For Books’ Sake Talks To: Meghan Purvis

14th Oct 2013

For Books' Sake Talks To: Meghan Purvis
Old English has been a dead language in the UK for more than seven centuries, and its violent, noble culture could hardly be further than our own.

But for the first time, the most famous poem written in Old English has been translated by a woman – bringing a whole new generation to the tale.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Meghan Purvis was at university when she first heard the opening lines of Beowulf spoken aloud. The translation emerged as she developed a proposal for her dissertation; originally she planned a less focused exploration of Old English poetry translation but, during a meeting with her supervisor to discuss her ambitions, she recalls “[a] crystal-clear moment of: oh Christ, I’m actually going to have to do this.”

But what persuaded Purvis to take it on?

“Reading it,” she describes, “feels like entering an ancient but real Anglo-Saxon world. There’s a story going on about a hero fighting monsters, but then alongside that is a sense of the political machinations of hero worship, and glimpses of women who spend their lives as pawns in a game of feuding families, repeated moments of grieving at the passage of time, and the losses that unavoidably entails. It feels like there is a world described in Beowulf that has its own existence apart from the poem.”

The poems also evoke the voices of several characters (whereas the source text uses only one), which gives the female characters more freedom of expression than previous translations. But her translation takes a modern approach to the epic structure. Meghan Purvis broke the poem into a collection, making it more accessible for readers used to modern-day English poetry.

“One of my motivations for doing that was to move a reader past the initial ‘culture shock’ of sitting down with an enormous epic poem, and instead into engaging with the world of the poem almost immediately,” she notes.

The poems also evoke the voices of several characters (whereas the source text uses only one), which gives the female characters more freedom of expression than previous translations.

“The comparison I usually draw is to say it’s like I’m describing a painting to you,” she says. “I may spend more time describing a part of the painting that’s not front-and-centre, but that drew my own eye. I hope my translation makes the look into that world a little wider.”

Her bold approach also draws out themes and plot-lines that academic study of the poem – and the thuggish 2007 adaptation – may have overlooked.

“Most people come away from the poem with a sense of the Anglo-Saxon world view—powerful warriors, mead-halls, rah rah broadswords,” she says, “but I think what gets missed a lot of the time is how deeply ambivalent the narrator is about that world.

“We see several moments where the consequences of that hero worship are shown in all their horror—one particularly heart-rending example is the story of Hildeburh, who is married off as a peace-weaver between two rival clans, and ends her story with her brother, son, and husband all murdered as part of their ongoing feud.

“The end of the poem is incredibly bleak—with Beowulf gone, his people are now left undefended to be conquered and enslaved by their neighbours—and that’s a direct consequence of his choice to go fight a dragon alone, like a big ol’ hero, rather than head out there with an army like an effective leader.

“The narrator recognises that hero worship leads to cycles of violence that cannot be resolved, and while he does it in a sly, politically-savvy way, he absolutely acknowledges his society’s shortcomings, even if he doesn’t seem to be able to see a viable alternative.”

Purvis’s decision to translate the poem surprised even her, and she reports that most reactions to her project “fell somewhere on the continuum of ‘benevolent surprise’ to ‘restrained horror’.”

But, Meghan Purvis adds, people were right to baulk: “Beowulf is a monster of a poem (pun very much intended), both as an artistic text and as a cultural artefact, and I began working with it aware that I was taking on quite a lot.”

Winning the Stephen Spender prize in 2011 “made an enormous difference” to her career and opened doors that led to her book deal with Penned in the Margins.

Currently working on a vampire novel set in Prohibition-era America, she says that the shadow of Beowulf  hovers over her new novel: “Both are interested in how and why people choose violence, and the different ways in which people—particularly women—can navigate a world predicated on the idea that ‘might makes right’, and, of course, both are bloody as all hell. No one’s lost an arm in the novel, but there’s still time.”

Beowulf is out now from Foyles, Penned in the Margins, or your local bookshop.