Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf

I just finished Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I haven’t done any background reading or learned anything about the social context or critical debate, so these are untutored thoughts (fit for a notebook, which is what my blog really is).

1. A gift economy: Beowulf learns that Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is suffering from the scourges of a monster, so, unbidden, he sails to Denmark to offer his services. After he has killed Grendel (a whole day after, in fact–see line 1784), Hrothgar allows him to choose treasures from his store; Beowulf is “paid and recompensed completely” (2145). The hero sails home and gives everything he has received to his king, Hygelac (2148). Hygelac responds by giving Beowulf an ancient sword, land, hides, and a hall and throne.

None of this is negotiated in advance. The great anthropologists Bronislaw Malinoswski and Marcel Mauss showed that gift-giving is sharply distinguished from negotiation in some societies. We still have vestiges of a gift economy (for instance, our exchanges of dinner invitations and birthday presents). However, in other cultures, the gift is the main medium of exchange, the means by which goods circulate and incentives are created. As Hrothgar tells Beowulf (in Heaney’s translation):

For as long as I rule this far-flung land

treasures will change hands and each side will treat

the other with gifts; across the gannet’s bath,

over the broad sea, whorled prows will bring

presents and tokens. (1859-63)

Queens and other wives are also gifts (see 2017), which is not to say that they are powerless. Great Queen Modthryth, for instance, orders men shackled, racked, tortured, and killed for looking directly at her face.

2. The poem as buried treasure: Beowulf was completely forgotten for eight centuries, and then used only as a source of historical data until people like Tolkein and Yeats began to recognize its literary value and take inspiration from it. In other words, it had nothing to do with the history of English literature from the Norman Conquest until 1900, except that the language in which it was written evolved slowly into ours.

For his part, the anonymous author set his story in a distant and almost lost past–the culture of his pagan, Viking ancestors. There is an air of elegy in the whole work. Therefore, it is poignant that the poem seems to foretell its own burial. The dragon who finally kills Beowulf has found a treasure from a distant past:

There were many other

heirlooms heaped inside the earth-house,

because long ago, with deliberate care,

somebody now forgotten

had buried the riches of a high-born race

in this ancient cache. Death had come

and taken them all in times gone by

and the only one left to tell their tale,

the last of their line, could look forward to nothing

but the same fate for himself: he foresaw that his joy

in the treasure would be brief. (2231-2241)

The author of Beowulf resembles that last survivor (also anonymous); but Tolkein, Yeats, and their contemporaries found the treasure that he left behind and saved him from total obscurity.

3. The beautiful digressions: In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach observes that “the Homeric style knows only a foreground.” He means that every episode, flashback, digression, and simile in the Iliad is told with the same intensity and emphasis. The author does not know how to–or chooses not to–make the main story line primary and relegate the subsidiary parts of the narrative to the background.

The same is certainly true of Beowulf, which has a striking tendency to wander off into stories that are not part of the main plot but are related to it in various tenuous ways. (For example, either the narrator or a speaker will tell a whole story because the main character behaves differently from Beowulf.) Our relationship to all the characters in the main and subsidiary plots is the same, because none has an interior life.

However, I often found the digressions to be the most beautiful portions of the text, as if the author had found tender and moving passages and inserted them into the narrative because he liked them. Perhaps the best is the “Father’s Lament” (2444-2462), an epic simile that Beowulf introduces in the middle of a speech that is itself digressive, because it describes an episode from his own past:

It was like the misery felt by an old man

who has lived to see his son’s body

swing on the gallows. He begins to keen

and weep for his boy, watching the raven

gloat where he hangs; he can be of no help.

The wisdom of age is worthless to him.

Morning after morning, he wakes to remember

that his child is gone; he has no interest

in living on until another heir

is born in the hall, now that his first-born

has entered death’s dominion forever.

He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,

the banquet hall bereft of all delight,

the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,

the warriors under ground; what was is no more.

No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.

Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed

and sings a lament; everything seems too large,

the steadings and the fields.

That is very fine poetry, I think–both the original and the translation. However, I must say that I found Heaney’s version uneven. Sometimes the word-choice seems misguided. For instance: “Here we have been welcomed / and thoroughly entertained” (1820-1). It sounds as if the guests had heard a few good jokes, when actually they were given mead and food and beds. Or take this passage: “He was Yremnlaf’s elder brother / and a soul-mate to me, a true mentor, my right-hand man when the ranks clashed …” (1324-1326). “Mentor” is a latinate word with a bureaucratic or institutional ring. “Soul-mate” sounds new-agey to me. “Right-hand man” is slangy and American. I’m sure each word is accurate and justified, but the overall diction seems miscellaneous, as if Heaney had relied on a thesaurus. I can’t really read the original, but surely it is dignified and formal, whereas sometimes Heaney’s diction is colloquial Americanese: “Yet there was no way the weakened nation / could get Beowulf to give in and agree” (2373-4). (“There was no way” instead of “It was impossible for”; “get” instead of “persuade.”)

On the other hand, this is a poem by the deserving Nobelist Heaney, and it has many strengths. For example, Beowulf’s cremation scene is deeply moving and certainly deserves comparison to Hector’s funeral in Book 12 of the Iliad. As Beowulf is consumed in a great pyre,

A Geat woman too sang out in grief;

with hair bound up, she unburdened herself

of her worst fears, a wild litany

of nightmare and lament; her nation invaded,

enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,

slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.


What she faces is too much to bear, yet human beings by the millions have faced as bad and worse.