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Beowulf [Hardcover]

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

Nov. 1 1999
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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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A true sceop Feb. 23 2014
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.

It seems like an appropriate title for Seamus Heaney, whose translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem "Beowulf" has become a modern classic in its own right. His elegant use of language helps smooth out many of the translation bumps, without losing the distinctive, almost singsong rhythm of the original poem -- and the original Old English text allows you to compare and contrast.

A creature named Grendel is attacking the beautiful mead-hall of Heorot, sneaking in at night to carry off and/or kill innocent people. King Hrothgar is powerless to stop the monster. But then Beowulf, an already-legendary hero from Geatland, arrives at Heorot specifically to kill Grendel -- and using only his superhuman strength, he is able to arm-wrestle Grendel to death.

But that isn't the end of his troubles. Grendel's equally grotesque mother is enraged by her child's death, and attacks Heorot to lure Beowulf out. This time, he'll be fighting on HER turf, and the legendary hero might not survive. And as the years go by, he's faced with a terrible new enemy, one that threatens his homeland and everyone in it...

"Beowulf" is revered as one of the oldest works of Anglo-Saxon literature, and it deserves the reverance. But the poem is a lot more than just an old story -- it's a gripping adventure story, and it's also a glimpse of a culture that was pretty much stamped out with the Norman invasion. It's a culture of boasting, blood, honor, friendship and "ring-giving," where ancient pagan cultures are enmeshed in new Christian beliefs.
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By Mark Anderson TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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 far.

If you're looking for a modern translation of this classic saga, you won't go wrong with this one.

Highly recommended!
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By bernie TOP 50 REVIEWER
Actually Grendel did not say that. However this translation is something that you can sink your teeth in. There is a 22-page introduction. At first you think it is too long. After reading the introduction you realize it is too short and knowing more about what Seamus Heaney accomplished, you wish half the book were the introduction. In the introduction He covers references to J.R.R. Tolkien's ""Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", the average readers needed background knowledge and the reason he chose the particular words for this translation.
It is the words he chose to use and method of applying them that makes this translation palatable to the average reader. It may also be this translation that may grate on some people. This is like comparing the King James Version of the Bible to the Good News Bible. (However he is not transliterating or paraphrasing) The main idea is that this would be the translation if you were to verbalize the saga.
There are 213 numbers pages with the original text on the left page. The text is numbers to correspond with numbers on the translated right page. On the far right is a synopsis of what you are reading. This synopsis helps keep you from wandering from the text to speculate on what is really being said.
At the end of the book is a diagram of the family trees and this helps visualize how the different clans are related.
I found it handy to keep a dictionary with me as he uses a wide variety of words as in different context than most novels or texts use them. Still the language is so clear that if you do not mind glossing over these words you will still get the story and enjoy reading the adventure.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A translation worthy of the epic itself Jan. 22 2001
By Myrr
I have tried reading "Beowulf" four times before, each time with a different translation, but couldn't get past 40 pages on account of boredom. The sentenses dragged on and on, causing the story to appear monotonous and tedious, and the slowly-unfolding events in it - even slower. When the new verse translation by Seamus Heaney came out, I decided to give the book one last chance... and I was not disappointed! Compared with previous editions of "Beowulf", this one was a breath of fresh wind. Not only was Heaney's verse clear, smooth, and flowing, but it redeemed the story from the dull and the obvious and returned it its epic form. The preachy "beholds", "yeas", and "los", that the previous translators seemed to favor, are gone at last, yielding their places to the modern, dynamic words. This edition is bi-lingual, with the original Anglo-Saxon verse of the text printed opposite of Heaney's. This added to my enjoyment of the epic, and served as a constant reminder of its antiquity - for it is almost 1200 years old.
But despite of its age, "Beowulf" looks surprisingly modern. Even though there are no dragons to battle with nowadays, there are even more terrible phantoms lurking inside of us, needing to be fought and defeated.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A poetic presentation of Western Civilization July 14 2000
By Billax
This classic Anglo-Saxon poem was created by an unknown poet sometime between 700 and 1000 A.D. It was reduced to writing much later than that and has been turned into modern English prose by numerous translators. Since the nineteenth century, Beowulf has been a staple in college prep English classes throughout the English-speaking world.
Nobel laureate in poetry, Seamus Heaney has created a glistening translation of Beowulf. It shines in part because it is a translation in poetic form and in part because Heaney is an Ulster-born Irishman whose native tongue emphasizes the harsh consonants that drive the mood and meter of Beowulf. This book won England's prestigious Whitbread Award.
We meet Beowulf as a young warrior from Southern Sweden who travels to Denmark to slay the Dragon Grendel. After defeating Grendel, he has little time to boast because Grendel's mother seeks revenge for the death of her son. Here is Heaney describing the place where Grendel's mother lives (note that a mere is a lake or pond):
"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 banks, 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."
Beowulf defeats her, in her underwater lair, although it is a close call. From these victories his legend grows. He becomes the King of his land and rules wisely for fifty years.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Alexander is far greater
Most of the reviews for this particular book recommended it very highly, so I ordered it partly for that reason and also because as a dual language edition, I thought I could pick... Read more
Published on March 30 2009 by Calder Falk
4.0 out of 5 stars Beowulf (Seamus Heaney)
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 Lingers on...
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... Read more
Published on March 17 2007 by Jenna Rushton
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing lyrical translation
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... Read more
Published on May 25 2004 by Ryan Davis
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 Middle-England or Middle-Earth?
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. Read more
Published on April 3 2004 by JR Pinto
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 Great piece of literature
I'm not a scholar of English, so a lot of the fascination with Heaney's translation is more or less lost on me. Read more
Published on Jan. 11 2004 by impitbosshereonlevel2
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
Published on Sept. 4 2003 by JAD
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