Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition, translated by Seamus Heaney, a minor book review

I figured that, as long as I was on an "all things Beowulf" trend, I might as well take a look at Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. Actually, I was looking forward to it with great excitement; the only reason I didn't do my initial Heaney reading in this edition was that it was checked out when I first went in. So, I put it on hold (I love libraries!) and picked it up with great anticipation and excitement.

I admit, the letdown I felt was partly my own fault: I did not think to look ahead to see what kind of illustrations were in the book. I was picturing lavish artwork, maybe some pen and ink, maybe some marvelous watercolors.

Instead, the book has photographs of artifacts an, occasionally, scenery (one of the sunset photographs was taken in Maine and chosen because it was reminiscent of the sort of sunset that might have happened over the mere).  To me, this has the effect of distancing me from the poem: It's no longer an immediate epic but a study of Viking culture. I'm not opposed to the study of Viking culture, I think it's interesting, but having the photographs and museum-type commentary under them mixed in with the poem was disconcerting.

The Afterwar by John D. Niles discusses the reason the different photographs were chosen, and it even addresses the question of photographs vs. artist illustrations. It looks to be a thoughtful article, and it makes it clear that a lot of care went into the selection of the illustrations which are meant to "supply a visual counterpoint to the text, rather than to illustrate it in the usual sense," but I'm afraid I skimmed it rather badly and very unfairly. I was too disappointed by the absence of the expected illustrations.

Conclusion: None, really. If you want an illustrated edition that focuses primarily on ancient Viking artifacts and has a couple of woodcuts and an occasional scenery photograph thrown in--this is fine; in fact, it's excellent--there are some great informative blurbs under the different images, and you'll learn a lot about Viking jewelry. If you were hoping for gorgeous, modern illustrations, it will be a tremendous letdown.  Probably the moral of the story is "Do your research before you get all excited" and maybe also "Don't believe titles."

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