Death is not easily escaped from by anyone:
All of us with souls, earth-dwellers and children of men,
must make our way to a destination already ordained
where the body, after the banqueting, sleeps on its deathbed.
You’ve lost your home, your doctor has told you that you are terminally ill and you’ve decided to wildcamp for the foreseeable future…what is the only book that you bring with you to keep you going? Why Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf of course!
I came to reading this after it was strongly recommended in Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path. In her excellent memoir about life on the South West Coastal Path, her husband Moth is constantly taking out his battered copy of Beowulf whenever he gets a chance. In one memorable scene, he even performs a piece on the street completely unaware that Heaney has recently died and is all over the news.
Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honor
and took no advantage; never cut down
a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
Beowulf is a renowned Anglo Saxon story poem written over a thousand years ago. It is up there with Homer’s epic poems as a classic piece of literature with roots in the oral tradition. Set in Scandinavia, Beowulf follows our titular titan as he crosses the Danish sea with his band of warriors to vanquish the fearsome Grendel. Of course, many more adventures and battles follow.
Like all classic adventure stories, the plot is simple but the language and imagery really make it come alive. Good bedtime stories are always in the telling and with Seamus Heaney holding the reins of language here, we are in safe hands. He casts a spell with his retelling, using far simpler language than I would have predicted, and keeps the momentum of the story going throughout. American Gods author, Neil Gaiman, swears by the Heaney-read audiobook. Heaney’s translation just begs to be read aloud and who better to do it than the great poet himself.
Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will see how this classic piece of literature heavily influenced his work. Tolkien even published academic papers on Beowulf. I had heard that The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings began life as bedtime stories for Tolkien’s children, just like Beowulf would have been told to children by the fireside hundreds of years ago.
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf truly is a great read for the purist. There is a noble antiquity to the tale from start to finish and this makes the magical seem a little bit more real. There are many beautiful, insightful lines throughout. I took out the illustrated version in the library but found that the photos and pictures only took away from the vivid imagery of the words. In the end, I just ignored them. If you want to immerse yourself in a world of darkened mead-halls, glinting swords and fearsome beasts, Beowulf is what you need. Preferably read it by a fire, deep into a winter’s night. You won’t be disappointed!
Past and present, God’s will prevails.
Hence, understanding is always best
And a prudent mind. Whoever remains For long here in this earthly life
Will enjoy and endure more than enough.”
I can’t even begin to imagine how they took such an epic and visual story and managed to make this mess of a film:
‘I wish that the astonishing and powerful Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf had been available when Roger Avary and I first wrote our film script. Heaney’s reading of his own Beowulf has been on my iPod for the last two years, and I play it when my blood needs stirring. This illustrated edition is possibly the finest version of Heaney’s translation yet, and is the next best thing to being in the mead hall at Heorat, watching the action, with Heaney chanting it beside you’ ~ Neil Gaiman