Yale University Press (Footprint), $44.99 hb, 256 pp, 9780300228885
The Old English Beowulf, the most important poem in English before Chaucer, was probably composed in the eighth century. The poem traces Beowulf’s three fights against the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. The dragon is defeated, but Beowulf also dies in the battle. The poem ends with an elegiac lament not just for the loss of its hero, but also for the dissolution of the society that he represents.
The language, grammar, and syntax of Old English are so removed from present-day English that most people must experience the poem via a translation, and there have been many of these. The latest is by Stephen Mitchell, a very experienced translator, whose works include translations of the Iliad, Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching.