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Epic War Heroes Cast in the Modern Idiom

Striking translations of three classic poems - ``The Odyssey, ``The Iliad,'' and ``Beowulf'' - speak directly to today's readers in language both stylish and forceful. ``Beowulf: A Likeness'' is an especially illuminating, if potentially controversial, word-art project that expands the wisdom of the original work.

WAR is on our minds. We have new translations of three great war poems - three epics: the ``Iliad'' and the ``Odyssey'' by Homer and ``Beowulf'' by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet. Though they share themes of friendship, honor, and revenge, the poems span millennia. Homer lived in the eighth century BC and wrote about a war that probably happened around 1200 BC. The ``Beowulf'' poet lived in the eighth century of this era and drew on styles and subjects drawn from a time before England was English. Both epics are steeped in what historians call dark ages. This means that the image of the hero - the fighting man who risks his life for the values of his people - comes from periods about which we know little except that they produced heroes. Perhaps war and dark ages go together.

In any case, Homer and the ``Beowulf'' poet speak directly to us. For each generation since World War II, there's been a new translation of Homer. A translation succeeds to the extent that it reveals the poem to its readers in their own language and idiom. Both Robert Fagles, who did the ``Iliad,'' and Allen Mandelbaum, translator of the ``Odyssey,'' are successful in bringing Homer to us in the 1990s.

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Fagles has already published translations of Greek tragedies. His Homer is lean and fast. Working with the long loose line that echoes the styles of his predecessors while being somewhat tougher, swift-footed Fagles almost rushes the reader through the tempestuous events that turn the hero Achilles from vain, personal pride to something like an acknowledgment of the common good and his own common humanity. Achilles overcomes his grief for his dead friend Patroclus, overcomes his own personal vanity, and prepares mentally for war (see excerpt).

The ``Iliad'' has been called a poem about force, and Fagles's translation, Homer: The Iliad, is a stylistic tour de force. As Bernard Knox says in his copious and elegant introduction, ``The most marvelous lines in the `Iliad' owe their unearthly, poignant beauty to the presence of violence, held momentarily in reserve but brooding over the landscape.''

If, as Knox also says, ``the `Iliad' is a poem that celebrates the heroic values war imposes on its votaries,'' the ``Odyssey,'' Homer's other epic, is about how hard it is for a soldier to go home. For Odysseus, it takes 10 years, including a seven-year stopover with a witch named Circe. When he finally reaches hearth, son, and faithful wife, Penelope, he has to fight one last battle.

Allen Mandelbaum's translation, The Odyssey of Homer, is marked by poise, harmony, and measure; even violent acts have the shape of classical albeit muscular ballet. His line is more compact than Fagles's, and slower, as if to emphasize the dilatory nature of his hero's return and the heavy wisdom of his years.

The book itself feels luxurious in the hand, the wide white margins of the tall page throwing the black characters of the verse into high relief. Twelve moody, smoky engravings by Marialuisa de Romans deepen the feeling of world-weariness that underlies the poem. The prophet Tir'esias promises Odysseus a peaceful death at home and warns him about what he must suffer and what he must do to attain a well-deserved rest (see excerpt).

As a hero, Beowulf lacks the cultural cachet of Achilles and Odysseus. The poem may occasionally get assigned by a demanding and much-loved high school English teacher, but it's rarely read by adults. Which is too bad.

Long ago, in an essay, J.R. Tolkien argued that as a presenter of evil, the ``Beowulf'' poet is superior to Homer. Homer's monsters are all shining surface; Beowulf's Grendel and his mother and the final dragon are mysterious and dark, smudged in their very being. It's a powerful and timely argument. War brings people into contact with dark forces and it's no help to pretend otherwise.

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Those who loved Tolkien's ``Lord of the Rings'' will treasure this new translation of ``Beowulf.'' Beowulf: A Likeness is bookcraft at its best. Sumptuously designed by Randolph Swearer, outfitted with explanatory essays fore and aft, the physcial book gives apt housing for the magnificent version of the Old English poem by University of California, Berkeley, English professor and poet Raymond Oliver.

