Beowulf and Judith: Two Heroes, by Richard M. TrasK


From the Introduction:

It has been said that, because the structure and rhythm of English has radically altered from Old English to Modern English, it is no longer productive to render Old English poetry into Modern English while trying to maintain the same poetic form, namely the alliterative rules and stress strictures of Old English prosody. . . . But we still like alliteration and we fall back on it instinctively in spite of ourselves. Why do you suppose it is that the most memorable cartoon characters and movie stars exploit alliteration: Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner, Tiny Tim, Daisy Duck, Minnie Mouse, Billy Batson, Dudley Do-Right, George of the Jungle, The Road Runner, Fred Flintstone, The Dynamic Duo, The Caped Crusader. Also in our commercial world we have M7M’s, B&B, Minute Maid, Roy Rogers, Senior Service, even Coca-Cola. From terrible twos to senior citizens, we sail the seven seas, furl our flags, cut corners, pull punches, serve sandwiches, bite the bullet, sing songs, tell tales, rock and roll, go for the gusto, ride the range. Why, for example, are things “right as rain”? We need the R&R. We use and exploit alliteration not only in poetic but in idiomatic and everyday language. We even insist on it and get carried away with it; so much so, that it is part of the natural “run of rhythm.” It is “easy on the ear,” without our conscious awareness. We do not violate Modern English by reviving the alliterative mode in translating Old English poetry.

                                                                                . . .

In Modern English we also see a propensity for the novel compound word or clever image to spice up our mundane life, in neologisms like boom box, jam session, joystick soap opera, feeding frenzy, trickledown, killjoy, nightstalker, cold comfort, bug juice, big bang, jailbait, drag queen, con artist, jiffy lube, red dog, redeye, claptrap, shipshape, bug-eyed, and so on. . . . Obviously, both alliteration and compound metaphors like “whale-bath” (ocean) are appropriate to and at home in Modern English. So we will proceed afresh to translate Old English verse into Modern English using the alliterative rule-pattern, retaining as many compound poetic metaphors as we are able to (plus a few appropriate new ones of our own making):

  ‘Ne ic me an herewaesman hnagran talige

guthgeweorca thonne Grendel hine,

forthan ic hine sweorde swebban nelle,

alder beneotan, thea ic eal maege.’

“In war terror no weaker am I

at battle-grimness than Grendel himself.

So I’ll not use sword to sweep him off,

cut out his life, though I could with ease.”

. . .

The experience of the form of the old poetry is of kindred importance to, and bound up with, its substance, for substance is shaped by form. Modern English can adapt the old form to recreate the spirit of Old English poetry better than has been realized before the appearance of this new translation of Beowulf and of Judith. 


From Preface to the Poems:

Beowulf and Grendel are kindred antagonists in their pseudo-super humanity. Beowulf is larger than life in the way that Grendel is larger than death. In roughest terms, Beowulf represents the good in people, the destiny of life, heaven, and God. Grendel represents the bad, the way of death, hell, the devil. The imagery is simultaneously in the Germanic and Christian tradition. The symbol of life-joy for the warrior community is the mead hall, Heorot, which is described almost in otherworldly terms: high-arched, “high-timbered” like heaven’s vaulat, filled with harmony and mirth and praise of their lord (king). It becomes in microcosm a hell-hall with Grendel’s crashing in. A foul glow shoots from the demonic eyes, like fire. Beowulf, superhero that he is, falls with the dragon in the final part because the poem, though written with a religious perspective, in being a tragedy does not emphasize Christian consolation. Beowulf is not Christ himself nor is Christ mentioned in the poem, though there are some dire exhortations and seething remarks about heathens. . . .

The protagonist of the companion poem, Judith, an Israelite widow, is by contrast explicitly portrayed to be Christ’s handmaiden: the lowly servant who saves her people. The story is from the vulgate Bible, now consigned to the Apocrypha, and the Old English poem presents its dramatic climax. Judith is inspired by God to relieve a siege by the Assyrian hordes of the commander Holofernes. The Old English poem rushes straight to the deadly dispatch of an inebriated Holofernes by this zealously purposeful, stunning woman:


The ring-locks lady

struck the hurtful fiend with the forceful blade,

hit the hostile one, and she half carved off

his neck from him, so he nodded senseless,

drunk with death-wound.

Dynedan scildas,

hlude hllummon. Thaes se hlanca gefeah

wulf in walde ond se wanna hrefn,

waelgifre fugel. Ac him fleah on last

earn aetes georn, urigfethera,


Linden shields clashed,

resounded loud. The lean flanked wolves

drooled in the woods, and the dark raven,

slaughter-greedy bird. And there flew in their path

the flesh-greedy eagle, feathers dripping dew,

in night-black wings.

Beowulf and Judith are wonderfully complementary of each other: the great sprawling elegiac epic, the earthly doom of mortal endeavor on the one hand, and the concentrated, dazzling, diamond-hard affirmation of fervency and faith on the other—equally important and central legacies of the literature of England in the early Middle Ages.