy of this masterpiece to crispy critter status. What remains now resides -- crumbly, crunchy and (presumably) gluten-free -- in the climate-controlled vaults of the British Library. From this smokey, scruffy survivor came hundreds of translations, and Chickering's 1977 translation (and its 2006 update) remains one of the very best in modern English, as much for the quality of his interpretation as for the massive number of supplements he provides. Moreover, Chickering's book works on two levels: For the general reader who simply wants to enjoy a translation of "Beowulf" as literature, and for the academic (or inquisitive) reader who'd like to kiss the original 1,000-year-old text hello (or not -- old sheepskin tastes terrible).
For the general reader, Chickering translates with a lighter touch than, say, Michael Alexander or (again) Heaney; his translation floats overtop of the Old English text, rather then covering it with sugary frosting. Following the example of the Anglo-Saxon original, Chickering's rendition is unadorned and lacking in the florid flourishes that marked 19th, and early 20th, century versions. Following the manuscript almost line-by-line, he indulges rarely in artistic license, using it only to impart meaning and flow where a literal translation might confound a casual reader. Fortunately, the reader is in the hands of an expert with a lifetime's devotion to the subject, and one with a learned academic's eye for language. The overall effect is a sense of immediacy, rather like a news report in places, although the poem's trademark misty northern melancholy remains lovely, intact, yet direct.
Hurdles to this effect come in the form of masses of stacked appositives -- digressions within lines that elaborate on a previously stated point. To provide a quick example:
"Then the good king, of a noble race,
great Scylding prince, held that best thane
round the neck and kissed him; his tears ran down,
streaked his gray beard."
-- (Chickering, "Beowulf," 1977, p.157)
These appositives often create run-on sentences that can trip-up the rollicking forward momentum when reading. One of these every now and again is fine, but reading several dozen in a row could leave you gasping for breath (if you're reading aloud), or reaching for the Visine (if you're reading silently). It's important to note that this is a natural feature of classic Anglo-Saxon literature, and if it dilutes the power of certain fitts (sections), then you can be confident that it's express intent of the original scribe, rather than that of the translator.
Better still, Chickering gives the reader the necessary tools to dive even deeper into the poem far beyond what any modern English translation, by itself, can offer. The included backgrounds, commentary, glosses, and guide allow a motivated layman to come to the very edge of a working knowledge of Old English -- no mean feat, given the complexity of the language. From here, a reader could easily push themselves over into full understanding of the original text; some courses and Klaeber's Beowulf, Fourth Edition would help make the leap. Even a casual reader will recognize the ancestors of many common modern words simply by looking at the original text opposite the translation.
As an experiment, I've lived with this edition for over two weeks; reading Chickering's translation aloud, followed by his backgrounds, introduction and pronunciation guide before diving into the glossed passages. At the end of the journey, I'd felt like I'd taken a full introductory course in Anglo-Saxon literature. Not a bad deal at all, for the cost of a trade paperback.
on June 15, 2004
This is a great edition of a great cultural treasure. It not only provides the original language text and a very solid modern English translation, it has a huge number of helps that enable the modern reader and student to delve deeply into the text. These helps allow those of us with no real knowledge of Old English to gain some appreciation of how our language has transformed over the centuries.
Professor Chickering provides a wonderful guide to reading the Old English version out loud, which is a lot of fun to try. He also provides important context giving background of the poetic structures from the old times and what we benefit from noticing as we read this exciting tale.
He also provides background material on the manuscript and what we know about the origins and culture that gave rise to Beowulf. There is also a wonderful commentary on many key concepts in the story that enrich the reading of the story.
There is also a bibliography for further reading and a listing of glosses on selected passages.
Yes, the Seamus Heaney translation is beautiful and readable, but this one is much more useful for the student who wants to dig more deeply into the story and how it fits into our cultural heritage.
on June 11, 2003
Useful for learning Old English. Get a copy of Beowulf read in Anglo-Saxon on CD in order to help you speak Anglo-Saxon. It is lovely, but hard to speak. This is a good book to learn to write Asatru rituals, but to speak to the living Gods in their own tongue you'll need recorded readings of Anglo-Saxon to teach yourself Old English.
