Beowulf: A New Verse Translation

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation

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Composed toward the end of the first millennium of our era, Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel's mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon.

The poem is about encountering

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Overview

Composed toward the end of the first millennium of our era, Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel's mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon.

The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath. In the contours of this story, at once remote and uncannily familiar at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Seamus Heaney finds a resonance that summons power to the poetry from deep beneath its surface.

Drawn to what he has called the "four-squareness of the utterance" in Beowulf and its immense emotional credibility, Heaney gives these epic qualities new and convincing reality for the contemporary reader.

Editorial Reviews

bn.com
Who's Afraid of Beowulf?

Seamus Heaney, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature and considered by many to be the greatest living poet writing in English, has produced a new work that will be one of the most significant literary events of the year. This meditation on fame, blood feuds, and the culture of war, already awarded the Whitbread Prize for poetry and named the Whitbread Book of the Year, addresses some of the most important issues of our world at the turn of the millennium. The trouble is, it was written in the first millennium, more than a thousand years ago: Heaney's latest offering is not a collection of original poems or essays, but a modern English verse translation of that greatest of heroic epics, Beowulf.

Heaney's project is to save Beowulf and what he calls its status as a work of "the greatest imaginative vitality" from the tedium of required English courses in high schools and universities. Because of its arcane language, this gripping and beautifully wrought story is largely impenetrable to modern audiences. What's more, just as Beowulf's language and structure paved the way for modern English and its literary devices, its themes of fame and warrior cultures can tell us a lot about the world we now inhabit, where fame is viewed as perhaps the only thing worth achieving, and intractable ethnic conflicts wreak havoc on humankind. Some things never change -- or, as Heaney puts it, BEOWULF "lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time."

The tale is simple, and yet complex in its telling. It is composed of three main sections that center on a mortal battle: Beowulf's fight with Grendel the monster in the hall of a Danish king; his underwater battle with Grendel's mother, who is bent on revenge; and, finally, 50 years later, Beowulf's death at the hands of a third monster, a dragon accidentally awakened in Beowulf's own kingdom. Each sequence, narrated by an anonymous speaker who is familiar with the customs and laws of the Scandinavian people who make up the epic's characters, follows a similar pattern. First, there is a suspense-producing buildup in which the monster makes its presence known and begins its rampage; then, Beowulf's arrival on the scene and the ensuing battle to the death; and lastly a taking of stock -- in the first two cases, a celebration of the monster's defeat, and in the final sequence, in which the dragon is killed at the cost of Beowulf's life, a period of mourning. Interwoven with these main tales are many diversionary stories, and a series of pronouncements that define the role of the hero and the ethics of war, friendship, and death.

As in Homer, certain powerful phrases and titles, such as "Hrothgar the ring-giver," recur throughout the epic, lending it a comforting and rhythmic certainty. Heaney has divined an odd and mannered lyricism in the Old English and reproduced it in a fresh and compelling way in our own familiar tongue. In his introduction, Heaney speaks of the respect he had as a child for the plain and solemn voices of his father's Northern Irish relatives and how he wanted his translation "to be speakable by one of those relatives." It is filled with simple and direct turns of phrase, such as the final sentence of a list of the virtues of Shield Sheafson, a Danish warrior-king: "That was one good king."

Heaney's next accomplishment is that he remains faithful to Beowulf's confusing structure without losing the thread of the story. The main narrator often gives way to speeches by his characters, who will tell similar (but unrelated) stories of other great warriors. Through these digressions the setting develops, as do its surrounding ethical framework and dramatizing rituals, lending a deeper symbolic meaning to the archetypal actions of its great hero. Poets and bards occasionally appear to sing of more heroic deeds, and, in another instance of this ancient tale's surprising relevance for modern readers, the speaker argues for the descriptive powers of these poets in a self-referential manner that seems positively postmodern.

Heaney has provided a rich and original translation of Beowulf that should dispel once and for all the "rumor" that it is a boring, repetitive tale filled with unpronounceable names. His new offering is vivid and at times breathtaking; it renews the timeless drama of an often-misunderstood epic.

