Beowulf : a new verse translation

by Seamus Heaney

Paper Book, 2000





New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.


"Composed toward the end of the first millennium of our era, Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel's mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon"--Jacket.

Media reviews

At the beginning of the new millennium, one of the surprise successes of the publishing season is a 1,000-year-old masterpiece. The book is ''Beowulf,'' Seamus Heaney's modern English translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic, which was created sometime between the 7th and the 10th centuries.
1 more
Translation is not mainly the work of preserving the hearth -- a necessary task performed by scholarship -- but of letting a fire burn in it.

User reviews

LibraryThing member missmel58
Few adults approach Beowulf without some knowledge of the story. It is generally read in high school and again in college. Grendel and his mother are the nefarious duo tormenting the Danes in the reign of King Hrothgar. Beowulf comes to the rescue and is, of course, successful. Beowulf returns home to Geatland, where he eventually becomes king. But the story doesn’t end there and there is not a happily ever after. Beowulf is killed by a dragon in his old age. His body is burned and the Geats begin to live in fear that their enemies will now attack.
I read it in high school. I read it in college. It was considered a boy-book, to be avoided if possible. Not to be considered for pleasure reading—ever. I did peruse the Tolkien edition in the seventies – but it was Tolkien and the seventies. I did not read the entire text. So what brings a middle-aged woman back to Beowulf?
Seamus Heaney.
And reading it wasn’t about the story—it was about this particular interpretation of the story. Grendel still dies by Beowulf’s hand. The dragon still kills Beowulf. And it’s still a boy-book, a profoundly eloquent boy-book. Opening the book to any page offers up the power of Heaney’s linguistic faculty. “I adopt you in my heart as a dear son. Nourish and maintain this new connection, you noblest of men; there’ll be nothing you want for, no worldly goods that won’t be yours” (63). The simple addition of a semicolon to a text adds another layer of depth to Heaney’s interpretation of the original language.
In the introduction, Heaney explains his reasons for taking this project, his discontent and finally his revelations about language. It is this last element that is intriguing. It is his labor over each word, his quest for the perfect translation, his examination of etymologies and endemic languages. It is his finding the meaning of ancient words scrawled in musty texts by listening to the old folks chatter in Ireland. The power of the text does not lie in the story, but in Heaney’s ownership of the words that make the story.
… (more)
LibraryThing member bjanecarp
So it is with no immoderate disbelief that I heartily commend an anonymous poet to the modern reader. This poet's work is extremely powerful, and Seamus Haney has translated it to excellent effect. Simply put, Haney has breathed life into this remarkable work for me. It is a delight to read (I've read it twice now). Haney's publisher has prepared his text, and on the opposing page, has reproduced the original text itself. The Old English is exhilarating--I enjoy nothing more than conquering a few words in this tongue. I cannot vouch for Haney's accuracy --I am no expert in Old English, but his language has the touch than only a poet could lend to this work. He has also composed an introduction to the text, which I was glad to read, and has produced genealogies that are quite useful for the reader, in order to unravel the snarled lineages of the Scandinavian clans.

The language is very direct, of course: it issues a kind of confrontational fortitude that, in the words of one friend "doesn't use all those Latin-derived words." The overall effect of the poem reminds me of the coronary injection in Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction. From the beginning of the poem, the reader is overwhelmed by the sense that each of Beowulf's choices will net immediate, life-changing results. We don't know until the end of the work whether his decisions are good ones, or if they will prove fatal.

Still not convinced? You think you'd rather read a contemporary action-packed novel than a 1300-year-old poem? Think again--this poem is populated by a fraternity-house of noisy, mead-filled warriors whose primary goal, it seems, is to exact vengeance on enemies, shatter a few skulls, and destroy evil beasts, (in one case, ripping off a limb or two, just for show). The actual monsters (and the dragon) in Beowulf are truly evil and despotic. When they are not destroying mead-halls or consuming warrior-flesh, they lurk deep in a boggish nightmare-underworld of caverns and tombs of long-forgotten kings. Rest assured that excerpts from Beowulf will never grace a Hallmark card--the poet used ink made from testosterone. In fact, female characters tend to waft into poem, and drift out again, having little, if any effect on the overall direction of the poem. Female readers may find this repulsive; however, the poet considered Beowulf's world a boy's world, and depicts it thus.

