[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
Seamus Heaney (translator)
Folio Society, 2010; bound in quarter burgundy buckram, with gold title and etching on cloth boards; gold trimmed pages; gold cloth slip case; illustrated by Becca Thorne.
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
There is something about this poem Beowulf, which begins with the lines just quoted, that is at once mystical and elemental, misty but somehow internal. It is as if we see ourselves but darkly, in some other plane. It was composed in what we call Anglo-Saxon or Old English toward the end of the first millennium. It was written in England about events in what are now called Denmark and Sweden.
Beowulf is a champion of the Geats. He crosses the sea to help the Danes deal with a monster called Grendel. He prevails, and then dies. Like The Iliad, Beowulf ends with the funeral pyre of a hero. If you like that kind of thing, you might see Beowulf as the missing link between The Iliad and Paradise Lost.
Great were the dangers to be overcome by Beowulf.
All were endangered; young and old
Were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
Who lurked and swooped in the long nights
On the misty moors; nobody knows
Where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.
So Grendel waged his lonely war,
Inflicting constant cruelties on the people,
Atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot,
Haunted the glittering hall after dark
But the throne itself, the treasure seat,
He was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast.
These were hard times, heart-breaking….
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
Offerings to idols, swore oaths
That the killer of souls may come to their aid
And save the people. That was their way,
Their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
They remembered hell. (159-180)
It is hard to imagine someone better equipped to translate this great poem than the late Seamus Heaney, the distinguished Irish poet and scholar.
I came to translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery. I remember the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique. What I had always loved was a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood, in the presence of an understanding that assumes you share an awareness of the perilous nature of life and are yet capable of seeing it steadily, and, when necessary, sternly. There is an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility and allows him to make general observations about life which are far too grounded in experience and reticence to be called ‘moralising.’ These so-called ‘gnomic’ parts of the poem have the cadence and force of earned wisdom, and their combination of cogency and verity was again something that I could remember about the speech I heard as a youngster in the Scullion kitchen….The style of the poem is hospitable to the kind of formulaic phrases which are the stock-in-trade of oral bards, and yet it is marked too by the self-consciousness of an artist convinced that ‘we must labour to be beautiful.’
Here is some more of the remarkable poetry.
That great heart rested. The hall towered,
Until the black raven with raucous glee
Announced heaven’s joy, and a hurry of brightness
Overran the shadows. Warriors rose quickly
Impatient to be off; their own country
Was beckoning the nobles; and the bold voyager
Longed to be aboard his distant boat. (1799-1807)
This is how Heaney saw the epic.
Grendel comes alive in the reader’s imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark, a fear of collision with some hard-boned and immensely strong android frame, a mixture of Caliban and hoplite. And while his mother, too, has a definite brute-bearing about her, a creature of slouch and lunge on land if seal-swift in the water, she nevertheless retains a certain non-strangeness. As antagonists of a hero being tested, Grendel and his mother possess an appropriate head-on strength.
The myth of the testing of the hero by a frightening instrument of evil is probably our favourite – right up to the movie Jaws. But this epic is of interest to us also because it tells of the birth of our laws, in the replacement of the vendetta or blood-feud.
There was a feud one time, begun by your father.
With his own hands he had killed Heathaloaf
Who was a Wulfing; so war was looming
And his people in fear of it forced him to leave….
Finally I healed the feud by paying:
I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings
And Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance. (459-473)
We might call this settling out of court. It is not surprising that the scholar who trumpeted the claim of Beowulf to be taken as literature was named J R R Tolkien.
We learn that the object of the hero – as for Achilles – was to ‘gain enduring glory in a combat’ (1535/6). It is right, then, that the poem ends with these lines.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing
For a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
And cherish his memory when that moment comes
When he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.
So the Geat people, his hearth companions,
Sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
He was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
Kindest to his people and keenest to win fame. (3173-3182)
You do not need to crave immortality to see how the poet there speaks to all of us. Heaney speaks of his ‘fondness for the melancholy and fortitude that characterised the poetry.’ He said that this poem has a ‘mythic potency’ that ‘arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose…it passes once more into the beyond.’ Exactly – and is it not for this that we go to great writers?