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Beowulf: A New Verse Translation Hardcover – Feb 15 2000
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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,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.
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...
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 hereIn 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
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.
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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Top Customer Reviews
BEOWULF is a classic story told in three acts about a great warrior who competes against unbelievable odds to conquer monsters, becoming one of the first superheroes in recorded. It is a story that ages well and with Heaney's translation it is sure to become familiar with an even larger audience. If you've ever read BEOWULF or are going to be reading it in the future, this is the version to have.
This is really an oustanding translation that carries "Beowulf" into the twenty-first century with far more vibrance than it had in the twentieth. Finally, if you're still not convinced, this translation features the original Old English on facing pages, if you feel like having a stab at it yourself, or just getting a better feel for the meter.
Heaney's Beowulf, however, was a pleasant departure. This provided my recreational reading for a few days. Although I've read that his translation isn't "true" to the Anglo-Saxon in some scholarly sense, I read the book for fun, not to analyze the formalisms of Anglo Saxon poetry.
What a change from last time I struggled through the material, 25 years ago! I'll grant myself a little intellectual maturity, but most of the credit goes to Heaney for making this powerful story accessible and entertaining. No, it still doesn't read like a Clancy or Grisham novel--but when one of them runs out of story lines . . .
In one sense this is a sacred text. The language differs enough from contemporary use to shift the way I mentally processed it. Just the act of reading the poetic story took me beyond the boundaries of profane life and into the mythological realm. Archetypes lept into the story, the Grendels (and their mothers) of my mind slunk into consciousness for a while. Because the language does not lend itself to simply sliding into a novel, it can enable a deeper experience of the myth.
An added pleasure was the inclusion of the Anglo Saxon verse itself. I don't read it. But I loved the sound. It is the sound of my ancestors. My wife didn't appreciate it, when I'd inflict it upon her as she was dozing off to sleep. This book is worth purchasing, just for the opportunity to read a page of the old words, just for the opportunity to hear the language of ancestors bouncing around the room.
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 tat 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.
Most recent customer reviews
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
The hardcover edition gives ample margin space for notes, a classy layout (the title and page number run along the bottom margin, ghosted enough to write over, in a bold, simple... Read morePublished on May 23 2003 by Nick Douglas
Seamus Heaney's splendid translation of "Beowulf" is a lyrical feast for the eyes. Stylistically, he does an admirable job staying as close to the original text's rough,... Read morePublished on Jan. 25 2002 by John Kwok
who's kidding who here? a simple translation attracting this much bravado? it's a joke - wake up! there's a very bad smell from this version and you all know it - don't waste your... Read morePublished on Nov. 19 2001
As Heaney is such a big name in medieval lit., I was expecting a far more vibrant and accurate translation of this great epic. Read morePublished on Nov. 16 2001 by Dan
I originally read Beowulf in an English class in 1975, and while I forget the name of the translator, I remember the magic of the language as much as the magic of the story. Read morePublished on Nov. 5 2001 by P. J. Gies
Ok, Seamus Heaney's book is not the most accurate translation available, but I think it's the most readable. And (and it's a big big AND! Read morePublished on Oct. 3 2001
Heaney's translation of the Anglo-Saxon "Beowulf" is a beautiful book both inside and out. Read morePublished on Sept. 23 2001 by Chad M. Brick