on 5 January 2004
Heaneys translation of Beowulf into modern Enlgish is extremely welcome as any student who has had to study Old English will no doubt agree. Heaney stays true to the verse form and doesn't attempt to simply lay it out in any narrative structure.
More importantly he keeps all the wonder and mystery of the original language. He doesn't simply offer up a word for word basic translation, he sometimes uses words from his own native Ulster to emphasise certain words. He does his best to remain faithful to the original text though. He doesn't attempt to completely change the meaning of words, even when their context may seem strange in modern English. Most importantly, he keeps it interesting with his use of poetic language. It is obvious that Heaney wrote this translation not simply out of a desire for academic recognition but for a genuine love of language.
The various Appendices and essays also included are for the main part informative, even if Tolkiens essay may surprise fans of The Lord of The Rings. There is much detail provided in these essays on the culture of the Anglo-Saxons, on their lifestyle, their artwork, their weaponry and their mythology.
If you have read Lord Of The Rings and would like to know what influenced Tolkien but don't know Old English, then this is a very good place to start. I would reccomend it for any student of Old English and Anglo-Saxon heroic culture.
I once made the joke that Grendel was the first beo-degradable monster in history...
When I gave this joke to an English professor, he used it in class, and promptly returned it to me.
Okay. I'll accept that. But, Beowulf deserves the kind of serious attention that would prompt people to want to make bad jokes about it (unimportant things are ignored; only important things are held up in jest).
Beowulf is an old poem--often considered the first in English. This is technically not true, for linguistic and other reasons (where the demarcations of English beginnings fall are debatable; also there is the fact that there are older poems, just not epic poems). An epic is a long, narrative poem, a literary form undervalued today, but which was probably the equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille production in more ancient times. The Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Gilgamesh--all these are epic poems. Generally, they recount heroic deeds, and most often were composed and intended as oral history. Beowulf consists of 3182 existing lines.
Scholars also disagree on the 'British heritage' of the poem, many believing it more likely to be an import from Anglo-Saxon European homelands than a composition original to the Britain. The tale does portray two leaders, Hrothgar, leader of the Danes, and Beowulf, leader of the Geats, a Swedish tribe. These are interconnected through generations of family intermarriages, and Beowulf because of this loyalty takes his men to help defend Hrothgar's home against the monster Grendel.
The tale of Beowulf involves heroism, sacrifice, loyalty, warfare, conflict and resolution--all the elements that go into a good action feature. It also has moral overtones (so it was meant to educate and inspire as well as entertain). It carries the strong message that a fighting man's allegiance to the overlord and to God should be absolute (something that is often instilled in soldiers of today). It is almost decidedly Klingon in the glorification of battle (in fact, I've often wondered if the Star Trek universe took a leaf out of this epic to create the Klingon idea)--Beowulf fights three battles (a holy trinity of battles, almost), dying gloriously in the final battle with a great dragon, after having lived an honourable and courageous life.
This story contains elements of both early Christianity and late paganism, however in some cases the Christian aspects may be later additions by monks who transcribed the manuscripts (monks were noted for doing that in many circumstances, including Biblical texts). The oldest existing manuscript dates from about the tenth century and is preserved in the British Museum.
This particular translation of Seamus Heaney (a 1995 Nobel laureate) is a beauty to behold. Opt for the dual language edition if possible, so that you may compare the Old English with Heaney's recreation -- his economy of language (often but not always found among Celtic poets) lends itself well to the simplicity and economy of the original Old English. Heaney does often maintain the alliterative flavour, but resorts to truer meanings rather than translation quirkiness. He also often has to recast the cadence of the verse, as Old English did a sort of four-step that modern words however simple often cannot emulate. Yet for all the criticism that may be levelled (and in Heaney's case, many fewer than most translations of Beowulf would have to bear), he was done perhaps the greatest service a translator can do to any work, particularly an ancient one -- he has breathed new life into the poetry so that the story and the language can live again.
on 13 December 2012
Such a marvellous edition of the text, Seamus Heaney translates the epic poem wonderfully- staying true to the poetic features the original author used. Useful sections on Old English, critical interpretations and pictures of Anglo Saxon artefacts are included.
on 23 June 2015
This is the edition to buy.
