Robert Nye's Translation of Beowulf

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Poet Robert Nye's translation of 'Beowulf,' intended for young readers, titled 'Beowulf: A New Telling,' takes great liberties with the original, retaining much of the plot but greatly changing the meaning.

Robert Nye's Beowulf

Beowulf is considered to be the oldest surviving example of English literature, having been composed sometime around the 7th century, likely written down in the 11th century, and surviving in a single manuscript, or hand-written copy, that was discovered in the 15th century. It tells the story of the heroic warrior-king Beowulf and his battles with a series of monsters who threaten his people.

However, while Beowulf is considered a work of English literature, English speakers today cannot read it without special training. That is because it is written in Old English, an early form of the language that is so different from our modern English as to be essentially a different language. If you thought understanding Shakespeare was hard, take a look at the first two lines of Beowulf:

Hwaet, we gardena in geargadum,

beocyninga brym gefrunon

See what I mean? (By the way, Shakespeare is written in what is called Early Modern English, as some of the vocabulary has fallen out of use, but it is still essentially the same language).

So, for most of us who are not professors of Old English literature, we read Beowulf in translation. For decades, one of the most popular translations for young readers first being introduced to the poem has been Beowulf: A New Telling by Robert Nye.

About Beowulf

Beowulf is an epic story that recounts the battles of the great warrior Beowulf. In the first section, Beowulf comes to the aid of King Hrothgar, whose mead hall is under attack from the monster Grendel. Beowulf battles Grendel one-on-one and tears his arm off, which scares Grendel off and eventually kills him. In the second section, Grendel's mother comes to avenge her son's death and kills one of Hrothgar's best warriors. Beowulf tracks Grendel's mother to her lair beneath the sea and defeats her as well.

After defeating Grendel's mother, Beowulf returns home and becomes king, ruling for fifty years. He then must have his final battle with a dragon who is destroying his kingdom. The older Beowulf defeats the dragon but is mortally wounded in the process, and the story ends with his funeral and ritual burning.

About Robert Nye

Robert Nye is an English writer and poet who has published works for both children and adults over his long career. He started out writing poetry and then switched to novels and stories after first telling stories to entertain his children.

Much of Nye's work draws on English legends and folktales and the tradition of English literature. Examples include his 1976 novel Falstaff, which focuses on the character from Shakespeare's history plays, and his 1978 novel Merlin, a version of the King Arthur legend.

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