Monday, 21 April 2014


I first read Beowulf when I was about nine or ten years old. I don't recall who's translation it was - if I had to hazard a guess, I would say it was Rosemary Sutcliff's. It wouldn't be fair to say it was the one book that set me onto the path that has led me here: that honour belongs to The Hobbit, which I read around the same time. But that version of Beowulf was certainly one of the things that led me to other versions of the same work, and then to read The Sagas, the Fight at Finnsburg, Y Gododdin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the works of Mallory and so many others.

I own what might perhaps be called a Beowulf bore's collection of different versions. I should say at this stage that I am far from being a scholar of Old English. I can pick out words and phrases, and understand how the language was structured, but I cannot claim to be highly qualified to comment on the accuracy of any translation!

William Morris's version has a feel I like, but there are parts where he seems to translate things differently to all the other versions I've read, so it sits uneasily. It has the advantage of being available for free.

Michael Alexander's version is my personal favourite. My copy is dog-eared, heavily overwritten with my own notes and much repaired. I love the feel and tone of it. The alliterative structure Alexander has produced, to me, really drives home the idea that Beowulf was written to be read aloud, recited in front of enthusiastic listeners, rather than pondered over in a quiet corner.

Marc Hudson makes no attempt to create alliteration, but his version is light, accessible and accompanied by a thorough, thought-provoking commentary.

John McNamara's verse translation is unfortunate in that it came out in 2005. By then I was firmly wedded to Alexander's version, but I would recommend McNamara's version without hesitation to any new buyer/reader. The poem text is excellent and benefits from a fantastic set of supporting notes and commentary.

So here's my Beowulf. This is Musketeer Miniatures version of Aelle. Their figures are fantastic sculpts and casts, and the character figures have so much life that I almost regret having built parts of my Anglo-Saxon and Sub-Roman armies with the figures I have, even though at the time I bought them I loved them. I already have an Aelle, so there was an opening for this figure to do something else.

Never have I seen
a greater earl on the earth than one of you,
a man in his war-gear. He is no hall-retainer,
ennobled with weapons, unless his looks belie him,
given his peerless form.

That description was the one given by Hrothgar's coastguard when he first sees Beowulf and his companions arrive. This mini is almost "straight out of the packet". The only difference is that I replaced the shield, with a version made from 10 thou plastic card, engraved and embossed to represent rivetted construction in three bits. When he hears about the dragon, Beowulf orders his armourers to make him a shield of solid iron, as he believes (quite rightly) that a wooden shield will fail against the dragon's fire.

The champion of warriors, the chief of the nobles,
ordered a wondrous war-shield to be made for him,
entirely of iron, since he knew for certain
that a wooden shield could provide no protection,
when fire attacked wood.

The other figure here was sold with the Aelle/Beowulf as a banner-bearer. He gets elevated to the status of a real character: Wiglaf.

This was Wiglaf, Weoxstan's son,
well-loved shieldman, a Scylfing prince
of the stock of Alfhere; 

Wiglaf is the only man among the Geats with the courage to stand with Beowulf when he fights the dragon. All the other members of Beowulf's hearthguard, the toughest of the tough, turn tail and run, and only Wiglaf remains, striking the blow that gives Beowulf the chance to make a killing stroke against the worm.

Here are the two, together, ready to take on anything that threatens the land of the Geats. I put these two on 1p coins as bases, rather than the 2p's I normally use for characters, with the plan that they could be sabot'ed onto a single base as a unit in a game (sort of "kill one, you still have a king" idea).

They killed the enemy, extinguished its life; 
by their courage, the kinsmen, acting as one, 
worked its doom. So should men do when there is need.

Of course, it wouldn't be complete without a couple of shots of the heroes confronting the dragon, so here goes:

Merry Meet Again!


  1. Interesting to see the old Blue Dragon painted red! Its one of the best dragons money can buy and your new paint scheme suits the classic dragon look very well!

    If you eve want to do a blue one they are still available at

  2. Excellent post, thanks for the recommendations on Beowulf. Having all that background on a period/character really brings a game to life. The figures look great too. Cheers, Paul.