Monday, 22 September 2014

A Bollocking for Beowulf

For William Morris’s translation of Beowulf, that is, not the Anglo-Saxon epic itself, which I am ancient enough to have had to learn to read in the original Old English on my undergraduate English Literature course at Bristol University in 1975-6. Morris’s translation has always had a very lukewarm press, despite one or two bold attempts at critical redemption (by Robert Boenig, for example). But its most contemptuous dismissal ever may well be that of Kevin Jackson in his Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities (1999). For he there refers witheringly to ‘Morris’s dismal version of Beowulf, written in collaboration with [F.J.] Furnivall’s junior colleague A.J. Wyatt. The glossary for Morris’s Beowulf gives some indication of what a Teutonized form of twentieth-century English might have sounded like: in the hands of Wyatt and Morris, “disregard” became forheed, “mansion” or “dwelling-place” became wickstead, “curiosity” became witlust, “brave” became moody, and “poured out” became skinked‘ (p.105). And as for F.J. Furnivall’s own project of Teutonising the English language, that, Jackson neatly remarks, ‘was largely forheeded’. Are there, I wonder, any still nastier treatments of Morris’s version of Beowulf lurking out there?


Kotick said...

Sorry Morris gets such a hammering, Tony, but I'm feeling a bit ambivalent about your illustration from Robert Zemeckis's 2007 computer-animated film. Ok, anything's good if it gets people to think about and perhaps even read the poem, but this version was ridiculous in so many ways (Angelina Jolie as Grendel's gorgeous mother, for instance). Even the Icelandic film of 2005, 'Beowulf and Grendel', introduces many new characters: Grendel's father, the witch Selma, Grendel's son, etc.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for this, and yes, I suppose the commercial imperatives of film-making do encourage directors and writers to soup up their Beowulf efforts excessively. I wonder if graphic fiction would be a more promising medium - are there any graphic novel Beowulfs in the market?

Anonymous said...

Why do you consider Larkin 'dismal drivel'- is it because he wasn't of the political left?

Tony Pinkney said...

That last comment concerns a tweet of mine rather than this blog post (in case anyone was wondering). For a full analysis of Larkin, please see my 'Old Toads Down Cemetery Road: OEL takes leave of Philip Larkin (and Friends)', 'News from Nowhere: Journal of the Oxford English Faculty Opposition', issue 1, April 1986, pp.37-47.

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