[RGC 22.] Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

[read: this man can really fight monsters and that is apparently Anglo-Saxon tradition]

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» Must haves: a medieval imagination! This is the original Game of Thrones. » Pairs well with: a warm blanket. I like reading for class wrapped up in my multi-colored quilt because it entices me to read more pages at once since I’m comfy and have no excuse to stop reading because I never want to move from that sweet spot.


We started Beowulf last week during the unfortunate concussion incident. I’m not going to say that made it harder to read, because Heaney’s translation is very accessible, but I will say that the room was spinning extra when we talked about it in class. This is so rich in cultural ‘tradition’ (a term I use very lightly after studying anthropology) that it does tell the story of a people, which is a lot to handle and comprehend while concussed. In fact, the original Beowulf could be something completely different from this one surviving translated written copy, which is mind-boggling. It’s so rare to find a piece in its near-entirety as this, I mean there are actual burn marks on the transcript, that everything should be taken with a grain of salt.

That being said, we mostly discussed how this is a combination of many different pagan and Christian oral traditions. This poet put together the tale of Beowulf, a seriously buff hero-turned-king who defeated three (count ’em! three!) monsters before dying. The first? Grendel, an evil who butchered men in their own dining hall, which is not kosher, and was defeated in an arm-wrestling match with Beowulf. The second? Grendel’s mother. Hot damn. And that woman was scorned, but ultimately defeated in an underwater battle with, you guessed it, Beowulf.

And then Beowulf became king and there was peace for a while. Which is the sign of a good king, so props to that Beowulf, you made it. The third monster, you ask? An awakened dragon, formerly asleep over his cursed treasure buried by a people who died long ago. Tolkein much? After an intruder burst into the barrow, this dragon was pretty much pissed off so Beowulf, now an old king, fought him to the death. All in the name of glory. After he died, of course he became the best and most remembered hero of his kingdom, but also left everyone doomed to other attackers and dismantled the peace that he set up before. Good or bad thing? We may never know. The women wailing at his funeral service seem to think bad, so I’ll leave it at that.

It’s a pretty amazing story to know that this poem survived in this condition and that it was translated by Heaney, one of the more contemporary figures in literary society. For that reason, it provides a lens back into storytelling and societal values that may not be relatable today but can be understood in their own context. A good look into literature and its history today, but you probably won’t go out of your way to read it unless you’re taking a class or really looking forward to the subpar movie version.

6 out of 10 would recommend.

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