Beowulf Term Paper

Beowulf. The oldest and, arguably, the greatest epic in English literature’s vast history. Beowulf is an epic poem, originally written in Old English, that details the heroic exploits of the warrior, Beowulf, throughout his life. It represents the heroic ideal and the role of fate’s importance to the Old English people, while also addressing politics, war, old-age, kinsmanship, and fantasy. The depth of the poem, in both its poetry and narration, is incredible, and in the original Old English the integration and weaving of meaning throughout the text is virtually unparalleled. Though Beowulf is an evident masterpiece of English literature, its true importance in history is often understated and misrepresented. This is because the Old English that the poem is written in is very difficult and different from what most readers consider English, or even “old English”. The antiquity of the text limits the poem’s greatness and true understanding to a very small group of scholars, “armed” with their word-hoards and knowledge of Old English; the rest of the “unready” literary world sees a diluted representation through translation. Over time there have been large numbers of translations of Beowulf, in various forms, that have provided the greater literary world with a common perception of the text. It is this paper’s focus to examine a variety of these translations in relation to the meaning evident in the original Old English text. As it would be impossible to examine the entire poem in Old English with multiple translations, due to the depth and complexity present in the text, I have selected the following short passage from Beowulf for the analysis: Gewat da neosian, sypdan niht becom, hean huses, hu hit Hring-Dene aefter beorpege gebun haefdon. Fand pa daer inne aepelinga gedriht swefan aefter symble; sorge ne cudon, wonsceaft wera. Wiht unhaelo, grim ond graedig, gearo sona waes, reoc ond repe, ond on raeste genam pritig pegna; panon eft gewat hude hremig to ham faran, mid paere waelfylle wica neosan. (115-125) This passage, Grendel’s approach and attack on the Dane’s hall, was chosen because it is representative of the poetic and narrative structures that are operating throughout the poem; the recurring diction, narrative movement, internal reference and contrast, and envelope structure that are present in this short passage are echoed in all of Beowulf. Also, this passage is an important and entertaining portion of the story, providing a good reference point for the analysis of the translations. The translations I have selected are varied; from literal word- by-word translations, to more “narrative” modern verse translations, to transcriptions of the original text with glossings, and even one of my own translations. The chosen translations range fairly evenly from the years 1892 to 2001, and are all from academic sources (except for, possibly, the two Penquin translations, which I have included for added depth in analysis, giving translations that are directed at a more broad audience). This varied range of translations over time provides a good foundation to examine the content of this very important passage in translation. By examining Grendel’s approach to the hall, the representation of Grendel, and the presence (or lack) of recurring diction and narrative movement providing a ring-composition, I will present an analysis of the patterns and variations found in a wide variety of Beowulf translations, spanning the last one hundred and ten years, for the selected Old English Beowulf passage (115-125). Over time the translations of Grendel’s approach to the hall (115-120) form a consistent pattern of even distribution in the variations between literal and more narrative interpretations of the text. The variation within the more literal translations of the poem is based on the translator’s interpretation and understanding of the individual words while trying to retain the Old English form of the text. The variation within the more narrative translations is based less on differences of interpretation between translators that on the direction they chose to represent these events, in current form and language. Both forms seem to be equally consistent over time, providing various levels of understanding of the poem in its depth. In the first line of Grendel’s approach, “Gewat da neosian, sypdan niht becom,” (115), half of the examined translations (A,C,E,H and L) represent Grendel as “He” in their interpretations, while the other half (B,D,F,G and K) actually provide the name “Grendel” in their texts (the transcriptions I and J do not provide any sort of glossing for Grendel). Though the differences separating “He set out then” (A.115) and “He departed then seeking” (L.115), from “Now Grendel rose up to look” (D.115) and “came Grendel also” (G.115) seem to be relatively minor, they represent the different approaches taken by the translators, which are echoed, at a much greater scale, throughout their translations. This “he/Grendel” distinction is representative of the pattern and narrative structures that are operating over time in the translations of Beowulf. The following interpretations of Grendel’s observation of the hall and the Danes is quite consistent among all of the translations, in content and structure, though there is some variation in the actual vocabulary used, somewhat altering the depth of the translations from the Old English text. Most of the translations and glossings, from Clarence Griffin Child’s in 1904 (B), to Gavin Bone’s (D), E. Talbot Donaldson’s (F), George Jack’s (I), and others, over the