The Opinionated Wench  

Food & Drink
Movies & TV
Arts and Sciences
About Me

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, Seamus Heaney. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2000.

This is a really cool book because on the right hand pages it has Seamus Heaney's translation, but on the left hand pages it has the original Anglo-Saxon. Oh, you want to know what I thought of the story. Well, it was pretty good. I guess I've kind of had this preconceived notion that all literature written before say about 1950 is really dense, hard to get through, and hard to understand. Sure, I guess Beowulf would be pretty inaccessible to me in its original Anglo-Saxon, which I understand some students of English literature still have to study it in, but in Seamus Heaney's new verse translation it was really gripping.

Not being able to read the original Anglo-Saxon, I'm not really sure what the original tone of the poem was, but in this translation the style is all really immediate, middle of the action, intense kind of stuff. I like intense narratives. They're really easy to get through (hard to put down, in fact). I read the first half of Beowulf while I was supposed to be getting ready for bed, and I read the other half in Cafe de Tokyo over a big bowl of udon while waiting for fighter practice to start. Sometimes I have trouble reading poetry on a printed page because the lines are too short or the poet has sort of screwed up the syntax and used weird words to make the scansion and the rhyming work. This wasn't like that -- there was no specific scansion for any of the lines and they didn't necessarily rhyme, and he did a good job of bringing the alliteration over from the Anglo-Saxon.

I always thought that Beowulf was the story of Beowulf and his big, epic fight against the monster Grendel, but in fact there are three big fights, plus a bunch of background details and flashbacks. First you get Grendel. Then you get Grendel's mother. Beowulf handily defeats them both, goes back to his own country, and through no scheming of his own ends up as king of his people. He rules well for 50 years until somebody disturbs a dragon, which Beowulf has to go and fight even though he's old and his strength isn't what it used to be and his councillors all advise against it.

So that's the basic plot. It's pretty simple, but the whole narrative is peppered with flashbacks, side stories, and comparisons with other princes who had varying degrees of success with their deeds of arms. I found it pretty hard to follow in places, sometimes even though I read the margin notes to try and figure out what was going on.

Anyway, I liked it as a piece of English Language -- this is the sort of stuff that's really fun to read out loud in a dramatic tone of voice. As a story, I thought it needed some editing. I don't want to judge it too harshly -- for all I know, this was the proper form of an epic poem in the 7th to 10th centuries -- but I found the sidetracks and flashbacks really hard to follow, hard to fit into the proper sequence of action, and in some cases not relevant at all.

Score: 4 pints of ale made properly according to a period recipe, but that nonetheless taste kind of funny to a modern drinker used to hoppy beer.

Score: Four Pints Four Pints Four Pints Four Pints

Send your opinions to:

Looking for the SCA?