Review: Beowulf

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

How does one exactly review Beowulf, the epic poem that kicks off so many an English curriculum? It’s poetry instead of a novel or a short story, and it was written to be sung to an audience vastly different than myself. (There’s a reason I don’t review poetry!) I can’t review it as I would review a novel written after, well, the invention of the form in the Middle East and Asia. However, I can talk about why I personally like the poem, its construction and the characteristics of its verse, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s landmark 1936 essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. (Because if there’s a way to tie it back to Tolkien, I will do everything in my power to do so.) This isn’t a traditional review, but a sort of casual overview about what I’ve been learning about the text.

Beowulf, for the uninitiated, follows three particular battles of the Geat hero Beowulf, who hails from what is now northern Sweden. The first is his battle with Grendel, a monster who haunts the meadhall of King Hrothgar of the Danes and terrorizes Hrothgar’s people. The second is his battle with Grendel’s mother, who seeks vengeance for the death of her only child. The third and last is Beowulf’s last battle, against a dragon that terrorizes Beowulf’s kingdom after his treasure hoard is disturbed.

Every time I read Beowulf, I’m always struck by how melancholy it is. The poem is separated into two parts–Beowulf’s adventures in Denmark, where he first earns his reputation, and Beowulf’s last adventure in Sweden. It’s not a narrative as we know it, with building action, but two portraits of Beowulf at different times in his life. In Denmark, Beowulf is a honorable and warrior blessed with outrageous strength; in Sweden, Beowulf is an old, but strong, king who knows his battle with the dragon will be his very last, his culture is failing, and that his death will leave the Geats vulnerable to attack from the Swedes. Indeed, the story of the dragon’s treasure hoard tells of an extinct people whose last survivor hid their gold in a barrow (a large earthen mound placed over a grave, as I learned recently). This warrior culture is concerned with gaining glory before death comes for them, since to them, death is not a peaceful state, but something akin to the blowing out of a candle. While we often focus on Beowulf in Denmark, because of Grendel and his mother, I’m always struck by how telling and how human the second half is.

The translation provided in The Norton Anthology of British Literature is the modern translation by Seamus Heaney, created in 1999. Obviously, since this is the translation I’ve been reading since high school, I have nothing to compare it with, but I think it’s a lovely translation–the language is crisp and clear and the imagery is beautiful. I particularly loved the image of a Geat woman singing out of pure grief at Beowulf’s funeral; it’s an image Peter Jackson directly stole for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and included on the Extended Edition, but more on the Tolkien connection in a moment. Since I read Beowulf in The Norton Anthology of British Literature, I can’t really comment on the actual Beowulf volume, which boasts Old English on the left pages and Heaney’s marvelous translation on the right, but it sounds wonderful.

The structure of Beowulf can take a little getting used to. I have to confess, when I was younger, I wondered why none of the translations had simply rendered as prose for readability. The answer, of course, is that these translations retain the structure of the original Old English manuscript, and it’s not poetry as we think of poetry today–with meter and rhyme schemes. Instead, it focuses on lines that are separated with a pause, with alliterating words on either side of the pause. It can be difficult to render in modern English, but Heaney does his best. The oral nature of the poem also explains why it repeats certain concepts; it was meant to be performed, not to be read in a largely illiterate society. People just coming in would be able to catch up quite quickly.

I was delighted to learn in class that Tolkien changed the face of Beowulf studies with his 1936 essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. (A copy can be found online here, and it’s also available in a collection of the same name.) Previous to Tolkien, scholars tended to look at Beowulf from a historical and linguistic standpoint, not a literary standpoint, and played down or even dismissed the fantastical elements of the poem. In his essay, Tolkien argues for a literary reading that values exactly those elements, as they make the poem into something greater than a purely historical poem. It’s an interesting read for anyone invested in fantasy, let alone interested in Beowulf. The Lord of the Rings is quite obviously influenced by Anglo-Saxon culture, especially Rohan. I was delighted to find an Eomer mentioned in Beowulf, and Heorot, Hrothgar’s great meadhall, is obviously the basis for Meduseld, Théoden’s hall. Much as reading Ivanhoe gives you a richer understanding of the Robin Hood mythology, reading Beowulf definitely enriches your reading of The Lord of the Rings. Interestingly, in the essay, Tolkien laments the lack of information available about pre-Christian Britain, which was part of his motivation to write The Lord of the Rings in the eighteen years between this essay’s publication and the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring. This, I think, is why I love analyzing literary works; the delicate interplay and influence a work can have with and over another.

Bottom line: Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is a gorgeous translation of the great epic poem. All those who love stories, fantasy, and literature need to have a copy to refer to and enjoy.

I bought The Norton Anthology of British Literature online.

9 thoughts on “Review: Beowulf

  1. I hated Beowulf when we read it my senior year of high school, but I also had this English teacher who hated me and pronounced the W in “sword”. It is possible my impressions of the poem were colored by my dislike of her. If I do try again I’ll make sure to get this translation.

  2. I have the Heaney version, mainly because I like his poetry anyway. I had previously only read a kid’s version, told in prose, of Beowulf’s first two battles – and of course it was told only as pure story, without any sense of mortality or any literary merit. I didn’t know about the final battle with the dragon until I read Heaney’s translation.

    I think there are quite a few other versions – in verse – to choose from.

  3. Heaney’s translation has clear, crisp, concrete language, and it works beautifully, I think, for the harshness of early English. I read another translation for school, and it wasn’t half as good, due to the lengthiness and floweriness of the translation. Ugh.

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