BOOK REVIEW: Beowulf Translated by Seamus Heaney

BeowulfBeowulf by Unknown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Beowulf” is a narrative poem, originally composed in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), telling the story of the hero, Beowulf, and his battles against monsters. In a sense, it’s an early superhero story. Mere mortal men are no match for the warrior Beowulf; he battles the monster Grendel who’s been terrorizing the banquet hall of a Danish king, that monster’s mother, and – later in life, back in his homeland – a dragon. While the poem isn’t formally broken up into subparts, these three battles and the events leading up to each can be thought of as the three sections of the poem. It reads as the highlights of a warrior-hero’s life.

Heaney’s verse follows a form reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon approach to verse without sticking to the form it so rigidly that it becomes difficult to read. The Anglo-Saxon lines consist of two halves balanced with two stressed syllables each and alliteration across the caesura (the line’s midpoint break.) Heaney often alliterates across a line’s mid-point, but sometimes the alliteration is packed into one half, and sometimes it’s non-existent. That’s not a criticism. It’s actually beneficial because it’s incredibly easy for the reader to follow Heaney’s translation. The more dogmatic one is about form, the more hoops one makes a reader jump through to understand. Heaney also doesn’t restrict himself to a single approach to meter, and his lines tend to be longer than the original. This translation doesn’t require complex decryption of cryptic or archaic language. Besides, for those who want to read to hear the meter and precise proper alliteration, the Anglo-Saxon version is included. (As is typically of bilingual editions, the original is on the left-hand page and the translation is on the right. This also makes it a short work as half of the 200-ish pages are the Anglo-Saxon version.)

It’s a straightforward book. There’s an introduction in which Heaney explains how he got involved with this project as well as providing some translation notes, there’s brief exposition on how names work in the story, and there are family trees to help keep the characters straight (the latter is important because of the nature of naming addressed in front matter.) Otherwise, it’s just the poem and its translation.

I enjoyed reading this translation. It is easy to follow while offering some beautiful use of language. I’d recommend this book for just about anyone, whether a reader of poetry, heroic tales, or historical fiction.

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