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Beowulf: A New Verse Translation [Hardcover]

Seamus Heaney
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (163 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 15 2000
A brilliant and faithful rendering of the Anglo-Saxon epic from the Nobel laureate.

Composed toward the end of the first millennium of our era, Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel's mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath. In the contours of this story, at once remote and uncannily familiar at the end of the twentieth century, Seamus Heaney finds a resonance that summons power to the poetry from deep beneath its surface.

Drawn to what he has called the "four-squareness of the utterance" in Beowulf and its immense emotional credibility, Heaney gives these epic qualities new and convincing reality for the contemporary reader.

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In Beowulf warriors must back up their mead-hall boasts with instant action, monsters abound, and fights are always to the death. The Anglo-Saxon epic, composed between the 7th and 10th centuries, has long been accorded its place in literature, though its hold on our imagination has been less secure. In the introduction to his translation, Seamus Heaney argues that Beowulf's role as a required text for many English students obscured its mysteries and "mythic potency." Now, thanks to the Irish poet's marvelous recreation (in both senses of the word) under Alfred David's watch, this dark, doom-ridden work gets its day in the sun.

There are endless pleasures in Heaney's analysis, but readers should head straight for the poem and then to the prose. (Some will also take advantage of the dual-language edition and do some linguistic teasing out of their own.) The epic's outlines seem simple, depicting Beowulf's three key battles with the scaliest brutes in all of art: Grendel, Grendel's mother (who's in a suitably monstrous snit after her son's dismemberment and death), and then, 50 years later, a gold-hoarding dragon "threatening the night sky / with streamers of fire." Along the way, however, we are treated to flashes back and forward and to a world view in which a thane's allegiance to his lord and to God is absolute. In the first fight, the man from Geatland must travel to Denmark to take on the "shadow-stalker" terrorizing Heorot Hall. Here Beowulf and company set sail:

Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,
sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird...
After a fearsome night victory over march-haunting and heath-marauding Grendel, our high-born hero is suitably strewn with gold and praise, the queen declaring: "Your sway is wide as the wind's home, / as the sea around cliffs." Few will disagree. And remember, Beowulf has two more trials to undergo.

Heaney claims that when he began his translation it all too often seemed "like trying to bring down a megalith with a toy hammer." The poem's challenges are many: its strong four-stress line, heavy alliteration, and profusion of kennings could have been daunting. (The sea is, among other things, "the whale-road," the sun is "the world's candle," and Beowulf's third opponent is a "vile sky-winger." When it came to over-the-top compound phrases, the temptations must have been endless, but for the most part, Heaney smiles, he "called a sword a sword.") Yet there are few signs of effort in the poet's Englishing. Heaney varies his lines with ease, offering up stirring dialogue, action, and description while not stinting on the epic's mix of fate and fear. After Grendel's misbegotten mother comes to call, the king's evocation of her haunted home may strike dread into the hearts of men and beasts, but it's a gift to the reader:

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
In Heaney's hands, the poem's apparent archaisms and Anglo-Saxon attitudes--its formality, blood-feuds, and insane courage--turn the art of an ancient island nation into world literature. --Kerry Fried

From Publishers Weekly

When the great monster Grendel comes to Denmark and dashes its warriors' hopes, installing himself in their great hall and eating alive the valiant lords, the hero Beowulf arrives from over the ocean to wrestle the beast. He saves the Danes, who sing of his triumphs, but soon the monster's mother turns up to take him hostage: having killed her, our hero goes home to the land of the Geats, acquires the kingship, and fights to the death an enormous dragon. That's the plot of this narrative poem, composed more than a millennium ago in the Germanic language that gave birth (eventually) to our version of English. Long a thing for professors to gloss, the poem includes battles, aggressive boasts, glorious funerals, frightening creatures and a much-studied alliterative meter; earlier versions in current vernacular have pleased lay readers and helped hard-pressed students. Nobel laureate Heaney has brought forth a finely wrought, controversial (for having won a prize over a children's book) modern English version, one which retains, even recommends, the archaic strengths of its warrior world, where "The Spear-Danes in days gone by/ and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness." Well-known digressionsAa detailed dirge, the tale-within-a-tale of Hengest, "homesick and helpless" in ancient FrieslandAfind their ways into Heaney's English, which holds to the spirit (not always the letter) of the en face Anglo-Saxon, fusing swift story and seamless description, numinous adjectives and earthy nouns: in one swift scene of difficult swimming, "Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on/ for five nights, until the long flow/ and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold drove us apart. The deep boiled up/ and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild." Heaney's evocative introduction voices his long-felt attraction to the poem's "melancholy fortitude," describing the decades his rendering took and the use he discovered for dialect terms. It extends in dramatic fashion Heaney's long-term archeological delvings, his dig into the origins of his beloved, conflictedAby politics and placeAEnglish language. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lingers on... March 17 2007
The story comes full cycle with the death of Beowulf and the homage paid to him by his people. On a grim note, the story-teller who has been reciting the saga of Beowulf also forsees the end of Beowulf's people - the Geats. The Geats were people who supposedly occupied the lower half of Sweden and were either killed or driven from their homeland by the Swedes. Many claim that the Wuffing dynasty of Denmark was set up by fleeing Geats, but nothing is known for sure.

