BEOWULF (An illustrated edition)
Translation and commentary by Seamus Heaney
I thought I would find Beowulf an easier read (in English) than I did, because I remember reading a version of Canterbury Tales that was split between modern English and middle English. I read it and it was so meant to be read out loud and it was so rhythmic and full of life (and since I was reading it in the subway, I found myself with plenty of space around me. Not that I would recommend that as a way of carving out space). And that was the difference between Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon classic, mythology, and an English one. A few centuries here and there, who would have thought there would be that much difference in readability? Well, I know now. Language can change at blinding speed sometimes or slowly at others, and in this case, it seemed to have happened a little of both. (It’s been a long time since my linguistical anthropology classes. A very long time.)
Or maybe it was this translation. And yes, I love the idea of an Irishman doing all this work on a classic Anglo-Saxon tale, perhaps THE classic Anglo-Saxon tale…anyway, this is one of those things that I was interested in when it first came out (no, not originally, I’m not that old, you twerp), but I was too busy. Now, I’m still busy, but in a completely busy way. Now, I can read something and actually think about it and even write about it. Even reading the introduction by Heaney was useful and informative, because I knew virtually none of what he mentioned. I was an anthropology major, not a classics major, many years ago, so I can tell you about a whole ‘nother set of things that society finds less than useful. The rhythm that Heaney gleaned from the original Old English I couldn’t find hear somehow, so I may have to come back to it at another time.
Anyway, the tale has a fascinating history. It has contradictions. It has Anglo-Saxon origins but takes place in Scandinavia. The hero of the piece faces three challenges (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon), the last of which kills him. A monster and a monster’s mom? I don’t see it. A dragon, sure, but a monster and its mom, no, I don’t get. It doesn’t have the elements of the myth of the hero. Well, it has a few, but it just doesn’t have the same rhythm.
Anyway, Beowulf’s is still an interesting story. One of these days I’ll have to really and truly dig into it.
Coming up: PHOENIX ISLAND (on which the CBS show Intelligence was based) by John Dixon, SPLENDOUR FALLS by Susanna Kearsley, COLLAPSE: How societies choose to fail or succeed by Jared Diamond, and more!