Although I am still working my way through my last syllabus, I’m excited that my book club is reading Beowulf this fall. I’ve decided to make the most of this chance to talk about Beowulf with a wonderful group of intelligent readers by setting myself a larger project. I’d love to get a better sense of the language and the context from which Beowulf, and though I won’t get to this project for some time, I couldn’t resist sharing it here.
First, there is the story itself.
1. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition), by Seamus Heaney.
Heaney’s translation is widely considered the best, most exciting new translation, and as such is a great starting point. I also love any translation with the original text on the left-hand side.
2. Beowulf, a Translation and Commentary, by J. R. R. Tolkien
Of course, with Tolkien’s new translation out for public viewing, the time is ripe for a side-by-side comparison. I’m can’t wait to see what Tolkien does differently. This new edition also includes Tolkien’s notes and commentary, making it an invaluable resource.
3. The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, by J. R. R. Tolkien
This collection of Tolkien’s essays includes Tolkien’s lecture on Beowulf to the British Academy in 1936, as well as an essay on translation. If you cannot bring yourself to buy multiple translations of the same text and already have an older copy of Beowulf you like, these essays seem like a great way to get Tolkien’s take.
Next, I’ll want some historical and literary context.
4. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction, by John Blair
I love turning to this series when I’m new to a topic. While I often look back at introductions to topics with which I’m now more acquainted with some disagreement, you really can’t beat this series for showing you the breadth of whatever field it covers.
5. BBC 4’s In Our Time on Beowulf, with Melvyn Bragg
This radio program, offered free online, offers a level of engagement similar to the Very Short Introduction series, but comes with an added bonus: scholars who disagree with each other.
6. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland
This is a wonderful collection of Anglo-Saxon literature, and it includes commentary on different types of stories to go along with the curated collections. Beowulf is included, but I’m someone who thinks you can’t really have too many different translations of the same text.
7. The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature by Hugh Magennis
After the collection above, you may want a more thorough look at the literary norms and authors of the time, and this appears from its table of contents to be a more or less definitive survey. There’s only one review on Amazon, but I find you can trust Cambridge U. Press to provide general knowledge and excellent citations.
Finally, in my fantasy world, I’ll attempt to learn some Anglo-Saxon and read Beowulf in its original form.
8. Anglo-Saxon Primer with Grammar, Notes, and Glossary; Eighth Edition Revised, by Henry Sweet
This is a free primer that has the advantage of the instant digital download, but the downside of being a bit archaic in structure. If you’re used to modern language learning tools, this will feel a bit stilted.
9. Beowulf: A Student Edition, edited by George Jack
This is an edition of the text with a glossary at the side, and seems like a great way to dive into reading the untranslated text without going too far out on a limb.
And there you have it – my dream syllabus on Beowulf. I’ll be digging into a comparison of the Heaney and Tolkien translations this Fall, but the rest will have to wait a bit. If you have any other essential texts to recommend, don’t hesitate to leave a suggestion in the comments.