Heaney is able to make us aware of the fickle nature of life using the stories of the rise and fall of even great, mythical warriors. He evokes wonder and pity for the same character by judicious use of imagery that will stay with you long after you have put down the book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing lyrical translation May 25 2004
Seamus Heaney's Beowulf is the best translation of a classic work into a modern language that I have seen in years, it may yet be my personal favorite translation of all time (best to let the thrill of the reading wear off before that judgement is made, however). I have done a bit of translation work from modern languages other than English, and am fully aware of how difficult it is to translate a line of prose from one living language to another, while acomplishing the two tasks that are the goal of every translator; 1- convey the meaning of the words, 2-convey the aesthetic "feel" of the words. These two goals are very often in serious conflict with one another- and when one adds in the element of the subject being poetry it makes it even harder, because you have to mediate the first two goals, and then add another; fit it all into a lyrical framework.
Much of the time, translators simply drop the poetry, and represent the story as prose (the Rieus version of the Iliad does this)and this is a choice I usually respect. Trying to force a story into an alien rhyme scheme makes them, very often, unbearably cheesy (viz. most versions of the Aeneid); whereas the Rieus' Iliad is a rollicking good time.
Nevertheless, the loss of lyricism is indeed a loss; especially when the sounds of the words when spoken are particularly beautiful, or the lyrical framework particularly appropriate for conveying the mood of a story. Ironically, the better the poet is in the original language the more difficult it becomes for her voice to survive the translator's work.
And this is why (back to the orginal topic) Heaney's work is so jaw-dropping. The story works as faithful translation, beautiful writing, and poetry as well.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Middle-England or Middle-Earth? April 3 2004
I read the text of Beowulf in this edition before reading the introduction. I had never read Beowulf before and I wanted to come to it fresh. Taken on its own, as a novice, it is a rollicking good read. First off, it is very short - you could get through it in about one sitting. It gets right into the heart of the matter; the monster Grendel (a cursed descendent of Cain) is about the countryside killing people. The hero Beowulf comes from Sweden to Denmark to fight him.
Of course, this is an Old English fantasy poem so there are times when you have to meet it on its own terms. For instance, either drowning did not exist back then or Beowulf could hold his breath indefinitely because the underwater fight between him and Grendel's mother lasts for nine hours. This is one macho man!
The translation by Seamus Heaney moves along at a brisk pace. The Anglo-Saxon text is on one side of the page and the English is on the other. He provides little chapter headings at the side of the page. There are no annoying footnotes. He provides a long introduction acquainting us with the text and why it is so important and why it should be considered a work of art in itself and not merely interesting for historical reasons. He credits J.R.R. Tolkien's essay as helping people appreciate it in a purely literary way. Indeed, this is one of the prime influences upon Lord of the Rings; the plot is different but the monsters, names, and manner of speaking will ring a bell.
What I enjoy most about Beowulf is the sense of being transported back in time to Anglo-Saxon England. This book is a living piece of history and Heaney's translation makes it remarkably fresh.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great piece of literature Jan. 11 2004
I'm not a scholar of English, so a lot of the fascination with Heaney's translation is more or less lost on me. However, as a fan of Tolkien's works, I found Beowulf a beautifully written and flawlessly progressing story that just about anyone can appreciate. An added advantage of this edition is the side-by-side presence of the original Old English version of the poem on every page.
If you like Tolkien's works, you will enjoy Beowulf -- while the story is much more brief than either the Lord of the Rings series or The Silmarillion, it is no less beautiful or meaningful. The protagonist of the story is a great Geat warrior who slays the monster that is haunting the Danes, as well as the monster's mother. After returning to his home, and ruling the lands for over 50 years, he is fatally wounded in a fight against a dragon, and dies.
If you are familiar with Lord of the Rings (the Rohirrim in particular), try sometimes glossing over the original Old English text. You will notice definite similarities in the way names and words are formed in Old English and the language of Rohan. For example, the "Shieldings" (Danes, descendants of Shield Sheafson) in Old English is written as "Scyldingas" -- this may look familiar if you recall that the warriors of Rohan were often called "Eorlingas" in The LOTR. Additionally, both stories have mention of a warrior named Eomer (they're different characters).
Of course, this is hardly a coincidence -- it's well known that the Rohirrim are based on the Anglo-Saxons, with the language of Rohan being none other than Old English. Tolkien has long studied Beowulf, even before he began work on his Middle Earth epics and reading the poem will enable you to see how it's influenced his works.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A true sceop
In ancient Anglo-Saxon culture, a "sceop" was a storyteller. A sceop might not be telling a story of his own, but he tells it with grace, elegance and power. Read more
Published 6 months ago by E. A Solinas
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Beowulf is one of the essential works in English literature.

Over the years, I've read several translations of this classic saga and this translation is my favourite so... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Mark Anderson
3.0 out of 5 stars Alexander is far greater
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Published on March 30 2009 by Calder Falk
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A classic tale of good versus evil, a hero versus a villain. Seamus Heaney uses poetic, flowing words to illustrate the majesty, intensity and power of Beowulf, the Geats and the... Read more
Published on June 4 2007 by Andrew K
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterwork indeed!
Unfortunately many people read ethnic junk instead of reading the true classics in literature,i.e., Sidney, Chaucer and this work in particular. Read more
Published on April 26 2004 by B. Viberg
5.0 out of 5 stars Great!
The latest translation of the classic Anglo-Saxon epic. Venture back to a time when a mans honor and abilty to live by a warriors code was more important than any temporary... Read more
Published on Feb. 15 2004 by Cwn_Annwn
5.0 out of 5 stars Anglo-Saxon Poetry at its Best!
I've been in love with the Beowulf epic since I was young and I must say that this translation is by far and away the best I have ever read. Read more
Published on Dec 27 2003 by Zekeriyah
4.0 out of 5 stars Hauntingly Archaic
The Anglo-Saxon poem known as Beowulf is a part of a larger, and historically lost, work written by an unknown (late first millennium) English author. Read more
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2.0 out of 5 stars ...
If you only read one book this year that: lacks substance, doesnt require any real thinking, lacks adequate description, has a ridiculously overpowered and infinitely benevolent... Read more
Published on Sept. 2 2003 by Amazon Customer
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