"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.
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.
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?
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.
Beowulf is a tough sell. Not only has it traditionally been used by English departments around the world to break the spirit of newly-recruited undergraduates (who thought they had signed up for three years of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, only to find themselves out on the parade-ground practicing their Old English sound-shifts for month after month...), but also, when you get down to it, it turns out to be a poem about a macho muscle-man who spends his time - when not quaffing mead - either ripping monsters limb from limb or swimming long distances in full armour. Told completely straight, without any discernible trace of irony. Well, not exactly my cup of tea...
Skimming through the introduction of the Bolton & Wrenn critical text, it turns out that we know surprisingly little about what must be one of the most-studied poems in the canon. It has survived in only one manuscript, the famous "British Museum Cotton Vitellius A XV" (bizarrely, the emperor Vitellius comes into it because it's his bust that stands on top of that particular bookcase). In fact, there are very few Old English texts that survive as multiple copies, so this uniqueness isn't unusual in itself. The manuscript seems to have been written around the year 1000, and textual evidence suggests that it's at least the third generation of copies since the poem was first written down. When and where that was is hotly disputed, but Mercia in the second half of the 8th century is a strong possibility. The action of the poem is set in a pre-Christian past in Denmark and Southern Sweden (with some mention of actual historical figures from the time), whilst the poet is obviously from a Christian background and refers quite freely to the Old Testament.
What I found most surprising was to discover that the poem was not conspicuously a "classic" in its own time: we don't have any other contemporary references to it (apart from the "Finnesburg fragment", a single page of MS that seems to come from a different version of part of the same story), and as far as anyone can tell it fell completely off the radar of English literature between the end of the Old English period and the time around 650 years later when the first modern scholars became interested in Old English manuscripts and discovered this poem, bound in with a prose translation of St Augustine. So Beowulf is only part of the history of English literature with hindsight.
The Heaney translation
Seamus Heaney, of course, saw it as rather more than a philological crossword puzzle or a Boys' Own adventure story, otherwise he wouldn't have bothered with it. He points us in particular at the last part of the poem, where the elderly (70+) hero decides that he owes it to his people to take on one last dragon, even though it will certainly cost him his life. And indeed, the anonymous poet deals with the complex emotions involved here a little less brusquely than he does elsewhere - but this isn't Shakespearean drama, and we shouldn't expect it to be.
What Heaney is really interested in, I think, is the poetical challenge of finding something in modern English that has the same magically seductive sound quality as Old English alliterative verse (which always sounds magnificent, even if you haven't a clue what it means...). And, of course, being Seamus Heaney, he decides to imagine the voices of the poem as if they came from the Northern Ireland farmers of his own sound-world, puts these into a slightly looser form of the Old English two-stress half-lines, and succeeds brilliantly. This translation is a poem that you just have to read aloud, even if there's no way that you can find any sympathy for Beowulf as a character.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...”
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?
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.
Heaney's translation was a revelation. I had heard such strong praise, but was still reluctant to revisit the epic. My sister finally persuaded me to read it to help her prep to teach a new Brit Lit class.
I was blown away. Not only could I understand what was going on, I was engrossed it the plot. I actually could not put it down.
So if you, like me never "got" Beowulf while in school, don't hesitate to give this translation a try
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