I recently finished teaching on my favorite story of all time, the Old English epic Beowulf. One of the major challenges of Beowulf is choosing the best version to read first. Below is a list of what I believe to be the best versions available and would recommend you start here.
If you are unfamiliar with poetry or have a strong dislike for it, you may want to start with a solid prose translation. Some are better than others, but know that if you want to appreciate the real beauty of Beowulf it will come through the poetry.
Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is considered the gold standard of translations. In the preface and/or introduction of every edition of the ancient epic since’s Heaney’s publication references it with praise. The general consensus is that it is both accurate, clear, and preserves the original better than most other options.
Dick Ringler, Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery (Hackett)
This is perhaps my preferred translation of Beowulf. It’s weaknesses are immediately clear. The lines do not match traditional line breaks and, as the subtitle suggests, it is written for oral delivery. This feature helped me better understand the poem as did the lengthy introduce which is, itself, worth the price of the book.
J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (Mariner Books)
If it were not for the man most known for his Middle-earth fantasy, Beowulf would have been long forgotten. Tolkien revived Beowulf studies and showed that it’s story is worth taking serously. No everyone agrees with Tolkien’s conclusions, but anyone serious about understanding the poem at least listens to what Tolkien had to say. According to his peers and biographers, Tolkien had most of the poem memorized and many of its themes and characters appear in Middle-earth (like Smaug, Gollum, and Beorn). After his death, his son published this translation of Beowulf which he finished prior to The Hobbit. I enjoy Tolkien’s take though it isn’t the best version. The commentary is helpful as well.
Doug Wilson, Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering (Canon Press)
If you’re looking for something unique that remains faithful to the poem, I recommend Doug Wilson’s rendering. Note that this is a rendering, not a translation. Wilson takes great pains to emphasize the sound of the poem, not necessary the translation of the poem. Thus each line will emphasize a specific sound or letter.
What really makes this volume great is the essay at the end which explores the theological root of the poem. I think Wilson is on to something that too few scholars are willing to take seriously. Wilson argues that Beowulf is a “shrewd apologetic” for Christianity. Thus Beowulf the hero is an un-Christ who dies in failure. There is no victory at the end because the victory will come through Beowulf’s strength but through the preaching of the missionaries who are soon to arrive.
Howell Chickering, Beowulf: A Duel Language Edition (Anchor)
Next to Haney, the consensus largely agrees that Chickering offers the best translation. In this volume, the reader can enjoy both the original Old English and one of the best translations of the epic poem. Obviously if you do not know Old English, half of the pages are a waste of time. Other volumes featuring Chickering’s translation are available though.