Heaventree Press, 2008 £4.00
Disappointing big-screen versions of Beowulf notwithstanding, Old English poetry gets little exposure these days. Even a couple of bookworm friends of mine change the subject the moment I start to enthuse about it, and while poets are queuing up to publish translations of Middle English texts, pre-Conquest poetry gets short shrift.
What’s needed are more translations of this kind. In the introduction to this parallel text edition of The Wanderer, one of the great Anglo-Saxon elegies, Holland makes it clear that she has created a new version, rather than attempted a slavish re-rendering of the original.
The Christian elements are played down (they may have been tagged on by monks, anyway), and the alliterative stress meter of Anglo-Saxon poetry is adhered to only loosely. In the most significant change, the title character becomes female, moving the concerns of the piece away from the archaic lord and master relationship of the original.
Paradoxically, though, it’s in the passages most obviously concerned with our modern world, that the Anglo-Saxon echoes come through most strongly.
So, for example, the use of “lone wolf” imagery early on links the “wolfsheads”, or outlaws, of Anglo-Saxon society with a familiar Hollywood stereotype. Or later, after the shock of changing the famous “Where is the horse? Where the man? Where the ring-giver?” into the topical “So much for your battle honours! So much for your crack troops! So much for your president’s big push!”, she immediately evokes alliterative stress meter with “Yet how that holocaust seems to draw away, darkening to a distant nightmare”.
In doing so, she perfectly preserves the most distinctive, and precious, element of Old English poetry—the elegiac tone. It’s a trick that takes no little skill, but here it’s done so unobtrusively that you don’t worry about the mechanics, and can simply enjoy an original and moving re-imagining of one of the great works of medieval literature.