On the Whale Road

I’ve been fascinated by the Old English poem Beowulf since I was a teenager. Even though my primary focus was American postmodernism and the work of William H. Gass, my doctoral dissertation (2010) included chapters concerned with Beowulf. For my dissertation, however, I relied on modern-English translations of the poem. In 2012, I wrote my monograph, The “Beowulf” Poet and His Real Monsters, and tried my hand at translating the Old English for the first time. It was difficult, to put it mildly, but also invigorating. My translating for the monograph was primarily literal. Being a novelist, I wanted to try a literary translation, and I finally got around to it in 2019, focusing on the central section of the poem, the Grendel’s mother episode. The editors at EKL Review published my translation. Then in 2022, upon retiring from teaching full-time, I returned to the poem, and began translating it from the beginning.

Rather than searching for publishers as I completed each section, I decided to use the Kindle Vella platform and put the poem-in-progress out into the world myself. One of my first orders of business was to find an arresting image for the Vella cover, which I think I did: Photographer/Model/Makeup Artist: Ella (@vivid_lids), “Shieldmaiden”, 2022, via Instagram @vivid_lids. My sincere appreciation to Ella for letting me use the image.

You’ll notice that I’ve changed the title from the typical, simply, Beowulf. That title is one of custom. In the codex that contains the one and only manuscript of the poem, it is untitled. We have no idea what name the story may have carried in the, likely, eighth and ninth centuries when it was perhaps a standard tale in Anglo-Saxon halls. Since I want my translation to be unique (among the approximately 350 other modern-English translations currently on record), I decided to give it a unique title, On the Whale Road, which includes a subtle homage to Jack Kerouac and the Beats.

My secondary title — “A New & True Translation of the Poem Known as ‘Beowulf'” — reflects that my objective is to create a prose poetry version of the poem that has fidelity with the original poet’s intentions. That is, my translation is rooted in the poem’s original language, but I always have an eye (and ear) on the story’s narrative energy. The poem would be performed for a hall filled with probably boozy listeners, likely heavily armed — not to mention the capricious king himself. The poet had a vested interest in keeping his audience on the edge of their benches. So at every turn of the translation, when there are choices to be made among equally enigmatic options of Anglo-Saxon, I always choose the most captivating, or as we would say today, the most page-turning.

Link to the Kindle Vella page here.

Here are the chapters available so far (the first three on Vella are free):

The hell-born fiend (Prologue & Section 1)

The burning embrace (Section 2)