829.3: Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. London: Faber and Faber, 1999. 99 pp. ISBN 0-571-20342-6.
British literature makes up the 820s in the Dewey, but most of it is reserved for literature written in Modern English. When you encounter literature originally written in Old English (or Old Anglo-Saxon), then it goes into 829. Since there’s not really many works from that age, each poet or author gets their own special billing. Works on Beowulf or by the Beowulf poet (nobody knows the poet’s name) have exclusive rights to 829.3.
This book is a translation of the 3,000 line poem written sometime between the seventh and tenth century CE. The author does not have a name as often referred to as “the Beowulf poet”. There have been numerous translations. I’m pretty sure that if you’re an Old English scholar, you have to produce a translation as a rite of passage.
The plot goes like this: Hrothgar is king of the Danes, but has a problem. A monster known as Grendel is terrorizing his mead-hall (christened Heorot) and killing his kinsmen. Beowulf, nephew of the Geat king Hygelac, hears of this beast and petitions his king to let him go and vanquish the monster. Hygelac allows it.
So. Beowulf and his band of weighty warriors row over to the Danes and convince Hrothgar to allow them to stay and help them out. Grendel comes in the night, kills one of Beowulf’s men, awakening Beowulf himself. Grendel and Beowulf then engage in a mighty battle of hand-to-hand combat (Beowulf, interestingly enough, wants to fight the monster on his own terms). Beowulf wins, tearing off Grendel’s arm. Grendel staggers off into the nearby bog to die.
And there was much rejoicing.
But, that night, Grendel’s mother, distraught and looking for revenge, comes to Heorot, finds her son’s arm, and in a fit of rage, kills a mighty warrior while they are all sleeping, and leaves. Beowulf, not backing down, vows to go into the swamps, find her, and vanquish her. And he does. During the fight, the sword that was gifted to him (named Hrunting) by Unferth fails to work, but he finds another one and it fares better. He uses it to decapitate the she-beast, but the blood from the battle melts the blade and all that is left is the hilt. He takes this and her head back to Heorot to prove his victory.
And there was much rejoicing.
Beowulf, after receiving a fair amount of prizes from Hrothgar, decides to take his band of warriors back home. Once home, he retells the tale for King Hygelac. After some time, Hygelac dies and his son becomes king. That king soon thereafter and Beowulf is named as King of the Geats. He rules for fifty years, during with battles are fought and political alliances with the Franks, Frisian, and the Swedes are all frayed. Now, at the end, a dragon begins to terrorize the Geats (some stole a piece of its treasure) and Beowulf gathers eleven of his best warriors (plus the thief) and heads out to confront the dragon. It appears and all but one of his loyal kinsmen run and hide. Beowulf begins to fight the dragon, but its fire-breath is too much for him. Wiglaf, the only brave companion left, rushes in to help his king. Together, they defeat the dragon, but not before it inflicts a fatal wound to Beowulf. He dies. Wiglaf then rebukes the band of cowards and warns them that because of their dis-unity, the Geat nation will fall to the Swedes. They then build a funeral pyre and burial mound and mourn the loss of their leader.
As with any great literature, the reader can interpret the daylights out of this work. Is this a blatant display of warrior-era machismo, therefore further implying the weakness of women? Does the double three-part structure represent the Trinity? Are there political overtones (Geats vs. Danes; Geats vs. Swedes) that make this a nationalistic work?
One could continue like this ad infinitum. The tale is delightfully medieval, but with tinges of incipient Christianity. It is interesting to see the how myth and religion commingle in Dark Ages England.
Heaney’s translation is notably subdued. He allows the meter and the alliteration to provide the drama. His ear for old dialects helps in constructing a lot of the necessary compound words that Old English specializes in. We hear of the “shield-wall” and “shoulder-companions” as it was meant to be heard.
It is short and eminently readable. It is the first great English myth, although the names and the geography are foreign to us. If you haven’t read, spare an afternoon and do so. You’ll be that much better for it.