Beowulf: A New Translation (a.k.a. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation), Unknown, Translation by Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 1999)

Grade: Α — (Alpha) Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book.  THIS IS A MUST READ FOR ANYONE WHO ENJOYS FANTASY, SPECULATIVE FICTION… OR ANYTHING WRITTEN IN ENGLISH really.  Really.  No, no.  Really.

In brief:

Academically speaking, Seamus Heaney‘s Beowulf: A New Translation is not the best translation I have seen.  It is, however, the most readable version I have ever seen. In a wonderful display of talent and skill, Heaney turns the grandfather of all English language speculative literature (indeed, one could very well argue all English Language Literature) into a rip roaring, easy to read adventure tale… IN VERSE!  If you’ve ever had trouble making through Beowulf, or think that poetry is dull, try Beowulf: A New Translation (a.k.a. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation).


North Eastern Denmark and Götland (Sothern Sweden), during the late 5th century AD.

 In Depth:

Beowulf is the epic trilogy that follows the adventures of the eponymous hero in his rise to greatness. Though many associate tale with the first adventure, Beowulf’s fight against the monster Grendel, I am often surprised to find out how few people know of the other two sagas that are found within this story.  Yet the story and character arcs cannot truly be understood without reading them all.  The problem is, most versions of the text are very dry reads because they focus on linguistic accuracy.

All of which raises a very key question: does Evans really think he is so good that he can give a meaningful review of BEOWULF?  The oldest existing text in the English Language and he thinks he can write something worth reading about it?

Well…No.  Not really.

This is not a review of Beowulf.  It is a review of Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic tale.  To that end, while I will go on to discuss the saga itself (and why people should read it), I am not really critiquing original text, I am critiquing Heaney’s 1999 translation.

Academically speaking, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf: A New Translation[1]is not the best translation I have seen.  It plays relatively free and fast with the stylistic elements of the original verse, uses a variety of terms and phrases that are not culturally appropriate, and whole portions that bare nothing in common with the original text in terms of word use and descriptive metaphor. To that end, if you are attempting to use this to analyze the linguistic structure of the original text, it is useless.[2]

Having said that, however, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf: A New Translation is the most readable version I have ever seen. In a tour-de-force of talent and skill that turns the original Old English text into a rip roaring, easy to read adventure tale… IN VERSE!  That is precisely what he intended to do with this translation, turn the great epic of the English language from a boring text one reads in high school into a living breathing work of fiction that someone might actually choose to read for fun.

As result, if you want to read Beowulf for a class, pick up another translation.  If you want to read it for academic pursuit or to get a true understanding of the nature of culture and literature from the period, learn Old English. If, however, you want to sit down and read a great story.  This is the book for you.  If you also want to think about Beowulf and enjoy it from the viewpoint of literature, or to gain a certain degree of cultural insight, again this is the version you have been waiting years to find.  Indeed, I would think that many High School classes and/or Literature classes would do well to introduce readers to the text using this translation as that it is so accessible and easily readable despite the fact it is a poem.

So, then, what is Beowulf about?  Well…

“The epic of Beowulf, the most precious relic of the English Language, and all early Germanic Literature, has come down to us in a single MS.,[3] written about AD 1000, which also contains the Old English poem of Judith, and is bound up with other MSS[4]. in a volume in the Cottonian collection know at the British Museum. The subject of the poem is the exploits of Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow and nephew of Hybelac, king of the “Gēates,” i.e. the people , called in Scandinavian records Gautar, from whom a part of southern Sweden has received its present name Götland.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, 1910-1911; vol 3 pp.758)

In other words, it is an epic adventure tale about Beowulf, a young prince who through the course of the story proves himself as a warrior and a King.  It is a heavily structured text, divided into three parts, which for ease of discussion I will note as I: Grendel, II: Grendel’s Mother, and III: The Dragon. Each part can be said to focus around socio-culturally twinned elements of combat and funerals; in each section a funeral of some sorts is portrayed as is a major one-on-one fight between the protagonist of that section and a monstrous adversary.

Heaney manages to keep these structural elements of the tale, while also making it accessible to a modern reader.  That is to say he does what masterful translators sometimes need to do, he sacrifices “accuracy” of word and phrase choices in order to keep the feel and flow of the story going for someone with a difference language and cultural base.[5]  He makes Beowulf a story that a modern day reader might actually want to read for fun.  Surely, that is what any good translator does?

Yet, one can still gain insights from this translation, both to the cultures in question, and to the development of English Literature (though definitely not the English Language). Indeed, by using a more vivid and accessible turn of phrase, Heaney’s retelling of the tale makes it far easier to examine concepts that can readily be lost in the minutia of linguistic interpretations.

