Topic #23: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
Book: Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Author Unknown)
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2000)
“Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,/ eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride./ For a brief while your strength is in bloom/ but it fades quickly…Your piercing eye/ will dim and darken; and death will arrive,/ dear warrior, to sweep you away.”
Long ago, when dying paganism was still fresh in the hearts of those who dwelled in the cold lands northeast of Britannia, a small ship bearing fifteen Geatish warriors disembarked on Danish shores. There had been plenty of bad blood between the Geats and the Danes, enough reason for war in that era of violence, but these Geatish warriors had no plans to revive hostilities. Quite the opposite; their leader, Beowulf, had heard stories of the monster, Grendel, and the Danish corpses he had left behind him and he was spurred to come to their aid. Brave as he is strong, strong as he is proud, Beowulf means to win not just the favor of King Hrothgar, but lasting glory as a warrior by the only means he can: the risking of his own life.
As one of the oldest surviving texts in Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf’s archaic English is unintelligible to readers of modern-day English, other than the occasional familiar word. Like any other foreign language text, a modern reader must depend on a translation, and it is this translation that largely dictates the quality of a reader’s experience. Seamus Heaney is mostly successful in turning the original Old English into something easy to read while respecting the line order; he breaks the action down into quick, simple clauses, often chaining many of these clauses together to convey more complicated ideas, but rarely allowing any part to break the rhythm that he undoubtedly heard in the original language.
This edition has everything a passionate reader might want in a translation. With the original text and the translation printed on opposite pages, scholars or students of Old English can check between the two instantaneously. There is also an excellent foreword, which provides much-needed background on the era and allowed me to follow the story pretty well from the start. I was especially pleased with the miniature summaries sprinkled through the book, which quickly explain the meaning of each passage. At times, when the narrative dipped into one of its many nested stories and it became unclear which character was being described, a quick check in the margins was often enough to reorient me.
As a tale of monster-slaying and adventure, Beowulf is frankly, a bit lackluster. Beowulf combats three foes in over three thousands lines of the poem, but of the three, only the third and final reads as anything more than a summary of the most important points. Great care is spent in establishing each of Beowulf’s opponents as a dangerous threat, and after he defeats them, many lines are spent extolling his greatness in slaying them, but again, only in the last case does the battle prove to be more than a trivial concern. Beowulf’s seeming invincibility carries some interesting thematic resonance, but whatever the poem might be trying to say with these dull battle scenes, they also rob the poem of virtually any sense of excitement
Rather than an adventure narrative, the poem is much more successful as a reflection of a way of life entirely foreign to any modern reader. The Scandinavian kingdoms of Beowulf may be in frequent conflict with each other, but culturally, they are indistinguishable. Beowulf’s quest to win glory in battle is simply one example of an obsession that animates so many other stories in the poem: the hunger to prove oneself to subordinates, to superiors, to comrades, even to enemies and to oneself, but always through battle. In a world nearly empty of joy other than the meager distraction of drinking and stories, the only real value a person can obtain is obtained through the sword. But when the specter of death hangs over everything, are even the greatest deeds capable of bringing a life lasting meaning? It is when Beowulf considers this question that it achieves its most beautiful stanzas and ideas.
Final Grade: C+