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Beowulf: A Student Edition.

This new edition of Beowulf has a unique selling proposition: each vocabulary item (except for very frequent words) is glossed in the margin at every occurrence. By this means the editor seeks to pre-empt the temptation on the reader's part not to translate at all which a complete facing translation offers. The student user must rather link the words provided with the correct grammatical connections. To translate, the student then must look at each Old English word closely in order to discover its modern equivalent; eventually some Old English vocabulary ought to be absorbed by this means.

Space permits only one gloss for each word, at the expense of the range of nuance and possibility to be found in the glossaries of Klaeber or Wrenn-Bolton for example. Thus 'eacencraeftig' (1. 2280) is simply rendered as 'mighty'; though Smithers is frequently cited in other contexts, his contribution to our understanding of the pagan and magical stratum in the poem's lexis is obscured by the demand for uncomplicated translation.

The lack of a glossary of all words also entails difficulties in precisely locating a passage; nor can any sense be gained of the uniqueness or frequency of a vocabulary item, or of a compound's relation to other words containing the same initial element. Jack's method no doubt results in a workmanlike and accurate translation; what is lost is the student's opportunity to decide which of the given modern English words in the semantic range is right for the context. Nor does space permit discussion of lexical items unless they are in a phrase presenting translation difficulties. Thus the reader misses the sense that 'garsecg' in 1.49 is etymologically obscure, and has no idea why the odd-looking dvandva-compound 'athumsweoran' (1. 84) should mean 'father- and son-in-law'.

These considerable reservations notwithstanding, Jack's edition has many admirable qualities. The Introduction and the foot-of-the-page notes are of an exemplary clarity; the editor calls upon the vast range of textual and linguistic writings which have appeared since the editions of Klaeber and Wrenn, and lays out the arguments for different readings with lucidity. The Introduction presents all the information a student needs to understand the poem, though, perhaps wisely, literary interpretation is eschewed. A brief guide to further reading at the end of the Introduction points to the best-known critical works. Nevertheless, the line between linguistic and literary interpretation is a difficult one to draw; though there is much on Ingeld in the Introduction and ad locitum, there is no reference to the similarities between the story of Herebeald and Haedhcyn and the account of Hodhr and Baldr in the Snorra Edda. There is much too on Grendel's ancestry, but only a brief exploration of Christianity in the poem. Beowulf's 'slackness' as a youth similarly goes unremarked.

The book also contains an edition of 'The Fight at Finnesburh', which, like the text of Beowulf itself, is freshly and intelligently thought through; no old pieties are left unconsidered. One senses the editor's zest flagging towards the end of 'Finnesburh'; for the crux 'hwearflicra hraew' at 1. 34, he simply glosses 'corpses' and 'active ones' and wearily refers the reader to Dobbie for a full summary of the arguments. Such shortcuts are never taken in the edition of Beowulf itself.

The test of any edition is of course in using it for teaching. Could this Beowulf be used with near-beginners, or is it more suitable for more advanced students? Here, perhaps paradoxically, and no doubt contrary to the editor's intentions, the very ease of using the edition militates against prescribing it for beginners. One of the skills the study of Old English teaches is the intelligent use of glossary and dictionary, while translation should consist in more than the assembling of pre-manufactured parts into grammatical sentences. For more advanced students, whose understanding of the methodology of translation is already assured, Jack's edition could displace Klaeber. The clarity and range of the Introduction and the excellent standard of footnoting supersede the commentaries of earlier editions; nevertheless, Klaeber's and Wrenn's glossaries would have to be used as a supplement.

CAROLYNE LARRINGTON De Montfort University, Leicester
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Author:Larrington, Carolyne
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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