Monday, 28 March 2022

Beowulf today

I studied Beowulf at Leeds University over 40 years ago under Tom Shippey (worth looking up if you don't know who he is). Or, to be completely honest, I was young and nervous and sat watching this brilliant, unnerving, sexy man trying to enthuse us, while I tried to hide, comprehending little, and therefore missing a great chance to really appreciate this work - probably. Apart from Shippey himself, what I remember is struggling to understand Old English and hoping that we'd be given a clue as to what was going to come up in the exams. Which is not a great way to remember Beowulf.

When it first came out, I read Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, but probably wasn't in the right place for it at the time. I've just re-read it and have finally found myself in the right place to appreciate it. I'm still not in a position to argue over the merits of reading this 'poetic translation' over reading the original. Heaney covers this in his introduction (as well as the experience of students studying it at university - I was not alone.)

What I have done this time is loved the language and the story, and seen how the best works transcend time, and in the following passage, I think you'll see what I mean:

'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.'

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