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Yet another review of the new Beowulf

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  • ERATRIANO@aol.com
    I just got this one off another list, and thought its viewpoint was a little different. I still need to read the dang thing myself, but that s unlikely to
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 12, 2000
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      I just got this one off another list, and thought its viewpoint was a little
      different. I still need to read the dang thing myself, but that's unlikely
      to happen soon: just acquired the 3rd Harry Potter, a used Connie Willis
      title, and been writing again. -Lizzie

      Translated by Seamus Heaney
      Farrar, Straus & Giroux (213 pages)

      We feel as if we ought to read "Beowulf." It is, as Seamus Heaney puts
      it, "one of the foundation works of poetry in English." Certainly
      Heaney makes it easy to read with this accessible new translation. It
      is a remarkable thing to be able to breeze through "Beowulf."

      The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet makes a distinguished guide to this
      stark and mysterious epic, the oldest poem we have in English, a relic
      of the Dark Ages. It was ignored, forgotten, for centuries. Scholars
      cannot fix a date to it; they estimate "Beowolf" was written between
      the mid-seventh century and the early eleventh. The unknown English
      author's Christian faith is stamped into the lines, though the events
      take place in pre-Christian Scandinavia, a world where weapons have
      names. Heaney's translation, 15 years in the making, has received
      near-unanimous praise, and the book has even made the bestseller
      lists, where you do not usually find poetry.

      Reading "Beowulf" in modern English, you take in the full sweep of the
      narrative, instead of chipping away at handfuls of sentences in the
      original Old English. We follow Beowulf, superhero prince, as he
      fights hand to hand with three destructive monsters. First there is
      Grendel. Habitually killing thanes at King Hrothgar's hall, Grendel is
      dispatched by the force of Beowulf's mighty grasp. The next night
      Grendel's grieving, vengeful ogre-mother turns up to wreak havoc.
      Beowulf tracks her to her lair under the sea and kills her. Fifty
      years later, as king of the Geats, Beowulf fights his third monster, a
      50-foot dragon, but this time he suffers a mortal injury. These
      passages are so poignant and full of nuances that I feel grateful to
      Heaney for taking on the project.

      Heaney endeavors to retain the flavor of the original Old English,
      with its divided and strongly alliterative lines, finding inspiration
      in the rhythms of his native Ulster dialect. But the result is more
      subtle and subdued than I expected. With a few notable exceptions,
      such as "hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain," individual phrases
      and passages don't stay with you. He has smoothed over the rhythms
      almost to prose. The result is sophisticated, but perhaps it
      sacrifices vigor. (Readers with a strong interest in Anglo-Saxon
      alliterative verse should watch for a Beowulf translation by Alan
      Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, due next January, which will hew more
      closely to the sound of the original.) Although Heaney's diction is
      not consistently fluid, it is always grammatical, and there is often a
      funny ESL tang to its stiff constructions. But these are quibbles. The
      cumulative effect of Heaney's "Beowulf" is satisfying and memorable,
      making it an instant sentimental favorite.

      review by: Leigh Anne Jones
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