Earlier this year a new version of Beowulf was published, translated by the Irish Nobel Prize Winner (for 1995) Seamus Heaney. Heaney has spent many years trying to get this translation just right, and I believe he hit the nail on the head in this case. This book presents a different insight into reading Beowulf, adopting a more archaic viewpoint in both language and imagery. Heaney does not bother much with fancy words to make the poem seem more fantastic, but sticks to the original terms, translating them as closely as he possibly can. The book is set up so that on the left is the poem in its original Anglo-Saxon or Old English text and on the right is Heaney’s translation.
For this translation, Heaney had to return to his long misused Irish tongue of Gaelic. He had learned the language when he was a boy, but has since spent more time using English. His main source was his grandmother, who is still fluent in the archaic language. In talking to her, he would hear strange words and terms that simply do not exist in modern English. Heaney would then turn to the original text of Beowulf. There he would notice similarities between these strange expressions uttered by his grandmother and the poem. In one case he found an exact match with the word “Þolian” which means to suffer and his grandmother’s expression, “They’ll just have to learn to thole”; here the thorn symbol, Þ, is pronounced with a “th” sound. Heaney considered these unique insights “loopholes” through which he was able to translate this magnificent piece of literature.
It remains unknown as to when Beowulf was written and by whom. Quite likely a monk wrote it, since monks were really the only people of the time who were able to write; also the poem was written by a Christian, since there are numerous points throughout the codex where the “Almighty” and “God” are thanked and respected.
The poem was composed first orally some time during the middle of the seventh century, and then written down in the eleventh century. It is a tale about a great hero of the Geats know as Beowulf, who travels to Denmark, where the king, Hrothgar, is being attacked by a monster in the night known as Grendel. Beowulf fights with the beat and rips off its arm, whereupon the creature flees into the darkness from whence it came. The next night, Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son; she takes a life and flees back to her lair beneath the mere (a lake). Beowulf pursues, tracks her down and with a magic sword decapitates her.
After being greatly rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf and his army return to their homeland in the south of Sweden. There, after years of attacks by enemies, he inherits the throne and rules for fifty years. In his fiftieth year, a dragon is disturbed from its lair, where it has been guarding a mound of ancient treasure, left by a long-dead warrior. Beowulf confronts the dragon but is gravely injured. Wiglaf, one of his soldiers, comes to his rescue and stabs the dragon in the stomach, killing its ability to make fire. Beowulf draws his dagger and stabs the dragon a lethal blow. But Beowulf has been poisoned by the dragon’s bite and dies shortly after.
A great funeral pyre is built and set ablaze, while his many followers watch. His cremated remains are added to a special mound that is created on a hilltop overlooking the sea, where any ship passing will see the mound and know that Beowulf lies beneath. Thus, the poem ends with the forever-lasting memory of a great hero.
Heaney’s new twist on this translation of Beowulf is through using the most exact word possible; the result are terms like “ring-hoard,” “lake-birth,” “shield-clash,” and “sky-roamer.” What makes this so magical is how the words fit so well, and flow like the soft voice that once spoke them. These specific terms help to create an image in the reader’s mind of just what the original composer was intending: a story of gallantry, gold, fighting, Christianity, and the triumph of good over evil. As one begins reading, one can not help but get caught up in the thrashing current that pulls you along with the weight of the past, taking you step-by-step along Beowulf’s paths, his victories, and his eventual loss. And at the poem’s climax and conclusion one is left with a deep-set feeling of remorse for this mighty warrior, Beowulf, who most likely never existed, or at least has not lived for over a thousand years.
If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.
Originally published on November 6 2000 ©Alex C. Telander.
Originally published in the Long Beach Union.