Beowulf: Verse vs. Prose

One can find many translations of Beowulf including prose versions of the epic poem. This presents a question: Should we read it in prose or in a verse translation? In his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien disdains the critic’s failure to deal with the beauty of the poetry in favor of history, philology, or theology. He does not doubt Beowulf’s ability to teach us something in those other disciplines, but to ignore the poetic aspects as one spends time in Beowulf limits one’s view of the beauty that comes from considering it (8). He further states, “Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts that research has discovered” (7). 

So if we buy Tolkien’s argument that it is worth reading as poetry, why would we choose a prose edition? I have heard some arguments. I want to deal with two of them here. 

First, at least one prose edition is—to get a book in the hand and not a kindle version—much less expensive than a good verse edition. This is an argument that comes up in some circles of private or homeschool families who already are spending a great deal of money to educate their children. I know the feeling. Education costs money. A high school quality microscope is quite an investment on top of the biology text book, and all those great pieces of literature in paperback just add more weight to the bill, even if it is only an $8 difference between a prose edition and a decent verse edition. To forgo a Dover Thrift Edition to get Heaney’s translation in verse might well be the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

So we need to answer the question: What are we trying to accomplish with Beowulf? Do we want a basic familiarity with the story so that we can slip into some stream of a conversation if need be and not feel left out? There is nothing, necessarily wrong with this position, though I would argue for more. And if this is where we fall, then a prose edition might suffice just fine. The story is told; Grendel still wreaks havoc; Beowulf still saves the day. If, instead, we want to study literature—to actually get into the stream and catch fish—and then have decided that Beowulf is a piece of literature we want to study, then we are not really studying Beowulf as it was handed down to us by picking up a prose edition. An extra $8 is worth it to “be able to look out upon the sea” (8). 

Another main argument is that the poetry just makes the task of reading a really old story that much harder. If we are worried about softening the blow of great literature, then we will leave out great quantities of books worth reading—A Tale of Two Cities being one that comes immediately to mind. If, indeed, the verse version of Beowulf is over-daunting, then I would encourage training wheels for a time instead of a stationary bike. Riding a bike through the fall leaves just can’t happen in doors. 

But I understand the apprehension. I translated much of Romeo and Juliet into modern English for a group of ninth graders one time. I still fear I did them a disservice, but it seemed wise at the time. My time was limited and set by a greater power, so I made a decision to help them out. However, if I am more in charge of my own child’s education, I could slowly wean them off milk and introduce meat a bit at a time. No sense swallowing the whole steak at once. Beowulf is worth reading in verse, so get them accustomed to verse before throwing an epic at them. But then let them swim out in that whale-road. They will be better swimmers for it.