century, tend to agree that “beorpege” (117) in Old English translates into “beer-drinking” in Modern English. However, John Earle translates “beorpege” (117) as “carousal” (A.117) in 1892, and Francis B. Gummere, in 1929, translates it as “outrevelled” (C.117). These translations both imply a sense of “beorpege” (117), but fail to capture the depth and feeling of fellowship that is present in the original quite as well as “beer-drinking”. Michael Alexander, in 1973, focuses on the same sense of “beorpege” (117), but takes some narrative liberties in his translation: “the horn had gone round” (G.117). This translation captures the spirit of the original, but fails to maintain the form of the Old English in favour of a modern narrative metaphor. It must be noted, however, that Michael Alexander later glosses “beorpege”(117) as “beer-drinking” in the 1995 transcription of Beowulf. There is a lot more variation present over the last century in the translations of “wonsceaft wera” (120) than in the fairly consistent pattern of “beorpege” (117). Some of the translation variations include: “desolation of men” (A.120), “the evil haps of men” (B.120), “of human hardship” (C.120), “Tempest or mortality” (D.120), “misery of men” (E,F,I,K.120), and “dark-shaft of men” (L.120). Of these translations, “misery of men” proves to be the most common and accepted interpretation of “wonsceaft wera” (120) in Modern English. However, I believe that my own translation, “dark-shaft of men” (L.120), more accurately represents the intention of the Old English “wonsceaft wera” (120). Much of the poetic and narrative meaning in Beowulf is derived from the association of word structures and symbolism interweaving throughout the Old English text. My translation, “dark-shaft of men” (L.120), expresses the same intent as “misery of men”, but follows more closely the form and structure of the Old English poet. The “dark-shaft” represents misery in the dark shaft of a bloodied weapon, the dark and mysterious shafts of wells and pits, and the dark shaft that encloses in upon the light as death grips a dying man. This translation echoes the form and meaning of the original, providing a level of depth that is absent in the pattern of modern translations. The general pattern among the translations of Grendel’s approach to the hall seems to be fairly consistent over time, with variation between the literal and narrative approach of the translator, and the degree of depth to which the original Old English text is engaged. The representation of Grendel (120-125) in the various translations over time, of the selected Beowulf passage (115-125), presents a fairly consistent pattern of Grendel represented as more than a simple monster, mirroring and contrasting the heroic warrior characteristics of Beowulf himself. The original poet provides his representation of Grendel in the Old English: “Wiht unhaelo, / grim ond graedig, gearo sona waes, / reoc ond repe,” (120-22). Often when transferring this into Modern English, the translator will represent Grendel simply as “the monster”, thereby denying Grendel’s importance as a character, warrior, and contrast as anti-hero to the hero, Beowulf. By denying or misstating the importance of Grendel, such a translator would be lessening the accomplishment of the hero, Beowulf, and ultimately diminishing the greatness of the epic. Gavin Bone’s translation is the only one of those selected that actually represents Grendel in this manner. The 1943 translation states Grendel as “The bad creature… Cruel and hungry,… is away happy… With his fill of meat” (D.120- 125). The impression provided by this translation of Grendel is not one of a fierce and mighty opponent for a hero to battle, but of a simple “bad” and “hungry” animal, comparable to a dingo stealing babies in the night in the Outback. This is not an accurate representation of the depth present in the Old English form and the might of Grendel. Providing variation are the translations by Francis B. Gummere and Ruth P.M. Lehmann, which sit somewhere in the middle. They do not present Grendel as a simple beast, but they also leave out heroic characteristics in their translations of the representation of Grendel from Old English. Francis B. Gummere translates Grendel as “Unhallowed wight, / grim and greedy, he grasped betimes, / wrathful, reckless,” (C.120-22), while Ruth P.M. Lehmann interprets Grendel as “The creature of evil, / grim and greedy, was gripped at once / by wrath and raging” (H.120-22). Both representations present Grendel as a creature with human traits, but they make no mention of the Old English heroic ideal of “readiness for battle”. It is this recognition, in the translation of the representation of Grendel from Old English, that provides the depth in the character of Grendel in comparison to Beowulf, and emphasizes his warrior traits. Most of the translations for “gearo sona waes,” (121) are as follows: “was ready straight” (A.121), “was soon alert” (B.121), “he was soon ready” (E.243), “was quickly ready” (F,K.121), and “ready soon he was” (L.121). These form a general pattern over time in translation that does recognize the importance of Grendel as a warrior figure and anti-hero to Beowulf. Grendel’s “readiness for battle” is translated, drawing on the Old English ideal of heroic combat, which emphasizes the human traits and emotions that are provided in the representation of Grendel in each of the translations. The majority of the translations, albeit to varying degrees, tend to express Grendel in the manner that was intended by the original Old English poem. Of the