Seamus Heaney's 'Beowulf': high art -- and an alley fight

On Books

March 12, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

I have boiled my brain and distilled the residue trying futilely to remember how many of the 3,182 lines of "Beowulf" I read as a student. I am no scholar, so I know I could not have read it in the original Old English.

Yet I vividly remember Beowulf, the Scandinavian prince and king; and I know that "Beowulf" was the earliest, greatest European narrative epic poem -- arguably the firmest foundation stone of poetry in English. Almost certainly, my awareness draws more on memory of popularizations than on reading the work.

That said, I have just read the newest English translation of the saga: "Beowulf, A New Verse Translation," by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages, $25). Some 65 other translations exist.

Heaney has rightly been called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. I sometimes argue that he is the premier poet writing in English anywhere on Earth today. A scholar and a teacher as well, Heaney got a well-deserved Nobel Prize for literature in 1996.

"Beowulf", in almost any form, is a rollicking tale. There are occasional wanderings and musings, but generally it's a yarn that won't let up. The story permeates infinite children's adventures. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a definingly important scholarly book about it, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." His "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is infused with its imagery. It's hard to imagine "Star Wars" having evolved without "Beowulf."

Do you know the story? It's in two parts. It opens in the early sixth century in the mead-hall of King Hrothgar, called Heorot, in what is now Denmark. For a dozen years, every night that royal headquarters has been ravaged by Grendel, an evil monster who carries off warriors and eats them.

Along comes Beowulf, prince of the Geats, who hail from what's now southern Sweden. When Grendel turns up that night, they battle. Beowulf tears off Grendel's arm, a mortal wound. The next night, Grendel's mother turns up, wreaking vengeance. In the morning, Beowulf tracks her down. In an underwater battle, he kills her as well. He goes home a hero.

The second part occurs more than a half-century later. Beowulf has reigned peacefully as king of the Geats for 50 years. A 50-foot-long, fire-breathing dragon begins ravaging his domain. The aged Beowulf meets it in single combat, kills it, but dies in the process. The epic ends with his funeral rites and lamentations.

Few works of art have been so exhaustively examined. The single really old copy of the manuscript dates to about 1000 A.D. and today is preserved in the British Library. Most scholars seem to believe it was originally written between 700 and 750. Its form and style rise mainly from the German heroic tradition, and the story rattles with pagan gods and furies. But the narrative voice is declaratively Christian, a far more humane and hopeful perspective.

Heaney's 21-page introduction to his translation shines with characteristic clarity and freshness -- and should well-equip the unfamiliar reader to make a romp, if not a study, of the work itself. The original Old English is printed on pages facing the modern form.

For me, Heaney's translation is utterly enchanting. Who could resist, early in the tale:

"For times were pleasant for the people there/until finally one, a fiend out of hell,/ began to work his evil in the world./ Grendel was the name of this grim demon/ haunting the marches, marauding round the heath/and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time/in misery among the banished monsters,/ Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed. ..."

Or, the final lines:

"So the Geat people, his hearth companions,/sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low./ They said that of all the kings upon the earth,/ he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,/kindest to his people and keenest to win fame."

The whole thing is lovely poetry blessed with the clarity of crispest prose.

Heaney's translation was published in Britain last year. It precipitated one of those sublime clashes of outrage that come along from time to time to prove beyond faint doubt that the British are indomitable.

"Beowulf" made the final cut for the Whitbread Book of the Year -- the consummate literary award in Britain. So did "The Prisoner of Axkaban," one of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. There were other finalists, but in the last, 105-minute, secret judging session -- it later emerged -- it was mano-a-mano, monster vs. wizard.

Later leaks -- some of them delicious -- told of a battle that was as gory as Beowulf's encounter with Grendel and his mother. Ridiculing the Potterites, Anthony Holden, the distinguished biographer, threatened to walk out. "I shall dissociate myself from it publicly," he was quoted as declaring. He insisted it would be a "national humiliation" to have a children's entertainment be declared the most distinguished book published in Britain in 1999.

"That is one of the most pompous things I've ever heard," Robert Harris -- author of best-selling thrillers "Enigma" and "Fatherland" -- was said to have growled from the adjoining chair. Nigel Williams, a popular novelist, insisted that"Beowulf" was "a boring book about dragons."

Finally, the vote was called. Heaney won, 5 to 4. Everybody went off, in snits of various shapes and sizes. Holden later dismissed the Harry Potter book as "derivative, dull and boring." Harris accused him of blackmail.

That battle was reported on front pages all over Britain and, I am told, was played out until closing time in countless pubs -- more than enough to revive one of the world's great epics, reinforcing what Seamus Heaney had already accomplished.

Pub Date: 03/12/00

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