1000 Books in 10 Years: Vol. 199; Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney)

Beowulf.  The oldest known English epic poem in existence.  It’s one of the works you have to read if you are an English major.  Well… perhaps if you are lucky you don’t have to read it.  I took an Early British Literature course where Beowulf wasn’t on the syllabus, but I’ve gone back to school to do my masters and I am now a Graduate Assistant for and Early British Literature course that does feature Beowulf on the syllabus, so I did not quite manage to escape the text (though I had of course read it on my own some time ago).  It was written in “old English”, which is to say, not English at all.  So I had read, not the original text, but a translation by poet Seamus Heaney, who has one Nobel Prize in Literature to his name (though I had never heard of him until I picked up his copy of Beowulf… I guess there wasn’t a lot of competition for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995).  So what do you get when you mix an old English text with a Nobel Prize winning poet?  Nothing I’d write home about.  The narrative itself is pretty boring.  The protagonist, Beowulf, is of course super human and loves to brag about himself.  Did you know that he once went swimming for several days in the ocean without sleeping at all?  And the entire time he was carrying a sword with him, which back in those days was quite a heavy object to carry along with you for a quick swim, let alone a swim that lasts as long as a fortnight.  And of course during the swim he came across several sea monsters whose lives he took, because he is that bad ass.  Beowulf of course is sure to boast of his heroic exploits when he travels about, and travel about he does, as he hears word that another region is under attack from a monster and so he goes off to save the day, and save the day he does.  Gold and thanks are of course heaped on him, but wherever there is one monster, there is sure to be another.  And so, after Beowulf kills Grendel (that is the monster’s name, though he never formally introduces himself), they discover that Grendel has a mother who leaves her under-water lair to seek revenge on those who have killed her son.  Beowulf of course decides that he must also take care of Grendel’s mother (Grendel’s father never shows up, I guess her grew up in a single parent home, which might explain why he was so hostile) and so follows her back to her under-water lair and there wrestles with her.  She of course is too much for even Beowulf and the only thing that could possible kill her is a giant sword forged for giants.  There of course happens to be one such sword in her lair (?!?!?!?) so Beowulf hoists it up (though only one with super human strength could wield such a sword as it was made for giants) and decapitates Grendel’s mother.  The entire fight scene takes place under water and Beowulf, though he does not have gills, manages to hold his breath for what seems like no less than an hour while he battles with Grendel’s mother.  Years go by and Beowulf is king and ruling his land in his old age when he finds his land terrorized by a dragon.  Beowulf, though quite old, is still up for the challenge, and takes out the dragon in one-on-one combat, though he himself is mortally wounded in the battle.  A funeral or two (or three) is held and Beowulf’s life is celebrated.  Yeay!  Sadly, the translation does not rhyme.  And coupled with that, there is not much alliteration (which apparently there is in the original text).  Perhaps there is something lost in translation, but the work is an unfulfilling read on the whole.  One who is interested in reading epic English poems is perhaps better off reading Chaucer or Milton.  I mean, the person who wrote Beowulf didn’t even like it enough to put their name on it, so what does that tell you about the work?

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. Mary Hernandez says:

    Great article!

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