Saturday, May 16, 2009

Beowulf Translations: Free Downloads

Beowulf is the oldest work of literature in the English language. There are a handful of shorter poems which are actually earlier, for the most part consisting of religious homilies and translations of Biblical passages, as well as a scattering of financial records and the like, but Beowulf is the first significant work of epic literature written in what had by then become the English language (unrecognizable though it may be to modern English speakers).

It also has the distinction of being complete (or nearly so), whereas several clearly earlier works exist in fragments. For example, The Fight at Finnsburg, which itself is told in part within the Beowulf poem, and so must be older, is extant in only a single folio of some fifty lines, and that as a transcript dating from 1705: the original has since been lost.

The single existing Beowulf manuscript itself was nearly lost due to a fire which destroyed much of the Ashburnham House library in which it was residing during the year 1731. The manuscript was damaged both by fire and by water, as well as smoke and age; the edges of many pages have shrunk and crumbled from the heat, resulting in the loss of many individual letters. Since then the manuscript has been preserved and digitized, and much of the text restored through ultraviolet and fiber-optic photography, though many hundreds of letters are forever lost.

In 1995 professor Kevin Kiernan created The Electronic Beowulf Project, a comprehensive interactive cd-rom edition of the Beowulf manuscript, which I purchased for my book research at a cost of around $300. The cd-rom includes not only the manuscript plates along with infrared and x-ray photos of all the damaged portions, but all of the early transcripts of the poem as well, which provide much useful information on the text, as the earliest of these were written down before the manuscript had fully deteriorated, and one short section even before the fire.

The manuscript itself has been dated to the reign of Canute the Great, Viking king of England, Denmark, and Norway, who died in 1035. The poem was very likely composed (or at least written down at this time) to please these Viking overlords of England, who were then at the height of their power. Indeed, it begins with a call to remember the heroic deeds of the ancient Danes, and how they achieved great fame in former days.

The events detailed in the story of Beowulf are both historical and legendary, set in a time some five hundred years before its composition. Much like the tales of King Arthur or Robin Hood, where a grain of truth is obscured by superhuman feats and mythological beings, the young Norse warrior Beowulf undertakes an epic quest to defeat a marauding ogre that is ravaging the Danish realm. Although there is no historic evidence for Beowulf's existence, many of the supporting characters show up in early chronicles and sagas from France to Iceland, or are associated with burial sites in Sweden and the Rhine.

It would be futile to undertake a comprehensive analysis of Beowulf in such a short space as this, but as the founding work of English literature there could be few works more worthy of that status. As difficult as it may be to read, even in translation, it is well worth the effort to any lover of heroic adventure or epic fantasy. Many modern works in the fantasy genre owe their inspiration to Beowulf, from The Lord of the Rings to Star Trek's Klingons.

Because it's poetry, with Beowulf translations it's really a matter of personal preference as much as anything. Some are better than others, with some being stronger in one area than another, due to the choices each translator is forced to make. While one will adhere as strictly as possible to a literal translation at the expense of form, another will focus on alliteration or metre and take great liberties with content. Few achieve both, and that does not begin to address the academic debates each line and word has undergone throughout the past two hundred years. Short of learning Old English and reading the original as written, my advice is to read as many translations as you can, and there are by now no shortage of them to chose from.

I will continue to add editions to the page linked below as I find time. To start with there are three: those by Leslie Hall (1892), William Morris & A. J. Wyatt (1895), and Francis Gummere (1910). Of these, the easiest to read (and most popular) is Gummere's, while the other two tend to use a great deal of archaic language which is now rather outdated. All are available for download in multiple electronic formats, including epub, Kindle mobi, PDF, and basic text.

ADDENDUM: I have now added Klaeber's seminal Beowulf & The Fight at Finnsburg (1st Edition, 1922), Thorpe's The Anglo-Saxon Poems of Beowulf & The Fight at Finnsburg (3rd Edition (1889), both only available in PDF format, along with J.R. Clark Hall's Beowulf: A Metrical Translation into Modern English (1914).


POSTLUDE:  I have also added the text of Beowulf in the original Old English to the download page, for anyone truly interested in delving into it. I've had several queries lately from readers wanting to see more of the Old English text, and while I don't have space here to present and analyze the entire work, I can at least provide the text for those who want it.


Along with the manuscript transcription I've uploaded a useful resource for further study of the history of Beowulf scholarship and criticism, which is C. B. Tinker's 1902 Yale dissertation on the translations that had been done up to that time. As this covers most of those now in the public domain, and a great many of the more important works, this is a highly worthwhile reference on the subject.

Reading it will tell you almost all you want to know about how Beowulf came to be in its present form - from its obscure place on the shelves of Robert Cotton's library to the honored place it now holds in the British Museum. It will also get you well on your way to understanding the content of the poem, and the many difficulties it presents due to its damaged state. However, a study of the actual manuscript it crucial to a full appreciation of this masterpiece of epic poetry.