Thursday, January 3, 2008

Beowulf--The Poem

I read the translation by Seamus Heaney, with the Old English on the facing page. I can see why the movie producers & writers felt they had to "jazz up" the original: it's very talky and the description of the action is pretty minimal. Still, I would like to see someone present this as it must have originally been spoken, as a story around a mead-hall, with a winter storm raging outside.

Beowulf is a Geat, a people from southern Sweden, who sails across the water to the aid of the Danish King. After defeating the monster, Grendel, and Grendel's mother, Beowulf becomes king of his own people, ruling for 50 years, until a dragon threatens the Geats and Beowulf dies defeating it.

According to my edition, the fact that the English-speaking world even knows of this poem and this warrior is something of a miracle. There is only one manuscript, which survived a fire in the 18th Century, which has been, in Mr. Heaney's words, "...transcribed and titled, re-transcribed and edited, translated, and adapted, interpreted and reinterreted, until it has become canonical."

A fellow poet prefers the translation done by Howell Chickering--in his opinion it's more poetic. However, I found I enjoyed Mr. Heaney's translation. It reminded me of Leaves of Grass by Whitman: kind of a "natural voice" verse form, with consonant sounds repeated within the line rather than a forced rhyme at the end of each. If his transcription of the original Old English is at all close, it seems to me that this follows the original.

No, I don't read Old English. But I love words and it was interesting to look at the line in the Old English and compare it to the Modern. Some words, like helm, have come down intact through the centuries. Some make sense when read out loud phonetically. Others are a mystery. I enjoyed reading Mr. Heaney's introduction where he discusses why he chose the form he did and how he decided to translate some of the more obscure words.

As for the story... In Beowulf's bragging about his exploits, his courage, his strength, there is a lesson sent to young male listeners: this is how a hero behaves. These are his duties. If you act like this, your name and your deeds will also live on in song and be passed down through the ages. For Beowulf was no idle boaster--he was every bit as brave and daring as he claimed. He was loyal and was rewarded for his loyalty. In turn, he rewarded those who were loyal to him and he took care of the widows and orphans of those who stood with him but did not survive.

Embedded within the story of Beowulf are older stories: of betrayal, of the importance of having strong leadership, of the rubbing of old religions and ways of thinking and the new (Christianity).

The fragments is only about 3200 lines long--213 pages in my edition, which means about 107 in actual text pages. The story is simple and straightforward; much like I imagine the societies of that time to be. Yet, I recognize the beginning of the idea of chivalry, of protecting women and those who are weaker, that loyalty and reward run not just from subject to king, but also from king back to subject.

1300 years after it was written, Beowulf is still entertaining. And it just might have something to show us about ourselves as well.

On the March Hare scale: 4.5 out 5 Golden Bookmarks

crossposted at The Mad Tea Party

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