Friday, November 20, 2020


Back at the end of October, inspired by the Backlisted Halloween episode, I sorted out the two editions of Beowulf I had with a definite intention of reading both soon. I also bought my godson the Rosemary Sutcliffe version for his birthday - I rather wish I'd read it before handing it over, even if that's not how presents are really meant to work. 

Only a few weeks later I've actually managed to read (technically re-read) the Kevin Crossley-Holland translation in my copy of 'The Anglo Saxon World, An Anthology' that I've had since I was a student. It's the Oxford World's Classics edition which is still in print, and is full of good stuff. I'm fond of this book not least because 'The Dream of the Rood' caught me at an impressionable age and in it's various forms is a favourite poem, I'm also a fan of Kevin Crossley-Holland who is as good as anybody at making this stuff live.

I first read Beowulf for a History of Art course on insular art. It's not a bad reason to read it, the Anglo- Saxon world is elusive, not least because they built so much in wood so that relatively little survives. Last years 'Anglo Saxon Kingdoms' exhibition at The British Library was an absolute revelation in terms of how much written material has survived. I wish I could have seen something like that when I was a student. It's also amazing to me that really big finds like the Staffordshire hoard are still coming to light - I wonder what it would have been like to read Beowulf around the time Sutton Hoo was dug up and you could suddenly see the sort of objects the epic describes?

Thoughts of fabulous treasure aside I remember my first attempt at this was a slog, but since then I've watched the Ray Winston/Angelina Jolie film a couple of times (I quite like it), a really awful TV series that quickly got canned, as well as listening to the Backlisted podcast, and having my imagination well and truly caught by the BL exhibition. 

I still find the lists of names tedious, though I was less impatient of all the diversions it takes and less confused by them. I'm better equipped to notice how the Christian elements are bolted on to a much older narrative, and to visualize the treasures described - which do a lot to root the poem in reality.

There's a lot of treasure to visualize, which is the main thing I'm taking away from this reading. Precious heirlooms are forever being shared around, and rings constantly given as gifts - I like the sound of this. It seems to be something more complex than a simple payment - something between a gift and a payment that suggests a greater level of esteem between those in the transaction than an exchange of coins might. 

I also have the Seamus Heaney translation with me which I hope to read soon - I'm assuming that the more times, and more versions I read this, the more that will sink in, and I'll get from it, but apart from all the gold mentioned, the other big takeaway from Kevin Crossley-Hollands translation was that I actually enjoyed reading this just for the pleasure of it - a lot has changed since 1995. 

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