This is the new verse translation of this first millennium text, which was written sometime between the seventh and tenth centuries by an unknown English author. Translated by Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, and read by him on this audio cd, he breathes new life into this mythic epic.
This is the story of the heroic Beowulf , and his timeless story is stark in its simplicity, made sonorous by the poetic reading given by Seamus Heaney. It is, in its simple narrative, a story that was meant to be read aloud. After all, between the seventh and the tenth centuries, few people could read.
Seamus Heaney gives a remarkable reading, his soft brogue and cadence capturing the dark, epic mood of the piece. His verse translation gives the story an accessibility that should make it a much more enjoyable experience for many who may have shied away from this early English work.
What is there not to like about this story? It is about a hero who vanquishes monsters and lives to fight another day in the quintessential battle between good and evil. Its message, undoubtedly relevant when written, is still relevant today. Those who are new to this work should consider purchasing the audio cd and listening to Seamus Heaney's rendition of this ancient work.
on 7 January 2005
In a way I think this is better than a modern fantasy like Tolkien's because it feels more authentic: the authentic Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages. The story isn't told by an abstract narrator; the storyteller is a person who gives you his opinions, and he sounds not like an Oxford don but like a real character from war-torn ancient times. Listen to Seamus Heaney's voice in the dark and you could really be listening to this bard in a smoky mead-hall.
P.S. There are three CDs of about 45 minutes each. I didn't realize until I later bought a book of the poem that this CD version is slightly abridged. I hope this won't put you off though, because Heaney's voice is so good.
on 15 April 2000
Beowulf could be an essential part of the culture of the Klingon Empire. Instead, it is part of our own. A bizarre tale of Beowulf's three battles against varying monsters, it is set amongst a background of blood feuds, ancient nationalism, and the honour of the battlefield. The origin of the tale is not English, but is Scandinavian in origin and must have been part of the culture of the Scandinavian or Danish invaders who settled here somewhere between 700-900 AD.
Somewhat strangely, the story was probably originally conceived in pagan Scandinavia, but at the time of the original poem, England had been converted to Christianity. The writer has felt bound to place the poem in the framework of Christianity, and the tale sits unhappily in this structure. These are the mead-hall denizens of Thor and Odin, yet they thank God for his Almighty Grace. If you've ever wondered how Christianity ever gained predominance in this country, this book surely hints at what a weak foundation it was built on.
This is not a book to read and put aside. This is a book to read and re-read, because it exists on different planes. The first time you read the book you are engrossed in an absolutely gripping yarn. Seamus Heaney's translation (apart from the infliction of occasional Ulster dialect) is absolutely commendable, and is key to the relentless pace of the book.
It is in re-reading it that you can indulge yourself. Find your favourite passages and re-live the compelling tension of the battle scenes, or get to grips with the politics of who killed who in ancient and fragile kingdoms. But whatever you do revisit The Father's Lament (commencing Line 2444). This is hundreds of years ahead of its time in terms of poetic tragedy.
In short, this is not only a most readable book, but one which provides us with a time warp of our values and culture more than a millennium ago. Nothing else like it exists.
on 5 October 2000
For anyone struggling with the translated text, this recording is the perfect companion and assistant. Unabridged, it takes us from the first coming of Grendel to the mead hall, right through to the glorious ending. Its obvious where Tolkien got his ideas for Smaug in The Hobbit isn't it?
Heaney's translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem `Beowulf' was the Whitbread Book of the Year for 1999. I came to the book recently and belatedly, having never read any other version.
I came to `Beowulf' more with the eye of an historian than a literary critic, for any study of Anglo-Saxon history or archaeology is imbued at some point with the aura of `Beowulf', the Anglo-Saxon author writing, as Heaney says, "from his perspective as an Englishman looking back at places and legends that his ancestors knew before they made their migration from continental Europe to their new home."
Yet, like `The Iliad' or `Macbeth' (both of which I love), on the page `Beowulf' is not actually great literature relative to, say, the contemporary novels of John Banville or Julian Barnes. But, then, not one of these three works was meant to be read; rather, they were meant to be told.
So, as with Homer and Shakespeare, `Beowulf' did indeed come alive when I imagined the story being told to me aloud (in this instance by someone sounding very similar to Anglo-Saxon historian Michael Wood). `Beowulf' is an oral epic rather than a literary classic. (And this may also be why watching the recent film version directed by Robert Zemeckis was an even better experience than reading it.) Only when imagining the story being told to me aloud, could I conceive of `Beowulf' as - in Heaney's words - "not just metrical narrative full of anthropological interest and typical heroic-age motifs ... [but also] ... poetry of a high order."
Although written as a poem, Heaney's interpretation was read by me as a nicely-balanced prose interpretation but one devoid on many pages, I'm afraid to say, of poetic inspiration. There are flashes of genius, such as Hrothgar declaring, "I who am telling you have wintered into wisdom", or enemies with their "hate-honed swords." "Tail-turners", yes; but I'm not sure of such clumsy choices as "battle-dodgers."
Reading Heaney's version, and only then reading his perceptive twenty-page introduction, I would never have guessed that the words were those of a Nobel-prizewinning author; that is until I reached about halfway through the introduction, when Heaney turns personal and talks of his own linguistic heritage as a route into `Beowulf'.
