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Keith PhippsIt's strange and unexpected, but also appropriate and heartening, that Beowulf ground zero for literature in English--would become a bestseller at the dawn of the 21st century. Why becomes less of a mystery after even a quick glance at this extraordinary translation by Seamus Heaney. A work of great grace, Heaney's translation captures the sense of Old English poetry without adhering slavishly to its rules; when possible, he retains the alliteration and caesuras but never bends his voice to suit them. The result is a Beowulf of rough elegance and emotional directness rendered in a voice both ancient and familiar. Heaney needs these qualities: Anyone who takes up the task of translating Beowulf inherits not just Grendel and the dragon, but also long, occasionally cryptic passages of more mundane activities. James Joyce once said of Ulysses that if Dublin were ever destroyed, he hoped it could be rebuilt from his descriptions. So it is with Beowulf, not in a physical sense but a cultural one. Heaney understands and is consistently capable of conveying the subtle ideals and ethical codes embedded in the poem alongside its famous blood and gore. But, aside from Heaney's skill as a translator, why is Beowulf striking a chord now? The threat of a demon at the door may no longer have the immediacy it did for Beowulf's original audience, but if the past century proved anything, it's that the fabric of civilization, however tightly bound by honor and blood, can be torn asunder at any moment. As a slathering beast of flesh and blood, Grendel may seem a relic of centuries past, but as a symbol, he hasn't lost a bit of power. Heaney writes in his introduction that part of what allowed him, as an Irishman, to overcome the inherent Englishness of the poem was its overwhelming, universal melancholy, which also can't be factored out when calculating Beowulf's continued appeal: The inescapability of death and the transience of all things permeates it from its first lines to its conclusion. The work of a culture deeply concerned with these issues, rewritten by a poet working within a culture caught up in immediate pleasures and uncomfortable reflecting on final things, Heaney's Beowulf has an added resonance. In his hands, the past becomes immediate, and what it knew reads as inherited wisdom. From a famous early passage detailing the funeral of a king set adrift at sea: "No man can tell / no wise man in hall or weathered veteran / knows for certain who salvaged that load".
— The Onion A.V. Club