Following are selections from Seamus Heaney’s new translation of Beowulf, with excerpts from Mr. Heaney’s introduction.
The poem called Beowulf was composed some time between the middle of the seventh and the end of the tenth century of the first millennium, in the language that is today called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. It is a heroic narrative, more than three thousand lines long, concerning the deeds of a Scandinavian prince, also called Beowulf, and it stands as one of the foundation works of poetry in English. The fact that the English language has changed so much in the last thousand years means, however, that the poem is now generally read in translation and mostly in English courses at schools and universities. This has contributed to the impression that it was written (as Osip Mandelstam said of The Divine Comedy) “on official paper,” which is unfortunate, since what we are dealing with is a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is as elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language. Its narrative elements may belong to a pre-vious age but as a work of art it lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time.
The poem was written in England but the events it describes are set in Scandinavia, in a “once upon a time” that is partly historical. Its hero, Beowulf, is the biggest pres-ence among the warriors in the land of the Geats, a territory situated in what is now southern Sweden. Early in the poem Beowulf crosses the sea to the land of the Danes in order to clear their country of a man-eating monster called Grendel. From this expedition (which involves him in a second contest with Grendel’s mother) he returns in triumph and eventually rules for fifty years as king of his homeland.
Then a dragon begins to terrorize the countryside and Beowulf must confront it. In a final climactic encounter, he does manage to slay the dragon, but he also meets his own death and enters the legends of his people as a warrior of high renown.
Hard by the rockface that hale veteran,
a good man who had gone repeatedly
into combat and danger and come through,
saw a stone arch and a gushing stream
that burst from the barrow, blazing and wafting
a deadly heat. It would be hard to survive
unscathed near the hoard, to hold firm
against the dragon in those flaming depths.
Then he gave a shout. The lord of the Geats
unburdened his breast and broke out
in a storm of anger. Under the grey stone
his voice challenged and resounded clearly.
Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized
a human voice, the time was over
for peace and parleying. Pouring forth
in a hot battle-fume, the breath of the monster
burst from the rock. There was a rumble underground.
Down there in the barrow, Beowulf the warrior
lifted his shield …