—Jake Kreilkamp

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When the great monster Grendel comes to Denmark and dashes its warriors' hopes, installing himself in their great hall and eating alive the valiant lords, the hero Beowulf arrives from over the ocean to wrestle the beast. He saves the Danes, who sing of his triumphs, but soon the monster's mother turns up to take him hostage: having killed her, our hero goes home to the land of the Geats, acquires the kingship, and fights to the death an enormous dragon. That's the plot of this narrative poem, composed more than a millennium ago in the Germanic language that gave birth (eventually) to our version of English. Long a thing for professors to gloss, the poem includes battles, aggressive boasts, glorious funerals, frightening creatures and a much-studied alliterative meter; earlier versions in current vernacular have pleased lay readers and helped hard-pressed students. Nobel laureate Heaney has brought forth a finely wrought, controversial (for having won a prize over a children's book) modern English version, one which retains, even recommends, the archaic strengths of its warrior world, where "The Spear-Danes in days gone by/ and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness." Well-known digressions--a detailed dirge, the tale-within-a-tale of Hengest, "homesick and helpless" in ancient Friesland--find their ways into Heaney's English, which holds to the spirit (not always the letter) of the en face Anglo-Saxon, fusing swift story and seamless description, numinous adjectives and earthy nouns: in one swift scene of difficult swimming, "Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on/ for five nights, until the long flow/ and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold drove us apart. The deep boiled up/ and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild." Heaney's evocative introduction voices his long-felt attraction to the poem's "melancholy fortitude," describing the decades his rendering took and the use he discovered for dialect terms. It extends in dramatic fashion Heaney's long-term archeological delvings, his dig into the origins of his beloved, conflicted--by politics and place--English language. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
KLIATT
Lavishly and loudly, praise has rung out for Nobel laureate Heaney's new translation of Beowulf. For those with memories of the suffering and pain involved in Beowulf as being attached to reading the epic and not to the battles of its hero, this work will come as a delightful surprise. While here and there Heaney does use a word new to American ears (and unavailable in all but the largest or oldest dictionaries), this Beowulf is fun, often touching and usually quite animated. Beowulf crosses the sea to face the monster Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, swims down into murky waters to deal no less murderously with Grendel's vengeful mother, and, 50 years later, meets his death as he slays a giant fire-breathing dragon. For the younger reader, this is a tale of action and adventure. Beowulf reflects on his life and culture, however, and this can hold the interest of the older reader as well. In this bilingual edition, the original text appears on the left, but can be ignored at will. There are no footnotes, no glossary definitions, but Heaney's beautifully written introduction will aid the more mature reader. KLIATT Codes: JSA*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Norton, 213p, 21cm, 99-23209, $13.95. Ages 13 to adult. Reviewer: Patricia A. Moore; Brookline, MA, May 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 3)
Library Journal
There are over 20 translations of this Old English epic into modern English, from the prose version of E. Talbot Donaldson to the verse renditions of Burton Raffel and Stanley Greenfield. The appearance of this new translation by Nobel Laureate Heaney, and especially its replacement of the Donaldson Beowulf in the Norton Anthology, instantly elevates it in the canon. Recognizing that ordinary native English dialects still contain much of the vocabulary found in Old English, Heaney tries to evoke the diction and syntax of a living language. He captures the alliterative rhythm without monotony (although he loses some of the subtle shifts of mood, making the world of Beowulf seem more primitive than it was). Heaney is especially good at creating the elegiac tone of the work. In all, this is good poetry, if not always true to the original. This bilingual edition contains a valuable introduction by Heaney and a note on names by Alfred David. For public and academic libraries.--Thomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, GA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher

“[Heaney is] the one living poet who can rightly claim to be the 'Beowulf' poet's heir.” —Edward Melson, The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781565114265
Publisher:
HighBridge Company
Publication date:
06/28/2000
Edition description:
Abridged, 2 Cassettes, 2 Hr
Pages:
135
Product dimensions:
4.28(w) x 0.76(h) x 7.00(d)
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Afterwards a boy-child was born to Shield,
a cub in the yard, a comfort sent
by God to that nation. He knew what they had tholed,
the long times and troubles they'd come through
without a leader; so the Lord of Life,
the glorious Almighty, made this man renowned.
Shield had fathered a famous son:
Beow's name was known through the north.
And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.

Shield was still thriving when his time came
and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping.
His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea's flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them.
A ring-whorled prow rode in theharbour,
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean's sway.
They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did
who cast him away when he was a child
and launched him alone out over the waves.
And they set a gold standard up
high above his head and let him drift
to wind and tide, bewailing him
and mourning their loss. No man can tell,
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran
knows for certain who salvaged that load.

