Bringing my Nordic reading home: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf


This year, I decided to go for a mini reading project which would take me away from the grey London winter and into the realms of ice and snow.  My January was truly illuminating as I discovered books and rediscovered authors from Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  We’re well into February now and it’s time to come home, but before I really claim the project is complete I feel the need to revisit a crucial part of my own English literary heritage.

Though set in (roughly) sixth century Scandinavia, Beowulf was written in England between the seventh and tenth century and it’s generally credited with being the longest poem surviving from this place and time.  My first real encounter with it came when I ‘read’ sections as an English undergraduate.  It wasn’t really reading though, it was a filling-in-the-gaps exercise during a unit on Old English.  Without wishing to go into too much detail, Old English really is a foreign language (unlike ‘Middle English’ as written by Chaucer or the technically-modern-but-nonetheless-archaic language of Shakespeare).   Old English looks like this:

Cóm on wanre niht
scríðan sceadugenga      scéotend swaéfon
þá þæt hornreced      healdan scoldon

I am no Seamus Heaney and I’m pleased that my scrappy attempts at translation have all disappeared.  I do think such matters are best left in the hands of experts; Heaney gives us the above lines as:

Then, out of the night
Came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift

the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts

I can’t help feel that reading this version gets me far closer to the intended suspense, tension and excitement than my own painstaking and crippling slow cross-referencing ever could.

If you’ve ever been tempted to go back to the earliest of English stories, I really recommend this modern English version.  Heaney makes use of powerful and vigorous language, echoing the formal style of the original poem (two balancing halves to each line, each half containing two stressed syllables).  Rather than rhymes, the poem is built on this pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.  Couple that with the relentlessly flowing alliteration and you’re left with a poem so invigorating and dynamic its easy to imagine listening spellbound to the bards as they wove their magic over long winter nights.

For lovers of more modern classics, Beowulf was one of the ancient texts loved by Tolkien, and its monsters, gold hoards and heroes were a template for his own larger-than-life creations.  Its legacy still holds, and on this reading I was delighted to spot several connections to Harry Potter (because underwater adventures are always crowd-pleasers).  I may never have sat in a mead-hall terrorised by hellish monsters or been saved by ring-giving heroes, but for the 3,000 or so lines of the poem I could image that I had.  It may not be seasonally wintry, but a legend like ‘Beowulf’ never goes out of fashion and it has been the perfect conclusion to my Nordic winter reading.

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10 Responses to Bringing my Nordic reading home: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I remember having to read Beowulf for English lit class, which put me off it a bit… However, it was in the original with a textual translation and analysis, so hard going. I think I might have enjoyed Seamus Heaney’s version more.

    • Heaney transformed the poem for me – I really felt like I ‘got’ it for the first time after discovering this edition, very different from the painfully slow progress I made with translating it in class!

  2. BookerTalk says:

    I had a friend studying Old English at university and she was constantly trying to get me to share her enthusiasm for this poem. But I couldnt get into it – we didnt have Heaney’s version then which would have made all the difference I’m sure.

    • If you’re studying the language to the level where you can read and understand I’m sure it’s fantastic in the original, but in all other cases I’d stay go straight for the Heaney!

  3. I’m sure you are right, set a fine poet at this one, rather than a literal translator

    • Literal translation can serve it’s own purpose, but it does not convey the literary drama and excitement of the story at all. Until I read this translation I confess I was rather baffled as to why ‘Beowulf’ was given pride of place in English lit courses … now I’m much better placed to appreciate its appeal.

  4. Ste J says:

    I couldn’t decide whether to read this or The Saga of the Volsungs, after reading this it is an easy choice.

  5. Izzy says:

    Beowulf, in Heaney’s translation, has been on my wishlist for sometime…in 3 different editions, including an illustrated one. Oh, the pain of having to make a choice ! Thank you for reviewing it, anyway, and certainly a brilliant conclusion to your Nordic phase.

    • My edition is from a charity shop and has several annotations from (I suppose) an enthusiastic A Level student which I must confess, did also add to my enjoyment. It was my way out of the difficult edition decision … I don’t envy you having to pick!

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