Heaney’s mastery

Beowulf’s bane by Charles Keeping

Beowulf: A New Translation
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber & Faber, 1999.

Over the years I’ve acquired a handful of titles designed to render the language of Beowulf accessible to the modern reader, for example prose renditions by R K Gordon (1922) and by G N Garmonsway and Jacqueline Simpson (1967), and a verse presentation by Michael Alexander (1973) designed to capture the style and mannerisms of the Anglo-Saxon poem but in more contemporary English.

But of all the translations, modernised versions and other paraphrases of Beowulf I’ve looked at over several decades Heaney’s has been the most readable and, I rather think, the most enjoyable.

Enjoyable for expressing the spirit of the original in a form that’s easily comprehended – for making it a delight to revisit the familiar tale when all the component parts were finally revealed to me as hanging together in harmony – enjoyable too for allowing me to witness a modern interpreter taking care with language just as the original anonymous poet did with his epic tale.

Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle © The Trustees of the British Museum

For new readers – as it did now for me, forgetful as I can be – it may come as a surprise that we are not informed of the name of the warrior captain until more than three hundred lines of verse: but of course us moderns have recourse to a title for the epic bestowed somewhat later, after the manuscript was redicovered and published a scant three centuries ago.

The man whose name was known for courage,
the Geat leader, resolute in his helmet,
answered in return: ‘We are retainers
from Hygelac’s band. Beowulf is my name.’

Heaney 1999

At first sight there may seem little to praise this over, say Michael Alexander’s version of the same lines. Both respect the cæsurae which punctuate lines at roughly the midway point, and both imitate the alliterations Anglo-Saxon poetry revelled in either side of each cæsura:

The gallant Geat gave answer then,
valour-renowned, and vaunting spoke,
hard under helmet: ‘At Hygelac’s table
we are sharers in the banquet; Beowulf is my name.’

Alexander 1973

But it’s the totality of what Heaney accomplishes that most impressed me. He achieves the near-impossible task of delivering lines in almost conversational English while giving us the flavour of the original through his use of archaic words that have survived in dialect. Two such words that struck me I was pleased to later read he’d highlighted in his introduction, which I read afterwards. Thole, meaning ‘to endure, to suffer patiently’ was a word his older Irish relatives had used, and came via Scottish and Northern English dialect from Old English þolian; the term bawn, which Heaney used to describe Hrothgar’s hall Heorot, was another colloquial Irish term which is related to Scots Gaelic bothy and possibly Welsh bwthyn.

Now here I am pointing to vocabulary details while claiming to talk about totality, so let me revert to the whole. Heaney’s was the first version I read where I was able to mostly focus on the narrative without stumbling as much over infelicitous phrasing or copious foot- or end-notes. Here I got a sense of Beowulf’s overall career, the three principle fights – with Grendel, Grendel’s dam, and with the dragon – while being reminded of his youthful exploits fighting sea monsters and saving friends, plus all the parallels from legends linked to the Geats, Swedes, Danes and Friesians which cemented Beowulf to an ongoing tradition.

All the past scholarly controversies – the poet’s affront introducing monsters to history, the Old Testament references being bolt-ons to an oral tradition or not, the effect of the so-called digressions on the flow of the narrative – all faded to irrelevance as I became, through Heaney’s mastery, more aware of the original poet’s magisterial creation, his work of art as beautiful and awe-inspiring as any silvered or gilded treasure revealed during an archaeological excavation.

And finally I understood that the poem was an affirmation of a moral code that still holds true – the imperative to ‘do the right thing’. For Beowulf that meant helping one’s neighbour, being generous to friends, opposing malevolence with all one’s strength, behaving justly when in power, and leading by example even when death seems certain. If only all leaders could be like this; thank you, Seamus Heaney, for clarifying what the Beowulf poet’s intentions were.

Read for Cathy @746books’s Reading Ireland Month: the late Seamus Heaney, who died ten years ago this August, was one of Ireland’s foremost poets as well as a translator and playwright.

32 thoughts on “Heaney’s mastery

  1. Pingback: It’s Reading Ireland Month 2023!

    1. The proof of the pudding comes, I suppose, Cathy, with how it’d sound. I remember the actor Julian Glover at the Bristol Old Vic in the 1970s giving an electrifying solo rendition of the poem as if by a Dark Age scop. Checking online it appears he used – still uses – his own version cobbled together from various scholarly translations including Michael Alexander. I’d love to attend a performance by somebody using the Heaney translation.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I love this edition too.
    I used to read Michael Morpurgo’s version of it to my Year 5 and 6 students, but I used to read a little of the Heaney edition so that they could hear the poetry of it, and I used the illustrations to show them the lifestyle of that era.

    I took a look at that much-lauded recent edition translated by a woman and didn’t get on with it at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be curious to look at the Maria Dahvana Headley version, Lisa – that’s the one that renders Hwæt! as “Bro!”, is it not? – but not at all desperate to do so. As you say, a modernised retelling of the basic story taught with extracts from Heaney’s version would work very well for pre-teens – indeed any audience, I’d imagine!