Then it fell to Beow to keep the forts.
He was well regarded and ruled the Danes
for a long time after his father took leave
of his life on earth. And then his heir,
the great Halfdane, held sway
for as long as he lived, their elder and warlord.
He was four times a father, this fighter prince:
one by one they entered the world,
Heorogar, Hrothgar, the good Halga
and a daughter, I have heard, who was Onela's queen,
a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede.

The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar.
Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,
young followers, a force that grew
to be a mighty army. So his mind turned
to hall-building: he handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever;
it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense
his God-given goods to young and old—but
not the common land or people's lives.
Far and wide through the world, I have heard,
orders for work to adorn that wallstead
were sent to many peoples. And soon it stood there,
finished and ready, in full view,
the hall of halls. Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
and torques at the table. The hall towered,
its gables wide and high and awaiting
a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.

(Continues...)

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Meet the Author


Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. His poems, plays, translations, and essays include Opened Ground, Electric Light, Beowulf, The Spirit Level, District and Circle, and Finders Keepers. Robert Lowell praised Heaney as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats."

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Beowulf 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 100 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ok, as an English Lit. major in school, I've had my share of Beowulf, most of which are horridly translated drivel. The fine line with Anglo-Saxon poetry (and any translated poetry for that matter) is there requires a balance between fidelity to the text, and fidelity to the ideas of the text; that is to say, where literal translation may be more 'accurate' in a completely logical and scientific sense, the poetic beauty and proper notions behind the text must also be upheld. Heaney finds the middle ground so commonly lost in modern translations. The Anglo-Saxon poetry of Beowulf is so beautiful and easy on the ears when read in the original Anglo-Saxon--a sense of bold and strong verse, but with the grace and beauty--reflected in Beowulf and especially in the Wurm. This is frequently translated into modern english as grossly (what I would call) 'harsh' and 'grating' verse, with all the punch that it requires, but without the languid fluiditiy required to fully appreciate the epic. Seamus Heaney finds the perfect balance between the two, not addressing the 'bone-crunching Beowulf' as a solely heartless character, but finding the section of the modern english language (that lost area right in the middle of form and function) and giving us this gift. A MUST have for anyone wishing to appreicate the beauty of Germanic poetry. My recomendation: have someone read it aloud to you; it adds SO much to the experience!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From a town living in fear to a hero saving the day in less than a week, Beowulf was a novel of much action and excitement. This is a wonderful read and something that people will be reading for years to come and it will never lose its popularity because of the writing style and literature to remember. Beowulf is a story in which the town of Heorot is threatened by this horrible creature Grendel who wreaks havoc on innocent people when the sun goes down. Then this hero Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, hears about the cries for help from Heorot and decides to rake up his men and drive their boat over there to defeat this malevolent villain. When they get to the town and spend a night there they hear Grendel in the castle. Through a battle between two opposing forces Beowulf defeats the hated monster so the town can live in peace. During this part of the book the author, Seamus Heaney, does a wonderful job of giving imagery of the fight so the reader can actually feel apart of what is going on and how Beowulf is feeling throughout all this. Heaney also does a good job of getting into the character's minds to show how they are feeling. Then when everyone thinks his or her hometown will be happy once again the mother of Grendel comes to avenge her son. Beowulf and the angered mother face an even more difficult battle when Beowulf emerges his powers and wins for Heorot once again, but this time beheading the hated Grendel as a trophy for the town to praise. I think this was the most important part of the book because it gave great peace to the town living in torture once and for all and everyone was granted the serenity of feeling safe. When Beowulf returns to his home of Geatland the people hear of his leadership and victory that they make him king when the old king Hygelac passes away. Beowulf made the land full of prosper and safety until he is old and faced with another challenge. A thief has come to his home of Geatland and hordes treasure protected by a frightening dragon. The rest of the book is just as amazing as the first parts and anyone would be wrong to not read this. In my opinion this book was highly entertaining. I also thought that for this being such an old book that it is impeccable to be so popular and liked that people are even wanting to read it in today's day and age of technology taking over.
Oneira More than 1 year ago
In my class on Anglo-Saxon (the language), we basically translated this the whole semester. It wais such a hard class! I was one of two undergraduates, the rest were grad students. My biggest problem with the language is that it was never standardized. So even with a big Anglo-Saxon dictionary there's no telling if you'll find what you're looking for due to all the spelling variations.

