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Beowulf (Signet Classics) Signet Classics Edition

4 out of 5 stars 146 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0451530967
ISBN-10: 0451530969
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Translator Burton Raffel has taught English, classics, and comparative literature at universities in the United States, Israel, and Canada. His books include translations of Beowulf, The Complete Poetry and Prose of Chairil Anwar, From the Vietnamese, Ten Centuries of Poetry, The Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (with Alla Burago), Poems from the Old English, and The Annotated Milton. Mr. Raffel practiced law on Wall Street and taught in the Ford Foundation's English Language Teacher Training Project in Indonesia.
Roberta Frank, Marie Borroff Professor of English and Linguistics at Yale University, works in all aspects—literary, historical, and archaeological—of early England and Scandinavia. She has written widely on Beowulf, including “A Scandal in Toronto: The Dating of Beowulf a Quarter-Century On” (2007).

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From John McNamara’s Introduction to Beowulf


Even more perplexing is the question of values and beliefs in the poem. The world of Beowulf is the world of heroic epic, with its legendary fights among larger-than-life figures, both human and monstrous, its scenes of feasting in great beer halls presided over by kings, its accounts of bloody feuds trapping men and women alike in cycles of violence, its praise of giving riches to loyal followers rather than amassing wealth for oneself, its moments of magic in stories of powers gained or lost—and over all, a sense of some larger force that shapes their destinies, both individual and collective. Readers have often looked upon this long-gone heroic world for a glimpse of a pagan past in Northern Europe before Christianity was brought by foreign missionaries, yet the poem is filled with references to the new religion and the power of its God. This tension between the ancient past and what was, in the time of the poet, a new worldview disturbed many romantic and nationalistic critics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They sought in Beowulf the origins of Germanic, including Scandinavian, culture—or at least clues from which that culture could be reconstructed. Yet many were for the most part frustrated, for they saw the epic of Northern antiquity “marred” by the intrusions of foreign beliefs and values, such as the Christianity imposed by missionaries from the Mediterranean South, and equally “marred” by the fantastic fights with monsters in the center of the poem, while the historical materials that most interested them were placed on the outer edges. In this view, the poem simply was not the poem that it should have been.


However, the great work of Friedrich Klaeber, and especially the influence of Tolkien, cited above, would change all that. In recent times, scholars have not only stressed the Christian element as integral to the poem as a whole, but they have spent enormous energy in ferreting out its sources and functions. All of which brings us back, not just to the question of the poet, but more importantly to the question of the audience. After all, the poet was composing the work for a community that already shared certain core values, though those values appear at times to emerge from a moment of cultural transition between the memory of the old and the power of the new. So, once again, we are faced with complexity, and attempts to reduce Beowulf to some single, or at least predominant, worldview cannot explain the creative tensions in this complexity.


Yet there are further questions about audience. Did it consist, as some scholars have proposed, of people so well versed in Christian teachings, and even in learned theology, that it would have been a monastic community? The answer is by no means clear. We do have the famous letter from Alcuin to the monks of Lindisfarne (797) enjoining them not to include secular heroic narratives in their entertainments. But we also have the even more famous story of the poet Caedmon in Bede’s History of the English Church and People (731), which shows the members of the monastery at Whitby singing narrative lays, while accompanying themselves on the harp. Their lays must have been secular since it was only after the miracle of Caedmon’s poetic inspiration that Christian biblical narratives were set to traditional Anglo-Saxon poetic forms. Such a community would not only house scholars, as well as monks with considerably less education, but also the monastic familia was made up of all the lay people—men, women, and children—who occupied and generally worked the lands surrounding (and dependent on) the monastery.


Our modern view of medieval monasteries has been shaped by later reforms, in which walled structures often shut reclusive monks in cloistered protection from the temptations of the larger world. But in Anglo-Saxon England, the monasteries were generally open to the social world, and the Rule of St. Benedict lays great stress on the need to extend hospitality to all who come to the community. We also have depictions in monastic works, such as lives of the saints, of storytelling events that included monks and laypeople alike. Thus, even if one were to claim that Beowulf was aimed at a monastic audience, it is clear that such an audience would most probably include many who were not monks. And, of course, one need not postulate a monastic audience at all in order to account for the Christian element in the poem. For the dominant ethos of the poem is a celebration of the values of heroic society, and while the poet-narrator’s comments often reflect a Christian point of view, the heroic values in the poem are in themselves primarily secular. Or do we have, once again, a complex creative tension between the two?            