Here he manages to describe the indescribable (or what I thought was so). At university, "The Irish/English duality, the Celtic/Saxon antithesis were momentarily collapsed and in the resulting etymological eddy a gleam of recognition flashed through the synapses and I glimpsed an elsewhere of potential that seemed at the same time to be a somewhere being remembered." He goes on to explain his method of translation, what he calls finding "the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work." So, rather than an "archaic literary" approach, he plumped for "forthright delivery".
But for the writer Justin Hill, who chose `Beowulf' as his `Book of a Lifetime' for the `Independent' newspaper, Heaney's version "delighted me with its differences" and he gives examples. Hill was brought up on what Heaney refers to as the "archaic literary" approach that produced "A foam-throated seafarer on the ocean's swell", where Heaney himself has "A lapped prow loping over currents." But something deep inside tells me that the former is more apt in conveying the heroic intent of the work.
In conclusion, I think I may have read the wrong version of `Beowulf'.
The text is helpfully accompanied by marginal glosses.
Actually Grendel did not say that. However this translation is something that you can sink your teeth in. There is a substantial introduction. At first you think it is too long. After reading the introduction you realize it is too short and knowing more about what Seamus Heaney accomplished, you wish half the book were the introduction. In the introduction He covers references to J.R.R. Tolkien's ""Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", the average readers needed background knowledge and the reason he chose the particular words for this translation.
It is the words he chose to use and method of applying them that makes this translation palatable to the average reader. It may also be this translation that may grate on some people. This is like comparing the King James Version of the Bible to the Good News Bible. (However he is not transliterating or paraphrasing) The main idea is that this would be the translation if you were to verbalize the saga.
This is not just an early poem; it is an epic. The basic story was also used as a basis of many movies. We have people helping others in what appears to be a no win situation.
There are 200 plus pages with the original text on the left page. The text is numbers to correspond with numbers on the translated right page. On the far right is a synopsis of what you are reading. This synopsis helps keep you from wandering from the text to speculate on what is really being said. It does not hurt to listen to this book but the written word is crucial towards finding the origins of names and the way words are used.
At the end of the book is a diagram of the family trees and this helps visualize how the different clans are related. There is also a large print version so you do have to get out your magnifying glass.
I found it handy to keep a dictionary with me as he uses a wide variety of words as in different context than most novels or texts use them. Still the language is so clear that if you do not mind glossing over these words you will still get the story and enjoy reading the adventure.
on 8 March 2000
The last decade has seen a tremendous increase of publications in the field of Medieval Studies. This applies particularly to Anglo-Saxon literature, which even makes its prescence felt on the internet, where a high number of websites relating to almost anything Old English can be found.
Yet despite this renewed popularity within specialist circles, Beowulf has always been a difficult work for the lay reader, with only little or no knowledge of Old English. Prose translations are widely available, yet these are merely tools, aiding the reading of the original, and although they retain the actual story, the impact of the original verse is lost.
Those studying Beowulf at undergraduate level will still need to make use of these prose translations. On the other hand, Seamus Heaney's rendering into modern English verse has become a poem in its own right, which can be read without any prior knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon world, and will soon be taught in its own right. Heaney's earlier works suggested his ability to 're-tell' old legends, while collections such as 'North' revealed his interest in common ancestorship. Heaney's Beowulf will ensure the survival of the tale; his job is similar to that of the original poet, without whom the epic tale would never have made the transition from oral to literary poetry. A thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding read.
on 11 March 2003
Beowulf is an old Anglo-Saxon poem composed late in the first millennium. It is the story of Beowulf, a war-leader (and later king) of the Geats, a people who competed for dominance with the Swedes. In this story, Beowulf overcomes fearsome monsters and magic, through his own strength, and the assistance of his followers. If you are interested in the ancient Germans, then this story will provide you with a unique view into the German way of thinking.
Seamus Heaney's translation is easy to read and brings the story into a form comfortable for the modern reader. As an added bonus, the author includes a side-by-side copy of the story in the original Old English, for those who are interested in that language.
This is an excellent translation.
on 13 March 2007
The story comes full cycle with the death of Beowulf and the homage paid to him by his people. On a grim note, the story-teller who has been reciting the saga of Beowulf also forsees the end of Beowulf's people - the Geats. The Geats were people who supposedly occupied the lower half of Sweden and were either killed or driven from their homeland by the Swedes. Many claim that the Wuffing dynasty of Denmark was set up by fleeing Geats, but nothing is known for sure.
Heaney is able to make us aware of the fickle nature of life using the stories of the rise and fall of even great, mythical warriors. He evokes wonder and pity for the same character by judicious use of imagery that will stay with us long after we have put down the book.
on 3 July 2006
I felt like I was there! History and legend blended together in a style that lets you focus on the story and not on a dictionary.
I've read most of the Icelandic sagas during the past year or so, and none of them stirred the fire in my belly that this epic poem does.
I can't compare this version of Beowulf with others, but I can definitely recommend it to anyone with a passion for early Germanic history. I know that I will read this story again and again.