Tonight I was sitting in Chick-Fil-A in Rome on Shorter Avenue, eating dinner with my family when my ears pricked up at “Beowulf” from another table nearby. I looked up from my grilled chicken sandwich to see four college-aged students talking animatedly about Beowulf? I asked myself. My daughter said something to me; I said, “Hush a sec–I’m listening to a conversation over at that table.” Then I heard, “It’s coming out. . . movie. . . I heard they don’t even follow the original plot.” I was hooked.
I told my husband, “I’m going to go over and introduce myself so I can find out what they are saying about Beowulf.” I mean–Beowulf at Chick-Fil-A!
It turns out that these are four students at Berry College, and they were discussing upcoming course choices. It turns out that each of them had read Beowulf in high school and pretty much (no surprise) each of these highly intelligent, very dynamic-looking young women had strong opinions about Beowulf. Shorter College and Berry College are rivals, but I’ve always had good luck meeting wonderful colleagues at Berry and also students (who come over and take my courses at Shorter), so I was not surprised to meet four more amazing Berry College students DISCUSSING such an erudite subject in The Dwarf House.
One said she’d been required to read Beowulf IN OLD ENGLISH as a SOPHOMORE in HIGH SCHOOL. I was both amazed AND appalled. I said, “That’s like reading Virgil before studying and learning Latin. Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry!” She continued, “It made me hate Beowulf.” Little wonder. I so understand! One of the students said she’d studied Latin for four years. These four students were an impressive group!
I told them that it seems Beowulf is either read in the original at too early an age (but I doubt that happens too very often) OR is read in a horrible prose translation. I told them I don’t ask students in college courses that I teach, “Do you like Beowulf?” I ask, “How much do you dislike Beowulf and why?” Then I hope we can start over and get a fresh look at it, but it’s hard. There’s such a built-in “I’ve been forced to read and study it in a horrible fashion, and I can never stop resenting it.”
Why don’t high schools use the Seamus Heaney bilingual translation? Then at least passing reference can be made to the Old English on one side of the page, for flavoring. Or why can’t Beowulf be read in my friend Roy Liuzza’s amazing poetic translation? Look for R. M. Liuzza’s Beowulf (Broadview Press, 1999). It’s awesome!
All I can say is that I was thrilled to hear Beowulf‘s being discussed at Chick-Fil-A this evening!
Another note–these students wondered why hasn’t a movie been made that follows Beowulf‘s original plot. I agree! So does my husband. I love The Thirteenth Warrior with Antonio Banderas because it doesn’t pretend even to make a stab at following the plot at all, but the Grendel character has a nice, scary feel, as does his very icky cave-dwelling mom. The movie has the right “feel” to it. But Angelina Jolie’s part in this upcoming Beowulf has me skeptical. We’ll see.