Tag Archives: seamus heaney

Book Review: Beowulf

9780374111199In off the moors, down through the mist bands,
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping…

If you consider yourself a reader, a bibliophile, or a bibliomaniac, but you haven’t read Beowulf – fie for shame.

If you consider yourself a lover of all things Truly Epic, but you haven’t read Beowulf – fie for shame.

If you consider yourself a manly man (or, if of the fairer sex, an admirer of manly men), but you haven’t read Beowulf – fie for shame.

If you consider yourself all of the above, but you haven’t read Beowulf – fie for shame3.

I went through Beowulf for the first time when I was twelve, and I’ve revisited it countless times since. It’s a staple on my bookshelf. Grand, thoughtful, exhilarating, tragic, beautiful; a tale of action and high adventure, but also a sobering meditation on courage, honor, faith, and mortality. If you’re at a loss for which translation to use, let me heartily recommend Seamus Heaney’s. Use it only if you are prepared for the pages to come alive in your hands.

Beowulf got ready,
donned his war-gear, indifferent to death;
his mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail
would soon meet with the menace underwater.
It would keep the bone-cage of his body safe:
no enemy’s clasp could crush him in it,
no vicious armlock choke his life out.
To guard his head he had a glittering helmet
that was due to be muddied on the mere bottom
and blurred in the upswirl. It was of beaten gold,
princely headgear hooped and hasped
by a weapon smith who had worked wonders
in days gone by and adorned it with boar shapes;
since then it had resisted every sword.
And another item lent by Unferth
at that moment of need was of no small importance:
the brehon handed him a hilted weapon,
a rare and ancient sword named Hrunting.
The iron blade with its ill-boding patterns
had been tempered in blood. It had never failed
the hand of anyone who hefted it in battle,
anyone who had fought and faced the worst
in the gap of danger. This was not the first time
it had been called to perform heroic feats…

Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke:
‘Wisest of kings, now that I have come
to the point of action, I ask you to recall
what we said earlier: that you, son of Halfdane
and gold-friend to retainers, that you, if I should fall
and suffer death while serving your cause,
would act like a father to me afterwards.
If this combat kills me, take care
of my young company, my comrades in arms.
And be sure also, my beloved Hrothgar,
to send Hygelac the treasures I received.
Let the lord of the Geats gaze on that gold,
let Hrethel’s son take note of it and see
that I found a ring-giver of rare magnificence
and enjoyed the good of his generosity.
And Unferth is to have what I inherited:
to that far-famed man I bequeath my own
sharp-honed, wave-sheened wonderblade.
With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die.’

Yeah. Go read this book. It’s still the ultimate epic after all these years.