It’s sad to say that as an English teacher, I’ve never made it all the way through Beowulf. My first encounter with Beowulf was the movie with the gold-dipped-naked-animated Angelina Jolie version (late 2000’s?). It was a laugh. Not because it was a comedy, but because it was so over the top. Campy, poor writing, melodramatic, you name it.
So when I started teaching, I just used an abridged version of the epic. But anyone who’s ever read something that’s been abridged knows that there’s always something that feels like it’s missing. So I switched to a full length version…that was terrible! It was like reading the King James Version of the Bible. I hated it and my students hated it. I decided that this summer I had to find a version that I enjoyed reading and would approachable by students as well.
So thus I met Seamus Heaney’s translation. It was a match made in heaven. The undergrad language major loved having the original Old English across the page from the Modern English. It was fun to try to see what words were similar. It was like seeing the birth of a language.
The most important part was the translation. Heaney kept the translation simple. And by that I mean that he didn’t complicate the syntax or the word usage. Anyone could read this translation. But he didn’t compromise much of the original artistry. Many of the names and the kennings were kept in tact. Thus, I felt that this was a very good way to bring an old story into the hands of contemporary readers.
And it also opened up Beowulf, the character. For once I could relate to him, sympathize with him, understand him. And I began to see why this epic is still around and why I need to teach it. For those who haven’t read it, it’s basically the only epic that the English language had until modern writers tried their hand at it. But the difference is that this epic was unique to the Anglo-Saxon culture found in the British Isles. Maybe I’m just geeking about but history, language, and literature sort of unite around this work and it’s important that we remind ourselves where we come from and why this piece is still relevant.
Even in our world today we struggle with good vs. evil, doing the right thing no matter the personal cost, and facing down our doubters. In fact, I think we can remind ourselves of this fact too. I think we’ve lost a little of the honor and loyalty of eras gone by. Not that we shouldn’t question these or blindly follow people. But we should remember that we are all in this world together. If we leave people to fight their own battles, who’s going to help us when no one is left?