I discovered the existence of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf because of the Gilmore Girls. Lorelai asks Rory for some reading to take her mind off her troubles, and Rory mentions Heaney’s Beowulf. I’d been meaning to read it but wouldn’t have thought to pick a particular translation had I not seen that episode.
It’s an interesting book for Rory to recommend under the circumstances. Does reading about monsters and battles help you take your mind off your troubles? For me, it can, by reminding me to have perspective and a sense of proportion about my troubles.
Though I read Beowulf in school, I don’t remember it well enough to compare translations. What I can say about Heaney’s is the language was fluid, meditative, and accessible. That accessibility heightened, for me, the sense of dislocation created by the content. The poem tells the story of Beowulf, a young Geat hero. At the poem’s outset, he presents himself to Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose kingdom is threatened by the monster Grendel. Beowulf offers to fight Grendel.
The poem lays out customs and traditions and the warrior code in slow, steady rhythms and pacing. This world of warriors who don’t question but respond to dangers and losses feels out of reach, alien. But it’s no less moving for it. The poem’s power to move lies in part in its own survival across the centuries – a voice out of time and place. For me, it’s also in the metaphoric narrative of facing demons and threats, vanquishing one monster only to see another rise in its place, which resonates for our times as well. We can never rest, the poems seems to say, until our time has passed away.
Reading Beowulf filled me with a mournful feeling. Perhaps it’s because we see Beowulf progress from youth through old age. Perhaps it’s the flashes of insight on loss, weakness, and the power of character, sacrifice, and loyalty. Moments of intense emotion are few but perhaps more starkly affecting for their rarity.