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Irvine, Susan, and Malcolm R. Godden, eds.: The Old English Boethius: With Verse Prologues and Epilogues Associated with King Alfred.

IRVINE, Susan, and Malcolm R. Godden, eds. The Old English Boethius: With Verse Prologues and Epilogues Associated with King Alfred. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2012. xxiv + 451pp. Cloth, $29.95.--Reviewing a new English translation of the Philosophiae Consolatio in 2003, Boethius scholar John Magee referred to the "happy partnership" that the English language has enjoyed with the Consolatio since the time of King Alfred. The partnership has been enriched with translations of the whole of, or sections of, the Consolatio by such eminent writers of English as Chaucer, Queen Elizabeth I, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson. The present volume takes us back to the very beginnings of the partnership, when the Consolatio--the culminating and influential final work of ancient philosophy, which artfully weaves together Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic themes--was rendered into English during the earliest, most purely Germanic period of the language, before the Norman invasion of England, and the accompanying invasion of English by words from the French.

The Old English Consolatio, which the prologue attributes to "Alfred, king of the West Saxons," was produced between about 880 and about 950, in two versions. The first version, in 42 chapters, is entirely in prose. Apparently in imitation of the prosimetrical form of the original, it was revised in a version consisting of 33 prose and 31 metrical sections. In neither version do the divisions align neatly with the 78 sections of the original.

In 2009, the editors of the present volume published a monumental scholarly edition of both versions, along with modern English translations, textual notes, and commentary (The Old English Boethius: An Edition of the Old English Versions of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae, two volumes [Oxford University Press]). The present volume contains the text only of the revised, prosimetrical version, with modern English translation on facing pages, as in the volumes of the Loeb Classical Library. (Also included are the prologue to the Old English Dialogues, the prologue and epilogue to the Old English Pastoral Care, and the epilogue to the Old English Bede.) The introduction, notes, and bibliography of the 2009 edition are here much abbreviated. The result is a compact, user-friendly book that deserves a wide readership, both in university courses and elsewhere. The 2009 edition serves the purposes of specialists and libraries. The present volume is for individuals who wish to own and study the revised version of the Old English Consolatio.

In places, the Old English version is quite literal, but often it might more properly be called an adaptation than a translation. In contrast to the original, the translation is explicitly Christian. The lady Philosophia of the original is replaced by a masculine figure named Wisdom. Boethius, who refers to himself in the original simply as ego, is here variously called Mod ("Mind"), Boetius, and ic ("I"). Themes in the original are elaborated, material is added, and details are altered. A striking example will give something of the flavor of these changes. By way of belittling the importance of fame, the Philosophia of the original asks, "Where lie the bones of faithful Fabricius?" Presumably for the sake of the Anglo-Saxon and Christian audience of the translation, Wisdom is made both to change the example and to add a reference to Christ: "Where now are the bones of the wise Weland, / the goldsmith, who was previously very famous? / I said the bones of wise Weland / because the skill which Christ grants to / any earth dweller cannot be lost by him."

Chaucer's translation, by contrast, is a more strictly word for word rendering of the original. Moreover, Chaucer's English is comparatively close to ours, and an English speaker who is acquainted with the Latin Consolatio should be able to make out much of Chaucer's translation on his own, with little preliminary formal study of Middle English. Incidentally, many common English words in use today--absence, act, define, differ, necessity, and object, to name only a few--are first recorded in Chaucer's translation of the Consolatio.

Old English, on the other hand, is much farther removed from us, and it does require some study of grammar and vocabulary before it can be read with ease. Still, as in a Loeb Classical Library volume, the juxtaposition of original text and modern English translation in the present edition can help a beginner quickly establish initial contact with the original. And just as echoes of the oldest stratum of English can be heard in the English spoken today, so, conversely, many words of the Old English Consolatio have a familiarity for us, although their meaning has sometimes strangely altered in the interim. Both fortuna and fa turn, for example, are translated by wyrd, an early form of our word weird.

The editors and publishers are to be congratulated on this useful, attractive, and affordable volume, which offers such ready access to the moment, eleven hundred years ago, when philosophy first began to speak English.--Kevin White, The Catholic University of America
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Author:White, Kevin
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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