Dan Sandman

41: Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Poetry on 11/10/2013 at 12:00 pm

Beowulf by Seamus HeaneyWhen a writer dies, bookshops and libraries begin to show a renewed interest in the work left behind. Following the recent death of Seamus Heaney, nicknamed ‘Famous Seamus’, my local library displayed his poems in the window for passers-by to read and appreciate. It was reassuring to see that poetry could still have pride of place in a public space. And so, I encountered this brilliant book, with an accompanying CD, and was transported to a fantasy land conjured up in or around 900 AD.

As Heaney states in the book’s introduction, the original Beowulf exists in one manuscript only now housed within the British Library. In the eighteenth century, this important text, at first written in Anglo-Saxon, barely survived a fire. The Oxford scholar and teacher, J. R. R Tolkien was fascinated with the poem and gave a groundbreaking lecture in 1936, entitled The Monsters and The Critics, in which he emphasised the poem’s qualities as a work of literature. Prior to Tolkien’s lecture, many critics had focussed on its relevance as a source of Anglo-Saxon history whilst downplaying its artistic qualities. Ironically enough, Tolkien’s own innovative fantasy fiction novel The Lord of The Rings was harshly reviewed by, the rather stern looking, American literary critic Edmund Wilson who called it “juvenile trash”.

Unfortunately, there has always been negative commentators who see it as their mission to attack fantasy fiction.  However, I personal believe that stories involving heroic battles against monsters and dragons are great fun. Take Beowulf for example, it has a powerful hero who bravely fights against an unquestionably evil trio – Grendel, Grendels’ mother and the dragon – of enemies. The world he inhabits is one where honour is achieved through combat, where reward is bestowed upon those who can master swordplay, where there is a clear distinction between good and evil. It’s the world that draws comparisons to the Japanese samurai of old, or even such twentieth century texts such as Star Wars or Harry PotterBeowulf is a fictional landscape where we can escape from the trappings of twenty-first century living by imagining an alternative reality.

I have thoroughly enjoyed learning from this entertaining book and CD for many reasons, of which I shall now state a few. Firstly, it has been a great pleasure to hear Seamus Heaney, the poet himself, reading from his own erudite translation. Heaney has a strong Northern Irish accent and his reading adds great musicality to the poem’s rhythm and sound. I highly recommend finding the audio version, I got hold of the CD from Primrose Hill Community Library, but there is a copy of it available freely on the world’s most popular video streaming service. Secondly, I found the language of the translation to be highly evocative of the rousing sound produced when reading Anglo-Saxon. When I was at university studying English, a lecturer called Rob Pope used read to his students that old Germanic language upon which English is partially based. When listening to the CD, it was very easy to imagine how it would sound untranslated – which leads on to my third point. I am grateful to the now sadly departed Nobel Prize winner who wrote with such force and integrity. This rewrite and this recording, have made an otherwise very difficult story to understand accessible to those with an interest in fantasy fiction and / or the history of the English language.

Epic and poetic storytelling.

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