Anyway, I've read Beowulf (in Modern English) many times, starting in 8th grade advanced english. It is a great epic, originally pagan though there are interpolations from Christian editors. It gives one a really great glimpse at the society it depicts, and if you compare it to the archaeological evidence you a nearly complete picture. Highly reccomended for anyone who likes epic poetry, modern fantasy genre, and of course, pre-literate germanic and scandinavian peoples.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'I was asked to read this book in 7th grade and it didn't sound at all interesting to me but when I started reading the book I loved it so much, I couldn't put the book down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for school, and it sounded really uninteresting to me. But as I began to read it, I could not put it down. It is so captivating. This is by far the best epic I've ever read. It has such a good story line.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I like the way this book was produced. It maded the story move faster since all you have to do is read the right pages. The pages on the right side, of course. All joking aside, this is the Epic Beowulf in it's entire form.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was outstanding and brilliant. i loved it. the choice of words that Hearney used are just beautiful and so insiteful. i have read many versions of Beowulf but this one was the best!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this and im in 5th grade. Also, no, i am not joking. Beowulf is a difficult book, but its worth the time and effort. Beowulf fights 3 monsters. Grendel, Grendel's mom, and a dragon. This is the best translation (my teacher has the paper version).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beowulf is a story that will never be forgotten and will last forever. Not one person could read it and not be in awe of the power of one man. The author of this book is unknown still to this day but it is known that it was written by an Anglo-Saxon in medieval English times. This book is an epic poem and Beowulf himself is the epic hero in that poem. The main theme of Beowulf is good vs. evil. Beowulf battles many powerful enemies whom are all evil. The main point of the story is Beowulf battling many powerful foes with his awesome strength. The book starts with Grendel, the spawn of Cain, killing people in the hall of Herot. Beowulf, wanting glory, hears this and travels to the land of the Danes to battle Grendel. He two battle and Beowulf is victorious. The Danes applaud and praise Beowulf for his strength and bravery. After Beowulf leaves back to the land of the Geats, Grendel's mother begins to terrorize Herot once again. Beowulf returns to defeat her and once again emerges victorious. Herot is now safe once again. Beowulf returns to his homeland and rules as its king for 50 years. A dragon appears and begins to wreak havoc among Beowulf's people and he fights for glory one last time. The dragon is slain with the help of Wyglaf, one of Beowulf's men. Beowulf, however, was mortally wounded and passes. The story ends with Beowulf's funeral pyre. This was one of the best books I have ever read. The detail and action in this book is astounding. Reading it puts you right in the middle of all the action and keeps you reading to see what will happen next. I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories of great heroes.
Jasmyn9 More than 1 year ago
The heroic tale of the warrior Beowulf and his fights against three monters. A "modern" translation of the Old English poem, it was very easy to understand. The translation flowed smoothly for the most part, and was easy to follow and really get into the story. The only complaint I have, is that there were times the rhythm seemed a bit off and it pulled me out of the story. 4/5
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Seamus Heaney's new verse translation is excellent, and by far my favorite for casual reading and sharing with others. Seamus Heaney's reading is also excellent, with measured tone and respect for the structure without becoming robotic, as many poetic readers do.

Sadly this abridgment is absolutely criminal. Huge sections are completely missing from the text, and these missing passages are critical to properly understanding the text.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I do like Heaney's translation of Beowulf, though I still prefer Talbot Donaldson's. But this review is to warn potential buyers of the misleading advertising for the recorded version. Although it claims to be unabridged, it actually omits quite a few lines and even some sizable chunks. For example, he has entirely skipped the very important confrontation between Beowful and Unferth. I don't like abridged versions of anything because I'd rather decide for myself what is most important, but I find it especially troubling when an abridged version is advertised as unabridged. What he does read he reads well, making it a useful tool in the classroom. But with so much missing it would be a poor substitute for the written text. I give it one star, not for its poor quality, but for the deceitful packaging.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Its a wonderful book to read, its one of my favorites!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Juggles a soccer ball in his little hotel room. "Primo america has muy fancy hotels."
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Sexism and seemingly shoe-horned Christian elements aside, this poem is classic for a reason, and Seamus Heaney, being a poet himself, most certainly does it justice. His verse translation breathes new life into this majestic old dinosaur, writing with sophisticated modern English while still preserving a sense of the mystical and grand old-fashioned beauty that the original poem must have had.
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drummer1109 More than 1 year ago
The first time I had to read this book was in high school during my sophomore year. Since then, I've read it 4 more times (first reading was 6 years ago). This is truly a great epic. We read this exact version, actually. This is an excellent translation by Seamus Heaney. A must read!  
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