Thursday, December 4, 2008

Seamus Heaney's Beowulf: An epic listen

Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let anyone who can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.

--from Beowulf, author unknown

As I've stated in past posts I'm a devotee of audio books. They give me something constructive to do on my hour-long commute to work each morning. A good audiobook can lift you above traffic and the drag and drain of daily worries and transport you to better places where skalds sing the deeds of great men.

The world described in the ancient poem Beowulf is such a place. It's an era of warrior-heroes, men of martial prowess who value honor, bravery, and the everlasting glory that comes with a life spent performing great deeds. It's a tale of spear-Danes and the great kings who ruled them with courage and greatness. And Beowulf, the hero of the tale, stands head and shoulders above even these proud men.

I recently checked out a BBC recording of Beowulf translated and read by poet and critic Seamus Heaney. If you're also a fan of audio books and in particular of heroic fantasy, this one is definitely a must-listen.

The poem itself is a straightforward, simple story that begins with the tale of the monster Grendel harrying the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, slaying and devouring his retainers at night. Beowulf arrives from over the sea with a small band of hand-picked spear Danes to put a stop to Grendel and his mother, a monstrous hag living beneath a tarn. Act two fast-forwards the reader 50 years later where an aging Beowulf, now a lord of renown, must strap on his shield and armor one last time to stop a dragon from ravaging his kingdom. That's pretty much it.

Beowulf's real reward is in its wonderful language. Heaney's translation is a joy to listen to. Great warriors are "wreckers of mead-benches" and kings are "generous ring-givers." The ocean is a "whale road," the sun "the world's candle," a gleaming sword a "battle-torch." It's also loaded with alliteration. Some might find this language tedious but I loved it. Here's an example of a passage that describes Beowulf's boat heading back home, loaded with riches heaped upon the crew by a grateful Hrothgar:

Then the keel plunged and shook in the sea, and they sailed from Denmark. Right away the mast was rigged with its sea-shawl. Sail ropes were tightened, timbers drummed, and stiff winds kept the wave-crosser skimming ahead. As she heaved forward, her foamy neck was fleet and boyant, a lapped prow loping over currents, until finally the Geats caught sight of coastline and familiar cliffs.

Beowulf contains an interesting mix of old pagan gods and beliefs meeting the new. Christianity is definitely on the upswing and we hear continued references to a singular God, "the glorious almighty." But the poem also contains references to "the wyrd," or the fate from which no man can escape. Great warriors are burned on funeral pyres, and we are not certain where men's souls return after death. When Hrothgar's great-grandfather, Scyld, dies at the beginning of the tale and his wealth-laden ship is set out to sea, "No man can tell, no wise man in hall or weathered veteran, knows for certain who salvaged that load."

J.R.R. Tolkien admits to being heavily influenced by Beowulf, and it's clear that the scene in The Hobbit of Bilbo filching a cup from Smaug's horde is lifted straight out of the poem (it's also no coincidence that Beowulf's dragon has a soft spot beneath his nigh-impenetrable scaly coat, another device used by Tolkien in Smaug's battle with Bard over Dale).

The poem also gives an invaluable glimpse into the morality of the era. Dictums by the poem's unknown author provide us with the values and behavior which men upheld in roughly 5th-7th century Scandinavia. For example, reverence of the dead: "Then 12 warriors rode around the tomb, chieftains sons, champions in battle, all of them distraught, chanting in dirges, mourning his loss as a man and a king. 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 become void from his bodily home."

And this one: "And a young prince must be prudent like that, giving freely while his father lives. So that afterwards in age, when fighting starts, steadfast companions will stand by him and hold the line. Behavior that's admired is the path to power for people anywhere."

In short, highly recommended.

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