Beowulf is one of the most important foundation stones in the history of literature and language. The Old English poets were known as “scops” for good reason. They sculpted poetry with the sole purpose of spreading joy. The most moving moment in Beowulf is not in the defeat of Grendel or Grendel’s mother, or even Beowulf’s tragic demise following the showdown with the mighty dragon. Instead, it occurs moments before Beowulf is to face this greatest and most powerful of opponents, the darkest manifestation of humanity’s fears. Whether the dragon is fear itself or an embodiment of human sin and violence does not alter its raw power to enthrall. No, what is far more poignant is Beowulf’s sudden moment of reflection as he reaches the dragon’s barrow. He pauses on the brink of chaos, informs his company he will face the dragon alone, and, a Homeric interlude if ever there was one, becomes lost in poignant contemplation.
As Tolkien has argued, Beowulf itself is like one of its own lines written large. That distinctive Old English with the prominent caesura chopping each line in half and the alliterative repetition represents the entire story. The rise and the fall, innocence to experience, like two hinged mirrors. In this frame of profound reflection Beowulf thinks about his foster father, Hrethel, and we learn a truly tragic story that casts the hero in a whole new light. King Hrethel was driven to death by all-consuming grief after his son, Haethcyn, killed his eldest son, Herebauld, in a freak accident involving a misfired arrow. Unable to inflict revenge on a son he could never love as the warrior’s code of vengeance in this heroic age demands of him, he succumbs utterly to his broken heart.
Original: "Donne he gyd wrece, sarigne sang, donne his sunu hangao hrefre to hroore ond he him help ne maeg, eald ond infrod, aenige gefremman."
Beowulf is a masterpiece. With four thousand vocabulary entries in its lexicon for three thousand lines, its poet was truly the greatest of his or her time and it is a tragedy indeed that their name and identity has been lost. These Old English scops, from the Greek ‘scieppan’, to make or shape, fused together half-lines by their stressed alliteration, they literally built poetry. Texture and diction itself suggests meaning, a similar sensory pleasure as poems about the sea that emulate waves. These fusions, creating thousands of variations of a single idea, such as a hilde-leoma or battle-flame for a sword, have been called the very soul of Old English poetical style.
Ultimately, Beowulf is an exploration of the human condition itself. The monsters represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear. The transience of humanity, it is a bitterly poignant and yet preeminently elegant thing.
As Tolkien wrote, “Those days were heathen – heathen, noble, and hopeless… The author rehandles in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die.”
on 3 November 2014
I found this an extremely readable work. Seamus Heaney's brief introduction is well worth reading before the poem as it explains the challenge of translating from the Old English whilst retaining the metre and alliteration of the original work. The poem itself is wonderful and atmospheric, and I would imagine this editions would be invaluable for anyone who was studying the poem and trying to get to grips with the story in Old English. I would also recommend it for those who simply want to enjoy reading the story without the need to continually refer to footnotes or explanations, as I found that there was only the very occasional line I ever needed to read over again. The poem itself takes up a relatively small section of the book, and there are a number of essays and additional notes giving information about the poem's context and the manuscript, as well as an essay by JR Tolkien. A good choice of book if you want to read Beowulf.
on 30 July 2013
My first attempt at Anglo Saxon poetry and what a pleasure it was! The translation seems much more than that. It conveys the tone and sense and emotion which the original must surely have carried. I was fascinated too to find the charm of rhythm and rhyme in the lines and discover the complexity of the 'interlacing' of threads of the story. The critiques by Tolkein and others were a revelation. Now on my second read..
on 27 November 2013
This is a marvellous edition of a great poetic masterpiece. Seamus Heaney's translation of the Old English gives you a very readable and involving story and I think is probably as near as you can get to the feel of the original text. I have tried learning Old English but believe me, unless you have a gift for languages, you are on a hiding to nothing! This edition does not just give you the translation, but contains an introduction by Heaney, and at the end of the poem, a number of essays about different aspects of the poem and the historical background in which it was written. If you've always wanted to get to grips with this masterpiece but could not quite get up the courage, this is the translation to go for. Wonderful value!
on 18 June 2014
My son found this extremely helpful for his A level stidues and an Oxford Uni summer school project too !!
on 2 January 2016
Clear and well constructed text.
on 27 March 2013
Great, book needed for uni studies, good for those who are interested in poetry as I needed this for my creative writing part of my English Degree.