Friday, December 24, 2010

Beowulf for Dummies (like me!)

I normally eschew abridged versions of famous books. Shortened versions of Heidi, Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson tend to leave out the strong faith of the protagonists. On the other hand, some classics are so heavily-laden with difficult language that an abridged version is helpful in making them accessible to the average reader. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time you know I’m not averse to reading difficult books, but there are a few books that I haven’t read because the language is daunting; Beowulf is one of them. So I was delighted when I read that British novelist, Ian Serraillier had rewritten it for children.

Although told in simple language, Beowulf the Warrior captures the poetry and power of the original. I thoroughly enjoyed it! In fact, the language and imagery were so rich that I knew this was a book I could read and re-read with delight, which is the reason it made it to my "If I could only own a hundred books" list.

In case you are wondering about the difference between versions, I’ve cut and pasted a passage from Episode 6 below so that you can compare for yourself.

From the original: [My warriors have] seen me from slaughter come blood-flecked from foes, where five I bound, and that wild brood worsted. I' the waves I slew nicors by night, in need and peril avenging the Weders, whose woe they sought, -- crushing the grim ones. Grendel now, monster cruel, be mine to quell in single battle!

From Serraillier’s version: Because we grieve deep for your desolation, over the long paths of the oceans we have labored, I and my warriors to rid you of the brute that nightly robs you of rest. I am no weakling. With my trusty blade I have slain a monster brood and blindly at night many a foul sea-beast that writhed and twisted in the bounding wave. I beg you to grant my wish. I shall not fail.
(Well, what do you think? Maybe now I understand the story well enough to read the real thing... By the way, Serraillier has also written The Road to Canterbury, a re-telling of another book I have avoided.)


the Ink Slinger said...

Ah, Beowulf - one of my favorites!

The original saga of Beowulf definitely isn't light reading, by any means. It's an incredibly rich poem, and requires more than read.

Before I tackled the original, I read Ian Serraillier's adaption, and enjoyed it. I thought he did an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the source material.

If you do end up reading the original Beowulf, I'd recommend Seamus Heaney's translation. It's amazing. I got started reading it and was quickly caught up in the beauty, elegance, and verve of language. Soon, I hardly even noticed I was reading highly-antiquated English! :)

bekahcubed said...

I ditto the ink-slinger on Seamus Heaney's translation. Unlike many hard-to-read, clunky translations from the Old English, Heaney's blank verse is pure magic. I doubt I would have dreamt of reading Beowulf as a high school student had I not had Heaney's translation--and I KNOW I wouldn't have picked another translation up to re-read just for the pleasure of it.

I do sometimes like to read stories in prose before reading the longer poetic version--it helps me get the main events cemented in my head so I don't have to spend as much mental power trying to figure out what's going on in the poem.

Beth said...

I'm glad to read your thoughts on this book. My oldest was to read Beowulf for school and I knew it would be too hard for him to read, so I randomly choose this book instead. Maybe one day I'll pick it up and read it! I think I'll keep my eye open for the Chaucer book.