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Saturday, September 14th, 2002


Beowulf: A New Verse Translation

by Seamus Heaney

A review by Doug Brown

I bought this when it came out because I thought I should have it. The reviews were glowing, the word of mouth was buzzing, and all agreed this was the version of Beowulf to read. But then it sat on the stack (you know the stack I mean) for a very long time, always passed up for other books. I began to think of it in Mark Twain's definition of a classic: something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. But I resignedly picked it up at last on the tail end of a history binge, telling myself, "Okay, I'm finally going to slog through it. Just get it over with."

And I discovered all my trepidation had been for naught. This isn't an "accessible for a scholarly book" type of read; it is just plain a good book. Heaney starts off with a lucid introduction on the history of the work, from how the single manuscript copy narrowly survived destruction in the 1700s to modern scholarly interpretations (including discussion of a 1936 treatise written by one J.R.R. Tolkien). The preface contains what these days are called "spoilers"; he gives away the plot and outcome, but that takes nothing away from the work itself. Heaney finishes off by discussing his choice of language and tone, revealing his love of language and words. By the time I reached the end of the introduction, I felt I was in good hands.

The work itself reads like a pint of fine winter ale, complex and intoxicating, the end arriving quick and unwelcome. Because it is a parallel translation, with the original text on the left page and the modern English on the right, the pages fly by. The language is rich and vibrant, immersing you in a world of swords, mead, monsters, and treasure-guarding dragons. Heaney's translation illuminates the text, allowing the original author's voice to speak to today's ear. It is clear why Tolkien was drawn to the work; I suspect the dragon Smaug from The Hobbit was inspired by Beowulf's dragon. If you've read The Lord of the Rings and are looking for more adventures in the same vein (without the fluffy trimmings of most fantasy novels), grab a flagon of mead and savor.

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