Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beowulf Fights Grendel's Mother Translated by Charles Kennedy

Beowulf Fights Grendel's Mother

Beowulf donned his armor for battle,
Heeded not danger; the hand-braided byrny,
Broad of shoulder and richly bedecked,
Must stand the ordeal of the watery depths.
Well could that corselet defend the frame
Lest hostile thrust should pierce to the heart.
Or blows of battle beat down the life.
A gleaming helmet guarded his head
As he planned his plunge to the depths of the pool
Through the heaving waters-a helm adorned
With lavish inlay and lordly chains,
Ancient work of the weapon-smith
Skillfully fashioned, beset with the boar...

...After these words the prince of the Weders
Awaited no answer, but turned to the task,
Straightway plunged in the swirling pool.
Nigh unto a day he endured the depths
Ere he first had view of the vast sea-bottom.
Soon she found, who had haunted the flood,
A ravening hag, for a hundred half-years,
Greedy and grim, that a man was groping
In daring search through the sea-troll's home.
Swift she grappled and grasped the warrior
With horrid grip, but could work no harm,
No hurt to his body; the ring-locked byrny
Cloaked his life from her clutching claw...

...He swung his war-sword with all his strength,
Withheld not the blow, and the savage blade
Sang on her head its hymn of hate...

...Then the Scylding warrior, savage and grim,
Seized the ring-hilt and swung the sword,
Struck with fury, despairing of life,
Thrust at the throat, broke through the bone-rings;
The stout blade stabbed through her fated flesh.
She sank in death; the sword was bloody;
The hero joyed in the work of his hand.
The gleaming radiance shimmered and shone
As the candle of heaven shines clear from the sky.
Wrathful and resolute Hygelac's thane
Surveyed the span of the spacious hall;
Grimly gripping the hilted sword
With upraised weapon he turned to the wall.
The blade had failed not the battle-prince...
--Translated by Charles Kennedy

So here we have a section of Beowulf--the oldest "English" literature. I memorized a big chunk of this for Mr. Strohm's class, and then made the mistake of wanting to be first to recite on the day when extra credit points were given out. I know for a fact that some other people had intended to recite (as opposed to writing it out), but after I had spouted off my gazillion lines, nobody else would even try. I've felt bad about that for years.

I like this translation a lot. Kennedy focuses on the things that are important to me: alliteration and rhythm. Take this line for instance: "As he planned his plunge to the depths of the pool." I love how he finds ways to get the alliterative sound not just at the start of words, but in the middle as well. The rhythm seems ideally designed for a storyteller -- The BUM-ba-ba-BUM-ba-ba is like a heartbeat, and if the storyteller speeds up his reading/recitation, then the listener's hearts will speed up to keep time. In skillful hands, it could do exactly the same thing as a modern film score in directing our emotions.

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