Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beowulf: overview, summary, translated passages

Image copyrighted by artsjournal.com A while back, a Facebook meme was going around about putting up a poem of a poet assigned to you by a friend and tagging others and assigning poets. I was assigned Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. He was considered one of twentieth century's greatest of great poets. In addition to his own œvre, his translation of the Anglo-Saxon prose in verse Beowulf is known to be the definitive transcription.

Image copyrighted by www.deadline.com Beowulf is longest epic poem in Old English with more than 3000 lines. It was composed by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet in ~700 CE from stories that originated in 500 CE. However, the only surviving manuscript (located in the British Library) is from 1000 CE. In the nineteenth century, Beowulf began to gain prominence among scholars of Old English. However, it was only in 1936 that Oxford scholar J. R. R. Tolkien brought recognition to it as a serious work of art. Heaney's translation sealed its reputation by bringing in into the realm of the accessible and thereby making it popular and readable.

Image copyrighted by cs.shadysideacademy.org Many of the characters in the poem are actual historical figures of pre-Anglo-Saxon times. While the characters in the poem definitely follow the old religions, the poet, who wrote it all down, was definitely Christian. So an imposition of Christianity on undoubtedly Pagan rituals, events, and thoughts is obvious.

Image copyrighted by heorot.dk From the British Library: "Beowulf is a classic tale of the triumph of good over evil, and divides neatly into three acts. The poem opens in Denmark, where Grendel is terrorising the kingdom. The Geatish prince Beowulf hears of his neighbours’ plight, and sails to their aid with a band of warriors. Beowulf encounters Grendel in unarmed combat, and deals the monster its death-blow by ripping off its arm. There is much rejoicing among the Danes; but Grendel’s loathsome mother takes her revenge, and makes a brutal attack upon the king’s hall. Beowulf seeks out the hag in her underwater lair, and slays her after an almighty struggle. Once more there is much rejoicing, and Beowulf is rewarded with many gifts. The poem culminates 50 years later, in Beowulf’s old age. Now king of the Geats, his own realm is faced with a rampaging dragon, which had been guarding a treasure-hoard. Beowulf enters the dragon’s mound and kills his foe, but not before he himself has been fatally wounded. The poem closes with the king’s funeral, and a lament for the dead hero."

A few of my favorite passages from Seamus Heaney's translated work:

The beginning...

So. The Spear-Danes in days done by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

* *

Prince Hrothgar...

The fortunes of war favored Hrothgar.
Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,
Young followers, a force that grew
To be a mighty army. So his mind turned
To hall-building: he handed down orders
For men to work on a great mead-hall
Meant to be a wonder of the world forever; 70
It would be his throne-room and there he would dispense
His God-given goods to young and old—

* *

Grendel makes his presence known...

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
Nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
To hear the din of the loud banquet
Every day in the hall, the harp being struck
And the clear song of a skilled poet
Telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,

* *

The arrival of Beowulf...

The leader of the troop unlocked his word-hoard;
The distinguished one delivered this answer:
"We belong by birth to the Geat people
and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac.
In his day, my father was a famous man,
A noble warrior-lord name Ecgtheow.
He outlasted many a long winter
And went on his way. All over the world
Men wise in counsel continue to remember him.
We come in good faith to find your lord
And nation’s shield, the son of Halfdane.
Give us the right advice and direction.
We have arrived here on a great errand."

* *

The man whose name was known for courage, 340
The Geat leader, resolute in his helmet,
Answered in return: "We are retainers
From Hygelac’s band. Beowulf’s my name.
If your lord and master, the most renowned
Son of Halfdane, will hear me out
And graciously allow me to greet him in person,
I am ready and willing to report my errand."