Wait! If you're a woman, don't stop reading yet--before you suppose that a cave-dwelling ex-boyfriend wrote this poem, you must not forget the profound thematic insights that the author laid out. He depicts a world where a person may change one's destiny, which indelibly chisels one's fate into the cliff-wall. For the author, destiny-building takes courage, and the results may be temporary gain (Beowulf defeats monsters, and local kings dump mounds of cold, hard treasure into his boats) but, ultimately, human-directed Fate can be painful or even destructive. Doing what is right may exact vengeance:

Suppose a monster is destroying your village. To kill such a monster is good, right? The poet is not so sure: his answer is a definite 'Maybe'. Suppose you kill said monster. Fine--now the creature's whole clan descends upon your city, angrier than ever, seeking bloody vengeance on your family. Despite this, the poet asserts that to remain idle may be more dangerous still. A strong king is revered by his clan, right? What if that king dies in a battle? What would become of the king's clan? The Geats, Beowulf's clan, die in just such a way. Whether you do, or whether you don't, you are still damned. So go right ahead.

The author wrote Beowulf in the Christian era, but pre-Christian sentimentalities still rule the poet's world. How can a "turn-your-cheek" Christian fit in a world where "an eye-for-an-eye" rules the land? Maybe the two tenets are incompatible, or maybe not. The author grapples with precisely this issue. Although the text is not implicit, the thought draws the reader like an overwhelming tide to Beowulf's end.

This poem could gain a particularly strong appeal in times of war. Beowulf is a warrior's Ecclesiastes. The reader comes away with the sentiment that Beowulf did everything he could, yet, all around him was, ultimately, vanity. With his death (I hope I didn't spoil the ending for anybody), Beowulf's land will certainly be invaded and his tribe's cultural identity will evaporate. However, the Geats build him a massive funeral pyre that can be seen from miles away, at sea. As Beowulf's ashes ascend to heaven humankind can be hopeful. Whether Beowulf dies or not, the war-cogs rattle forward. Battles will always be won and lost, although, sometimes, those battles will be great. Strong people will live awhile, and eventually die. Weak people will fade. But, still, the sun will rise in the morning, and as ships sail by Geatland, the crew will see it: the mighty pillar for a mighty warrior. This is for many to see, and for all to remember. Þæt wæs gôd scop.

The poem is that powerful.
… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This was a surprisingly speedy, easy and enjoyable read--for which Heaney, the translator, deserves a lot of credit. Especially given this is a verse translation. I've found that I have preferred prose translations of Homer and Dante because those trying to be true to alliteration, meter and rhyme often feel forced, awkward and occlude the meaning. It probably helped that Heaney is a distinguished poet in his own right; his translation was fluid, with a rhythm and tone somewhere between Homer and Tolkien in feel. And the story is fun, a Pagan tale set mostly in Dark Ages Denmark with Christian interjections by the original poet who probably was a monk writing anywhere between the mid-seventh to the end of the tenth century. There are monsters, notably Grendel and a dragon with his horde. What's not to love?

And a translation is needed. I read a bilingual edition, with the original Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and modern English translation side by side. Knowing Spanish I often can make out the gist of passages in Portuguese, Italian or even French. And though it's not easy, I can get Chaucer, in Middle English, even if I prefer a translation there too. I was surprised really at how indecipherable I found the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf. All the more reason to appreciate Heaney's achievement.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Review of David White translation: While there might be translations that do more in terms of translating both the sense of poetry and all the particular literary forms of the original work, Mr. Wright's translation has the distinction of being very readable while still retaining some of the flavor of the literary style. I also quite enjoyed the introduction where Mr. Wright discusses his reasons for a prose translation and explains some of the background and allusions to be found within the tale. Beowulf himself represents the honorable warrior - the man who seeks for glory for all the right reasons. His exploits are exciting and amazing, yet the author of Beowulf never lets the reader forget that fortunes change, all men die, and glory fades.… (more)
LibraryThing member mattries37315
The oldest epic poem in English follows the feats of its titular protagonist over the course of days and years that made him a legend among his clan, friends, and even enemies. Beowulf was most likely orally transmitted before finally be written down several centuries later by an unknown Christian hand in Old English that today is readily accessible thanks to the translation by Seamus Heaney.

