Monday, March 16, 2009

Beowulf is min nama

We've read other adaptations of Beowulf, and the boys, being boys, enjoyed the story. For days afterward, they would wrestle. "I'm Beowulf!" "No! I'm Beowulf, you're Grendel, and I'm going to pull your arm off!" If one of our boys ever shows up missing an arm, you'll know who the real Beowulf is. While the quality of the illustrations varied, the plot never failed to grip young imaginations. But the text epitomized the word prose. How could word choice make such a thrilling story sound so dull and lifeless?

When GL goes to the library, he always brings back an assortment of comics. There's not a comic old, new, funny, witty, political, violent, beautiful, bizarre, realistic, or surrealistic that he doesn't take an interest in. He's always the first to spot a new comic book. So it was no surprise when he brought this home. While bound in hardcover, the pen and ink illustrations, finished in watercolor, have all the expressive action of the best comics and graphic novels. Beowulf and his companions are plain, strong men, but mystery and danger lurk around every sinuous curve and dark corner. The action is underscored by an authentic landscape with details reminiscent of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings sets. (Where do you think Tolkien got his inspiration?)

But my attention was caught when I glanced at the back cover and read:
"Award-winning author and illustrator James Rumford forges his own account of the tale of Beowulf using only Anglo-Saxon words still present in our language. These iron-strong words recall the boldness of the original poem and echo the sounds of the ancient language for today's readers."

I was aware of the power of Anglo-Saxon words. They are our simple, direct, unpretentious words. I call them truck driver words. Not only because many of them have four letters, (yes, many of those words are Anglo-Saxon) but because truck drivers don't have time to hint, nuance, or beat around the bush. They rarely use euphemisms. They say what they mean and get on with the job. Anglo-Saxon was not spoken by people who gave long speeches or sat around gossiping, IMing, texting, or Twittering, but by people who spent a good deal of time out of doors, struggling for survival. A man's word was not only all he had, it was who he was. Every syllable was packed with meaning.

Could those words help fill the gap between an unknown tongue and a dry translation? I quickly read the book. While not verse, (which would have sounded contrived) the prose had a natural, even cadence that seemed innate to the simple, cogent words. Beowulf was meant to be performed; the Anglo-Saxon words beg to be read aloud, and with gusto. I read it again, aloud, to the boys, now whispering, now thundering. It was even better. The boys were enthralled. Another day we read it again, and again they crowded close to see the pictures, eyes shining.

James Rumford is right. The ancient words make the night darker, the shadows deeper, and, perhaps, your heart bolder. Ages: Strong-hearted and up.



Blogger Bob Wingate said...

My working theory is that all words, in all languages, have power of one sort or another, but that not all languages are equal. Each language has different strengths, different applications. (Unfortunately I'm not quite finding the word I'm grasping for here.) Ah well, hopefully that made some sense.

It looks like the author did the effective thing in relating the Beowulf story using the stark Anglo-Saxon words, and I'll admit I've not studied Anglo-Saxon. But from what you posted, this sounds appropriate.

All that preamble to note that I've long been fascinated by languages. I know just enough French to get into trouble, also only a very few words of Finnish, Irish, and Russian. Plus, I'm gradually learning American Sign Language (more on that in a bit). If I could have my whole life to do-over, I very well might go into linguistics.

And of course, I've greatly enjoyed reading J.R.R. Tolkien's writings over the years, primarily for the characters and the story itself. I also have great respect for Professor Tolkien's creation of an actual, functioning "Elvish" language. Much more than just a few imaginative alien words in a science fiction or fantasy story. Creating an artificial language is no small feat. Trust me on that. I digress...

My current favorite word meaning comes from the Greek word "universe". That's one of many that were brought into English that we take for granted. The literal meaning:
"one spoken word".

If that brings to mind Genesis chapter 1 or John chapter 1, there's a good reason for that.

One last comment in defense of texting. I've read some complaints about the practice, and I'd be first to agree that being in a hurry is no excuse for forgetting how to spell or use proper punctuation. But if you're in a position where you need to have a cell phone to keep in touch, and if you've lost about 50% of your hearing, let me tell you, texting can be a blessing.

March 16, 2009 at 10:55 PM  
Blogger At A Hen's Pace said...

Fascinating! Sounds like something my boys would like too. Will have to look at the library...


March 30, 2009 at 8:36 PM  

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