Saturday, December 29, 2012


A hero fights a mean monster to help liberate a kingdom. Then, the monster's mother attacks him. He defeats her also. With this great accomplishment, he becomes king and rules for many years before taking on a dragon. He defeats the dragon, but is killed in the battle.

This sounds like a stock plot for a contemporary fantasy novel. It even has its own "language" that sounds a little like English. However, the "special language" never stops, so you end up reading the work in translation. That is the first hint that its not your typical fantasy novel. However, setting a novel up as a translation of some ancient manuscript is a fairly common device.

What really lets you know this is not something contemporary is the length. It is short. The hero, Beowulf himself, launches almost immediately in to his first major battle without the long world-building wandering that dulls modern fantasy. His other adventures also happen in quick succession, with only a brief period in the middle when he becomes ruler. Perhaps they actually had decent fantasy editors 1000 years ago. Or more likely, publishers were a tad less willing to publish 1000-page tomes when they had to copy each edition by hand.

The Old English verse is perhaps a tad easier to understand than something written in Norwegian - but not much. Thus, the for non-academic reading, a translation works well. The story is a straightforward epic, so it should not be too difficult to find a meaningful translation, whether trying to hold to the poetry or to prosify. The story is much more accessible than other long ancient works (like those of Homer). However, you have to wonder if it has any strong importance other than the fact that it is really old. (Perhaps 1000 years from now, somebody will stumble across a Robert Jordan manuscript that is the lone representative of today's literature.) For the oldest "English" novel, it takes place almost entirely in Scandinavia. (But that is where English is "from"). The story is a fun battle epic. And it is old.

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