The poet delves, prying open the past.
Long-forgotten lines live again.
Beowulf breathes, beckoning new readers.
That Heaney is one good maker.
All right, writing the entire post in a pastiche of Anglo-Saxon might be a bit more than I can take on, but the exercise was a good one. Anglo-Saxon poetry is more about the stresses and alliteration than about metrical feet and rhyme. So for a reader used to the patterns of more contemporary verse, taking on “Beowulf” can be a bit daunting, even if you can read Anglo-Saxon. For those of us less gifted, Seamus Heaney’s translation provides a superb entry into this masterpiece.
In many ways, “Beowulf” is the root of fantasy fiction, especially of the sword-swinging, dragon-slaying variety. As J.R.R. Tolkien noted in his 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” too often scholars studying the poem set aside the more fantastic elements of the story focusing rather on those of a more historical nature. To do so, though, deprives the reader of the power of the story; as Tolkien said, “Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that any historical value it may possess must always be of secondary importance.” For readers of any fantasy fiction of the past 100 or so years the Beowulf story, with its blend of politics, magic, and fighting will have a familiar resonance.
So take some time this Spring to sit down with Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf.” Read it slowly, and let the roll and plunge of the language sweep over you and carry you across the sea to Hrothgar’s hall, where Grendel terrorizes the kingdom of the Danes, until there comes a mighty warrior to free the country from this nightmare.
Check the WRL catalog for Beowulf