Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

About halfway through the first millennium C.E., the Geats were conquered by the Swedes, and to this day, their old land is part of Sweden. According to tradition (in this case part legend, part history), the last or next to last king of the Geats was Beowulf, a warrior who (probably) had a Geat mother, whilst his father (possibly) was Swedish.

The epic of Beowulf takes place in Scandinavia. The language of the story (West Saxon and Anglian dialects) has as much in common with the contemporary Scandinavian languages as with present-day English. Despite these facts, Beowulf is considered to be a part of the vast body of work known as English literature, and the story of Beowulf is perhaps the most beautiful and surely the most famous of all surviving Old English texts.

The narrative consists of two main parts. The first relates Beowulf’s travels to the land of the Danes where he fights the man-eating monster Grendel and his lake-dwelling mother. It is a bloody affair. Beowulf follows the tracks of blood that Grendel’s mother leaves behind; he then dives to the bottom of the lake, kills the mother, and keeps Grendel’s head as a trophy. After these epic encounters, he returns to his own land where he eventually becomes king and rules wisely.

The second part of the story narrates the hero’s battle against a third foe – a fire-spewing dragon. Beyond this, the hero’s death awaits, and then – well known to the scribes of Beowulf – the invading Swedes and the end of Geatic independence. It is easy, then, to view Beowulf as a glorious memory of distant times, but the tale has much more to offer.

Beowulf is steeped in Norse myths, legends, and sagas (that is, historic accounts), and it provides a vivid picture of the life and value system of the Germanic tribes of the north. At the same time, the epic manages to blend all this with newly arrived Biblical elements (thus Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain), and consequently Beowulf is a mix of the pagan past and the new Semitic times.

For a long, long time, Beowulf was considered inaccessible to the English-speaking world, as no decent, contemporary English version of the tale existed. Then (after spending decades with the poem) Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney decided to translate the text. His version is deeply influenced by the directness of the narrative (which strongly resembles the wonderful Icelandic sagas), and, as Heaney puts it, there is “an undiluted quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility [with] the cadence and force of earned wisdom.”

Beowulf has been praised as a forerunner to J.R.R. Tolkien and the whole fantasy genre, but its value can first and foremost be found in the text itself – not as an inspiration for later story tellers, but as a classic and commanding tale that transcends time.

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One Response to “Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney”

  1. Sharon Spangler Says:

    Beautifully written blog, about a poem that is near and dear to me. I spent most of a semester in graduate school translating it from the Old English. The original poetry is written in alliterative half-lines, so that the first half of each line is connected to the second half by means of initial consonant sounds. The overall effect is very powerful and fits perfectly with the narrative.

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