This book is old Enough to buy a used copy.
Even at the new prices it is worth it, for any student of Old English
on January 5, 2003
After reading about the immense influence of Beowulf on Tolkien in "Celebrating Middle-Earth", I reread it in this translation. It is powerful and moves along rapidly. It captures the strong yet poetic use of words and brings out changes of mood brilliantly.
on October 23, 2001
This is a very good book for those interested in Beowulf. In fact, it's as close to my idea of an "ideal" version that I can find.
There are several different sections in this book, besides the text of the poem itself. There are technicial discussions on the poetry itself, and a guide to pronounciation. At the rear of the book are discussions of the historical context of the poem, both internal to the poem and external in the world. A lengthy commentary of the poem follows, then a bibliography, and finally a line-by-line glossary of some of the major sections of the poem.
The part that caught my eye was the "dual langauge" edition. The main text consists of the Anglo-Saxon version on the left-handed pages, and a modern English translation on the right-handed pages. The author states that alliteration in the translation was not a concern, and sometimes the translation does not follow the original word-for-word. Within each numbered five-line block, the translation does follow the original, so it's not too hard to follow both the original and the translation.
As a final comment, Caedmon Audio produces an audio edition read by Bessinger, and I find this is to be an excellent compliment to the book.
on April 10, 2000
Professor Chickering of Amherst College was my professor a few years back and he never even mentioned his extraordinary translation of Beowulf to our class! (we were readinng chaucer.) But I should not forgive him because it is certainly not something to be missed! Being a product of public schools and reading a rather bland edition of the Old English masterpiece, Chickering's great new version is bold, booming with a voice of classical sensibility with heroic tragedy as well. please support this important and underrated piece of genuine translation, unlike Heaney's total bifurcation of the original from raw to pretty. Beowulf is not pretty. It is gritty, the first action-adventure of Old English.
on April 2, 2000
Can't find Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf? Buy this one. It's better. While Heaney's tranlslation is lyrical and poetic, with a distinct Gaelic flavor, Chickering's rendering is raw and primitive, much closer to the original Anglo-Saxon. Whenever I read it, I have the feeling of actually being there.
on February 24, 2000
This is certainly the finest translation of Beowulf, one that captures the craggy, monumental quality of the original Old English and yet conveys the elegiac tone so characteristic of this great body of poetry. Readers of Old English may quarrel with portions of the translation (and what translation doesn't evoke such a response?), but the great virtue of this version is that it comes the closest of all modern Beowulf editions in conveying the incredibly condensed and powerful sound of the original. A must buy for anyone who read (or skipped reading) Beowulf in high school or college and didn't think it was very interesting.
on August 11, 1999
I am not a colledge student. I speak not a word of Old English. (Though I am working on German) I,in fact am a thirteen-year-old who cannot understand why he is the only person in his class with a love for classic books. Beowulf was the best book I ever read and it put the love of poetry into my heart. This book is not just, or should not just be, for coledge students. I encourage the younger generations to read this book, if for nothing else, just so you have read it.
Sencirly Thomas M. W. Robinson Jr.
on May 16, 1999
Professor Howell D. Chickering, Jr., of Amherst College has provided the indispensable edition of "Beowulf" for readers who, like this reviewer, know no Old English. While the extensive supporting material included in the book should be of significant value to those who wish to deepen their understanding of the structure and historical background of the original, the best thing here is the translation itself: clear, direct, and often eloquent. Chickering's modern version has a gnarled, vivid quality that one must assume reflects cardinal virtues of the original. My advice to anyone unfamiliar with this masterpiece would be: click now to buy this book. When you receive it, turn directly to p. 49 and dive into the poem itself. Beginning with the fast-moving first lines ("Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes / in the old days, the kings of tribes-- / how noble princes showed great courage!"), you will be drawn into a world incomparably remote from our own and yet as compelling as any contemporary work of fiction, poetry, or film. And speaking of film, if you have ever wondered what the inspiration was for every shadowy, lurking science-fiction monster you've been scared by at the movies (from "Forbidden Planet" to "Aliens"), read this book and know the answer. Professor Chickering has brought Grendel to life with a vengeance. A priceless gift to lovers of great tales everywhere!