Thursday, October 29, 2015

Danish Saga

translated by Seamus Heaney

“Meanwhile, the sword
began to wilt into gory icicles, 
to slather and thaw. It was a wonderful thing, 
the way it all melted as ice melts 
when the Father eases the fetters off the frost
and unravels the water-ropes. He who wields power
over time and tide: He is the true Lord.” 

― Seamus Heaney, Beowulf

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is both modern and satisfying poetry.  It is a translation as if from another world. The poem has in Heaney’s words a ‘hand-built, rock sure feel’ and yet at the same time his lines are expansive with an elemental feeling emanating from within the verse. It’s what Heaney elsewhere calls ‘the ore of longing’. The world of Danish kings, gold hoards and minstrels keeps revealing regions remote from human influence, making exciting reading. It’s as though you almost had to conceive of two dimensions at once. And Heaney tends to set his words so starkly as to allow the direct opposing pull of those separate forces:
"His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them."

The story begins as King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by the rampages of a demon named Grendel. Every night, Grendel attacks King Hrothgar's wealthy mead-hall, Heorot, killing Danish warriors and sometimes even eating them. Hrothgar was a great warrior in his time, but now he's an old king and can't seem to protect his people. Fortunately, a young Geat warrior named Beowulf travels to Heorot Hall from his own lands overseas to lend a helping hand – literally.   After explaining that he owes Hrothgar a favor because Hrothgar helped out his father, Beowulf offers to fight Grendel himself. King Hrothgar gratefully accepts his offer.  The rest awaits the reader in this wonderful translation.

For Heaney the whole poem is bordered by yet related to the beyond, by which he means both the immanent and the imminent, ‘unknowable but certain’. He stresses that the queer sounds of Beowulf to modern ears is not merely the result of our distance in time from that epic world (the dragons, barrows, and boar-shapes flashing over golden cheek-guards). Rather the poem’s difference (perhaps shared with similar sagas) lies in its ‘mythic potency’:
"Like Shield Sheafson… [the poem] arrives from somewhere beyond the
known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again
like Shield) it passes once more into the beyond."

Rereading the poem in this translation was a delight even though I would still recommend the fine translation by Burton Raffel that I read in the early nineties. I intend to return to this poem, but plan to seek out the new version by Neil Gaiman – that is sure to be yet a new way to experience this great medieval epic.

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Cleo said...

This is one of my favourite poems and I think I've read it about 4 times now. I do own the audiobook read by Seamus Heaney, but it is abridged and cuts out text, some of it which I believe is elemental to the poem. I haven't read Raffel's version, but I have a Michael Swanton translation and I started to read Tolkien's as well. All have their positives and negatives, but I still like how Heaney is able to capture the poetry as well as the meaning.


James said...

Thanks for your observations. I share your appreciation of Heaney's poetry. Heaney's reading of his Beowulf translation is available on; I haven't listened to it yet but plan to in the near future.