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Beowulf: A New Verse Translation 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,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.
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...
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 hereIn 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
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.
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.
Top customer reviews
between Beowulf and Grendel in ancient Denmark, it was originally composed in Old English (Anglo Saxon) and it would be wonderful if more
of us could read and speak this ancient form of English. Interesting insight into the times.
It is unfortunate that this paperback version is printed on fairly cheap paper; it would be nice if the richness of the word was met with substantive paper.
Translated by Seamus Heaney who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997 it has some beautiful poetry. Some great lines. But I'm not much of a lover of poetry. Heaney's translation (in paperback) comes with facing parallel texts - Old English on one page, translated text on the facing page - and since I can't read Old English I cannot comment on the excellence of the translation. Suffice it to say that, like all translations, I'm sure it represents a lot of the translators mind.
There is only one surviving original copy of this poem which the experts say was written in England between the seventh and tenth centuries. And the questions of when it was written and by what kind of man wrote it are more interesting to me than parsing the poem itself. It's a bit like going through a museum and finding an artifact from the tenth century. You pick it up, examine it and wonder who made it, why and what it might tell you if it could speak. Then you put it back in the case and walk away.
Picking up this artifact and examining it I found that it was not particularly easy or interesting reading. The names were confusing. locations confusing; and the story line was constantly broken by other stories about or by speeches about other incidents or battles in the past. All of this detracts from a clear sequence of events. Furthermore I thought the story was rather one dimensional in the sense that almost all the characters were masculine; all were warriors in well described armor; there was no love interest; it was filled to the top with fighting, sword play, violence, drinking and tribal conquest or peril. And when I put the book down I knew nothing more about the condition of man than I did when I picked it up. No philosophy, no metaphoric teaching.
There were a couple of benefits, however. One was that it sent me to the history books and the other was that it made me analyze the poem with a mind to try to figure out what kind of a man wrote it.
First, history. After the fall of Rome in 410 the Romans left Britannia (as they called Britain at the time) where they had had a very flourishing and comfortable colony and a black curtain came down for a thousand years, give or take a century or two. For centuries the land was subject to tribal warfare without any real centralized authority. It was not until the Angevin kings (beginning with William II in 1066) that England had any real vestige of central authority. Yes, here were kings; but they ruled (if that is the right word) at the pleasure of the large landowners who themselves had acquired and held their lands by the same violence that they practiced on their "enemies" - of which there always many. It was a Mafia like government (again - the word government being used in its most elastic sense).
Education except in arms was nonexistent; food and shelter were primitive; illiteracy was universal except in one or two monasteries where Irish monks saw to the copying of existing scrolls and preserved what there was to preserve as best they could. The only real authority was in Rome. The country was basically pagan-Christian.
Furthermore, complicating this history of violence and want, England was always subject to invasion - first by the Vikings who harassed the shores of Britain for almost three hundred years in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries and then by the Normans who took over in the eleventh. During this time the Anglo-Saxons had produced only one real king - Alfred the Great (847-899) - and for about a hundred years before the Norman invasion much of the country was nothing more than a southern province of the Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Baltic confederation which gave England one of its most famous early kings - Canute (1013-1035) - who was not only King of the Danes but also King of England.
I have outlined all this to illustrate how much Viking history, ways and culture was and were imposed upon, injected into and became a part of English culture, a people who by 1066 were nominally Saxon but had a lot of Viking blood.
Now back to what kind of a man wrote Beowulf? No one person wrote Beowulf but you can bet each was either Norse or immersed in Norse civilization. The entire poem is series of stories, oral episodes, memorized, altered and sung or recited over three centuries in the mead halls of the nobles of Britain. And someone, a truly talented poet, strung them all together in about the tenth century to celebrate Norse heroism. And that's what it does. But it doesn't teach today. It doesn't inspire today. It doesn't entertain today. Better a poem to Joe Montana or read "Eaters of the Dead" by Michael Crighton, a far more interesting book about the invasion of monsters (Neanderthals) into the mead halls of the Vikings.