The epic tale of Beowulf begins in the mead hall of King Hrothgar of the Danes which is attacked by the monster Grendel for years. Beowulf, upon hearing of Hrothgar’s plight, gathers fourteen companions and sails from Geatland to the land of the Danes. Hrothgar welcomes the Geats and feasts them, attracting the attention of Grendel who attacks. One of the Geats is killed before the monster and Beowulf battle hand-to-hand which ends with Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm. The monster flees and bleeds out in the swamp-like lair shared with his mother. Grendel’s mother attacks the mead hall looking for revenge and kills one of Hrothgar’s long-time friends. Beowulf, his companions, Hrothgar, and others ride to the lair and Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother with a giant’s sword. After another feast, the Geats return home and fifty years later, Beowulf is King when a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure is awakened by a thief and goes on a rampage. Beowulf and younger chosen companions go to face the fiery serpent, but all but one of his companions flees after the King goes to face the foe. However, the one young warrior who stays is able to help the old King defeat the dragon though he his mortally wounded. It is this young warrior who supervises the dying Beowulf’s last wishes.

This is just a rough summary of a 3000 line poem that not only deals with Beowulf’s deeds but also the warrior culture and surprisingly the political insightfulness that many secondary characters talk about throughout the poem. The poem begins and ends with funerals with warrior kings giving look at pagan worldview even as the unknown Christian poet tried to his best to hide it with references to Christian religiosity. Although some say that any translation deprived the poem of the Old English rhyme and rhythm, the evolution of English in the thousand years since the poem was first put down in words means that unless one reads the original with a dictionary on hand, this poem would not be read. Heaney’s translation gives the poem its original epicness while also allowing present day readers a chance to “hear” the story in their own language thus giving it new life.

Beowulf is one of the many epic poems that have influenced storytelling over the centuries. Yet with its Scandinavian pagan oral roots and Christian authorship it is also a melding of two traditions that seem at odds yet together still create a power tale. Unlike some high school or college course force students to read the Old England or so-so translated excerpts from the poem, Seamus Heaney’s book gives the reader something that will keep their attention and greatly entertain.
… (more)
LibraryThing member RogueBelle
I love Heaney's translation, but for me, the real gemlike quality of this text is the matching Old English printed on the opposite pages -- it's just too much fun (at least if you're a lit geek like me)!
LibraryThing member macha
Heaney's done a marvellous job on his own terms: creating a contemporary poem out of the ancient one while remaining as true as possible to the original. and i always love versions that place the original right beside the translation.

but it's interesting that Heaney's version isn't so very far from Michael Alexander's much earlier scholarly translation. and Alexander manages to keep much more of the original wordplay, without losing the form. he's also got a densely illuminating intro. the Alexander sounds a lot more like we expect Beowulf to sound, though, because he isn't trying to update it, and creating brilliant poetry for this era is far from his intention. still, they are both kind of amazing, and i'm glad to have them. the Burton Raffel translation, on the other hand, i threw across the room, then de-accessioned.

an example from each: the line on the death of Grendel's mother.

