Monday, June 22, 2009

Sunday Book Notes -- Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney

Note to my readers (if you are still there!): I have not blogged in a while. I've been sick with an infection that sapped all my energy. Then we took two short trips, which I'll blog on this week. But first, a day late, is an entry in my new "Sunday Book Notes" feature.

As the oldest poem in English, and as a ripping good yarn, Beowulf has been translated dozens of times. My favorite by far is Seamus Heaney's translation. Although some literature snobs complain that he sacrifices accuracy in the service of poetry, I love his version. It is lyrical, exotic, and gripping.

I first read Beowulf in high school, and again as an English major in college. I enjoyed it but didn't fully appreciate it until I was much older. Or maybe I just appreciated it on different levels than before. (I've certainly lived the truth of that old saying that you never read the same book twice.)

I rediscovered the poem when I was traveling in Scandinavia. The Viking ships and treasure hoards I saw in museums sparked my curiosity about the cultures depicted in Norse sagas. Then I went to Iceland, where I visited the actual sites of some of the sagas, standing on the very ground where Burnt Njal was set on fire and touring other sites that have remained virtually unchanged since the year 1200. These journeys, in turn, led me back to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I had devoured in high school and college. I didn't know then that Tolkien was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, or that he was profoundly influenced by the sagas and Beowulf in creating his mythology. And thus, my circuitous reading saga led me back to Beowulf.

One of Tolkien's most influential essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," argued that
Beowulf is too often dismissed as "serious" literature because of its monsters and dragons. Tolkien argued that it is a profoundly significant work, not in spite of its monsters, but because of them. They speak to something deep, even cthonic, that springs from the ground into the very marrow of human experience. He also lamented that the poem was seen only as a repository to be mined for historic facts about 6th century Scandinavia, where it is set, or about the 8th to 11th century period in which it was first written down. (On reflection, I guess there's a bit of irony in my coming back to the book through artifacts and burial mounds.)

Tolkien drew heavily on Beowulf in creating his tales. For me, part of the fun in reading the poem is finding the correspondences to Tolkien's work -- the Riders of Rohan, Sam killing the spider Shelob, the kin-slayer Gollum, Bilbo's theft of the golden cup from Smaug's hoard, the sword that was broken -- all have origins in Beowulf.

But of course, even if you're not a Tolkien fan, Beowulf is a stunning work, a peek into a world of blood oaths and violence, of heroism and faltering humanity.

The action takes place in a Christian world still heavily influenced by Pagan belief and ritual. The poem begins with the aging king Hrothgar, impotent in the face of the murderous Grendel, who night after bloody night wreaks havoc, killing Hrothgar's men. The dashing and boastful Geat prince, Beowulf, comes to the rescue, killing first Grendel and then his distraught and vengeful mother. In seeking vengeance, Grendel's mother is in fact participating in the same moral code that defines the human society. The poem seems almost modern in its shifts in perspective, in its erasure at times of the line between "man" and "monster." We are allowed to feel the mother's loss of her son from her perspective. We sympathize with her for a moment, much as Tolkien encourages our empathy for warped and pitiful Gollum. Later, we see the world through the eyes of the dragon that ultimately kills Beowulf, just as we see through the eyes of the spider Shelob in LOTR.

The battle scenes are what get stressed in the various movie versions of Beowulf. (Probably the most laughable film is the one featuring a nude CGI avatar of Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother. It's been larded with the full Hollywood treatment, losing the essence of story in a morass of overblown action, gratuitous nudity, and technological razzle dazzle. The epic failings of this movie can be summed up by the words of the director,Robert Zemeckis: “Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me....I remember being assigned to read it in junior high school and not being able to understand it because it was in Old English.")

The battles are certainly memorable, but I prefer other sections of the tale. The action is often interrupted with extended scenes in which a singer/poet "unlocks his word-hoard" and recounts the feats of other heroes, like the legendary dragon-slayer Sigemund. The most harrowing story-in-a-story tells of a queen who loses her entire family-- father, husband, sons, -- to the violent imperative of the blood oath. This tale foreshadows what will happen to Hrothgar's sons, who will be killed by their uncle who covets the throne.

Beowulf's end is particularly moving. An aging king himself, Beowulf is beset on all sides by invading tribes. When a rampaging dragon, angered by the theft of a golden cup from his hoard, begins to pick off his people, Beowulf faces a choice. He can battle the dragon alone, risking not only his own life, but also the future of his people, who will be over-run when his enemies learn that the renowned warrior king is dead. Or, he can forego glory and take his men with him to battle the dragon.

Beowulf chooses the path of glory. Perhaps he is recalling the words of Hrothgar, who tells him early in the poem:

It is always better
To avenge dear ones
than to indu
lge in mourning.
For every one of us,
living in this world waiting for our end.
Let whoever can
Win glory before death.
When a warrior is gone,
That will be his best and only bulwark.

Beowulf dies, thus guaranteeing the extinction of his race.

On a height they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
And drowned out their weeping, wind died down
And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
Burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
And wailed aloud for their lord’s decease.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
Of her worst fears, a wild litany
Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
Slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

It is a breathtaking, melancholy end-- to the hero and to his people, to the poem and to an age.

Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings are, in the end, profoundly melancholy works, lamentations for lost, idealized worlds of heroic men and deeds. As Tolkien says in his essay, "It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical." The poet, writing of an earlier, lost time, knows that "those days were heathen--heathen, noble, and hopeless." He may as well be speaking of The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn, the last of the heroic peoples of Numenor, ultimately dies and the elves sail into the East and diminish. Or of Tolkien's lost boyhood friends, who all died on the fields of Somme in WWI.

If you're interested in some of the background on Beowulf, I recommend the fabulous Norton Critical Edition. It includes critical commentary, genealogy charts and maps, Tolkien's essay, and loads of pictures from archelogoical sites, like the fantastic buckle from Sutton Hoo pictured below, and the helmet, which has a boar on the crest just like the one described in the poem.

I also highly recommend the CD
with Heaney himself reading the poem...or at least most of it. (The copy on the back refers to "unabridged excerpts," which is not the same thing as unabridged.) Hearing Heaney read the poem in his Irish brogue is a delicious experience. Here are some snippets to whet your appetite.

Here's an informative and fun site on all things Beowulf.

And here's a link t
o some reproductions of Lynd Ward's woodcut illustrations for an edition of Beowulf. (For a previous post of Lynd Ward, click here.)

Rating: Five buckles (out of five).

1 comment:

  1. I highly recommend Grendel by John Gardner. It's one of my favorite books and it's also a high school read, although it's much too sophisticated for kids. If you haven't already read it, it's an existential novel from Grendel's perspective.