Book Review: Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (W W Norton + Co, NY, 2000), 213 pages, introduction + varia. Rating 10 / 10
I confess to a long standing fascination with the Old English epic of
Beowulf, a Dark Ages warrior-hero who slays monsters and becomes warlord
of the nordic Geats. As good king, Beowulf establishes a reign of
(relative) peace and justice, finally, in old age, succumbing in mortal
battle with a devastating dragon. Beowulf is certainly the origin of
Britain's patron saint, George, the dragon slayer and the ancestor of
modern avatars like Swarzenegger's "Conan, the barbarian".
I've read the old poem, in translation, several times, in whole or
part, but Heaney's is by far the most vivacious and lyrical. He breathes
new life into the old bones to the point one forgets the poem is
written in what by now a foreign language and not English.
In Heaney's translation, the bard occasionally pauses, lifts his
fingers from the harp, fixes us directly in the eyes and adds a few
personal observations: the meaness of life, the value of honor -
expressed as courage before the inevitability of death, or life's pathos
as when an old man witnesses the execution of his son or the Geatish
woman at Beowulf's funeral, madly prophesying the coming carnage as
neighboring warlords reconfigure the regional power balance in the
vacuum left by the great lord's passing.
This is a powerful text rendered in traditional Anglo-Saxon "scop": two
stressed syllables per half-line, cesura, alliteration across the
cesura. Vestiges of the old language's phonetics must remain alive in
modern English because the poem reads more naturally, more easily than
"traditional" English rhyme patterns borrowed from the Latin languages.
In my own experiments in poetry writing, I instinctively adopted this
pattern - loosely - before I ever head of "scop". Heaney himself admits,
"Part of me.. had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start". Readers of
Gerard Manly Hopkins will recognize the rhyme scheme.
At the beginning of the poem, Grendel, a monster who lives at the
bottom of a lake or pond engages in nocturnal attacks on the mead-hall
of the Danish warlord, Hrothgar, devouring his knights. Beowulf arrives
and slays Grendel in hand to hand combat and then slays Grendel's mother
who avenges her son's killing in more nocturnal raids. As Heaney notes,
there is something viscerally "archetypal" about the poem. it speaks a
truth we grasp - or intuit - through the language - or iconography - of
myth, an X-rated fairy tale for adults one is tempted to say. Perhaps in
the monsters and the fatal dragon of the end of the poem we encounter
an avatar or projection of the society Beowulf lived in. The monsters
mimic men: Grendel's mother is constrained to avenge her son's death as
men are condemned to slaughter in interminable blood feuds.
"the poet had performed, a pleasant murmur
started on the benches, stewards did the rounds
with wine in splendid jugs, and Wealtheow came to sit
in her gold crown between two good men,
uncle and nephew, each of whom
still trusted each other; and the forthright Unferth,
admired by all for his mind and courage
although under a cloud for killing his brothers
reclined near the king" (lines 1159 - 1167)
Indeed! "Uncle and nephew..STILL trusted each other". "..under a cloud
for killing his brothers". This is the society of the blood feud, the
vendetta, of honor killing.
Beowulf, though a mighty warrior in combat, is held in esteem for his
virtue, rising above or transcending the temptations such a society
offers for violence and vindictiveness:
".. so ought a kinsman act,
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades.." (lines 2166 - 2169)
The Heroic Code is well summed by lines 1383 - 1389:
"Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke:
'Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.'"
The reading of Beowulf with its glorification of violence - even if in
the name of justice, stimulates reflection on the meaning, or relevance,
of the Heroic Code in technically advanced societies like ours. A
fictional example of such a reflection is the SF novel, Beowulf's
Children by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes who question or examine the role
of the Hero-Warrior in advanced societies. Their adaptation is set in
the 24th century on the planet Avalon, newly colonized by humans.
One may indeed ask if we need a new Heroic Code for the 21st century.
This would be a personal heroism, not for personal glory and the
"immortality" it confers but for the common good, the good of all
humanity and unborn generations, even - given the state of our planetary
ecology - in the service of Life itself.
Myths often possess an internal psychological / philosophical
consistency or unity. Beowulf dies childless. Why? A recognition that as
an Ideal for a society founded on war, vengeance and the jockying for
power of alpha males, Beowulf is simply too good to be true? Dying after
the final battle with the dragon - released by human greed for the all
prized gold - Beowulf laments,
"Now is the time when I would have wanted
to bestow this armour on my own son,
had it been my fortune to have fathered an heir
and live on in his flesh.." (2729 - 2732)