Friday, October 09, 2020

Beowulf and me

Lo, Beowulf and I go way back.

I didn't read it in draft form or anything, but I did beta-read the ms before it went to the final scribe.

When I was a fresh-faced dewy eyed sullen, sleepless, tuition-stricken undergrad, I had to switch my major from Math to English and History for reasons too hilarious to enumerate while you're still drinking coffee.

My first class in the new major was Survey of English Literature 101.

I thought I'd barely have to study to ace this. I'd been reading for awhile; I'd read Gone With the Wind 27 times.  How hard could this be?

Well, hello Chaucer.

Howdy-do, Beowulfie.

Or was it the other way around?

I was wondering when we'd get to the real classics like Miss Marple.

But then I started reading. And listening to the professor. And then along came Grendel's mother. Now she was an adversary.

I was hooked.

I even wrote a paper on why Rambo was a modern day Beowulf, something that started a lovely conversation with David Morrell many years later at ThrillerFest.

Years passed, but my love for Beowulf did not fade.

When the new Seamus Heaney translation hit the shelves I scooped up a copy, and read it over the course of a week.  Just as wonderful as I remembered.

Then one of my friends, who had a career as a soprano at the New York City Opera,  knowing my love of Beowulf, told me there would be a performance of it at Lincoln Center. I bought us two tickets at once.

 The night arrived, we descended from our wheeled chariot, and settled in to our seats.

The first thing I noticed was that this theatre did not have Met Titles, the small screen that gives you the English words for the Italian opera being performed on stage.

Well, maybe they had an overhead screen like the NYC Opera. I wasn't worried. I knew this poem. I'd even re-read it to prep for this performance.


The lights come up.

A solitary actor is on stage.

With a drum.

Well, Grendel's ma doesn't come on stage in the first act, but where was the mead hall?

The performance commences.

And to my dawning horror I realize it is being performed in Old English. Or maybe it's in Klingon. I couldn't tell.

 I look around me.

No one else looks gobsmacked. Not even in the slightest.

In fact, they're LOVING it.

All 65(000) minutes and 3,000(000,000) lines of it.

When I crawled out of my seat at the end of the ordeal my companion in culture was glowing with joy.

"Wasn't it just wonderful!!!" she exuded as only a true diva can.

I reached for my emergency flask to avoid answering.

And that writer fiends was my last interaction with Beowulf until I saw this glorious cover of the new translation by Maria Dahvan Headley.

I will NOT be attending the performance should there be one.

Do you have any old favorites?


  1. I love funny stories. I'd love to hear yours.

    We were required in high school English by the most sadistic female English teacher ever (I point out her gender because she hated other women because of theirs which meant we females were all doomed) to translate it from Olde English. We had the semester to do it, but it was painful at best. No internet then. No help other than a library (love libraries, don't get me wrong!) I've hated it ever since and avoid it in any form. Which is unfortunate.

  2. It wasn't Old English, but Renaissance that got me. I signed up for a course on the Tudor Courts expecting sexy drama...and ended up reading transcripts of Star Chamber hearings. And that, folks, is why I am an AMATEUR historian!

  3. While Grendel's mom is the bomb, my favorite is the Odyssey, as much for the powerful women as for the man who just can't manage to keep his mouth shut.


  4. I'm sorry for that horrible experience. I would have pled sudden stomach pains or impending (insert serious disease here, for me sudden child birth symptoms ignoring the fact of age and non-exposure) and fled to the restrooms to drink in peace.

    I love the Odyssey. In Rain Crow, several characters quote Greek philosophers and Greek classics, which is not as unusual as a person might think. People back then were better educated than one might imagine and studied the classics. The scene in Tombstone where Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo are speaking Latin to each other would not have been too far fetched aside from the fact that Johnny Ringo and Doc were friends. Anyway, I've been reacquainting myself with the classics and philosophers.

    I'm dipping my toe in William Tecumseh Sherman's memoirs. He found out he'd be heading to West Point when he turned sixteen and knew they placed a heavy emphasis on French and math, so he started studying it more the year before. West Point turned out some very well educated men.

    My first love will always be Poe and for sheer poetic bliss, Burns.

  5. My experience with a specially designed class of English scholars—for freshmen—nearly did me in! I was a poor girl, had no experience of opera or literary classics, and I never felt so overwhelmed in my life!

    After that, I read Anna Karenina every few years just to stay in practice. Not a surprise, but very few people knew what it was!


  6. >>And to my dawning horror I realize it is being performed in Old English.

    I would have been amazed that modern actors could pull off performing an entire play, in person, in Ye Olde English. That's impressive.

    I attempted to read Beowulf and Chaucer in high school. I didn't do well in that class. My Shakespeare class was a real struggle, but at least I earned a B grade.

    I'm with you that the "real" classics are in the vein of Miss Marple. I own every single Agatha Christie novel ever written, and re-read them often.

  7. As an English major at Indiana University, I was required to take a linguistics course and I ended up with a teacher who had just immigrated from France and spoke very poor English. And... our only assignment was to translate Beowulf from Middle English into contemporary English. Hard enough, except no one could understand our teacher. My only memory of the class was hearing the same buzz during every session--:"Huh? What'd she say?" It was a horrible, horrible experience... Luckily, I'd read a contemporary version years before this and as she was unfamiliar with English, fairly easy to fool with my "translation."

  8. If you haven't read "Grendel's Guide to Love and War" by A.E. Kaplan (and if you don't routinely read or write YA, you probably haven't), it's a delightful reimagining of Beowulf. Tom Grendel lives in a quiet community with his dad, a combat veteran suffering from PTSD. They get along well enough until a dude-bro jock moves in next door and starts throwing loud parties that send Grendel's dad into a tailspin of panic and misery. When an escalating prank war pits dude-bro Rex and his cousin Wolf against wily Tom and the dude-bro's fed-up sister, hilarity and sweetness ensue.

    We had to ransack the couch cushions to buy a copy of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation the day it came out, and it was well worth eating ramen for a few weeks. I'd love to get my hands on Emily Green's new(ish) translation of The Odyssey and the even newer one by Peter Wilson. I was mortally shy in college and I was terrified of the immersion classes I knew I'd have to take to to satisfy my language requirement. I quaked at the through of making conversation in French or Spanish, so my brilliant plan was to study a dead language instead. I opted for ancient Greek and that was... ill-advised. It's a devilishly difficult language but it was worth it when we got to Homer.

    As for Middle English, I still owe my grad school professor a term paper on Piers Plowman. I opted to go through labor instead. Three times.

  9. I read this line: sleepless, tuition-stricken undergrad, As Tuna-stricken. It made me think about how many cans of tuna and ramen noodles I lived on while getting through university and thought how neat it was we had that in common and I how I can't eat either ramen or canned tuna fish any longer.

  10. My high school English teacher loved Beowulf so we had fun with it. She hated Shakespeare, who I love so she had me teach the Shakespeare block. Good times!

  11. Thanks for bringing back all of the nightmare Beowulf has given me. I have tried several times to wend my way all the way through the Olde English version, I hoped that desire was laid to rest.

  12. I would absolutely attend a performance of Maria Dahvana Headley's translation. From what I've seen of it on her Twitter she's gone modern with it, using current modes of speech and slang.

  13. Was that concert Benjamin Bagby, by any chance? I have the DVD, but would have cheerfully slain a foeman or two to see it live!

  14. Nobody sings them Anglo-Saxon blues like Howlin' Beowulf. Sorry, couldn't hep m'sef...


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