Julian Glover and Sheila Mackie, published by Sutton at £12.99. 144pp. ISBN: 750943114 (Reviewed by Alexa Duir)
If you are a serious student of the poem who is looking for a new translation, this is not for you. On the other hand if you wish to try to re-enter the world of those who would have originally heard this poem and experience it as they experienced it, then this is a must.
I have to confess I have had two or three versions of the poem sitting on my bookshelves for years and been unable to approach any of them. When asked to review this book I was initially put off by the children’s book appearance, with its beautiful cover artwork. But that is only because so many children’s books are so beautifully illustrated by talented artists these days. And the work of Sheila Mackie, the artist, is as much an essential component of this book, conjuring as it does the world of the poem, as the words themselves.
Essentially, this book is a performance. Not merely that of Julian Glover, who created this performance onstage in 1981 and later, but a performance enlarged by its many fine illustrations, both black and white and full colour plates. Mackie draws on the artefacts of the time to recreate the world, and goes beyond mere reproduction to draw meaning and life from the images which compliment the text and take the reader into another age, when warriors would sit in a smoky mead hall listening enrapt to the scop reciting this heroic tale.
In adapting Beowulf for a one man production on the stage Glover has had to edit the text drastically. He has taken the Michael Alexander translation and worked on it for 18 months to cut the material to the bone, to enable the stage production to run for no longer than approximately a couple of hours. He excised those lines which were digressions from the main theme in order to, as he states “to enable an audience to experience a story as they did as children”, borrowed a little from the poet Edwin Morgan and rearranged material for dramatic purposes. From the thanks to the Beowulf critic Klaeber in his foreword, it seem likely Glover received advice from him.
Magnus Magnusson’s introduction atmospherically invites the reader to that stage production as well as placing Beowulf in historical and literary context. He gives a short outline of the poem and commends the changes Glover has made. His view of the rich artwork of Mackie is to think of it as visual kennings – metaphors designed to enrich the poem – of great complexity and subtlety. She has drawn on the Sutton Hoo treasures and her own imagination, itself as broad as that of the original writer of the poem, and illustrating it in the manner of a medieval manuscript. In addition, the editor of the book has chosen a style of typeface, use of white space and illustrations all of which enhance the immersion of the reader in Beowulf as performance art. I can only wish I had the chance to attend one of Glover’s performances and hope I get the chance, one day. Until then, this book reproduces for me not only what the stage show might be like, but also the medieval world of Beowulf.