Beowulf: A Dramatic Translation
Excerpt from The Introduction


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Beowulf: A Dramatic Translation

zxxxBeowulf is an archeological remnant from the early Middle Ages, a foundational period of European history popularly known as the Dark Ages. It is also, like John Keats’ Grecian Urn, an imaginative work charged with the power to transport the reader into a phantasmagoria of forgotten time. Here are no mere words, but an album of photographs for the mind’s eye, images with the visual sweep and clarity of an Ansel Adams in the valley of the West. Here are funeral rites as magnificent as the burial of Pharaohs, scenes of banquets and boasting, of harp-singing minstrels and queens bedecked with gold, the very courtesies of a lost world. Here is the furniture of war: gleaming helmets fixed with the pagan boar, hand-locked iron shirts, jewel-hilted swords pattern-welded with serpentine design. And here are the moods and anxieties of raw humanity: the dread of mists and clouds and darkness, of stony heights and murky depths, of chilling ice and ravenous fire, of the wave-torn sea, of all slithering creatures, of death itself, and of the ghastly carrion corpse, the decay at the heart of the world.
zxxxThe poem is also a mystery. A survivor from the dark abyss of European history, of apocalyptic shifts that forever swept away the world of its origin, the voice of its prophetic vision, which so unflinchingly foretells the death of nations, comes down to our time as a small, unadorned manuscript housed in The British Library: its crumbling sheep-skin vellum moldered by a thousand-year existence and charred by fire. This poem, so possessed of the freakish and the weird, of strangers and uncanny guests, is itself an uncanny guest in our literary world. The English of its poetry falls uselessly on the ears of the uninitiated, a barrier that has challenged generations of scholars. Its origin and purpose continue to puzzle. Even so, the act of reading Beowulf must be more than a matter of reconstructing the meaning of words. It must also be an act of interpretation, of entering the milieu that excited its creation.
zxxxThe world that birthed the poem was violent; this much we know. The subject of Beowulf is a many-storied long ago, the ancient days of Northmen, a world imbued with the least savory aspects of heroic culture. The economy of the poem is pillage, a system that binds the loyalty of men with the promise of plunder looted from weaker neighbors; its law is revenge, an instinct obeyed at all costs, a force that trumps every pacifying gesture, a monster that greedily consumes the poem’s inhabitants. The faith that defines the poem is two-fold and contradictory. The diction of blessing and thankful invocation is Christian, the faith of the narrator-poet. But the dynamism that governs the world of the poem is an absolute pagan materialism: its hero obsessed with achieving immortality through fame, its central act of devotion a mirror image of the grandiose tombs of Pharaohs, the burial or burning of gold in the belief that a king of this world really could “take it with him.” Beowulf presents a landscape of fire and ice, of treachery and double-dealing, a borderland where nothing can be trusted, where all beauty and civility are doomed, a world of eloquent brutality.
zxxxThe plot is simple enough. King Hrothgar of the Danes builds a towering mead hall next to a swamp inhabited by Grendel, a monstrous spirit in the form of a man, the demonic offspring of Cain. For years, Grendel ravages the hall until Beowulf of the Geats, a man surpassing in strength and size, comes to face the marauder one-on-one. Grendel is defeated, and the hall rejoices; but the next night Grendel’s mother comes for revenge, murdering Hrothgar’s closest friend. Beowulf seeks and slays Grendel’s mother in her underwater home, for which he is rewarded by Hrothgar; and then he returns to his own country. There Beowulf rules for fifty years—until a treasure-hoarding dragon emerges from a barrow. Once more, the champion ventures alone to face a monstrous enemy, but this time he purchases victory with his life. Beowulf and the dragon destroy each other.
zxxxHaving made this summary, it is fair to say: If plot is all there were to Beowulf, there wouldn’t be much to it. “Take any course as long as they don’t teach Beowulf!” Woody Allen advises in his movie, Annie Hall. Certainly, the force of Beowulf’s density and rhythm has influenced several generations of poets (Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney, to name three). Its vivid depictions of a lost world fascinate lovers of antiquarian lore, and the text itself is a veritable playground for the philologist. But if viewed strictly as heroic narrative, Beowulf is far from impressive. Beowulf himself may be a Nordic Hercules, but he lacks the exotic antagonists that vivify the original Superman: Beside the inventive monsters of other mythologies, two swamp things and a dragon are embarrassingly cliché. Nor does the behavior of this boasting, man-crushing warrior especially invite our admiration. Hrothgar is devastated by the loss of his counselor, but Beowulf watches impassively as one of his own comrades is eaten alive. Indeed, so loutish is this hero that he asks King Hrothgar, in the agony of his grief, if he has spent a pleasant night! This is the essence of Beowulf: a glib and witty Teflon hero, immune to defeat or remorse or grief, a man who “never knew a troubled heart”—until he meets his final enemy. Only then does Beowulf square with sorrow, only then does the hero wonder if God is “on his side.” Yet the poet could not be more clear: Beowulf’s suffering cannot redeem his nation, so he is no Prometheus either. By the end of the poem, the man of the Geats is just an old warrior who has lost his touch. From the standpoint of heroic literature, the climax could not be more anti-climactic.
zxxxAs if the narrative were not problem enough, the pace of the narrative seems intended to frustrate heroic momentum. On more than one occasion, the peak of action is snapped to a halt by commentary and seemingly meaningless digression. Indeed, so fragmented is the poem’s narrative that a whole generation of scholars once confidently defined Beowulf as a patchwork of heroic tales badly pieced together by a Christian priest. While that argument has officially gone out of vogue, one might fairly say that the history of Beowulf criticism is essentially a 200-year-long debate concerning the existence of a unifying principle.* Here, then, is a literary work that has left its best readers puzzling.
zxxxThis is the curse that haunts every high school syllabus that purports to teach the poem. The dirty little secret is that Beowulf, the glorious hero epic of England’s fabled ancestors, is a sorry excuse for epic heroic literature—if that’s what it is. Such is the substance of the private confession made by Frank Kermode, writing in The New York Review of Books, whose otherwise laudatory review of Seamus Heaney’s translation damned the original poem with this faint praise: “without the strange, strong, halting movement of the verse, its ceremonial, archaic quality, the solemnity of the boasts and promises, the rituals of the mead hall so stiffly recalled, there may be little left to interest us, only a fairy story of ogres and dragons, of repetitive boasting and drinking and gift-giving.” (Italics added) Middleton Murray, a critic from an earlier age, was considerably more blunt. He simply ranked the poem “an antediluvian curiosity.”
zxxxWhile these assessments are not universally held, Beowulf’s reputation is itself worth noting. Those who appreciate Beowulf may disagree with such complaints, while acknowledging the poem’s problematic critical history. One possibility is that England’s Anglo-Saxon hero epic must ever be the (privately acknowledged) dog of heroic literature. Another possibility is that Beowulf is not really heroic literature after all.