Swearer's design recognizes the open spread as the field of play, not the page, and mounts a montage of photos of historical monuments from the Dark Ages, of ghost ships and melting swords, of burning vellum manuscripts (the beauty of the Old English script and the single manuscript by which ``Beowulf'' has come down to us is lovingly metamorphosed throughout the book), pages of reversed type (white on black), unified by the flying-cross motif of the Sutton Hoo helmet (much of this, and more, is explained in an essay by Marijane Osborn, who has translated the poem).

But this is no coffee-table book or artsy-craftsy volume. The text deserves it, the translation invites it. Oliver's verse is full of worldy noises and smells and tastes, full of wit, word play, humor, deep feelings like disgust, horror, the necessary pleasures of eating and drinking, and the inevitable sorrows of mourning.

Like the original poem, Oliver's translation reeks with reality. But look again. All this is conveyed in decidedly bold and adventuresome verse forms. Five interlocking stanzas and meters capture the rhythm, the flow, the sway of powerful feelings and events. Rigorous yet subtle, the verse breathes like a man running, walking, thinking with joy or despair or pride, and doing great deeds for himself and his people. Oliver's art is to make the heroic tangible. It's a very great achievement.

The composite whole - art, essays, and poem - reveals the world of Beowulf. The explanatory essays front and back explain the differences between the original text and Oliver's version, between the world of fifth-century England and the world of the poem.

A sparkling introduction by impressario Fred C. Robinson (it was he who took Oliver's manuscript and formed a team to produce the book) dwells on Oliver's craft as a translator. He notes that not only is Oliver explicit about the spiritual climate of the poem, he also extends grace to the pagan ``Beowulf'' where the original medieval Christian poet might not have. In this, as in his intricate, sensuous versecraft, Oliver recapitulates and extends the art and wisdom of the original.

Not Achilles or Odysseus but Beowulf seems most heroic today. Beowulf is the original of the paradoxical modern hero: the independent, often lonely good man who lives by his fists. Beowulf, not Clint Eastwood, was the first to say ``make my day'' to some odious creature. The aging Beowulf is the original ``Equalizer'' and recalls Edward Woodward's splendid and much-missed taut, explosive, world-weary performance of a good man on the mean streets.

Beowulf's exploits begin when he helps his Danish friends by killing Grendel and his mother, two monsters described by Oliver with Stephen King-like relish. His last battle pits him against ``a monstrous batlike shape,'' a fire-breathing, treasure-hoarding dragon who symbolizes matter itself.

In battle, Beowulf's face shines more brightly than his blade: It is ``exalted, hardly human.'' That's part of war, too. Beowulf sees more than glory, and when he tells about his exploits, ``Beowulf's smile was hurtful to endure, / A twisting of the lips alone. His eyes / Reflected pale blue light as still and pure / As that of some deep vein of hidden ice / Opened to view.''

Aging, he sees another truth: ``The truth is endless killing, and despair / From which my death will be the sole relief.''

The ``Beowulf'' poet's portrait of the hero has this over Homer's: In the ``Iliad,'' we come to grasp a kind of moral equivalency between Greeks and Trojans. In ``Beowulf,'' the hero and the evil he fights are never confused, and yet the hero does come to see through his heroic lifestyle. It's an important difference and a reason to treasure ``Beowulf.''

Oliver's ``Beowulf: A Likeness'' will be knocked by Old English scholars who don't want their poem messed with, by Dark Age historians who confuse poetry and history, and by various trendy thinkers who find heroes offensive.

Oliver describes the death of Beowulf (see excerpt). This passage reveals depths in the poem never captured before in modern English, depths only penetrated to by the loving heart and mind of a scholar like Oliver. If his range of expression includes exciting underwater brawls, noisy beer parties, brooding landscapes, terrible monsters, moments of tragic insight, it also embraces a range of serenity, of pure thought, more like the ``Tao-te-ching'' than anything we'd associate with northern myth. And yet in reading Oliver's ``Beowulf,'' one feels that the poem is indeed about humanity's capacity to see the good, believe it, and act on it, spontaneously and instantly, in season and out of season.

Oliver calls his poem ``A Likeness.'' Perhaps that's not just modesty; perhaps he's just being literal. He ranks with poet-translators like Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney - poets whose translations demand to be grasped as art. In putting us in touch with the original, Oliver has created an original work of art. And with all the labor that went into the design of the book, it is indeed a treasure and a monument to the heroic spirit of Beowulf.

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