by Seamus Heaney (Translator)
Category: Fiction / General
136 pages; ISBN: 0-571-20113-X
Rating: 8/10 (Ratings explained)
A modern translation of the famous Anglo-Saxon epic poem
Seamus Heaney took around fifteen years to complete this translation of Anglo-Saxon poetry's only intact survival.
The poem itself takes up 96 pages with a two part introduction from Heaney accounting for the rest. The first, more interesting part gives us Heaney's interpretation of the poem with a slightly defensive emphasis on its continuing relevance (cf. references to Rwanda and Kosovo). The second treats us to the technical details of the translation and is for academics only.
Not being either a language expert or a great fan of poetry, I cannot give an expert appraisal of Heaney's achievement. As a general reader I can only say that this is a very readable version which deliberately avoids archaisms and makes the story accessible to a wider audience than English undergraduates.
The reservation I have is whether that story is interesting enough to make the required impression. "Beowulf" is not classic mythology - it is an overlong repetitive chronicle of its one-dimensional hero's exploits with frequent digressions along the way. Beowulf fights three foes, Grendel, Grendel's mother (in an action replay of the first battle) and finally a dragon but the combat is purely physical; his adversaries are mere animals despite the poet's uncomfortable attribution of Satanic intention to them.
What does make "Beowulf significant is its survival, the priceless light it sheds on Anglo-Saxon society, culture and values in the period we know as the Dark Ages. Heaney can't be unaware of this yet he seems reluctant to refer to the historical context in his desire to convince us that "Beowulf" is a masterpiece in its own right. It would have benefited the reader and given him greater VFM if some explanation of the historical background to the poem had been included even if Heaney felt disinclined to write it himself.