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CLASSICS ON CASSETTE

'Beowulf' and 'Froissart's Chronicles'

February 17, 1991|JOHN ESPEY

Recorded Books has recently released a couple of albums that may prove useful to freeway drivers interested in filling in gaps in their general education. Anyone who feels entirely familiar with "Beowulf" and "Froissart's Chronicles" should stop reading at this point, no matter how self-deluded that person may be, and skip the remainder of these remarks. But for the rest of us, George Guidall's unabridged narration of Francis Barton Gummere's (1855-1907) alliterative translation of what members of my generation were taught to regard as the true beginning of English Literature offers a thoroughly enjoyable refresher course.

If you happen to be a Tony Hillerman fan, the longish introduction is a little startling, because Guidall's excellently modulated voice will be familiar to you and you keep expecting another telling bit of Navajo lore. Yet the choice makes sense, because the ways of our literary ancestors are often as strange to us as are those of Native Americans.

Gummere's translation has been criticized for not being entirely literal, among other flaws, but it remains the most successful attempt to render in modern English something similar to the alliterative pattern of the original, and as you listen you begin to respond to the four-beat pattern that still undergirds poetry written in all dialects of English, even when the lines masquerade as iambic pentameter. Guidall's reading leads the listener into the rhythmic pattern of Anglo-Saxon verse without any of the frequent classroom overemphasis on the accentual stresses, and after a few minutes the basic pattern echoes comfortably in the ear.

What you will miss, possibly happily, in this reading, is exposure to the subsequent "learning" of Anglo-Saxon specialists, and you may want to go back to your worn copy of Klaeber's edition (1922). For myself--and I am nothing but an amateur in these matters--the one memorable contribution embalmed in Klaeber's notes is the identification, by a solemn Teutonic specialist, of the monster Grendel with a fatal disease that overcame those who ate and drank too much and then fell asleep in a smoke-filled, ill-ventilated hall. How modern can you get?

Though the cover of the Froissart cassettes carries Recorded Books' "unabridged" logo, the tapes themselves, narrated with a fine variety of tone by John Horton, are unabridged only in the sense that they are complete sections taken from the massive work itself and include Froissart's full accounts of such memorable events of the Hundred Years War as the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers, the Black Death, the Great Schism, and the fall of Richard II.

Sometimes called "the first war correspondent," Froissaret (1337-1410) was not actually present at many of these events, such as the Battle of Crecy, but he used what sources he could that had already been recorded from interviews with eyewitnesses. Though John Bourchier, Lord Berners. Berners' translation, despite its frequent manglings of the names of cities, towns and men, remains the standard text, and it is the one that has shaped our imaginative recreations, through Shakespeare and others, of the stirring events of those times.

Only the specialist will cavil at this, and I make no pretense of being one. However, if any listener's curiosity is roused by these unabridged units and wishes either to read the full text or to check on both Froissart and Berners, I would recommend the far fuller text of Thomas Johnes, published in 1854 in New York by Leavitt & Allen, 27 Dey St.--a densely printed edition that includes 115 vivid engravings from a variety of sources.

WHERE TO ORDER TAPES:

Recorded Books. Call 1-800-638-1304, or write: Recorded Books, Inc., 270 Skipjack Road, Prince Frederick MD 20678. Thirty-day rentals are available.

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