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.