Beowulf: A New Verse Translation
Translated by Ben J. Reinhard. 
Cluny Media, 2022.
Paperback, 278 pages, $18.95.

Reviewed by Jonathan B. Himes.

To describe Ben Reinhard’s approach to his new verse translation of Beowulf, the back cover offers the following keywords: “literal fidelity. . . a noble and somber style of its own. . . detailed explanatory notes that ground the poem in traditional criticism and the Catholic intellectual tradition.” In my study of this enjoyable rendering of the venerable epic, Reinhard meets this hype in maintaining a style that is noble and somber.

It is important to note that “[t]his translation is intended for students of early British literature; as such, its first obligation [is] to literal fidelity.” I think Reinhard means it to be used in a broad medieval literature survey course, probably on the undergraduate level, not necessarily one devoted to Old English (OE) poetry. The reason for my surmise is that the Introduction and endnotes often give the gist of scholarly opinions without citing influential secondary sources, though occasionally mentioning critics like Tolkien or Lewis. When giving the probable setting of the first episodes, he writes: “History, legend, and archaeology encourage us to identify Hrothgar’s hall with the great hall constructed at Lejre on Zeeland in the sixth century.” Other details are not given, except for the dimensions of the structure.

The notes are indeed helpful for readers generally curious about the translation of obscure passages, but not for students wanting to investigate nuances. For instance, Reinhard explains lines 168-70, about how the Creator restrained Grendel, as “The first locus desperatus—that is, an untranslatable and perhaps uninterpretable passage—in the poem.” He says the manuscript is probably corrupt without offering why, only that “[c]ountless essays and commentaries have grappled with these lines.” Without knowing the nature of the problem, students must take his word for it. He treats lines 3074-75 in similar fashion in another note. For his own interpretations, Reinhard’s policy is to choose what seems best and most consistent.

He uses Klaeber’s edition for the OE text, understandably, but doesn’t mention that of Wrenn and Bolton, though he does acknowledge the most recent text by Fulk, Bjork, and Niles. There is no index, and no bibliography to the traditional criticism broadly referenced throughout. A list of recommended readings would have been helpful to students. 

On emulating the alliterative style of the OE poem, he says that for translators, it is “the greatest challenge by far. . . . I gave myself permission to wander a bit more freely, while still preserving, when possible, some nod toward the representative meter.” Bearing this in mind, I find that certain lines of Reinhard’s seem to lack any alliteration, for instance, lines 223-27; alliteration usually does not fall on finite verbs in OE poetry, but even granting that concession, there is not much to go on in such lines.

OE poets relied on alliteration as the structural backbone of poetry since they did not have a vocabulary robust enough for rhyme. Part of the challenge is that Modern English relies heavily on function words—helping verbs, a lot of prepositions—which clog up the verse lines, forcing us into fixed options of phrasing, whereas OE had inflectional endings, making its syntax much more flexible. Today’s translators must therefore mimic the OE pace by alliterating finite verbs, which is a reasonable compromise, though we lose the OE focus of “object-oriented programming,” as it were.

One tool that would help students, in that case, would be at least a few notes on the word order of lines that prove difficult to render, or at least that introduce the idiosyncrasies of OE syntax. Like many translators, Reinhard moves half lines around in order to give a more intelligible semantic equivalent. Yet if literal fidelity is important—indeed, important enough to warrant the facing-page Old English text for comparison—then students who are curious to compare the more versatile OE syntax with the more analytic, fixed word order of Modern English will need to consult additional resources. 

These issues aside, the Introduction is an excellent overview of Beowulf’s major themes and some of its most famous interpretive cruces. Here Reinhard brings fresh insights and expression to the epic’s significance in its own time, and why it remains timeless. His explanation of how Beowulf is nearly an anti-epic is one of the best I have seen: this poem spans the breadth of the hero’s career (instead of a unified action); it does not begin in medias res but rather begins before the beginning; and it has a dirge-like tone for a Heroic Age whose cycle of vengeance was unsustainable. Reinhard eloquently unpacks what Tolkien meant by “heroic-elegiac,” especially the contrast of first accomplishments in youth with increased responsibility and harder challenges in old age—“only weariness and duty remain.” 

Reinhard clearly shows how each of the monster fights relate directly to the main theme of what a good king ought to avoid—but that ultimately, the heroic code is doomed to failure because eventually someone will commit these atrocities. In the interim, however, at least the comitatus culture staves off chaos. Giving evidence for how this heroic code failed as a way of life, Reinhard clearly propounds three ways in which the monsters symbolize the worst aspects of the warrior aristocracy: “Grendel parodies the rampaging hero-king; his mother, the pursuit of vengeance; the dragon, the hoarding of wealth.” 

