04 July 2015

Not What You Might Expect From Beowulf

A few months back I began a project I had long wished to undertake.  Ever since I was a lad and first read The Lord of the Rings, I had wanted to read Beowulf in Old English. At NYU I even began to learn Old English from Jess Bessinger, a wonderful, friendly teacher who made every class fun. I was, however, already taking five four credit courses that I needed for my majors that semester, and Old English, which I was only auditing, just had to go.

For me it was a remarkably responsible decision, since I was an arrogant young fool who thought I knew more and better than everyone, and who, consequently, usually did exactly as I pleased. Now all of that insolence served me about as well as you might imagine, but that's another tale. It took life nearly a decade to beat me into a state of reasonableness, and convince me of the error of false pride. To learn that all pride was false took another couple of decades.  And school's not out yet.

I was left with many regrets, and every one of them was doubtless of greater moment in the balance of my soul than failing to read Beowulf in Old English. Still, as time went on and all of the dust of a misspent youth slowly settled, the wish to read it in the original remained.  I knew from reading Homer and Vergil how much translations can differ, with one capturing one aspect of the text and another a different one, but none of them catching all of it. Then, a little over a year ago, the publication of Tolkien's translation and commentary breathed on the deeply banked coals of my desire, and the course I took at Mythgard with Professor Tom Shippey (another wonderful, friendly teacher of Old English), quickened them back into flame. 

So I found some resources online, like the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, and Old English Aerobics.  I bought Clark Hall's dictionary and added a couple of useful apps to my tablet. In Peter Baker's Introduction to Old English I found a recent grammar that pleased my archaic philological soul and did not attempt to sneak the syntax, conjugations, and declensions in when I wasn't looking, as modern grammars often try to do.

Finally I added a copy of Klaeber's Beowulf, and a large, unlined Moleskine so I could copy out the text in my finest scrawl, write in vocabulary, and add notes. Now I wasn't starting entirely from scratch. The decades I had spent studying other inflected languages, like Latin, Greek, and German, left me familiar with the way the morphology and syntax of such languages worked.

So almost every night since March I have sat down with Klaeber and worked my way through some of the poem.  I puzzle out the forms and grammar and tease out the meaning, entering notes as I go into my handmade interleaved edition. Once I'm done with my lines for the night, I read Klaeber's notes, then Tolkien's translation and commentary. If necessary, as it usually is, I revisit my notes to make changes, references, corrections.  Mostly I do all this in silence, though sometimes I have a ballgame on low in the background, or Bach, or the incomparable Julie Fowlis.  There were nights earlier in the spring when the only sounds I could hear were the scritch of my pen on paper and the singing of the frogs outside.  I cover a dozen or a dozen and a half lines in a sitting, more lately as my Old English gets better and I begin to understand the words even as I write them out. And as I improve and read more, my admiration for Klaeber's Beowulf and Tolkien's continues to grow. 

The pleasure I have been granted from this has been so sweet. As strange as this may seem to someone whose tastes differ, for me every moment I've spent with it has been beautiful, a time in my day I greatly look forward to. If you think you are reaching out to touch the mind of another when you read a book, that is even more true when their thoughts are expressed in another language which you have to translate into your own. I love every minute of it. Even now, a piece of me begrudges the time I am taking to write this.  

Consequently I was looking forward to having some time off a couple of weeks back, thinking that I would devote hours every day to Beowulf.  I could read hundreds of lines and make 'real progress' in the poem, perhaps even finish the first half.  That was the plan. Push on.  Read more. Get better. But when my vacation came, I didn't do that.  I found I didn't want to. I read Beowulf at the same pace I'd been reading it before. It didn't take me long to realize why.

What sitting there reading in the quiet night after night had brought back to me were the endless hours I spent reading when I was in graduate school, night and day season after season long ago. Back then I would sit up all night reading, say, Greek Tragedy, taking notes, writing down vocabulary, flipping back and forth through my Liddell Scott Jones Greek-English Lexicon -- which probably weighs 20 pounds and, if the name Liddell rings a bell, it should.  Swathed in cigarette smoke, with a bottomless cup of coffee beside the ashtray, and my books open in a pool of lamplight before me, I would read forever, becoming lost in whatever it was, in the thoughts and lives of those people long ago who were so little different from me. 

I was in no hurry then. I read and studied because I loved to, because I wanted to.  My PhD was more a consequence of this passion than its object.  The reading days and nights were timeless, as childhood summers were timeless, with no purpose except to be what they were. It was utterly unselfconscious. Therein lay all my joy, in a time of my life that was otherwise nightmarish, a world of sorrow that is well lost and not mourned overmuch by me, or anyone else who was its victim. But the reading was all.

Later it all changed, as degree in hand I went forth to make a living, and very glad I was to make enough money to be able to afford more than five for a dollar Prince Macaroni and Cheese. But with the degree, the career, and the job came the pressure to publish in order to survive, which transmuted reading from an end to a means. I still read and still loved it, but a clock had begun ticking somewhere beyond the pool of light in which my books lay. Despite being fairly successful at publishing, the career never worked out the way I wanted it to.  I had traded something wonderful for nothing in the end. But one of my first and happiest thoughts when I decided to walk away from that world was that now I could read what I wanted when I wanted to do so.

And so -- gæð a wyrd swa hio sceal -- we come back to Beowulf years later, and the timeless summer of joy it has given back to me. I am in no hurry now.  Reading it will take as long as it takes.  

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. You capture the joy of close reading and deep study.

    And somehow, I had never made the Liddell connection! Thank you for that.