10 April 2010


One of the embarrassing gaps in my reading history - how did I get through my degree without reading this? Now that I have done, in Seamus Heaney's translation, I know how.

The thing is, Beowulf doesn't have much to do with English literature. It's so much more remote than Gawain, for example. It's partly the language, of course. In this version, the first page is given in parallel Anglo-Saxon and English, and even so, it's hard to see which word is which. Then there's the subject matter. The story is set in Denmark, and so it appears to be largely nostalgic. The tale is longer than I expected, and Grendel and his mum are killed off fairly early. Beowulf then returns to his homeland, becomes king and rules wisely and well for 50 years, before the third battle of the poem, a fatal encounter with a dragon. After that, the decline of the kingdom is presaged, a decline that has been evident in the fatalistic musings of the aging Beowulf. These are the best bits of the poem: the descriptions of the king facing his mortality are universal and moving.

Earlier, the poem shows signs of an oral culture. Each battle is described twice, first in the poet's voice, then in quotation from a witness/participant. The repetition would be appropriate for a listening audience, of course, but it also shows a diffidence, perhaps, about the role as author. The author isn't entirely trusted to know and tell everything, he has to adduce evidence. In a few places, the poet refers to himself explicitly, saying things like "someone told me this".

So the poem, for all its qualities, feels a lot like the end of a tradition, not the start of a new one. Sadly, it's less relevant to English literature than Homer, for example.

As for the translation, it seems a bit sluggish. It doesn't have the energy of Armitage's Gawain, perhaps, I'd venture, because there's not the shared dna of language that Armitage exploited. I suspect that might be part of the reason the final sections stand up so strongly - their mood is a better match with Heaney's verse.

This all sounds very negative, and shouldn't. It is a very fine poem, and of course I should have read it before now. I'm not going to learn Anglo-Saxon but I will look for other translations. 

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