By Anonymous

Translated by Seamus Heaney New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 20002009
ISBN # 0-393-32097-9-, pbk

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2012

I have only quite recently heard of Seamus Heaney and this translation of the classic, Beowulf. I had read Beowulf both in high school and college and never had been much attracted to it, nor could I have recounted the action. (But, in fairness to me, that was 55 to 58 years ago.)

I also read that Heaney was an excellent poet in his own right and a Nobel Prize winner a number of years ago. I purchased not only Beowulf, but a couple books of his poetry. While I’ve yet to read one of the poetry books (that’s the next book I’ll read), I did sample a bit of his book THE SPIRIT LEVEL and was just astonished at the poems. I am most excited about reading those in the next few days.

Finally, however, Beowulf came alive and exciting for me in the Heaney translation. It was hard for me to believe a translation could make such an astounding difference, or that no one had before provided such a gripping translation of this work.

Written sometime before the year 1,000, it was written in early English, but was a story of a Geat, Beowulf, seemingly from southern Sweden who was a great warrior, hero and savior of many people. Once I got into it I couldn’t put it down and I think much of that is because of the marvelous job Heaney does of presenting the material.

The Danes were being attacked and decimated by an unnatural creature, taking and eating people each night in the main castle hall. When Beowulf hears about this he comes with a troop of soldiers and pledges that he will save the Danes. This creature, Grendel, is some sort of mysterious sort of being and normal weapons won’t work on him, so, astonishingly, Beowulf decides to fight him by hand. That night when Grendel comes to kill and carry off his prey, there is Beowulf, and Grendel dies in the struggle.

There is great feasting and accounts not only of Beowulf’s great victory, but of other victories in the history of the Danes. Beowulf is given many gifts and is to be sent back to the land of the Geats with tremendous praise and great appreciation.

Ah, but not so fast. That next night Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son and carries off one guard. The Danes are terrified, but Beowulf and his Geats follow Grendel’s mother to this mysterious lake of some sort where Beowulf will have to go into the depths of the lake and fight it out. Okay, okay, breathing might be a problem, but by this time the reader is far beyond realism and into the story as it exists, at least this reading in the hands of Heaney’s translation was. Beowulf takes his favorite sword, but this just won’t kill her, so once again he gives up his weapon and fights her in hand to hand combat finally killing her with her own sword.

Now he is, indeed the hero of the realm and a legend in his own time, returning to the land of the Geats as this famed warrior. He is given lands and riches and his very reputation keeps the Geats safe from attack. Eventually, after many many years he ends up becoming king (against his will) but that goes well too. However, about the time he is into his 80s a threat comes to the Geats.

Centuries and centuries ago someone had buried a great treasure in a secret place and this place had been discovered by a fire-breathing dragon that loved it and lived in this cave-like place surrounded by his jewels, gold, riches and most especially a magnificent chalice. As bad luck would have it a lowly rural Geat stumbles on this hoard and, of all things, steals the dragon’s favorite trinket, the chalice. Immediately the dragon decides to wreak havoc on the Geats, and once again, the very elderly Beowulf declares that he will indeed slay the dragon and return people to the people. He sets of with a group of select soldiers and his own special, nearly magical sword, to slay the dragon.

When the dragon finally comes to join the battle all the soldieries flee, except in this case, one single very young soldier, in his first battle, stays loyal to Beowulf. This is Wiglaf who goes to fight along side Beowulf. This is a rough battle of three different attacks and early on Beowulf’s magic and favorite sword is broken, but they fight on. In the final battle the dragon inflicts what will be a mortal wound on Beowulf, but before he dies he manages to slay the dragon with his knife inflicting a mortal would. Wiglaf fights bravely and survives the battle, but both the dragon and Beowulf die.

Wiglaf is furious with his cowardly comrades and not only upbraids them, but makes it clear their lack of courage will now haunt the Geats. Other would-be-raiders, terrified of Beowulf, have left them in people for more than a half century. Now, knowing that not only is Beowulf dead, but that his select soldiers abandoned him in need, they will all come to attack the Geats and their lives are in danger.

Nonetheless, the people do honor Beowulf with a huge monument (a barrow) to him and reward Wiglaf for his bravery.

It’s really a great story, but it is the manner of the translation, the beauty and flow of it that made it such a success for me. Now, coming from this piece to Heaney’s OWN poetry I am really excited and can’t wait to begin, or should I say “return” since I have sampled a few of his poems already and have been extremely pleased with that foretaste.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett