#cbr10bingo Award Winner Heaney’s Beowulf won the Whitbread Award
Beowulf is a classic epic poem that many students read in high school or college. Featuring brave warriors, terrifying monsters, good leaders and bad, Beowulf has been translated by many different scholars and has even been put into graphic novel form. This review will focus on the widely praised translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, which won the Whitbread Award.
Beowulf is set about 1000 years ago in Denmark and Sweden. This is a feudal world, where kings at the top of the pyramid are meant to protect their vassals, and vassals are meant to serve their lord faithfully and loyally. This is a world where rival clans and kingdoms frequently find themselves at war, but between wars are years, even decades, of peace. Beowulf opens at the court of King Hrothgar of the Danes, a mighty warrior and successful king who has defeated his enemies, rewarded his vassals, and built a great hall called Heorot. Hrothgar, despite his abilities and good fortune, has suffered a grave humiliation. A demon/monster known as Grendel attacks his hall every night, killing his people — young and old — while they sleep. Hrothgar and his men are unable to defeat the monster, whose attacks persist over the course of 12 years. News of Grendel and of Hrothgar’s woes travels abroad and a young warrior named Beowulf of the Geats receives permission from his lord to go to Hrothgar’s assistance. He and 14 warriors set sail and are welcomed by Hrothgar, who remembers Beowulf as a young lad. Hrothgar orders a feast to welcome Beowulf and his company, and at this feast, which features bards singing tales of previous kings and warriors (both good and bad), one of Hrothgar’s men, a jealous young man named Unferth, makes disparaging remarks about Beowulf and his past exploits. Beowulf not only sets the record straight for Unferth, but he also announces that he will take on Grendel not with swords and other weapons but in hand-to-hand combat. Beowulf is said to have the strength of 30 men in each hand, and since Grendel fights without weapons, so will he. After the feasting, Beowulf and his men remain in Heorot and sure enough, Grendel attacks, killing one of Beowulf’s men. When he comes at Beowulf, though, he is in for an ugly surprise. Beowulf defeats Grendel and rips his arm off for good measure. Grendel goes off running back to his lair to die, and Beowulf is celebrated as a hero. Even Unferth has to admit that Beowulf brought the goods.
So it seems as if the king’s problem has been solved thanks to Beowulf. No one is prepared, however, for what happens the following night. Grendel’s mother attacks the kingdom, dragging away King Hrothgar’s advisor and friend Aeschere. Hrothgar is distraught, but Beowulf says, “don’t grieve; avenge his death!” Beowulf and his company ride out after Mrs. Grendel. She is a water-based monster, a descendant of Cain and thus out of God’s favor. Unferth lends his family sword to Beowulf, but man-made weapons are of no use against her. He again attacks the monster alone and relies on hand-to-hand combat, eventually seizing one of Mrs. G’s magical swords and using it against her to kill her. Before leaving her lair, Beowulf cuts Grendel’s head off of his corpse and brings it to the surface for King Hrothgar. Hrothgar is grateful and makes many fine gifts to Beowulf and his men, but more importantly he gives Beowulf advice. Hrothgar sees that Beowulf has what it takes to be a great king, even though that is not necessarily something that Beowulf grasps for. He says that Beowulf should not become obsessed with possessions but rather think of eternal rewards and the afterlife. In other words, be a good Christian king. Hrothgar and his minstrel tell of bad kings and queens who abused their vassals and were unjust. We see that Beowulf exemplifies the qualities of a good king because he is brave and valorous, he is just toward his men, he does not take advantage of others.
After leaving Hrothgar and returning home, Beowulf had the chance to become king but instead served the young prince who was the rightful heir to the throne exemplifying the values of a good Christian leader. Later, he did ascend the throne and ruled justly for 50 years before another monster, a dragon, threatened his kingdom. In his final battle, Beowulf slays the dragon but not only does he need to use a weapon, he also needs help from his men. All had run away in fear except for Wiglaf, who helps kill the dragon and carries out Beowulf’s final wishes. Wiglaf also foresees that a time of war and unrest are on the horizon. The cyclical nature of history is brought up throughout the epic and it seems fitting to end it this way. Wiglaf could be the next Beowulf.
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is very readable and accessible for teens and older. In his introduction, he writes of his process for finding the correct language and relying on his Irish background to help him. It’s very interesting stuff and reminded me of Emily Wilson’s introduction to The Odyssey and her quest for the right language to convey the epic poem as the average listener would have understood it back in the day. I think Wilson’s translation is more successful, but then again, I think The Odyssey is a more interesting story. At any rate, the reader can easily pick up from this text that which would have been important for original listeners to comprehend: that a good leader is a Christian leader, that the way one is remembered is more important than possessions or power, that loyalty, devotion and generosity are prized above all things, and that even a good king who does as he should can face unexpected troubles. You will be remembered for what you did and not what you had.