There is probably no better possible translator of Beowulf than the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, whose own work evidences so many of the traits ancient English poets loved and practiced. The oldest of surviving Old English poems, Beowulf is about the sound of words, the play of language, and the sheer joy of verbal music. Mr. Heaney celebrates those in his bilingual translation as heartily as any mead-hall bard.
Translation is probably the wrong word to describe his work here. Translation indicates a decoding of sorts, that what is foreign is made comprehensible to the audience. Beowulf is already comprehensible, despite its age, because it is so thoroughly human; Heaney unearths the original language for us and lets us hear what it was the original barbarian audiences would have heard.
At times scary, at times unrestrained, at times bloody and drunk, Seamus Heaney's Beowulf is always captivating. It would hardly be more so if he were crouched in a greasy corner obscured by smoke and flames, plucking a primitive instrument and bellowing each syllable between mouthfuls of roasted meat and warm beer.
The story is by now well known—a Scandinavian hero named Beowulf (literally Bee-wolf, or Bear) comes to the court of Danish king Hrothgar to rid the people of the wicked presence of the monster Grendel. Grendel is powerful and nasty, a cannibal, and no one can take him. Beowulf drinks a lot, brags of his past exploits, and summarily girds himself to fight the beast.
Which he does, and wins. Then he kills Grendel's dam, or mother, in an epic underwater battle. In old age he's still fighting, now a king, but on the field nevertheless to defeat a massive dragon. The biblical imagery throughout (Grendel is called the Son of Cain; the dragon is obvious) is intentional, and though many contemporary scholars want to dismiss it, it helps greatly to understand otherwise incomprehensible elements of the poem.
One of the most unique aspects of Saxon wordplay was the kenning, a figurative compound word used in place of a concrete noun. The most famous of these in Beowulf is the term whale-road in place of ocean; there are many more, and Heaney dutifully preserves them. Beowulf would be a joy to read without kennings; with them, it's an unparalleled experience.
The same can be said of this version of the poem. Beowulf is a fantastic poem in its own right and in any translation; Heaney's translation is like fire, and steelagainst skin, and the smell of death, and the joy of victory. Reading ancient literature requires more than passive attendance, it requires immersion in a foreign yet familiar world. Heaney offers us the perfect pool in which to drown.
This is NOT the bilingual edition of Heaney's translation (you can find that below). It is an illustrated version,full of glossy (often full page) photographs of Anglo-Saxon art and artifacts.
Did you find this review helpful?