in Heaney: she fell to the floor. The sword dripped blood; the swordsman was elated.
in Alexander: she fell to the ground: the sword was gory; he was glad at the deed.
in Raffel: her body fell to the floor, lifeless, the sword was wet with her blood, and Beowulf rejoiced at the sight.
the Raffel is terribly prosaic, not even following the poetic line, the Heaney goes for something specific in the poetry, but the Alexander, although sounding a bit archaic next to Heaney, conveys it all.
Alexander is also very alive to the nuances of the treatment of Grendel; Heaney just assumes the monster part, and leaves it at that.
… (more)
LibraryThing member LizAnnBowen
Having translated the entirety of Beowulf from Old English into modern English, I must say that Heaney takes great leaps and a poetic license to the original text. That being said, Heaney's translation allows any reader to understand the world of Beowulf in a greater capacity and fully engages the audience to hear the world as well through beautifully written verse. However, if using this text to research its setting and time period (which is rather loose and controversial, with scholars claiming the work anywhere between the 8th to the 11th century), you must have the original text and your Oxford to truly appreciate the language's impact on the understanding of its time period.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbill
It seems a bit petty to rate Beowulf as 3.5 stars, I mean, who am I to say that about a landmark work in English literature, one that’s 10-12 centuries old and of such importance? It is an epic tale, recounting Beowulf’s battles with three monsters – Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. Beowulf, a warrior from a part of Sweden called Geatland, comes to the aid of the king of the Danes to fight the first two, and then fifty years later as King of the Geats, fights the third. I’m no scholar and cannot compare different translations, but Rebsamen’s translation, done here in verse, with each line composed of two half-lines separated with a pause, is meant to be true to the original, and while reading it I could imagine it being intoned by a deep baritone voice around a fire while quaffing some mead. The names of the Danes, Swedes, and Geats/Waegmundings take some getting used to, though while many are mentioned, only a handful are of importance, and it is a relatively quick read. Perhaps that’s why I have it as 3.5 stars; while historically important, it’s somewhat one-dimensional. Maybe Beowulf should have had a love interest. :P

On Old Age:
“There was song and laughter – the Spear Danes’ king
stretched his memory for stories of childhood.
At times the old one touched his harpstrings
strummed the songwood sang of the past
moments of heartgrief high victories
remnants of his youth from reaches of his mind.
At times he brooded bound by his years
an old sword-warrior sorrowing for friends
worn with winter welling with memories
yearning for dead ones young hearth-fellows.”

On the transience of life:
“The last of splendor slips into darkness
that loaned king-body cracks upon the pyre
swirls away in smoke – soon another one
steps to the gift-throne shares his goldhoard
turns that treachery to trust and reward.
Guard against life-bale beloved Beowulf
best of warriors and win for your soul
eternal counsel – do not care for pride
great shield-champion! The glory of your strength
lasts for a while but not long after
sickness or spear-point will sever you from life...”
… (more)
LibraryThing member PatsyMurray
I was surprised to find I enjoyed this poem despite its grim subject matter. It is a story of a heroic battle of a warrior with evil forces. Beowulf wins the first battle easily, but the second and third are harder fought. The virtues here are simple, and the evil originates almost entirely from outside the community so it is easy to choose a side. This poem reenforces the warrior's code that kept men loyal and obedient to their leaders. The accompanying photographs of landscapes and artifacts in this edition help generate the atmosphere and help add to the reader's understanding of the action and description in the poem. .… (more)
LibraryThing member Helenliz
Another re-read prompted by the desert island books conversation. this is just fabulous. I know the original derives from a oral tradition, and I feel that this is designed to be read aloud, not to oneself. the meter is unlike the iambic rhythm we're so used to now, but the alliteration works and the lines sort of trip of the tongue. It's never a dull "te tum te tum te tum" thing - the words almost have a life of their own.
Add to that it's a swashbuckling story from the heroic to the unbearably sad and it just sweeps you away. Takes a bit of concentration, but that's no bad thing in a book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member MaowangVater
The mighty young hero of the Geats rescues the Danes from two hellish monsters that are slaughtering their warriors as they sleep in the royal banquet hall. Then heaped in glory and treasure he returns home to become, in his old age, king and dragon-slayer: the final glorious deed that ends his life. Raffel's translation into vivid alliterative modern English is vivid and exciting.

