Tuesday, June 16, 2009


A Different World

C.S. Lewis, letter to Arthur Greeves (November 1, 1916), on the difficulty of appreciating Beowulf:
Well, for one thing, remember that nearly all your reading is confined to about 150 years of one particular country: this is no disgrace to you, most people's circle is far smaller. But still, compared with the world this one little period of English is very small and tho' you (and I of course) are so accustomed to the particular kinds of art we find inside it, yet we must remember that there are an infinite variety outside it, quite as good in different ways. And so, if you suddenly go back to an Anglo-Saxon gleeman's lay, you come up against something absolutely different - a different world. If you are to enjoy it, you must forget your previous ideas of what a book should be and try and put yourself back in the position of the people for whom it was first made. When I was reading it I tried to imagine myself as an old Saxon thane sitting in my hall of a winter's night, with the wolves & storm outside and the old fellow singing his story. In this way you get the atmosphere of terror that runs through it - the horror of the old barbarous days when the land was all forests and when you thought that a demon might come to your house any night & carry you off. The description of Grendel stalking up from his 'fen and fastness' thrilled me. Besides, I loved the simplicity of the old life it represents: it comes as a relief to get away from all complications about characters & 'problems' to a time when hunting, fighting, eating, drinking & loving were all a man had to think of it. And lastly, always remember it's a translation which spoils most things.

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