This was a bit of a relief considering the last book I read I couldn’t pick up again; this one, of course, is a book that I can never put down. Beowulf is not a complicated story. The titular hero and his crew of Geats cross the sea in order to help Hrothgar and his men fight the scourge of Heorot, Grendel. And it’s hardly surprising that they are victorious. What follows are two more battles with monsters, one fatal, and a rumination on gold and glory, two incredibly important themes of the time.
This edition is gorgeous just from the beginning, with a slightly raised mail head covering the cover (sadly, this is a cover I’ve run my fingers along many, many times). The book is beautifully laid out, with both the Anglo-Saxon and Heaney’s translation presented side by side. Unfortunately, I’ve never learned how to read Anglo-Saxon, but it’s great fun to compare the two side-by-side, and see exactly how the sounds and syllables of these dead words remain in our own living language. I’m sure that many, many people have unpleasant memories of being forced to read a dry (possibly prose translation–horrors!) translation of Beowulf in high school, of being bored by it, hating it, not understanding it. But as Andrew Motion wrote, “Heaney has made a masterpiece of a masterpiece.” And he really, really has. It’s hard to describe just how wonderful this translation is, how enjoyable it is to read, the sort of rolling old adventure that should be told around a fire in the dark. In the equally interesting 21-page introduction that accompanies this edition, Heaney writes that he considers Beowulf to be his voice-right… and how true that is.
And just listen to this language:
…They are fatherless creatures,
and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past
of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart
among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags
and treacherous keshes, where cold streams
pour down the mountain and disappear
under mist and moorland.
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
When wind blows up and stormy weather
makes clouds scud and the skies weep,
out of its depths a dirty surge
is pitched towards the heavens…
This isn’t just heroics, this is the most beautiful, evocative and slightly creep-inducing language. There’s something old and dangerous just about the words: keshes, crags, frost-stiffened woods. You can see where Tolkien drew his inspiration; this is the language and imagery of an England that no longer exists, of fens where monsters lurk, where mists over the land conceal nameless horrors, where golden-roofed halls are the only bastions of civilization, where the sword is the only way to gain honor.
And then there’s this bit:
No ring-whorled prow
could up then
and away on the sea.
Wind and water
raged with storms,
wave and shingle
were shackled in ice
until another year
appeared in the yard
as it does to this day,
the seasons constant,
the wonder of light
coming over us…
Not only is this a heroic poem, this is a poem. You can hear Heaney’s own voice in it; this wouldn’t necessarily look out of place in a collection of his own work. That’s partially what I love about this particular Beowulf translation, it really is the best of both worlds. Perhaps not the most accurate to the meter of the Anglo-Saxon, but it is definitely accurate to the spirit of it. The language that Heaney chooses keeps the sounds, which are the really important things; even if it’s not as alliterative as the traditional form would have it, you can hear and smell the language and the land behind every word of his Beowulf, it is an immersive experience. You can feel his love for this poem and the sounds of these words. I really enjoyed reading this again; it’s been too long.
I’ll leave you with this thought for the evening, because this is why I really love old English poems, and old Scandinavian poems:
…it is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.