Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

Beowulf is an epic poem about a great Scandinavian hero, written in Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), over a thousand years ago in England. This translation, by Seamus Heaney, is pretty new and has been very well received.

Some notes on the story first, because why not: There is a great leader of Danes named Hrothgar, who builds a maginificent hall. Unfortunately, this disturbs a monster named Grendel, who, in revenge, takes to sneaking into the hall at night and mutilating sleeping men. Hrothgar's efforts to defend the hall are unsuccessful, and the happy place becomes sombre and empty. Eventually, the news reaches a great Geat warrior1 named Beowulf, who voyages with some warriors to Hrothgar's Aid. He takes on Grendel in single combat and rips his arm off. Grendel limps back to his mother's house to die, and his mother, enraged, comes back to the hall to get revenge. Beowulf follows her to the murky water she inhabits and fights her at the bottom, eventually defeating her and returning with Grendel's head as a trophy.2 Hrothgar rewards him happily and he sails away back to Geatland, where he eventually becomes king. Some years later, a dragon is aroused and Beowulf gives his life to defeat it. Then everyone gets really depressed, because they believe their land will eventually fall.3

The first part of the story, Grendel and Grendel's mom, that's good stuff. Good and epic and larger than life. The part with the dragon and 50 years later? Not so great. Feels kind of tacked on.

Now, a word on the translation: Beowulf is probably the best surviving work in old English, so there is a lot of nitpicking about translation and a lot of choice. The original has a rigid verse structure that makes verse translations difficult, and of course translating verse into prose inevitably means losing something. This particular translation has been quite popular and is definitely better than whatever old translation I read in high school. It is in verse, and it maintains some of the alliteration, and in fact is close enough to be printed with the old English on the facing page.

Read it.

1. I couldn't resist this one (great Geat)
2. At no point in this story did Angelina Jolie show up naked. I double checked. I admit that I can't read old English and had to rely on the translation, but there wasn't anything in that facing block that looked like the words "Angelina Jolie." In this respect I feel slightly lied to.
3. For the eventual fate of the Geat kingdom, see a fucking map.

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