The new afterword lauds how well this translation has stood the test of time, and how many recent adaptations of the poem have been published since then (including the icky 2007 movie). Frank also writes that this earliest epic did not enter the canon of English literature until the late nineteenth century.
… (more)
LibraryThing member GlebtheDancer
Heaney's translation is lyrical and accessible, treading the fine line between preserving the antiquity of the text and making it understandable to modern readers. Even for the poetically illiterate (like myself) the introduction is a fascinating insight into telling a wonderful story within the limitations of poetic meter. The text itself is classic sword and sorcery a millenium and a half before Tolkien, but drawn from the same rich Anglo-Saxon well. It is not too long and not overly heavy, so if the name 'Boewulf' and the implications of dusty academia have put you off in the past, this would be an excellent place to break your prejudices.… (more)
LibraryThing member thornton37814
Irish author Seamus Heaney provides a readable poetic translation of the epic Beowulf. In the poem readers see a mingling of Christian and pagan traditions. Well-versed Biblical students may even notice parallels between Beowulf and warriors in the Bible. Although the Old English appears on facing pages, my lack of knowledge of Old English makes it impossible for me to determine Heaney's faithfulness to the originals. His introduction and acknowledgement provides some background. He admits to differing opinions with other scholars but the final product seems true to the version I remember from college days while being far more readable. Perhaps more readers will find this classic tale accessible because of Heaney's work.… (more)
LibraryThing member trinityofone
This epic poem becomes even *more* astonishing if you read it aloud in a valley girl voice. ("So. The Spear-Danes? Like, in days gone by?")

On a more serious note, I love Heaney's theory of the Irish as the cold and rejected Grendel prowling outside the warm fires of England's Herot. Who doesn't sometimes feel like the exiles of the world?… (more)
LibraryThing member catherinestead
Warrior Beowulf saves the Danes from the monster Grendel and then Grendel's mother and then many years later does battle against a dragon guarding a hoard of gold.

I loved reading this. The poetry of the Heaney translation is very vivid and flowing, and creates a great atmosphere of fighting and carousing and boasting warriors and epic battle against mythical beasts. The story is dark and sometimes gruesome, and it is not at all hard to imagine the poem being recited around the fire by Anglo-Saxon warriors, passing round the cup of mead as the tale unfolds.

I am definitely going to pick up a literal/glossed translation at some point and read it again, and try to make more sense of the original text.
… (more)
LibraryThing member keristars
For me, most of the appeal of Beowulf is its historical value, as well as comparison to other cultures' epic tales. I'm not actually very much interested in stories about heroes and battles otherwise.

Thus, I think it is definitely worthwhile to read the poem at least once, even if you aren't much of a fan of the genre. The Seamus Heaney translation is the one I would recommend. I found it to be very accessible and engaging, and had no trouble at all following the story. I rather appreciated when he changed the rhythm and other patterns to indicate someone reciting a story within the story - it's a sort of meta stylistic choice and not terribly necessary, but I liked it.

The WW Norton edition of Heaney's translation is also nice to have because of the margin notes that indicate the actions of a particular set of lines. I'm not sure if other editions from other translators/editors do the same thing, but it was very useful when I got caught up in the words and lost track of exactly what was happening, or when the story returned from a tangent.
… (more)
LibraryThing member LovingLit
This translated version has the Olde English verse written on the left page, and the modern English verse on the right page. As Heaney states in the introduction, he has tried with this translation to keep the language simple and as the original intended the meaning to be. He favoured meaning over rhyme, and as a consequence there is little rhyme. But the rhythm is certainly there and it reads very well.

I was surprised at how accessible the story was, and how drawn in I was. There seemed to be some glaringly obvious similarities in storyline to The Hobbit...I am unsure as to whether this has been stated before I came to the conclusion, but is seemed so to me. The parts of the story that did get complicated were the family lineages and connections. But that didn't detract from the legend of Beowulf being as grand and fearsome as ever
… (more)
LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York, 2000. Seamus Heaney's translation is great. This is a very readable edition, but the poetic weight is not lost. I've read excerpts from other translations, and the clarity of the new Beowulf is amazing in comparison. I'm glad I've finally read this classic, and I'm glad I'll remember it fondly because I read this version.… (more)
LibraryThing member JustLance
I have read many translations and this is my favorite. I love the poem/story of Beowulf and read it often. This is not only an excellent translation, but it is such an easy to read version that I must give it 5 stars. Read this version and enjoy a true classic tale that will keep you interested from start to finish.
LibraryThing member JEOCantoni
A fantastic epic poem that gives a view into a history that is often overlooked by scholars. Certainly the Greeks and Romans receive their due but the Anglo-Saxons have just as rich and captivating an epic and thanks to Seamus Heaney their tale is done justice. Thank you. I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in the British Isles, Anglo-Saxon history or epic poems. Seamus Heaney does fantastic work in his efforts to make this particular work bilingual, but regardless of the translation it is a must read for anyone interested in classics and/or Anglo-Saxon history! (an absolute must!!!!)… (more)
LibraryThing member jasmyn9
6. Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
Pages: 215
Acquired: January 2011
Book of Your Shelf? Nope
Why I have/read it: Group Read
Series: No

