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Beowulf: A New Verse Translation Hardcover – February 15, 2000

4.5 out of 5 stars 122 customer reviews

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Hardcover, February 15, 2000
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In Beowulf warriors must back up their mead-hall boasts with instant action, monsters abound, and fights are always to the death. The Anglo-Saxon epic, composed between the 7th and 10th centuries, has long been accorded its place in literature, though its hold on our imagination has been less secure. In the introduction to his translation, Seamus Heaney argues that Beowulf's role as a required text for many English students obscured its mysteries and "mythic potency." Now, thanks to the Irish poet's marvelous recreation (in both senses of the word) under Alfred David's watch, this dark, doom-ridden work gets its day in the sun.

There are endless pleasures in Heaney's analysis, but readers should head straight for the poem and then to the prose. (Some will also take advantage of the dual-language edition and do some linguistic teasing out of their own.) The epic's outlines seem simple, depicting Beowulf's three key battles with the scaliest brutes in all of art: Grendel, Grendel's mother (who's in a suitably monstrous snit after her son's dismemberment and death), and then, 50 years later, a gold-hoarding dragon "threatening the night sky / with streamers of fire." Along the way, however, we are treated to flashes back and forward and to a world view in which a thane's allegiance to his lord and to God is absolute. In the first fight, the man from Geatland must travel to Denmark to take on the "shadow-stalker" terrorizing Heorot Hall. Here Beowulf and company set sail:

Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,
sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird...
After a fearsome night victory over march-haunting and heath-marauding Grendel, our high-born hero is suitably strewn with gold and praise, the queen declaring: "Your sway is wide as the wind's home, / as the sea around cliffs." Few will disagree. And remember, Beowulf has two more trials to undergo.

Heaney claims that when he began his translation it all too often seemed "like trying to bring down a megalith with a toy hammer." The poem's challenges are many: its strong four-stress line, heavy alliteration, and profusion of kennings could have been daunting. (The sea is, among other things, "the whale-road," the sun is "the world's candle," and Beowulf's third opponent is a "vile sky-winger." When it came to over-the-top compound phrases, the temptations must have been endless, but for the most part, Heaney smiles, he "called a sword a sword.") Yet there are few signs of effort in the poet's Englishing. Heaney varies his lines with ease, offering up stirring dialogue, action, and description while not stinting on the epic's mix of fate and fear. After Grendel's misbegotten mother comes to call, the king's evocation of her haunted home may strike dread into the hearts of men and beasts, but it's a gift to the reader:

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
In Heaney's hands, the poem's apparent archaisms and Anglo-Saxon attitudes--its formality, blood-feuds, and insane courage--turn the art of an ancient island nation into world literature. --Kerry Fried

