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October Books 3) Beowulf

3) Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

I got this some time back and skimmed it rather casually; but this weekend I have taken a short break from Shakespeare to read it thoroughly. It is a tremendous achievement. I think I had read two other adaptations of the epic poem, one probably by Roger Lancelyn Greene, the other a re-telling of the story from Grendel's point of view by John Gardner. I also saw Julian Glover recite most of it on stage in Belfast many years ago. I haven't seen the recent film as we so rarely get to the cinema.

Heaney has tried to retell the poem in its own terms, and his recasting of the poet's original imagery is vivid - we can almost smell Grendel and his mother, and Smaug's hoard seems a pale reflection of the dragon which brings about the tragic end of Beowulf's life. (Of course, Tolkien was one of the leading Beowulf scholars of the twentieth century, and there are entire sections of The Hobbit which have practically been copied from here.)

Apart from the gloriousness of the overall narrative, three things struck me, two more or less for the first time. First, it is actually an explicitly Christian poem, if in a rather weird way. Hrothgar commissions Beowulf to fight Grendel in terms that sound like God the Father sending his Son to defeat evil. Although the setting is the pagan past, the writer makes frequent allusions to Judeo-Christian concepts of destiny and virtue; the only explicitly non-Christian characters are the monsters.

Second, and related, there are numerous reflections on what makes a good king - not just the narrator's own oft-repeated phrase, "þæt wæs god cyning!" but also discourses from various characters in the midst of the action. It practically makes Beowulf a treatise on political science, along with its many other features.

Third - and this was the point I had noticed on previous skimming of the text - is the occasional diversion of the narrative to tell some other story only tangentially related by theme or personality to the main narrative. I'm going to stick my neck out and say that it doesn't work well for me, and I can't believe it worked well in oral presentation (I can't remember, but I'm pretty sure Julian Glover skipped those bits in his stage show). I am inclined to think that the compiler of our version used the opportunity to fold in some other bits and pieces of epic poetry which he or she had handy, so that they would not be lost to posterity.

Anyway, this is (quite literally) epic stuff.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 5th, 2008 02:12 pm (UTC)
definitely worth seeking out the audiobook, Heaney reading: it's powerful stuff. (Would offer to send you sample, but I think I only have it on tape. Remember tape?)
Oct. 5th, 2008 02:32 pm (UTC)
I have the DVD. It's wonderful. Could rip it I guess.
Oct. 5th, 2008 02:18 pm (UTC)
The film was an interesting experience. For the first two acts, I was writhing in my seat. And then the power of the story overtakes the production, and the last half-hour or so I thought was melancholy, moving, mesmeric.

There's another children's book version, Dragon Slayer, by Rosemary Sutcliff.
Oct. 5th, 2008 04:59 pm (UTC)
If you look on the poem as a treatise on how shite vengeance is as a political motivation then all the add-ons work. Of course that is a minority interpretation, as it presupposes a later composition date where the Christian tropes are not later additions. The fact that the poem has been called 'Beowulf' is definitely a misleading recent piece of protagonizing - titles are such prejudicing things.
Oct. 5th, 2008 05:07 pm (UTC)
Do you know is Seamus Heaney an olde english scholar? I suppose what I mean is this - did he actually translate this into modern English from an ancient text that he read himself, or did he just work form translations by other scholars?
Oct. 5th, 2008 06:54 pm (UTC)
You mean like Steven Mitchell's "Gilgamesh"? Which I thought was excellently rendered, but there's fewer people out there who would be able to tell if it was accurate or not than would be the case with Beowulf.

I don't think Heaney is an OE scholar, but I haven't been a professional anglo-saxonist since the early 90s, so I'm quite out of date.
Oct. 5th, 2008 07:30 pm (UTC)
I was thinking in particular of how Irish literary figures like Brian Friel are often bringing us "new translations" of works in langauges that I suspect they have little or no familiarity with. Or maybe Friel is a polymath who can read both Russian and Swedish.

Heaney has played this game too, previously producing new translations of work originally written in Ancient Greek. I suppose it is just possible that he can read both Ancient Greek and Olde English.
Oct. 5th, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC)
Heaney's quite clear about this: as an Eng Lit undergraduate he had to work through Beowulf as it was a compulsory text in those days in Belfast; and in the preface he describes sitting down to it at about 20 lines a day, equipped with dictionaries and other people's translations.

Also as a product of the grammar school system long before you or me, he certainly would have had to do Greek.
Oct. 5th, 2008 10:27 pm (UTC)
Well I did Greek in school too, but I wouldn't be able to translate anything from it to English now, though perhaps Heaney paid more attention than me and remained engaged with the language over the years. I'll give you Old English - a lot of people study it in college and may well remember it in later years.
Oct. 5th, 2008 08:30 pm (UTC)
See my reply to Ian.
Oct. 5th, 2008 06:54 pm (UTC)
Who's afraid of Beowulf
Well, I was..in first year, we were told that if we kept up English (in UCC), we'd learn to read Beowulf in Old English. Now, since I was not good at languages, that pretty much sealed the deal for me - I was out of there. This year, my 11 year old picked Beowulf as the movie for her birthday sleepover. We had a bunch of very scared girls on the sofa, but they could not take their eyes off the screen, and I thought it was pretty damn good. the following week I bought the Heaney version, but, alas, I haven't read it yet since the 11 year old ripped it off me as soon as she saw it, and hasn't given it back to me yet.

I have been told by a Viking friend that the book the 13th Warrior (but not the film) is a good version of the story, but it is out of print.

Heaney certainly translated it from the original himself.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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