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Beowulf: A Few Thoughts

Notes on the great work of Old English literature.

September 06, 2019Filed under Art#book reviews#literature#reading#typographyMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: lovers of books… and typography.

I keep my book review ratings simple—they’re either required, recommended, recommended with qualifications, or not recommended. If you want the TL;DR, this is it:

Required. Beowulf is the great work of Old English literature, the oldest literary work in English full stop. It should be required reading (in a good translation!) for every high school student in English-speaking nations. I am not going to try to review it here; I’m not sure you can review a work like this, exactly. As well try to review the Iliad. (People with expertise in Old English could perhaps offer a review of the translation, but I have no such expertise.) I offer instead a few notes on my experience of reading it for the first time.

First things first: there are many ways to read this book. I read Seamus Heaney’s much-lauded translation, in this bilingual edition.

Second, I had no idea what to expect from the poem. I have not spent much time reading epic poetry (to my loss, I think!), and I had only the vaguest familiarity with the story. I cannot judge the accuracy of the translation, but I can say this for it: it was good poetry, and I found it thoroughly engaging. It was like and unlike reading a novel, for many reasons: the medium, of course, and most obviously; but also the form and structure—because this poem (of course!) knows nothing of a genre that developed most of a millennium after it had been written! It gripped me, as a good story does. The language was beautiful, and as a poem it moved in a way that the prose of very few novels even begin to hint at.1 I have now a great desire to find and read more—much more—of Seamus Heaney’s own poetry.

Finally, I cannot help but comment on the physical presentation of the text here. The edition I have is a bilingual text, with the Old English on the left page and Heaney’s translation on the right. The presentation of Heaney’s introduction and translation are lovely—well-typeset in Palatino. The bilingual materials, which I was glad to have (consider my curiosity about Old English very much piqued!), is unfortunately much less well-typeset. It appears to be in Times New Roman, and if TNR is over-criticized and underappreciated, it simply looks jarring(ly bad) when set side by side with Palatino. The typesetting of the non-bilingual text appears to be the same as in my copy of the text, so I would commend that to you instead of the edition I read for most readers.

(If I had to guess, I would venture this failure was a function of the comparative dearth of options available to set Old English text 20 years ago. Today we have a striking wealth of typefaces with incredibly multilingual support, including for the characters used in Old English—so I would love to see this bilingual presentation re-typeset at some point.)

If you’ve never read the poem, you should! I enjoyed it greatly, and I expect to come back to it in the years ahead. And who knows: I may even slowly pick up Old English to be able to appreciate the original.

  1. The only books I have read which come anywhere close are Tolkien’s; no surprise there for long-time readers of mine, but also no surprise for anyone who is familiar with Tolkien’s own history with Beowulf. His encounter with it shaped him in profound ways; and he in turn shaped the field of studies of the text in profound ways.