Saturday, 14 March 2009

Beowulf- The Comic!

Dymocks is not ordinarily my bookshop of choice, but yesterday I found myself browsing there (on the lookout for something specific which, not altogether unsurprisingly, I did not find) and happened upon a graphic novel treatment of Beowulf.

Now, as may be gathered from the title of this blog, I am something of a fan of Beowulf and, one might even say, a purist. This derives from my being a fan of a) literature b) epic literature c) poetry d) epic poetry e) Anglo-Saxon (the language; aka Old English) f) Anglo-Saxon epic poetry (and yes, Beowulf is not the only example: the Battle of Maldon still gives me goosebumps!) g) England h) pre-Reformation England (when England was Catholic and Catholicism could be English) i) Anglo-Saxon epic poetry from pre-Reformation England.

It also derives in no small part from the fact that, in my Honours year of undergrad, I and the others in my class successfully translated the entirety of Beowulf individually over the course of the year. For the record, there have been few happier moments in my life than when I would, each Saturday, put the soundtrack to The Two Towers on repeat play and sit down to read and translate the next 200-or-so lines of Beowulf.

So you might say I have a vested interest. For the above reasons, I refuse to watch the travesty perpetrated by Robert Zemeckis in recent days.

The graphic novel treatment I happened upon, however, was on the whole good. I know because I read it standing there in the bookshop. Unlike Robert Zemeckis, it respected its source material. It was clearly intended for younger readers, but it had integrity. It told the story straightforwardly and without deviation. That is something worthy of respect. I was particularly gratified to find that, despite the necessary shortening of the story and especially of the language (being a visual medium and having to chop out much) there were still one or two examples of those wonderfully poetic metaphor-nouns which are so characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry. 'Whale-road' was one the author used, which is a literal translation of hron-rade, meaning the sea. The visuals were nice, a bit angular for my taste, but captured the tone quite satisfactorily.

The only real fault I found was all the fuss this version made about wyrd. Wyrd is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning fate, doom, destiny. That kind of thing. It is certainly present in the poem (used as a kind of impersonal noun for God, like the Chinese refer to Heaven or we might refer to Providence), but in the graphic novel treatment it seemed designed to take the place of God. Which is odd because God, spoken of personally as well as impersonally, appears quite a bit in the poem. Not as a character, mind, but He is mentioned quite often. I found this significant. Wyrd constantly, God, Drihten, Al-Walda, Wealdend, wuldres Wealdend, wihtig Wealdend hardly at all (the Anglo-Saxons had a lot of words for God). Though I will admit God was at least implied in it, as the author included (surprisingly, I thought) the part where the poem talks about Grendel's descent from Cain. Still, to avoid all references to God and multiply mentions of what would be construed as a non-specific and impersonal force seems curious and telling.

On the whole, however, given other treatments I've seen of this monument of Old English literature and all the things they got wrong, I have to say I was slightly impressed by this one. Of course, if you want to read Beowulf, you should read it in the original (Wrenn and Bolton are the edition I have). And if you can't read it in the original, you should get a good translation (or even better, read the original and translation side by side, as you can do at Beowulf on Steorarume). But if you can't do any of those things, this will at least give you a taste of what you're missing out on. A thoroughly good primer (especially for children or teenagers) of one of the classics.

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