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?