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Thursday
Mar312011

Beowulf (Heaney version)

Those special souls who engage voluntarily — and often maniacally — in the study of the language of this imagined community will claim, to a man (they are mostly men), that there are few pleasures greater than reading this epic poem in the original.  They will point out which other non–classical European traditions had a national epic so early in their free history (the answer may surprise you), and how beautiful the pure Germanic tones are bereft of Latinate corruption.  They will speak of dragons and pennons and iron breast–mail, keening wounds, mizzles of blood, and curved prows slicing the frothy Northern waves.  They will sit on mead benches (now we generally use bar stools) and lambaste the ignorant many who think that Beowulf is a lycanthrope or distantly related to the bestial characters in these famous tales.  They will shriek at the thought of forgery or mimesis, and denounce any party who dares utter a word against the undeniable originality and genius of the creator of Grendel, Hygelac, and Ecglaf.  So was it with the Shield–Danes and so is it now with the brave pundits of the Anglo–Saxon language, what we fondly refer to as Old English, a term which for some may evoke the image of green meadows, cascading hillocks and a country inn.

The language itself was once a hobby of mine, but my capacities are now limited to texts far simpler than this monolith.  That said, it is always pleasing to see a poetic rendering of a work you can understand  made with ample awareness of the deadening effect of straight translation.  We are not merely talking about syntax or the profligate number of  now–anachronistic objects, but the feel and sound of epic, which takes a particular type of mind to print unmockingly.  Such a mind was clearly found in this world–famous Nobel laureate, who made it a task unto himself to give us a Beowulf that will glimmer and gab in the old style without being too shiny or loquacious.  It is, in all respects, a rousing success.

If you are not familiar with Heaney's verse, this collection may be recommended, but instinct tells me that there is little in this Irishman's oeuvre which will hit not the spot.  His predilection for a curious turn of phrase, curious because it is ultimately more correct rather than épatant, is reflected in his defense of the poem's very first word, hwaet:

Conventional renderings of hwaet ... tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" ... But .... "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.  So, "so" it was.

"So" is even more than that: it is the signal of concession by a narrator to his impatient audience that he is finally about to begin.  The rest of the work, whose author is as anonymous as Heaney is celebrated, follows from this first utterance.  We all wait impatiently for the unraveling of a plot well–known from the back cover as well as from the recent film: Beowulf, a young warrior from abroad comes to the kingdom of King Hroðgar and slays the abomination Grendel; Beowulf then must face Grendel's mother and, in the twilight of his years, a dragon who turns out in the end to be both the loser and the victor.

There are too many niceties to mention, so we will admire just a handful.  Beowulf is chided for the "sheer vanity" of swimming the ocean against a confederate, because, he is told "the sea–test obsessed you/ you waded in, embracing water/ taking its measure, mastering currents/ rising on the swell" (509–515), a perfect account of Beowulf's hell–bent nature.  His helmet "was of beaten gold/ princely headgear hooped and hasped" (1450–1451), his sword was "keen, inlaid, worm–loop–patterned steel" (1532), and his enemy a "murdering, guilt–steeped, God–cursed fiend" (1682).  Hroðgar then has a lovely passage on his deity:

Sometimes He allows the mind of  a man
of distinguished birth to follow its bent,
grants him fulfillment and felicity on earth
and forts to command in his own country ....
he is kept from the worst
until an element of overweening
enters him and takes hold
while the soul's guard, its sentry, drowses,
grown too distracted.
   (1728–1743)

Beowulf's rise and fall in but a few short lines, the slow dirge of the ill–fated.  What is striking about the Heaney text is how little the reader, even one for whom the Nordic nomenclature is entirely alien, stutters or stumbles on the particularities of the epoch.  The whole plays out as smoothly as might a tale of ancient Rome, or Jacobin France, places we think we have come to know through history, media, and collected lore.  But this world of monsters and mayhem is palpable and odorous, and as real as smoke or blood or moonlight.  A world to be discovered by the uninitiated and relished by those same pundits for whom Anglo–Saxon is not an ethnic designation but a warm and glorious place far removed from the present.

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