I’ve been teaching Brit lit for about 13 years now, and every year we tackle Beowulf. And every year I psych my kids up for the idea that this is not a bad poem, nor does it feel like you’re reading a poem. No, this is bad ass stuff. This is tough guys killing monsters and taking names…at least that’s what it usually is. This year I had a student teacher and he showed both my students and myself just how boring Beowulf can be, if read aloud to you in a monotone voice with no extension activities . Why he did this? I’m not sure. But he had to be stopped. And stop him I did (seriously, I had to ask his advisor if they could find him another placement. We were not a good match. I felt like I was facing off with someone who wanted to destroy the spirits of all my students. But I digress…let’s talk about fake monsters instead).
Part of the beauty of the Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf is that the translation begs to be read aloud, with emotion and feeling. The alliteration makes the story roll off your tongue. The kennings? Oh man, I just love kennings, because…I am a nerd. Beowulf is a great book, one that stands up to the test of me reading it every year for 13 years and still enjoying it. As a fan of horror, I appreciate that we get very few physical details of Grendel. Think about it, what’s scarier, the first 10 minutes of Jaws or the last half hour when that giant mechanical shark is flopping all over the place? We’re given the barest description of Grendel, but armed with his evil pedigree and his intentions, our brains do the work and piece together a very “epic” fight scene between the monster and our hero (see what I did there?).
But hey, can I rag on the oldest piece of literature written in Old English? Of course I can. The story itself feels unbalanced. I think it every time we read the piece, in fact, I make my students write “missing battle scenes” because it just doesn’t feel right to me. Walk with me here… We watch Beowulf battle Grendel and then face off in the murky depths of the mere with Grendel’s mother (who does NOT look anything like Angelina Jolie, FYI). But then we get a minor break and then, wowza! Flash forward fifty years, we find out that he’s been a great king and then boom! Beowulf faces off in his final battle.
If you haven’t read Beowulf, I would recommend the Heaney translation over most any other translations. I’ve read four different translations over the years and I think this one captures the lyrical nature of the poem but still maintains the action elements of it. It’s also a pretty fun translation because it has the Old English on the left hand side of every page. As I pack Beowulf away for another year, I say goodbye to an old friend that gets much maligned by people who have never cracked it open and called it boring. It’s really not, it just requires a little spark of imagination.