Saturday, 25 February 2012

Beowulf through Seamus Heaney: "Fate goes ever as fate must"

Excerpt from BEOWULF (trans. Seamus Heaney)

The above link contains an excerpt from the opening of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, as well as an interview with Heaney on the work.

I should probably admit that I don't think I have read Beowulf from start to finish, even Seamus Heaney's translation, which was published in 1999 and was hugely successful. It has, however, intertwined with my life in various ways and I have read large sections of it, and I promise that I will sit down and read it from cover to cover one of these days...

I have been a Tolkien aficionado for a long time, and in some of his works he made liberal use of the typical alliterative style of Old English poetry, as well as its heroic, violent subject matter. I remember my brother studying the work, presumably when he was in high school, and recording a home-made radio play of the confrontation between Beowulf and Grendel's mother (impressive high-pitched screeches). Later, I studied portions of it in translation, and later looked a little bit at the original language in university. My Medieval Studies professor (a cool young guy who referred to Charlemagne as "Big Chuck") had a grasp of Old English and read from it to us. I have to admit that there is something about Old English that I find very stirring (for more information, see my long obsessions with heroes, medievalism, and yes...Manly Men.)

The first time I visited England was in 1997, with my family, while I was at university. This was before the new British Library had been built, and the manuscripts now displayed in the BL could be viewed in the British Museum. The British Museum, and particularly the manuscript displays, were a dream come true for me, but my brother and I were very disappointed that Beowulf and (I think) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both not on display when we were in London. Of course, these ancient and precious manuscripts are not constantly on display, as the displays are rotated periodically for restoration work and presumably to give the manuscripts a rest from the light. I have subsequently seen Beowulf several times, though, and I am always pleased if I happen to be at the British Library and find that it is on display.

One of the things that makes this work so extraordinary is that the original exists in only this single manuscript, dating back to the late tenth or early eleventh century. The history of its ownership has been traced back to the sixteenth century. I just find it amazing that it survived. There is something about old manuscripts which thrills me deeply - it is as though the authors, or at least transcribers who lived a lot closer to the time of the authors, are standing there and speaking to me face to face, hundreds or thousands of years falling away.

Seamus Heaney seems like the perfect poet to tackle Beowulf - his language is consistently resonant, internally rhythmic, deeply tied to history and ancestry, aware of the metaphoric and psychological power in nature and in man-made objects. As an Irish poet, he is also well placed to bring out the conflict and the dance between paganism and Christianity (overseen by the dark, constant shadow of fate or "wyrd") which runs throughout the poem and which also weaves through the history of the British Isles.

Beowulf is essential for anyone interested in the development of the English language - pick up the bilingual edition translated by Heaney, and thrill to the familiar words and phrases which occasionally leap out of what seems to be a forest of Germanic words. It is also a gem of the so-called "Dark Ages", an insight into the mind of medieval man, and an artifact which tells anyone who is a native English speaker or from a northern European background a little bit about where they came from.


  1. I couldn't stand Heaney myself, especially not as a translator of Beowulf. He is incapable of dressing up as the original, and so dresses the original up as himself. And it's not a very attractive self. Click here for my lambasting of him.

    1. Thanks! A subject you feel strongly about, I gather; unfortunately I don't understand Old English sufficiently to tackle the specifics... Can you recommend any translations of Beowulf that you've found particularly effective? In terms of Heaney bringing his own cultural and personal baggage to the task, my view is that this is something we all do when writing, interpreting and translating, and at least he's being honest about it...