Beowulf (tr. Haney) [Repost May 2003]

So it is with no immoderate disbelief that I heartily commend an anonymous poet to the modern reader. This poet’s work is extremely powerful, and Seamus Haney has translated it to excellent effect. Simply put, Haney has breathed life into this remarkable work for me. It is a delight to read (I’ve read it twice now). Haney’s publisher has prepared his text, and on the opposing page, has reproduced the original text itself. The Old English is exhilarating–I enjoy nothing more than conquering a few words in this tongue. I cannot vouch for Haney’s accuracy–I am no expert in Old English, but his language has the touch than only a poet could lend to this work. He has also composed an introduction to the text, which I was glad to read, and has produced genealogies that are quite useful for the reader, in order to unravel the snarled lineages of the Scandinavian clans.

The language is very direct, of course: it issues a kind of confrontational fortitude that, in the words of one friend “doesn’t use all those Latin-derived words.” The overall effect of the poem reminds me of the coronary injection in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction. From the beginning of the poem, the reader is overwhelmed by the sense that each of Beowulf’s choices will net immediate, life-changing results. We don’t know until the end of the work whether his decisions are good ones, or if they will prove fatal.

Still not convinced? You think you’d rather read a contemporary action-packed novel than a 1300-year-old poem? Think again–this poem is populated by a fraternity-house of noisy, mead-filled warriors whose primary goal, it seems, is to exact vengeance on enemies, shatter a few skulls, and destroy evil beasts, (in one case, ripping off a limb or two, just for show). The actual monsters (and the dragon) in Beowulf are truly evil and despotic. When they are not destroying mead-halls or consuming warrior-flesh, they lurk deep in a boggish nightmare-underworld of caverns and tombs of long-forgotten kings. Rest assured that excerpts from Beowulf will never grace a Hallmark card–the poet used ink made from testosterone. In fact, female characters tend to waft into poem, and drift out again, having little, if any effect on the overall direction of the poem. Female readers may find this repulsive; however, the poet considered Beowulf’s world a boy’s world, and depicts it thus.

Wait! If you’re a woman, don’t stop reading yet–before you suppose that a cave-dwelling ex-boyfriend wrote this poem, you must not forget the profound thematic insights that the author laid out. He depicts a world where a person may change one’s destiny, which indelibly chisels one’s fate into the cliff-wall. For the author, destiny-building takes courage, and the results may be temporary gain (Beowulf defeats monsters, and local kings dump mounds of cold, hard treasure into his boats) but, ultimately, human-directed Fate can be painful or even destructive. Doing what is right may exact vengeance:

Suppose a monster is destroying your village. To kill such a monster is good, right? The poet is not so sure: his answer is a definite ‘Maybe’. Suppose you kill said monster. Fine–now the creature’s whole clan descends upon your city, angrier than ever, seeking bloody vengeance on your family. Despite this, the poet asserts that to remain idle may be more dangerous still. A strong king is revered by his clan, right? What if that king dies in a battle? What would become of the king’s clan? The Geats, Beowulf’s clan, die in just such a way. Whether you do, or whether you don’t, you are still damned. So go right ahead.

The author wrote Beowulf in the Christian era, but pre-Christian sentimentalities still rule the poet’s world. How can a “turn-your-cheek” Christian fit in a world where “an eye-for-an-eye” rules the land? Maybe the two tenets are incompatible, or maybe not. The author grapples with precisely this issue. Although the text is not implicit, the thought draws the reader like an overwhelming tide to Beowulf’s end.

This poem could gain a particularly strong appeal in times of war. Beowulf is a warrior’s Ecclesiastes. The reader comes away with the sentiment that Beowulf did everything he could, yet, all around him was, ultimately, vanity. With his death (I hope I didn’t spoil the ending for anybody), Beowulf’s land will certainly be invaded and his tribe’s cultural identity will evaporate. However, the Geats build him a massive funeral pyre that can be seen from miles away, at sea. As Beowulf’s ashes ascend to heaven humankind can be hopeful. Whether Beowulf dies or not, the war-cogs inevitably rattle forward. Battles will always be won and lost, although, sometimes, those battles will be great. Strong people will live awhile, and eventually die. Weak people will fade. But, still, the sun will rise in the morning, and as ships sail by Geatland, the crew will see it: the mighty pillar for a mighty warrior.

This is for many to see, and for all to remember. Þæt wæs gôd scop. The poem is that powerful.


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