From Publishers Weekly

When the great monster Grendel comes to Denmark and dashes its warriors' hopes, installing himself in their great hall and eating alive the valiant lords, the hero Beowulf arrives from over the ocean to wrestle the beast. He saves the Danes, who sing of his triumphs, but soon the monster's mother turns up to take him hostage: having killed her, our hero goes home to the land of the Geats, acquires the kingship, and fights to the death an enormous dragon. That's the plot of this narrative poem, composed more than a millennium ago in the Germanic language that gave birth (eventually) to our version of English. Long a thing for professors to gloss, the poem includes battles, aggressive boasts, glorious funerals, frightening creatures and a much-studied alliterative meter; earlier versions in current vernacular have pleased lay readers and helped hard-pressed students. Nobel laureate Heaney has brought forth a finely wrought, controversial (for having won a prize over a children's book) modern English version, one which retains, even recommends, the archaic strengths of its warrior world, where "The Spear-Danes in days gone by/ and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness." Well-known digressionsAa detailed dirge, the tale-within-a-tale of Hengest, "homesick and helpless" in ancient FrieslandAfind their ways into Heaney's English, which holds to the spirit (not always the letter) of the en face Anglo-Saxon, fusing swift story and seamless description, numinous adjectives and earthy nouns: in one swift scene of difficult swimming, "Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on/ for five nights, until the long flow/ and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold drove us apart. The deep boiled up/ and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild." Heaney's evocative introduction voices his long-felt attraction to the poem's "melancholy fortitude," describing the decades his rendering took and the use he discovered for dialect terms. It extends in dramatic fashion Heaney's long-term archeological delvings, his dig into the origins of his beloved, conflictedAby politics and placeAEnglish language. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bilingual edition (February 15, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374111197
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374111199
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #23,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Trinque VINE VOICE on February 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Beowulf" is justly regarded as a cornerstone of English literature, but those of us who do not read Anglo-Saxon must approach it through a translation. Certainly there is no shortage of translations; I have at least a dozen sitting on my bookshelf. However, I would eliminate half of them as adequate vehicles for really appreciating this grand poem because they are prose versions. While they may accurately convey the literal sense of the Old English words and provide a readily understood storyline, prose can never adequately render the poetic essence of the original.
Verse translation, however, is of necessity an imprecise art; poetry is too tightly bound to the language of its creator for a valid direct transposition to another tongue. Anglo-Saxon verse relied upon strong alliteration and a balance of stressed syllables rather than the use of rhyme and formally patterned meter as in later English poetry. The contemporary translator has a formidable and delicate challenge to transform "Beowulf" into a poem suited for today while remaining loyal to its ancient timbre. Although I greatly admire Ruth P.M. Lehmann's 1988 translation for its steadfast replication of the tone and cadence of the Old English original, there is truth in what another "Alliteration is a key element in Old English metrics ... but long stretches of it in Modern English will stupefy the most ardent reader". At times the beat and alliteration of Lehmann's verse threatens to overwhelm the present-day listener, becoming a deadening drumbeat. Yet, if the translator strays too far from the Anglo-Saxon structure in attempting to create something palatable for present taste, then the result inevitably lacks the bardic flavor at the heart of the poem.
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By A Customer on February 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In this translation of Beowulf, the story is the star. I've read other translated editions, but gotten so bogged down in the attempts at exact translation (those tiresome hyphenations!) that I never noticed Beowulf himself. Here, we see him develop as a character: first a young hero, then a king, then a seasoned ruler with one last fight to face.
And everything means something. Heaney mentions in his introduction that he wanted every word to have weight; he's succeeded.
The introduction alone, incidentally, is worth the price of the book. Reading how Heaney sees poetry and the English language is a privilege; he's one of our best living poets. Also, though I don't read Old English, I did appreciate the bilingual edition, just for reference's sake.
I highly recommend this edition. Whether the reader is new to the poem or not, it's fresh and meaningful here.
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After reading Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" as well as his epic fantasy, my own path was set: I became an English medievalist and, in fact, as a senior graduate student, taught Beowulf under the direction of William Alfred of Harvard before graduating and going on to become a writer of fantasy and science fiction.
I've tried to do my own alliterative translations: Mr. Heaney's translation comes as a delight for a number of reasons. Chief among them is this: he's the best poet to tackle BEOWULF since the original -scop-. Even 20 years after my grad school days, I read Old English. Heaney has produced a translation that is profoundly moving. If he sometimes diverges from the four-stress alliterative pattern, with the third stress being the main one, it's by design -- and he's explained it. He spares us the most convoluted kennings, but gives us, instead, the tautness, the spaces between the words, the pauses for thought, tension, and what Tolkien and Auden referred to as the Northern Thing -- the austere combination of faith and darkness that is Wyrd. It's a solid translation and a fine poem in Heaney's hands.
And it consoles me for not having a full translation by Tolkien and that John Gardner never lived to translate BEOWULF as he had hoped.
It is also delightful to consider that, for the first time since the death of T.S. Eliot, poetry is going to the top of the best-seller lists.
Mr. Heaney, although he is not a ring-giver, rings true, and has given us a great gift.
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Format: Hardcover
I don't have the academic background to compare Heaney's translation with the many that have come before; the only time I had read the poem previously was back in college, and all I remembered was Beowulf tearing Grendel's arm off. So, as someone coming to the poem blissfully ignorant, I'm happy to report that Heaney does a spectacular job. Someone smart once said that the only way to judge a translation is on the translation's own merits; that's lucky for me as I'm a dunce with Old English. I looked over the facing pages (the Old English pages, in my edition), and sometimes read them aloud to get a feel for their cadence and sound, but I trusted in Heaney to tell me the story, and what a story he tells.
I've always admired the tough beauty of his poetry; his lines tend to stomp about, a brawl of consonants, irredeemably masucline. What better interpreter, than, for the hypermacho world of Beowulf, where the men gnaw on bones and gulp down their mead and stagger off to fight monsters and get eviscerated. I'm not mocking the saga-- it's awfully good fun, and I'm pleased to see it's selling so well. Heaney's favorite themes, violence and memory, lurk in the heart of Beowulf.
Very nice to see a Nobel laureate refusing to rest on his laurels.
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