translations selected, I found that my own was the most representative of the original text. While most of the translations expressed “Wiht unhaelo” (120) as “the creature of evil”, my own translation expresses this as “Warrior creature of unsalvation” (L.120). I find that, in keeping with the depth and metaphors present in the poetic and narrative language of the original, the translation can maintain the heroic resonances that make the Old English epic of Beowulf great. “Warrior creature of unsalvation” suggests a strength in the force that is Grendel, and draws immediate comparison to the counter-force, Beowulf. As Beowulf is fated to be the warrior of salvation for Hrothgar’s court, so is Grendel fated to be the warrior of unsalvation; this is expressed by Grendel’s ancestry and lineage to Cain, and in the contrast to Beowulf as a warrior of light and salvation. However varied, the majority of the translations studied for this one hundred and ten year period exhibit a pattern in the representation of Grendel that presents him as a warrior, foil, and equal to the hero of the epic; a hero in the darkness. The representation of the translations for the selected passage from Beowulf suggests a general pattern in translations over time, in the lack of expressing the recurring diction and narrative movement providing a ring-composition, which is evident in the original Old English text. This is not to say that there is no recognition in translation of the ring-composition, or envelope structure, which is operating throughout the text of Beowulf, forever adding to the depth of the epic verse. It appears that most of the earlier translations of the selected passage were unaware of the envelope structure operating within the text. In the original Old English, the passage of Grendel’s attack on the hall opens on line 115 with “neosian”, and then closes on line 125, again with “neosan”. This was not done by the poet because of a limited vocabulary or inability to find a more suitable word. This was done intentionally to provide recurring diction and a ring-composition in the text of the poem. Either the early translators were unaware of this structure’s presence in the text, or they made a conscious effort in their translations to remove the “bad form” of repetition. Whichever is the case, early translations of the “neosian… neosan” (115-125) recurring diction are as follows: “to explore… to go” (A.115-125), “to spy… sought” (B.115-125), “to find… to seek” (C.115-125), and “to look… is away” (D.115-125). It is not until the 1962 translation by Vincent F. Hopper, in those examined, that the presence of the envelope structure is recognized in translation. He translates “neosian… neosan” (115-125) as “to visit… to visit” (E.230-251) in his translation of the selected passage. After this, the structure is present in Michael Alexander’s 1973 translation, “sought… sought” (G.116-125), Ruth P.M. Lehmann’s 1988 translation, “seeking… seeking” (H.115-125), and my own translation, “seeking… seeking” (L.115-125), as well as in the glossing of the two transcriptions (I and J). However, recent translations, such as Alfred David’s 1996 translation of Beowulf in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, still do not include the recognition of the recurring diction that is present in the original poem. Overall, the majority of translations of Beowulf do not include the recurring diction and narrative movement that forms the ring-compositions within the text. The ring- composition is an important aspect of the Old English poetic form, serving to link the text together and further add depth to the characters, symbols, and relationships within the epic of Beowulf. Still, over the last one hundred and ten years, the general pattern observed in the translations of the selected passage is one of a lack of recognition in translation of the recurring diction and envelope structure present within the Old English text. As opposed to the representation of Grendel in the previous section, here, in the expression of the ring-composition, recognition seems to be the variation instead of the pattern. Through the examination of Grendel’s approach to the hall, the representation of Grendel, and the presence or absence of ring-compositions, I have provided an analysis over time of a variety of Beowulf translations, concerning the patterns and variations of the various translations, associated with the original Old English poetry. The overall pattern that is observed from this analysis of translations over a one hundred and ten year period, is a fairly consistent one of many different forms of translation present, containing a generally consistent base of content and depth in its presentation of the Old English epic. The analysis of patterns and variations over time in translations is important for texts such as Beowulf, which, in its original Old English, has a very limited realm of influence. Translations allow for the epic to be distributed more widely amongst the modern literary world. Analysis of these translations allows for the greater recognition of the depth that weaves and resonates throughout the Old English text of Beowulf. Through analysis of translations, the cumulative understanding of the earliest English epic, Beowulf, can only increase, even in a base with little-to-no Old English experience. As Old English becomes “older” English, it may one day fall upon the translations of Beowulf to solely defend the original text’s place as the earliest and greatest epic in English literature’s history.


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