This translation of Beowulf synthesizes older translations of the Anglo-Saxon epic into a new prose rendering.
Davis’ (Don Quixote: The New Translation, 2012) effort is a departure from most translations; he bases his work primarily on the 19th-century Kemble and Hall translations, and his version focuses less on the poetry of the original and instead highlights the meaning of the text. (Seamus Heaney’s is one of the few translations that captures the dense sound play and verse structure of the original.) Davis covers all the plot points: Beowulf’s boasts; his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon; the construction of Hrothgar’s mead-hall; and the rest. This tale faithfully follow the original, and it will appeal to those who want to know exactly what Beowulf’s anonymous poet said. But for those seeking a more complete experience, it may disappoint. This prose version ignores the syntax of the original poetry, including its rhythm, as well as the strict formal elements, such as the caesura (an intralinear pause) and the more standard techniques of lineation. Davis’ diction is almost biblical, which preserves Beowulf’s heroic and antique mood but occasionally hampers readability. For instance, a passage from Hrothgar’s speech of thanks to Beowulf evokes kingly haughtiness but also feels a bit cumbersome: “Now, Beowulf, most excellent of heroes, I shall esteem you in my heart as mine own son. Preserve you henceforward this new kinship. You will never lack aught you desire of world-goods which are mine to command.” It’s clear that Davis understands Hrothgar’s character, even though his commitment to a high register sometimes blunts the force of the original. The storytelling is lucid and lively, however, and may strongly appeal to those who haven’t yet tackled Beowulf and want an easier entry point.
Davis doesn’t breathe as much life into the poem as Heaney, but conveys the storylines accurately and accessibly.