    2. That’s the one.
      I’d say it’s the Americanised version, which seems all wrong for an ancient work of English literature. I’m not opposed to modernising works to keep them alive, but I like them to keep their essential character.

      The kids at school, BTW, watched the film of Beowulf with Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins. (I told them not to, because it was rated not at all suitable for their age group, but of course they did because they had irresponsible parents who let them watch anything.) Anyway, they were a discerning audience: they were very indignant about how the original story had been distorted and furious about the characterisation of Grendel’s mother.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Almost all of us have read a “modernised” version. The original text is as completely obscure for almost all of us.

        I speak as one who was once required to know how to “translate'” whole chunks of the original – “knowledge” now long gone into the mists of the bog-fens of memory. Some versions honor the sense – the linguistic vigor and feel – of the original better than others.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’d have loved doing that.
          Yes, modernisation goes on all the time. The Shakespeare I read as a teenager bore little relationship to the original, even less than the editions I have now that were published for an adult market. But even so, the school editions still retained an Elizabethan ‘flavour’.
          I’ve often wondered how Shakespeare ‘translates’ for audiences in other countries and cultures.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Good question on Shakespeare and translations into languages other than English.

            I suppose what is interesting about the versions of Beowulf is that they are actually – allegedly(!) in the same language. So translations that hew more toward the Anglo-Saxon linguistic origins versus the French can be said to have more “authentic” “weight.”.

            Liked by 2 people

      2. I admired – for the most part – the animation, and Grendel’s alien-ness was well done if not how the poet may have imagined it, but… The whole project was misconceived, I think. Yes, the depiction of Grendel’s mother was absolutely risible and plain wrong, but casting Reece Winston as the hero was a massive blunder: as excellent an actor as he is this was the wrong part for him.

        However – as with the Headley adaptation, I think these interpretations are helpful, even necessary, in (a) jolting us out of a consensus academic mindset that is in danger of becoming moribund and (b) possibly giving us new or different insights and perspectives into the poem itself, even if we ultimately reject them.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. The Alexander version was my go-to for many years, Gert, but I was also interested in the analogues that Garmonsway and Simpson published, plus the light it threw on the period; but this is the rendition I find the most pleasurable to read up till now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Reading the Heaney is certainly a pleasure. But again I have not done a comparative study of translations. It wasn’t until the Heaney version that I could bear to go back to the torture of the tale. (The torture being the requisite ability to “translate” demanded by the University of Wales English Department (Then in the thrall of Icelandic sagas.) I did like “The Seafarer ” though. And still do.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting, Chris, and raises some perhaps knotty issues! I’m hugely in favour of making older texts accessible, and it’s obvious that Heaney does that. Yet, I do like to read an archaic text – made my way through Morte d’Arthur for example in my younger years. And the lines you give from the Alexander version appeal, particularly the use of the word ‘vaunting’ which I don’t sense as echoed in Heaney’s rendering. In a way, it’s a bit like translation, isn’t it? Finding the version that sounds best and resonates most with each individual as a reader!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it’s the individual response that’ll matter, at least initially! “Vaunting” sounds quaintly archaic now, but I suppose “thole” and “bawn” will be the height of idiosyncracy in the not too distant future, if not now. I have Michael Alexander’s parallel text with the Anglo-Saxon on the left and notes on the text, line by line on the right; I need to revisit this – it’s been far too long – now that Heaney has enthused me again!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Completely agree on the Heaney although I can’t say I’ve done a careful study of the alternatives.

    It’s a different order of things but I always like teaching Rosemary Sutcliff’s “Dragonslayer” because of the way she honored the original flavor of the language. It used to inspire kids to write some powerful and imaginative stuff. Plus being just a darn good story well-told.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I must find a copy of the Sutcliff – I haven’t looked at it since borrowing it from the library in, what, the seventies! In fact, apart from a novelised version of ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’ reviewed recently on the centenary of her birth I’ve been remiss in ignoring her over the decades. Thanks for the reminder!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This has been on my radar for ever so I’m glad to get a nudge and your recommendation for it! We still use ‘thole’ as a standard, non-archaic word. Or at least my generation does – not so sure about the young’uns!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d guess ‘thole’ is still relatively common where you are in Scotland as well as Northern Ireland, and possibly across the border into parts of northern England, but down here in the south we’re happy just to suffer… But yes, do search out a copy!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely my favourite at the moment. 🙂 I’ve only read the saga of the Völsungs (and reread and recently reviewed Hrolf Kraki’s saga) so there’s so much more for me to catch up on!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan, I’m glad you found it helpful. I haven’t looked at Tolkien’s study and text of Beowulf in quite a while, and I haven’t currently got a copy, but of course he was the authority on the poem in his lifetime. My memory is that it’s a parallel text with commentary but you’ll soon find out!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month: Week Two Round Up!

    1. As a translation that evokes the period with very little of the pseudo-archaic language Victorian versions resorted to I’d certainly recommend this to anyone interested, Laura!


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