Tuesday, February 8, 2011

School Reading: Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

I haven't had time to finish reading my current book, so here's a review of Beowulf, which I read for my British Lit class.

I'm assuming most people are familiar with the basic plot of Beowulf, so I'll keep this short. The story begins in Denmark, where King Hrothgar has built a magnificent mead hall. For twelve years, however, the hall has been plagued by Grendel, a monster who comes during the night to kill the men inside. Beowulf, Geatland's hero, hears word of Grendel and sails to Denmark to kill him. Beowulf is successful in his battle, but Grendel's not the only monster out there - Grendel's mother wants revenge, as does a dragon whose treasure has been stolen...

This was my third attempt at reading Beowulf, and I discovered that translators matter! The first time I read the poem (a few years ago; Gordon Hall Gerould translation) I came out confused and very slightly more knowledgeable about the story than before. My second attempt (earlier this school year) didn't make it past the first few pages, I was so bored. But third time's the charm - I read Heaney's translation and loved it! Aside from a few confusing sections about the feuds between the Geats and the Swedes, the poem was actually an enjoyable read and - gasp! - kind of exciting! Translators can really make the difference between literature being boring and confusing or interesting and exciting.

Besides the good story line and epic battles, Beowulf was surprisingly like the film adaptation that came out in 2007 (which I watched earlier in the school year for English IV). Yes, there are some major differences, like the parentage of Grendel and the dragon, Hrothgar's death, and the Beowulf's life after he leaves Denmark, but the battle scenes in the movie and Beowulf's time in Hrothgar's hall were almost straight out of the book. I would recommend to anyone who reads the poem to also watch the film (just watch out for the violence and do some "creative editing," as my teacher called it, during the part with Grendel's mom).
The translation of Beowulf that I read, by Seamus Heaney, was from the Norton Anthology of British Literature, Vol. I, eighth edition (2006). This textbook was provided by my school.

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