Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Brief Thoughts)

In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf, Irishman Seamus Heaney ponders the epic nature of the story and the mythology of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. He wonders at why Beowulf’s story is not as well known as Greek mythology and Homer. My initial thought on reading the poem (in Heaney’s poetic translation) is that it’s just not as good. But such a reaction is not fair, because I am not at all familiar with the traditions, the style of poetry, and the historic characters and mythological gods.

I’d heard of Beowulf and Grendel, but I was not at all familiar with the story: it wasn’t what I expected, and I think I had been mixing my idea of Beowulf into some Greek myths. Although I’m still a beginner when it comes to Homer, I still feel like Athena, Zeus and Aphrodite, for example, are a part of my heritage. I feel I’ve always known them. I think, also, that Greek culture captured a far greater territory.

Anglo-Saxon traditions spread throughout Scandinavia and the British isle. But Greek culture eventually seeped in to the entire European sphere, even Scandinavia.

Maybe because it was so unfamiliar to me, I found I was completely unmoved by the story, for that’s all it seemed to be to me. There was no emotion and no epic feel to it. The story was violent, and for me, it just felt flat. Nothing much happened beyond the good guys winning. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not an adventure person, and Beowulf never rose above a stereotypical “adventure story” for me. When I read Homer, especially The Iliad, I felt I was reading an epic, full of angst and trauma and success and failure.

Given my unfamiliarity with the Scandinavian myths and traditions, I accept that this is my failing, and probably not an issue with the text or the translation, neither of which I feel qualified to comment on. I will have to revisit Beowulf in the future when I’m more prepared. Since I have the Norton Critical Edition of Seam Heaney’s translation, I’ll have some help to guide me when I do feel ready to tackle it.

This is pretty inadequate response to one of the oldest English texts out there. I realize that. I’ll try it again some time, I promise!

What did I miss in this classic text? What did you like about Beowulf? What should I focus on when I revisit it in the future?

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Here goes my pretty inadequate comment in response to one of the oldest English texts… I read the Seamus Heaney translation too. I guess I wouldn’t say I got the epic feel from it either, but I really enjoyed it – something about the language and the adventure worked for me. Like you write, I think the text is immediately harder to connect with than something like The Iliad or The Odyssey…I wouldn’t say I’ve got a great grounding in mythology, but even without my high school Latin classes, I’d go into Homer knowing more of the background than I did when I went into Beowulf.

    I guess I still don’t know a lot of the background needed to really, really understand Beowulf – but I thought it was surprisingly fun to read.

    1. Ellen, lol that’s the great thing about blogging. We can all feel inadequate together. I just sometimes finish something and think “ok why is this a classic? What did I miss?”

      I’ll have to revisit it and try to read it as a “fun” read. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood? I’ve been touch and go lately with my reading, but I’m starting to get back into the groove.

  2. I read this in my HS senior English class and admit I don’t remember anything from it at all. Nor do I have any desire to revisit.

    1. Amanda, yeah, I can understand not remembering anything from it! It’s been a few weeks and I’m forgetting. But I do want to give it another chance. I’m sure there is a reason it is still around after more than a thousand years….

  3. I have this translation on my shelf and keep meaning to read it and one of these days I will. Thanks to your post though I will try to learn a little more about Anglo-Saxon mythology. Don’t know if that will help. I guess I’ll find out sometime. Thanks for your honest review!

    1. Stefanie, As I mentioned in a comment just above, I think maybe I was in the wrong mood for reading this. I’m still recovering from War and Peace, I think, and it just was so different from what I was expecting. I’d be interested to hear how it works for you. I wonder if a base in Anglo-Saxon mythology would make it a more enjoyable read?

  4. Hi Becca,

    Beowulf is one of my favorite of the ancient epics, but I must suggest that you read “Grendel”, by John Gardner. The book really changed how I saw the story of Beowulf. Gardner is a medieval and ancient scholar, so he has the chops to write this re-telling. “Grendel” had me in tears at points. The sparse style and gritty content, mingled with compassion, reminded me of “Till We Have Faces” by Lewis, one of my favorite myth re-tellings.

    I enjoy reading your reviews! Keep up the good work.

    Emily

    1. Emily McIntyre, that’s a fun idea, reading a retelling of it! I like to have a foundation in the original before I read retellings but it does sound intriguing. Maybe when I’m ready to revisit the story I’ll look it up, thanks!

  5. I first read Beowulf in high school, and had much the response you describe here. I can’t remember if I’ve even re-read the whole thing in its entirety since then, but I have developed a fledgling appreciation of Ango-Saxon poetry in general, and the medieval Icelandic sagas that pulled from some of the same tradition. Their lack of so much EPIC-with-a-capital-E feeling is actually something I really appreciate; they have a certain gritty, regular-people quality about them that Homer lacks for me due to all the gods and demi-gods. I’ve also grown to like the Anglo-Saxon poetic methods of organization—alliteration, the caesura, kennings—and to enjoy tracing their influence on later works.

    1. Emily, See, I love the gods and demi-gods in Greek mythology. I just love it. Makes life so much more interesting to explain things through those traditions. I guess that’s more of what I was expecting, but when I revisit Beowulf, I’ll have to remember to read it as an adventure and as a poetic work. I was just disappointed with the lack of EPIC-with-a-capital-E as you say. Definitely going to give it a try again in the future though.

      What else have you read that helped you appreciate Anglo-Saxon poetry more?

      1. Hi Rebecca,

        I completely understand what you mean. I guess my previous exposure to various mythologies made Beowulf seem of a piece with them; the Norse characters with their bluff and blunder seemed to be personified in Beowulf.

        I also liked the recitation style of the poem, as I did of course the Iliad and the Odyssey for the same reason.

        I just remembered that I started reading Beowulf in high school and never finished it. And it wasn’t the easiest to read again.

        Emily

  6. I read this in high school and reacted much as you did here (and as Emily did too, I see). Honestly, I found it boring. What’s funny is that I then had to teach it, and I worked so hard at trying to seem enthusiastic about it that my students thought I adored it. I taught it as an adventure story and tried to just have fun with it, which worked really well, although I never came to love it myself. I have from time to time thought about trying out this translation to see if my view has changed in the last 15 years or if a livelier translation than the literature textbook one would impress me.

    1. Teresa, Isn’t it great how teaching a text — or writing about it — makes you appreciate it more? Blogging does that for me too. I thinks it’s awesome that you taught it as if you loved it. I hated it when teachers obviously disliked a text we were reading. A quick way to make me hate it too.

  7. I saw a copy of this sitting on my boss’s shelf while I was working in the tutoring office a couple months ago. I (think?) it was the same translation. I remember feeling surprised that I could understand it and that I found it interesting — but honestly, that’s all I remember.

    It’s on my 300 List…

  8. I read this not too long ago, and felt much the same way, but have wanted to revisit it – it feels holow in the way that afairy tale does – as if it is waiting for you to insert yourself into it, you know? It’s such a scattered sort of story, too. Maybe I just don’t know how to insert myself into a blood and slaughter tale.

    1. Jason Gignac » lol about yourself in the blood and slaughter tale. I like the comparison to a fairy tale. I do think I need to revisit it too, I’ll have to keep that in mind.

  9. I read Beowulf in high school and I have to admit I don’t remember much about it. your post makes me want to go back and reread it though. I know it wasn’t this translation- I don’t think it was out yet but I’m a great admirer of Heaney’s.

    1. Marie » I haven’t read Heaney before, but definitely would love to read more by him. Very nicely written translation, even though I wasn’t crazy about the story in general.

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