The heroic tale of the warrior Beowulf and his fights against three monters. A "modern" translation of the Old English poem, it was very easy to understand. The translation flowed smoothly for the most part, and was easy to follow and really get into the story. The only complaint I have, is that there were times the rhythm seemed a bit off and it pulled me out of the story.

… (more)
LibraryThing member Liz1564
Beowulf translated by Stephen Mitchell was sent to me by Yale University Press via NetGalley. Thank you.

This Beowulf by Stephen Mitchell is an very entertaining translation, The adjective that comes to my mind is "robust." The narrative is straightforward and the flashbacks and foreshadowing are not awkward and do not stop the forward movement of the story. I taught Beowulf for many years to high school students and I wish I had this version. The literature anthology I used had the Kennedy translation which I personally love for it lyric imagery. In Kennedy, the lines about Grendel approaching Heorot (lines 678-680) are "From the stretching moors, from the misty hollows, Grendel came creeping, accursed of God." The Mitchell translation renders the same lines as " Then up from the moor, in a veil of mist, Grendel came slouching. He bore God's wrath." I like the former, but I know my students would have preferred the latter.

In the end, whether it be Mitchell, Seamus Heaney, Charles Kennedy or E. Donaldson, all translations of Beowulf are a good thing. I am sure the scops who entertained their listeners during the black nights in the cold north would each have put his own spin on the story. Make it beautiful or make it bloody. One thing is for sure. Beowulf can never be boring.

Some very nice addition sto the Mitchell translation are the addition of maps, genealogical charts and a list of characters and place names with pronunciations.
… (more)
LibraryThing member edella
What could be a more promising poetic project than the greatest of early English poems, Beowulf, newly translated by arguably the greatest of living poets writing in English, Seamus Heaney? The literary pedigree of this great fabular epic in the hands of Nobel Laureate Heaney matches Ted Hughes' award-winning rewrite of Ovid's Metamorphosis, Tales from Ovid. Heaney has chosen the plain, prosaic yet subtly cadenced vernacular of his Northern Irish roots as the poetic voice into which he renders this famous Anglo-Saxon fabular epic of a dragon-slaying Danish warrior. The result is an engaging evocation of the highly alliterative, densely metaphorical texture of Anglo-Saxon verse, which is famously hard to capture in modern English poetic forms.
"It's narrative elements may belong to a previous age but as a work of art it lives in the present," writes Heaney of this tale of monstrous, murderous Grendel, heroic, kingly Beowulf, blood-feuds, dragon-slaying and spiritual grace. The very plain-spokenness of Heaney's translation makes it admirably easy to read and understand, whilst rendering an often true translation at a galloping narrative pace. Heaney's Beowulf opens up one of the most famous founding epics of European literature to a modern world of new readers.
… (more)
LibraryThing member millsge
I don't know how to review a masterpiece like Beowulf - it's like writing a review of Sistine Chapel . To say something about this work of art that would be both original and add to our understanding of the poem, the author, the time in which it was written, and its many themes is beyond me. As with all great poetry, all one can do is try to hear every note of its music and allow it to go directly to that thing one identifies as one's "I."… (more)

Original language

Old English

Other editions

Beowulf by Sarah M. Anderson (Paper Book)
Page: 0.2926 seconds