Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Beowulf / translated by Seamus Heaney

4 out of 5 stars
Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the classic Northern epic of a hero’s triumphs as a young warrior and his fated death as a defender of his people. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed in the exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels in this story to the historical curve of consciousness in the twentieth century, but the poem also transcends such considerations, telling us psychological and spiritual truths that are permanent and liberating.

Beowulf is an interesting window into the past—specifically where Christianity and older pagan religions overlapped. It was fascinating to see the older, warrior culture being lived with an overlay of Christianity. But deeds of bravery and being able to hold your liquor whilst on the mead-bench were still valuable commodities! Modesty was not yet a virtue—a warrior was expected to declaim his exploits (a la the Norse god, Bragi, from whom we get the English verb “to brag.”)

Although I was familiar with the story line of the first half of the poem, dealing with Grendel and his mother, I found the second half completely new. I was unaware of the portion dealing with a dragon that Beowulf faces. I know that Tolkien also translated this poem and I was amazed at how similar some sections of it were to parts of The Hobbit when Bilbo and the dwarves are dealing with Smaug, the dragon occupying the former home of the dwarves. Obviously, Beowulf was inspiring for Tolkien.

I know that I had to translate parts of this poem from the old English for a linguistics course that I took many years ago. I remember it being a difficult task and I have to admire Seamus Heaney’s accomplishment. He has created a very readable version of the text. I tried something quite different for me with this work—I borrowed both the text and the audio book from the library and allowed the poet to read his work to me, while I followed along in the text. The only problem with this arrangement was the abridgement of the spoken-word version, requiring occasional pausing on my part to find my place further ahead in the text. Despite this, I enjoyed the experience very much and plan to use audio-books for other foundational texts of Western literature, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Several of my friends have warned me that is it very important who is providing the vocal performance on an audio-book. I felt that a poet of Heaney’s stature would have a good grasp of performing his work and I was not disappointed.
 

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