What I’m Reading — Beowulf

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, landed under the Christmas Tree (which has been stripped and now lies in the burn pile behind the tin shed), courtesy of my mother-in-law who has excellent taste in literature.

Everyone knows the story. Warrior Beowulf comes to the aid of the Danes who have been getting raided by a nocturnal monster that invades their gilded mead hall and eats everyone up. Beowulf steps off his longboat, tells the Danes to chill, settles down with his men, the Geats, and awaits the evil beast. Beast arrives, chows down on one of Beowulf’s Geats, Beowulf wrestles the beast, one Grendel, and manages to rip its arm out of its socket.

Grendel limps off, to die in the swamps, and the Danes party down and give Beowulf his due and lots of bling. Ah, but Grendel’s mom isn’t pleased with the affair, so she pays a visit and kicks some more butt, taking off with Grendel’s amputated claw and depriving the Danes of their trophy.  Beowulf shrugs it off, puts on his chain mail and helmet, tracks mom down in the bogs, slays a nasty bog monster in a pool of water, and dives into that same pool to sink down and have it out with mother.

Mom dies, loses her head, the blood corrodes the blade, and Beowulf pops back for more a party with the Danes who tell him he ought to be the king of the Geats.


But wait, there’s more ….

Heaney pulls off a magnificent translation — his introduction is worth reading on its own for its discussion of language and the role the legendary story played in the development of Nordic and ultimately Anglo-Saxon literature. This is a creepy campfire story the told around the peat fire to freak out the kids — a Dark Ages version of Three-Fingered Willy — and is well worth a good read. It’s not every day one of the touchstones of modern literature gets translated by a Nobel Prize winner in Literature, so go to it and really bum out your seatmate who is reduced to reading the SkyMall catalogue. If you want to know where Tolkien got his inspiration (Tolkien was the critic who “discovered” Beowulf) then this is the source.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “What I’m Reading — Beowulf”

  1. It is a book I had wanted to read for some time. I regret to say that my facination with the subject was a result of seeing a mediocre film called the 13th warrior back in ’99. There have since been more recent films on the subject as well as an upcoming film called “Beowulf” due out this year. I hope to read the book before the new movie comes out as I am sure to see it and movies seldom due the books justice.

    Happy reading.

  2. It was thank to Tolkien I discovered Beowulf, although I only got it in spanish, I need to read it in english, we’ll see if I get a grab on this translation sometime (There’s a translation by Tolkien, who was a philologist and had a deep love for ancient languages). I have a very “Scottish” friend who says Tolkien had to invent a Mythology for the English, since they only had King Arthur and Beowulf

  3. I recall we studied Beowulf in school and the format for the Anglo Saxon boast. We each had to write a contemporary boast.

    Perhaps that might be a minor journalistic amusement if you were so inclined….

  4. Hmm. The boast…. yes, I will cite some examples. There are definitely some good Beowulf smackdowns delivered at the expense of the Danes.

  5. And all this time I thought it was the bad-ass Wikings who needed something to put even more fear in the eyes of Irish monks who kept the tale rolling along

    Beowulf — not to be confused with the Beo product line from DK company B&O, was written about the time of good blueberry eater, King Harold. Later claim to fame, besides ridding the Danish kingdom of Pagan badness, was a short-range technology he came up with in 974, called Bluetooth. King Harold, Bluetooth was his name, the unifier of all things Scandinavian and, if he were still around, he might even be able to get my Treo to sync with my X60.

    The Viking concept of domination was cool. Go, beat their asses with shallow bottom boats (David, your realm) up the river where they don’t expect it; nail some broads; bring some others home, especially red-headed Irish slaves; take some loot; go home to harvest the crops and hang out for the Winter. Come Summer, rinse, repeat.

    Better than this whole, plant my flag, this is now mine, I own it stuff

    As long as you’re not reading Finnigan’s Wake. I once took a class on 10 PAGES of that book. 4 months on 10 pages. I was stull freaking clueless…

  6. 10 pages? In the original whatever-you-call-it tongue?
    I can’t believe Heaney translated it. Then again, he has a Nobel in Literature and I do not.

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