Monday, August 8, 2005

Running with the (Beo)wulves ...

You know, I'm excited about teaching English. Part of me relishes the opportunity to share the wonderful world of literature with kids, and to share it in a way that they won't be turned off to it. (At least that's my hope.)

But I have selfish reasons for wanting to teach as well, and I'm not just talking about summer vacations.

A big reason is that I now have an excuse obligation to read and re-read Great Works of Literature and study them on my own. No, it's not necessarily required for my job ... but who cares about job requirements? Better to know the subject too well than not to know it well enough.

So, since I'll be teaching Beowulf, I've taken the opportunity to read Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney. Folks raved about this translation when the book was published several years ago, and I put it on my ever-growing list of Things To Read Someday.

Beowulf: one of these days ...

See, I don't remember reading Beowulf in high school or college. I know we read it; I remember buzzwords, catch phrases, and names from it: Hrothgar, Grendel, "Lay of the Last Survivor," etc. I remember trying to plow through those first few pages of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I, wondering at the awkward phrasing and thinking English Literature was going to be a hard subject. ButI didn't really remember reading Beowulf itself. Which means I must not have enjoyed it very much, because otherwise I would have remembered it.

So, last week I checked out a copy of Heaney's Beowulf from the library. I read the entire thing aloud (I'm getting to where I have no desire at all to read poetry silently, to myself). I read part of it to the Hubster. I just finished it a little while ago.

It's good. Gone are the awkward-sounding phrasings of previous translations, and they're replaced by Heaney's sensitive poetic voice. I found myself enjoying it ... and Hubster found himself distracted from his computer work to listen to the battle between Beowulf and Grendel. We don't have this translation for my English Lit class, but I'll definitely have it with me when I teach Beowulf, and read sections from it in place of their drier translation.

Hopefully, they a student or two will enjoy it enough to remember reading it after the class is over (or at least in time for the exam). And if you're looking for something different to read, I recommend it. Really! I promise not to test you on it! (Or, if you'd rather, you can wait for the movie.)

Here's an Old English rendition of a section from the Lay, or Lament, of the Last Survivor. And you can see it written in the Old English here. The "last survivor" is the last survivor of a race of men, and he buries all of their treasure in a safe place underground. Here's Heaney's translation of the Old English passage that I've linked to:

I am left with nobody
to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets,
put a sheen on the cup. The companies have departed.
The hard helmet, hasped with gold,
will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner
who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps;
the coat of mail that came through all the fights,
through shield-collapse and cut of sword,
decays with the warrior.

Anglo-Saxon Helmet

Question: Am I unusual in remembering so little of this text from my high school and college days? Do you remember reading it in your English Lit class(es)?

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