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.