Seamus Heaney offers a new translation of the classic Anglo-Saxon alliterative poems, which tells the tale of the hero Beowulf as he fights monsters from the murderous Grendel to the greedy dragon.
I’m no scholar of Old English, but perhaps this qualifies me to review this book as one of the general populace to whom it seems to be marketed. Seamus Heaney here translates the famous Anglo-Saxon epic alliterative poem–famous now, that is, in large part thanks to Professor J. R. R. Tolkien, who argued we should view it as a work of art and not merely a text to be mined for historical details. This translation became both a New York Times bestseller and the standard text offered in many an American classroom. So how good is the story really? And the translation?
I have not tried to compare Heaney’s translation with the original Anglo-Saxon text, so I do not know myself how faithfully he translates or what kinds of changes he may have made and how they affect how we understand the text. I do know, however, that his text is lively and vivid. It invites the reader in to this epic journey and says, “Shh, listen. A great tale is about to unfold.”
And a great tale it is. “Anglo-Saxon epic poetry” may not immediately seem appealing to the average reader, but Beowulf is, in fact, an engrossing fantasy adventure. It begins with the titular hero facing the monster Grendel, who creeps in a famed hall at night to kill the warriors sleeping there, then ends with a spectacular and doomed fight against a dragon. Beowulf is, by the way, a super brave and strong and all-around amazing hero–and he is never going to let you forget it. So intertwined with his epic fight are details both of all the other amazing feats he has performed, as well as tales of the feats other historical figures have performed.
These historical asides may sometimes lose the average reader. Who are these Scandinavian figures and what are they doing in this story? (And why is the great British poem about Scandinavian heroes, anyway?) But they do ground the story in a larger narrative that makes the audience reflect on Beowulf and his place in society. Though Beowulf triumphs against his first monsters, the specters of history and death are always behind him. By the time the dragon comes, you know he is lost.
But losing cannot deter a great hero. Beowulf will seek fame and glory wherever it may be since only fame keeps a pagan hero alive after death. His final battle, abandoned by all but one faithful follower, is, for me, the emotional heart of this tale. Doom comes to us all. Beowulf perhaps faces it more boldly than most.
Though I’ve read Beowulf several times, it remains a powerful and moving story. And the people who helped it make the New York Times bestseller list seem to agree.