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Beowulf: a new translation by Megan Purvis

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Beowulf
A Translation by Meghan Purvis
Penned in the Margins, paperback
112 pages, £9.99, ISBN 978-1-908058-14-0

 

Conrad Geller
 

This new edition of Beowulf by Meghan Purvis doesn’t intend to be a translation in the ordinary sense but an original work of poetry. It follows the Anglo-Saxon narrative in faithful detail, to be sure, including the three epic battles, the boasting, the feasts, and finally the hero’s death and burial. The writer, however, says at the outset that her rendition will “differ dramatically” from the bardic original and from other translations: “My translation comes from writing as a woman – usually destined to pour mead and wait for the family feud to erupt – and as an American.” For plain faithfulness to the Old English text, one should go to John Lesslie Hall’s 1892 translation, or better, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, a work that marvelously reproduces the violent sounds and the compelling rhythms of the original.

But in this translation, although the story line is conscientiously followed, the voice, the stance, and especially the sensibilities are certainly not those we have come to expect in the epic tradition from Gilgamesh through John Brown’s Body. Most radical here is the use of multiple first-person narrators. Those narrators’ feelings as well as their perceptions become a vital part of the way the tale proceeds. For example, in the section titled “The Dragon,” which constitutes the prelude to Beowulf’s third and fatal encounter, the narration is deeply personal, almost lyrical in its expression of the narrator’s inner state:

 

This is an unknown door. We should not be here.

In dark of night, a dragon rules is ruling, will rule

a heard in a barrow-hall, we cannot be here, the pen

in my hand shakes, I cannot write. The pen is a treasure

that burns – was I reaching? There is no light here.

I cannot see [. . .]

 

This seems to be one of the warriors speaking, but whom? What is the pen that he holds? The “pen” faintly suggests that this narrator is the archetypical chronicler of events, like hamlet’s Horatio, but he could not simply be that, because in this Beowulf there are something like a dozen tellers of the tale, all different, mostly ambiguously identified.

Megan Purvis’s Beowulf, then, is a significant reworking of the tale, a book of original poems, in fact, following the thread of the story but not constrained by its original form. As a reader whose Anglo-Saxon is rudimentary at best, not much past The Lord’s Prayer, I am happy to be permitted to regard Ms. Purvis’s translation mainly as a work of original twenty-first century poetry.

And wonderful poetry much of it is. At the recounting of the Scylding’s lineage, she writes, “The lineage runs like knots of a spine, like the swollen knuckles of an aged woman by the fire.” Soon afterwards, when Beowulf and his men arrive at their destination, the line runs, “Mail clinked as the hull scraped on unfamiliar gravel. No one spoke.” In “The Track to the Mere,” section, where Beowulf and his companions seek out Grendel’s mother, the trail is “a rope of scar tissue twisting along an old man’s back.” Purvis keeps some of the old kennings – “the world’s candle shining over them” – and mixes them with her own precise language: “His body clasps were loosening, / his soul growing pinions, preparing for flight.”

As for the epic itself, what keeps us fascinated is the world revealed by it, so different from ours, or maybe just like ours but somehow unrecognizable. In that world a king’s success depends on how much loot he acquires to share, how generous his gifts to his friends and allies. Women in that world seem to exist as horrors, like Grendel’s mother, as another form of bounty, gracing a victorious fighter’s bed or, as Purvis points out, merely as attendants to pour mead at the feasts. Boasting and even foolhardiness are major virtues, as when Beowulf forgoes his weapons in the fight with Grendel. War, danger and death are constants, as are comradeship and valor. One might yearn to see that world up close, but no sensible person would want to be a part of it.

Maybe the Islamic scholars have the right idea. In their tradition, a translation of the Qur’an is not considered the actual Qur’an, because only the original Arabic can faithfully transmit the sacred truths. All renditions in different languages are therefore merely interpretations. Maybe that idea should prevail for all works of serious literature; you may have thought you were reading Tolstoy, but really you were reading Constance Garnett, a wonderful English writer but not the great Russian novelist. In any case, translation or interpretation, what we have here is some valuable, readable, compelling poetry.

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