When it comes to propriety of the hero landing on his own shores to retell his foreign exploits at great length, Reinhard astutely complements the defense given by Tolkien, who says this recounting of his victory abroad gives the troll fights a satisfying closure, since Beowulf can answer the doubts of his own people about his worthiness. Reinhard gives another reason, making it a matter of practicality in the performance of a long poem that cannot be heard all in one sitting: before moving onto the third adventure against the dragon, the performer has the hero himself relate some highlights of those fateful encounters with his own spin of bravado, including a touch of humor.

The Introduction also offers a welcome and solid review of scholarship leading up to Leonard Neidorf (not named, but the editor of the work he cites, The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment) and other scholars who reassert the Age of Bede as the dating for the poem, which Reinhard then aptly describes as a more harsh and stern external world, but one of the meadhall with joys that are brighter, more exquisite, and with loftier and more serious celebratory ritual than we have today. 

In support of a more Catholic rendering, Reinhard provides a number of cases where the poet seems to portray “Beowulf [as] an Old Testament-style prehistory of the English.” Reinhard conjectures that Beowulf as the mildest of men may be an allusion to Moses as the meekest of all people, and that Hrothgar’s praise of Beowulf’s mother is suggestive of the praise of Mary in Luke 11:27. He finds another biblical resonance in idel ond unnyt (line 412), which fits the description in Genesis 1:2 about the earth being void and empty, showing that Hrothgar’s hall, formerly a construction mirroring God’s bright creation, had been reduced by Grendel to primordial chaos.

Reinhard convincingly connects the second troll-fight to this role of Beowulf as a patriarchal hero who prefigures Christ and pivotally brings the reign of Cain’s evil kind to an end by bringing the giant’s sword hilt—“a key that unlocks the meaning of the poem”—to Hrothgar, who may not fully understand himself these implications. Beowulf then goes on to defeat a potentially more devastating foe, the Dragon, making him and his companions “unwitting re-enactors of the central mysteries of the faith.” The insights provided in these sections of the Introduction are brilliant and well articulated.

One or two quibbles with Reinhard’s Catholic reading of the epic might be mentioned. What about cremation for the hero at the funeral pyre in the conclusion? It is interesting that the poet leaves this unremarked, though he cannot help noting the Danes’ backsliding resort to worshiping idols earlier in the poem. Additionally, Reinhard’s translation in lines 2422-23 focus on Beowulf’s soul leaving his body in terms that sound eternal: “to sunder forever / His life from his body.” I do not know what the Anglo-Saxon eschatological view was on resurrected bodies after judgment, but if the poet was leaving open the possibility that Beowulf might be on a par with Old Testament patriarchs like Moses, not knowing Christ but still righteous, and certainly transcending the cultural mores of the warrior aristocracy of his own day, then I suspect the OE wording may be less “final” about Beowulf’s spirit leaving his body.

I would like to dispense with a few other weaknesses before moving on to what is most praiseworthy in this volume. It is a fine translation on the whole, yet concerning literal fidelity, I am unsure of certain choices. For instance, early in the poem, why does Reinhard repeat Beowulf in the lines, when his note acknowledges that it was “in all likelihood a scribal error for Beaw” (210)? In line 760, describing the unarmed combat as Beowulf grapples with Grendel, Reinhard says they “wrastled.” In dictionaries I consulted, this form is considered colloquial, and though I welcome such flavors, I wonder if it was intentional and if it matches the lofty tone aimed for. For another example, the one hundred thousand beagas in line 2995 ought to be translated “rings,” not “shillings.” Occasionally, the sense of a half line gets changed or lost: “Danish man” in line 1564 (p. 103) is given in reference to Beowulf, but of course, he is a Geatish warrior. Freca scyldinga might mean he is fighting on behalf of the Danes and so in that sense he is their current champion, but he is not “Danish.” In lines 3009-10, Reinhard skips the half line about how Beowulf was the one “who gave us rings” and seems to stress instead how Beowulf lies slain. There are also a few typos: form ought to be “from” in lines 1161, 1266; shield (l. 1289) and gift (l. 2867) should be plural; is should be “it” (l. 2193).

The following lines of Reinhard’s translated versification offer a sample of the lofty OE grandeur that the author captures for modern audiences: Lines 490-500 show the dignity of the meadhall rituals, and a similar tone is achieved in the “lay of the lone survivor” in lines 2255-66; in line 1700, Reinhard throws in a “Lo!” (even though there is no hwaet in the lines), maintaining a magisterial tone in the narration; in lines 1854-65 and 1876-80, his tone evokes the fondest hopes of the old Heroic Code, as does Wiglaf’s stirring speech (l. 2656 ff.) as well as the closing meditation on how companions ought to honor a beloved friend at his passing (l. 3172-82).

For an era whose interest in the past has nearly vanished, Reinhard’s elegant translation and perspicacious notes present fresh reasons for picking up this ancient classic.

Professor Jonathan B. Himes teaches humanities, literature, and even a games design course at John Brown University. He has published articles on Lewis and Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon epic, as well as an award-winning text adventure RPG called Hawk the Hunter.

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