Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Seamus Heaney, translator)
W.W. Norton 2007
An Illustrated Edition
Illustrations edited by John D. Niles

Reviewed by Anne Brudevold

BEOWULF: Power, divinity, heroism, terror, horror, despair, disgrace, and fame: all the ingredients of a modern-day horror movie are present. The basic plot is Beowulf, Swedish hero from Geatland, Southern Sweden) sails to Southern Denmark to save the Danes from a man-eating monster named Grendal who attacks them night after night. Beowulf kills Grendel in a gory battle scene in Hrothgar’s (the kings) castle. (Castle battle scene). Grendel’s mother returns next night and, although pursued by heroic Beowulf to the bottom of a swamp, supposedly dies in her attempt to avenge her son.(Underwater battle scene, depicted in the book, but not the movie) Years later, a monster comes to Beowulf’s castle from the sea to kill Beowulf, now an old man. Both the monster and Beowulf die. The book ends with Beowulf’s blazing funeral boat set sailing honorably afire into the sea.

After reading Seamus Heaney’s remarkable translation from the Old English of Beowulf accompanied by illustrations of John C. Nies, I waited to write a review until I had seen the recent movie by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, accompanied with their concepts of writing the script. I’m glad I waited.

My first reaction upon reading the Heaney translation was awe and admiration. The edition is beautifully illustrated with pictures of relics from the time the manuscripts was presumed to be written, between the seventh and tenth centuries, in the “dark ages.” Helmuts, daggers, jewelry, medals, chain mail, swords, stone inscriptions, and reconstructed architecture set the scene for the reader. Modern photographs of the Danish landscape where the drama took place and artists’ illustrations from different periods of varying Beowulf’ scenes complete a visually elegant coffee table book meant in the most complimentary way. The translation of the text is equally dramatic and impressive, as I had to convince a friend who saw me reading “the most boring book from high school.” He, like me, had had to read the text in the original Anglo-Saxon, or Old English. The translation of Seamus Heaney’s version captures the poetry of the text with its natural accents and verve, and speaks with the authority of an epic. No cheap excitement needed.

The natural rhythm of Scandinavian, and also of Old English, to which it is closely related, in which the poem is written, is four-square, which Heaney keeps as a ground rhythm. “Down to the waves then the broad hull was beached upon the sand/to be cargoed with treasure, horses, and war-gear/The curved prow motioned; the mast stood high/above Hrothgar’s riches in the loaded hold.” (p.129)

Or, “Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke;/’wisest of kings, now that I have become/ to the point of action, I ask you to recall/what we said earlier, that you, son of Halfdane/and gold-friend to retainers that you/if I should fall/and suffer death while serving your cause, would act like a father to me afterwards.”p.(101)

I made a survey of the translations of Beowulf available at the Harvard Book Store. Of these, one was a dreary prose translation (odd, considering that Beowulf is a poem with strong poetic accents) and three were children’s adventure stories – primitive Harry Potter’s. (Please excuse any adult translations—and I know there are many, which I have left out). The period recorded in Beowulf took place (and this must have earlier than the tenth century, since the events are spoken about “once upon a time) was an adventurous. fearful time. Numerous familial revenge wars and also intermarriages wars took place during the Beowulf period – and, I may add, with still on-going consequences. Perhaps because the gene pool was relatively small, people kept a close eye on the family tree and grudges were remembered. My Norwegian parents were upset when I married a Dane.

Scandinavian nature is harsh, life was harsh, and isolation of farms and people made for wild parties at the occasional gathering. Family and clan alliances frequently shifted. Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are so similar that I can understand all three. In fact, it was discovered that I was related to my husband during the tenth century, and that around 1200, my husband’s family executed members of many of my uncle’s clan.

Sesame Street’s Swedish sing-song cook not withstanding , the sentences have square, declarative grammar, usually in four accents, especially in speeches, of which (at least in my family) Scandinavians are very fond. I cannot remember a single family get-together when the oldest male would not make a speech, during which much toasting, laughter and solemn moments occurred. The word skal comes from skull from which the old warriors drank their mead.

The Heaney translations makes this way of life unsentimental, vivid and as close to historical truth as we can know it. Peter Brooks made a film of King Lear that approaches the conditions and emotions of that era.

Death, divine power, heroism, horror, devotion, disgrace and fame are modernized and part-comedic in Beowulf, the movie. The grandeur is gone, but a new Freudian explanation gives us a reason for all three battles, and for Angelina Jolie to be lifted, gilded, from her diabolical pool of chocolate pudding.

It’s very simple. Grendel’s (the monster’s) feud with Hrothgar(the Danish king who has been living on un-earned riches) is fueled by unconscious, ancient Freudian jealously. Grendel wants to defend and better his old ancestor, the long dead Schield Sheafson. Beowulf kills Grendel, who no one realizes is his half- brother. The text infers why when Beowolf goes down to fight Grendel’s mother , he succumbs to her charms, and emerges with Grendel’s head, not hers. He hasn’t really killed her, the text clearly infers. Once Grendel’s mother finds Beowulf, at the pool bottom, there’s air aplenty from an ancient kingdom. Grendel’s mother becomes beautiful, irresistible, and seduces her prey. She’s a shape-changer. Thus she did before, with Hrothgar’s ancestor, Schield Sheafson, and begat the monster that now attacks his own ancestors. Now Beowulf spawns the monster who will come, when he is mature, to Sweden to kill Beowulf, his own father. Oh those feminine wiles and never-ending Freudian theories.

When it all began, Grendel’s mother, who seems to have had a very long life, seduced Schield Sjeafson in exchange for money and fame. The movie explains the beginning of the whole terrible cycle as a punishment for ill-gotten gains.

It is not a long way from children’s story to epic to comedic effect story. The great themes remain the same. The style, consciousness, and language make the difference.

Seamus Heaney’s translation is dignified and approaches the sparseness of a Greek epic. While I appreciate the psychological interpretation given by Avery and Gaiman, I think this approach is already latent in the epic story, and need not be as spelled out as it in the movie. Nevertheless, I think Avery and Gaiman have a good point in their theory of the constant revenge that seemed to plague Scandinavian history. It may not be particularly Freudian, but it is familial, and underlies the text as a constant subtext.

So who is your audience? Read a good Beuwolf to your kids. Read Heaney’s Beowulf on an evening with a strong cup of coffee. Go see Beowulf with the kids, if they absolutely demand it. I did, and I think it’s a cheap version. Buy the Heaney Beowulf. You will find hours and hours of enjoyment and wisdom in it.

* Anne Brudevold is the editor of the Eden Waters Anthology.

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