From an academic standpoint,[6] the cultural elements that stand out in this telling of the text are quite fascinating.  It can, for example, be argued that the twinned elements of combat and burials that form the backbone of the tale are key to understanding concepts of social reproduction within the cultures being described in the tale.  That is to say, one can argue that they show directly inter-related elements of 4th to 9th century Norse (and possibly other Germanic) social structure.  In Beowulf one sees the social importance of warfare, how it is tied to increasing individual social prestige,[7] and how it is reflected within the funerary rites. One can also discuss, and perhaps draw conclusions about, the role of prestation[8] in the associated cultures and how social reproduction was enacted in through the burial process.[9]

As an examination of more universal concepts, Heaney’s version of classic also brings to the forefront elements the kind of heroic journey that Carl Jung and (even more so) Erich Neumann interpret as reflective of the nature of the human psyche.  In such a viewpoint Beowulf can be seen as the individual battling trifold elements of the self, each represented by one of the monsters he faces. The conflict with Grendel can be said to reflect an individuals the first engagement with the sub- or non-conscious self: the great unthinking and incomprehensible monster that lurks in the shadows and dark places. The fight against Grendel’s Mother then moves the great struggle onto to the combat with the feminine self, as reflected with that most powerful of feminine icons: the mother monster.  Finally, comes the struggle with the masculine: the fight with the great dragon whose phallic nature is somewhat self-explanatory, which comes after Beowulf’s own ascension into power.

To that end, the easy reading of this book allows one to more fully reflect on other meanings in the text, rather than struggle with the nature of an accurate translation where one is often drawn to ponder word choices and socio-linguistic meanings of the language rather than the elements of the story.

I also found this version interesting from literary standpoint, as that it encouraged me to think about the structure of the tale.  I found my own thoughts turning to the action cycle of the story as compared to those more commonly used within present story structure.  For example, one of the classic forms for modern fiction is sometimes called the “Foot Stool” format.[10]  It follows a predictable cycle of action:

Try-fail, try-fail, try-succeed.

Beowulf, and indeed most other epic tale from the past, follow a quite different pattern of

Try-succeed, try-succeed, try-fail.

This is something Tolkien understood that many other modern fantasy authors do not.  Of course, in the epic formula, there are sacrifices that come with each failure and successes that come with the final fail, for in fact, there are cultural elements about the definition of success and failure that change with the….

Okay, I’ll shut up now.  I’m killing my core point that the story is FUN.[11]

Because it is fun.  One can completely ignore all of this academic BS and read the tale as a great adventure story, and that was Heaney’s motivation: to transform this classic back from a dry academic text into a rip-roaring adventure tale. In the process, Heaney returned life to the text in a manner I cannot help but think the original author would applaud.  I highly highly highly recommend it as a great introduction to the tale, and a great read in its own right…

[1] Also released under the title Beowulf: A New Verse Translation.

[2] Big surprise, Heaney doesn’t know Old English.  He admits that up front.

[3] Manuscript

[4] Manuscripts

[5] For a good example, compare the Dr. Seuss classic, Yertle the Turtle to it’s Spanish translation, Yoruga la Tortuga

[6] And I will note at this juncture that I am by no means an expert in Old English, 5th century
AD Scandinavia (or 5th century anywhere else… well, 5th Century AD… I do know a reasonable bit about Northwestern Europe in the 5th Century BC… but that is something totally different), or really anything much else to do with the original text of Beowulf.  I did once have a rather good time with an Icelandic scholar… but that is another story.

[7] Even within a social hierarchy with clearly hereditary elements deeply imbedded into it.

[8] The act of social reproduction as effected in the placement of goods within a burial context.

[9] If you’re REALLY interested in discovering more about social reproduction through burial rites, you can pick up my thrill-a-minute, sexily titled, Quantitative Identities: A Statistical Summary and Analysis of Iron Age Cemeteries of North-Eastern France 600 – 130 BC. BAR International Series 1226. Archaeopress. 2004.

[10] I was first introduced to this format by Jerry Oltion, who in turn heard it from Benjamin Harrsh.  The original concept to create an analogy between the way in which one should learn to write fiction to a high school wood shop class.  One should learn to make and how you make a three-legged stool before you make a French armoire. I believe, though I may be mistaken, that this was the extent of his metaphor, Others have then extended this analogy further by noting the trifold structure I have outlined here.

[11] Anyone who wants to continue on with this bit of the discussion feel free to in comments.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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10 Responses to Beowulf: A New Translation (a.k.a. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation), Unknown, Translation by Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 1999)

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Speaking of Beowulf, I took a grad class with one of the GREAT Beowulf scholars/editors — Robert Fulk. He did the latest 2010 translation….

  2. novareylin says:

    Wow… I must say you had me at the first paragraph but honestly I always have loved reading about Beowulf, and although it’s not my normal genre this story still fascinates me! Definitely going to read this one! Sounds very intriguing!

  3. Pingback: Friday’s Flock of Fiction (3) | My Seryniti

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