Beowulf

I’m at N’s family house for a few days while he gets his car fixed, a sort of mini-retreat, mini-vacation. N’s grant is taking him to Japan for three months in the fall, to research Soseki’s archives and eat lots of omurice. I’ve rented a room in Sheffield for that same period because I spent so much of last academic year being sick (did I have the Australian flu? Was it spending so much time on the train?) – I need a break from the commute, and without N in Norwich I want/need a change of scene. If someone had told me in 2012 that I would still be in Norwich, six years later, my jaw would have slowly but surely dropped open. I like Norwich a lot, though. Am I staying in England, now that my PhD is finally finished? I miss my parents – they’re getting older (my mom has a milestone b-day coming up), and I want to spend time with them. I don’t know how they do it – travelin’ round the world like a couple of youngsters. I guess it helps that they don’t buy plane tickets that involve two stops!

One of the nicest things about staying at N’s house is the opportunity to examine his bookshelves (not a childhood bookshelf, unfortunately, more like university era). The antique book his grandfather bought in Japan in the 1950’s. The 2005 Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook he bought when he was trying to decide between teaching English there or in Japan. And his Oxford MA books. So many editions of Chaucer! So many Icelandic tales! (I had no idea Iceland had such a rich literary history *embarrassed shrug*) And the Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney, which I pulled from the shelf since it seemed like a nice follow-up to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, one of the most pleasant reading experiences I’ve had this year (though it was technically auditory, as it was an audio book – God, does Neil Gaiman have the most soothing voice!). As a bonus connection, Gaiman was apparently involved in writing the screenplay for that weird Beowulf movie in which Angelina Jolie is kinda (digitally) naked but kinda not.

I read the Introduction first which immediately spoiled the “plot” in the second paragraph. Fine by me! I’m the kind of person who still googles movie spoilers (but only of films I plan on NEVER seeing, such as the new Star Wars, which I tend to end up watching on airplanes anyway). N. tells me about how in his Oxford class on Beowulf, he was the only non-Oxford alumni, and thus the only student who hadn’t already read it in the original Old English. He had to teach himself Old English! (It sounds very strange when read aloud) He also tells me about how the only copy of Beowulf was almost destroyed in an 18th-century fire (how many other works of literature have been lost in such random ways? A truly Bolaño-esque question), and how a lot of Beowulf critics sneer at Heaney’s translation for taking “liberties” to be “accessible” to the “layman.” To this I say: Thank you very much, Seamus! And a big, big thank you to whoever wrote the line notes in the margins, helpfully providing clarifying explanations of the text (the ones about genealogy were especially helpful: The Danes have legends about their warrior kings. The most famous was Shield Sheafson, who ruled the founding house.)

As an absolute novice with no knowledge about epic poetry whatsoever (um… is this an epic poem? :O), I thought this translation was absolutely fantastic. Very readable and stark and lovely. In the introduction Heamey talks about how he was inspired by the men of his Irish family, how a simple sentence like “We cut the corn today” could feel incredibly solemn and weighted with meaning. And hence his decision to translate the first word of the poem as “So,” as opposed to “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend,” “listen,” etc. God, isn’t translation nuts? N. told me that the original Old English word for “ocean” is technically “whale road,” which I think is so beautiful! But not exactly layman speak, so makes sense that Heaney didn’t include it.

What a strange ass story this is! Here’s a list of things I found strange (contains spoilers):

  1. Grendel is killed REALLY quickly. Like… in the first third of the story!! I thought Beowulf was ABOUT Beowulf vs. Grendel! What on earth is going to happen next, I wondered.
  2.  Answer: stories within stories! Isn’t it nuts how this is such a common theme of ancient poetry? And yet in contemporary fiction it’s like “lol u r so experimental.” Reading the Introduction first was very helpful in this regard, as it helped me be prepared.
  3. Beowulf is… kind of a dick? He brags about swimming through the ocean with his sword and armour (UM, not possible, she says snarkily). And after killing Grendel’s mother, he CHOPS OFF Grendel’s head when Grendel is already dead, just to bring a trophy back. Not very sportsmanlike!
  4. Beowulf is basically the story of a life – the contrast between a young warrior, and then a warrior past his prime, at the end of his days. Did not expect this!
  5.  The balance between warrior heroic culture and Christian morality. OK, I sort of stole this observation from N., who wrote an essay about it for his Oxford degree (ermagod, so smart rite). Basically… there is this weird juxtaposition throughout the poem between Beowulf being obsessed with his honour, his legacy, his name, with dying a “good” death as a hero, and between characters jumping in and saying “Oh it’s all thanks to the Lord that this was able to happen!” The written version we have of Beowulf was transcribed just as Christianity was an up and coming religion, but the ORIGINAL version of Beowulf was almost certainly pagan. So it’s almost like the story can’t decide what it wants to be. Because if you believe in Jesus… why would you care so much about your name existing with honour, when going to chill with J.C. in Heaven is supposed to be the most important eternal reward? It is… weird. But as Heaney says in the introduction, it is this contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty, that helps make Beowulf a work of art. I like this idea, that something is more artful when it ISN’T cohesive, when it has these jagged, rough edges.
  6. Parts of this poem are really very beautiful! Especially the parts about death. There’s a big theme of “money and power will not make you happy.” This makes me feel better about my churchmouse income bracket.

All in all, I feel richer for having read this. Ancient stories, man. Why does everything always have to happen in three’s? Can’t wait fo Elon Musk to write an algorithm that explains THAT :/

I also feel incredibly grateful for my university education, and the background it gave me in the classics, even though I certainly wasn’t the best student at the time.

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Filed under books, classic, pondering the future, review

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