Friday, August 27, 2010

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, a book review, with a note on the audiobook as well

Recently I found myself wanting to read Beowulf again. I picked up my own copy, purchased I-don't-know-when, and put it down in disgust: Prose. Beowulf is not prose.. I went to the library and picked up Heaney's translation(1). Much better.

The poem itself? Still gorgeous and sweeping, right from the start.
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.
"So." Right away, the reader dropped somewhere else, somewhen else, to meet these courageous kings and find out what became of them (2). It is a strange land and a beautiful one, full of treasure-givers, gold, glory, and monsters, such monsters!

I was once told, quite firmly, that "Beowulf is not a monster story." Well--it isn't, and then again, it is. It's got people in plenty, and a great collection of dilemmas, motives, and meanings to wend through. I love it for that reason.

But I also love the monsters.

There's Grendel, the "God-cursed brute," the relentless killer who first
grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed form the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses.
and then haunts Heorot for twelve years.

Then there is his mother, the "tarn-hag," who comes to avenge her son, killing one of Hrathgar's men before retreating down into the depths of a mere so fearful that
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive beneath its surface.

It is into this lake that the hero must dive to avenge the death of Hrothgar's follower and free the hall from danger--at least, danger from monsters. Even in the midst of the celebration, everyone knows it will fall someday. The reader/listener knows, because the poet tells them. The celebrants also know; their own history tells them, and this doom surrounds the light, held in temporary abeyance and fragile balance.

But, hey, I said I'd talk about monsters, and there is one yet to come, the final, greatest monster, stirred from sleep one final time to bring death(3).
Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized
a human voice, teh 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 under ground
... The outlandish thing
writhed and convulsed viciously
turned on the king.
Like I said, gorgeous. A beautiful, wonderful, doomed world.

And marvelous language, which is why, after finishing the book, I checked out the CD's.

Beowulf was meant to be heard, not read, and I wanted to listen to it, and, as luck would have it, there is an audiobook with Heaney reading his own translation. What could be better?

To start with: An unabridged version. Seriously. Who abridges Beowulf? It's not as though the poem were really all that long!

Evidently, however, the publishers only saw fit to persuade Heaney to read some "unabridged selections" of the poem which, near as I can tell, means that instead of pulling out a word here or there (Which I agree would be dire), they yank out entire scenes (Which I also think is dire). Gone are most of Unferth's lines (Why'd they bother leaving in his loaning the sword if they were going to take everything else out?), many of the lays (Hello! These are not irrelevant bits of trivia here!) and much of the description of Grendel's home (Since this is one of my favorite bits, I resent that most particularly). Honestly!

Ok, so what about what is there?  Good point: The book is read well. A nice Irish accent never hurt anyone, and Heaney is easy to listen to, though sometimes he does over-emphasize the alliteration.

But I'm not particularly appeased by this: I wanted magnificently read. I still do.

Problematic part: The tracks are long. The poem is in on two CDs and each has a single track of over an hour long. This is fine if you plan on listening for an hour or so straight--and maybe the original hearers of the poem would have--but not so good if you're listening in bits while you walk, drive, or wash dishes. There's no way to bookmark.

Verdict: Read the poem. Read Heaney's translation, or Rebsamen's, or another one, but read it as a poem because it is a poem. Settle back into this strange world. Admire the monsters, the heroes, the world.

If you listen, find some other audio version. A complete audio version, and if it's a good one, tell me. Please. I want to listen, too.

(1)Hm. Now I find myself in a dilemma: Do I discuss the poem or the translation? Both are sources of serious debate and discussion. Bu I'm primarily a plot person, so I think I'll stick to the plot and make my ramblings on the translation here, in the footnote. In brief: There are a lot of translations. There are a lot of debates about the translations. Lots of serious and interesting discussion went on when Heaney's translation came out, some of it focusing on word choice ("Tholed"? why "Tholed"?)and some on his qualifications as a speaker of Old English. It's worth looking at them. Whatever the dispute about the translation, it is a beautiful translation, and has a good introduction that clues readers into some of the social issues present in the poem and points out that the embedded lays are, in fact, part of the story rather than diversions.

(2)Or in some translations "Lo!" or "Listen!" I actually like "so" for it's matter-of-fact method of dropping one straight into the poem, but it is open to debate.

(3)Tolkien alert: The dragon is waked when a thief sneaks in and steals a cup. I love Beowulf for itself, but I do not know if I would have loved it a much if I had not met The Hobbit first. Thanks to Tolkien, Beowulf was not, after all, wholly strange. There was a sense I had traveled this territory before, so I could do it again.

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