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the nineteen-twenties, there were probably few people better qualified to translate “Beowulf” than J. Beowulf is a prince of the Geats, a tribe living in what is now southern Sweden. Each of his hands has a grip equal to that of thirty men. He loved “Beowulf” and would declaim passages of it to the private literary club that he had founded with his schoolmates. It is a thrill.“Beowulf” was most likely written in Britain—by whom, we don’t know—in around the eighth century. Some scholars put it later.) The plot is simple and exalted.But outside the hall there lurks a monster, Grendel.
Partly for that reason—because he has no one to behave toward in an intimate way—he has no real psychology.
Unlike Anna Karenina or Huckleberry Finn, he is not a filter, a point of view, standing between us and his world.
One reason Grendel seems childlike is that he has a mother.
When her son comes home to die, Grendel’s mother goes on a rampage. The mother lives in a chamber below a stinking swamp: “The water surged with gore, with blood yet hot.” Beowulf dives right in, with his helmet on.
Beowulf has not lost his touch: “he ripped up the serpent.” That’s the end of the dragon—the Geatish knights unceremoniously dump the body over a cliff—but it’s also the end of Beowulf.
Wiglaf unclasps the King’s helmet, and bathes his wounds, to no avail.
He had learned Old English and started reading the poem at an early age. Anyone could have told him that he should translate “Beowulf.” How this would have advanced his reputation! He finished the translation in 1926, at the age of thirty-four. Now, forty years after his death, his son Christopher has brought it out (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
(He did the same, later, as a professor, at the beginning of Old English classes. He needed money—by now he had a wife and children—and he supplemented his income by marking examination papers.
Quickly he took all of that lifeless thing to be his food, even feet and hands.” How lovely, the bright-patterned floor. With his powerful hands, the hero grabs Grendel’s wrist and tears off his arm and shoulder. He then hangs the whole business—shoulder, arm, hand—from the rafters.
How appalling, Grendel’s dinner.“Beowulf” is the story of the hero’s defeat of three successive monsters. The Geats are allies of the Danes, and Beowulf, who by then seems to be about thirty, decides to go to Denmark and rid it of this menace. He is apparently about four times the size of a man. Imagine the Danish knights drinking their mead as half of Grendel’s torso drips blood onto them. (It means something that he is the only one of the three who has a name.) As Seamus Heaney, another “Beowulf” translator, has written, Grendel “comes alive in the reader’s imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark.” Almost with embarrassment, you pity him somewhat.