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product Details

  • Series: Signet Classics
  • Mass Market Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Signet; Signet Classics edition (June 3, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0451530969
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451530967
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.5 x 6.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (146 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #26,001 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
I first read Beowulf, as did countless high schoolers over the years, in my senior English class; the experience was less than memorable, due in part to my teacher's insistence on using an Old English text. When I entered college the most vivid imagery I still had was of Grendel entering the mead hall and tearing the diners limb from limb.
Had I been able to also read the text in modern English in that senior class, I would have been well-prepared to tackle the OE with a deeper understanding of how this great work acts as a foundational text for all British literature from Chaucer to the Renaissance and beyond.
Burton Raffel's clear translation allows the reader to establish a connection to the allegorical and mythological constructs without having to resort to a "Beowulf for Dummies," just to get a passing grade. I am using this book in a graduate class in Horror Text and Theory, and though I am now able to read the OE with more fluency, the accessibility of this translation situates the text in a more viable position for discussion and critical analysis in an arena populated with 20th and 21st century horror. I would recommend Raffel's Beowulf to anyone as their entree into Old English Lit.; to be read along side the original text. It takes the "horror" out of ready Horror.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
Raffel's translation of "Beowulf" to me seems more vivid and poetic in its language than Seamus Heaney's now more famous one. The images he provides stand out as clear and beautiful pictures, making a deep sensory impression where Heaney's poetry seems to employ at times more abstract, at times more mundane, less inventive language. This is not to say that Heaney's translation lacks poetic beauty--it certainly does not. Yet, browsing both editions, comparing various passages, I found that Raffel's rendition almost always struck a deeper chord with me, appealing to the senses and the imagination more strongly. Raffel's translation is not available in the same beautifully bound, larger-print, dual language edition as Heaney's, yet I still find that it gives me greater reading pleasure. As to accuracy, I do suspect that Raffel might be granting himself somewhat more poetic license than Heaney does, and yet, neither translation strays significantly from the original. I prefer Robert Fitzgerald's poetic, somewhat less accurate translation of the "Odyssey" to Richmond Lattimore's for similar reasons.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
Now that I have used both the Raffel edition and the Heaney edition, I would recommend Raffel's for the high school classroom. Raffel's edition offers a major difference that works wonders for the 9th and 10th grade psyche: short chapters. The narrative is chunked thoughtfully and facilitates reading assignments. Raffel does a great job with the syntax and though the diction is a little less interesting, the poem doesn't suffer too much there. Lastly, unless you are going to do a lot of work with the Old English available in the Heaney edition, the side-by-side format hampers class discussion, causing kids to flip more pages to find support.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
It's one thing to have to read this as a classroom assignment in high school and quite another to read it for the sheer fun of it decades later.

Beowulf took on completely new meaning when I learned how it had influenced Western myth and fairy tales--and C.S. Lewis and, more to the point, J.R.R. Tolkien. And it's nice I can get it for free on Amazon. There are of course other translations, but I don't mind the old "King James" translations of classics. They feel more mythic, even if I have to use the dictionary like a GPS to get back on track after I've been rerouted by a word that hasn't been used in a century (no problem there; I've loved dictionaries since I was a child, and looking up the origins of words we use daily without a clue of where they came from and what they really mean--or could mean).

Again, there are other versions available for free online, but Kindle is the way to go (though I use a Smartphone), because I can use the Kindle Software dictionary, and best of all, keep my devices' synchronized with Whispersync so I have the same bookmarks and notes on all of them.

Back to Beowulf--you should try it. But if you're unsure, Wikipedia will give you the gist of the book, and if you find yourself wanting more, download it. Can't beat the price--Free! (Though some books are too costly even when free, because they waste my time, which with only threescore and ten allotted me, is a much more precious commodity than money).
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I first read Beowulf in High School. Typical story of hero come to save the day but get's caught up in something greater than himself. I read it again for an Executive Officer class and came to see that when one assumes they recognize the obvious problem they may not see the underlying problem - which is often far more serious.
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With powerful words and almost lyrical tale-telling the story of the fight between Grendel and Beowulf becomes a story that never becomes stale. This is part of the power C.S. Lewis found as a young man when he discovered the Elder Edda and all the Norse myths. The wonderful story is found in the original Old English version of which this is a translation. The Anglo-Saxon language seems to embody cold, ice and determination of those early people who set out in Viking ships to conquer their neighbors: England, Northern France and Iceland and even North America.
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