I have read a number of comments lately on the recent illustrated version of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, including a review by Nicholas Lezard, which I tore out of a Guardian Review before Christmas with the thought that I might, perhaps, just conceivably, but probably not buy the book. These ancient tales are, in the main, not for me. There are a few exceptions, Njal's Saga being a notable one. Sure, that is a fault in me, but there it is.
Seven years ago, Nicholas Lezard says, he, too thought as I do... Well, he didn't actually say that, didn't actually mention me, but he admits to having thought Beowulf "brainless macho trash". I remember it well. I think. I certainly read something along those lines when Seamus Heaney's translation first appeared. Thank heavens, I thought, at long last some other occupant of planet earth thinks as I do. Now, though, with the appearance of what he calls the coffee-table edition of Heaney's version, it appears he has changed his mind. But it is not some new Epiphany wrought by a more careful reading of the text that has brought this about. No, his changed opinion is entirely due to the pictures. They have convinced him that Beowulf is "a serious and complex work of art". He gives an example:
Above their cheek-guards'
and on the left there is a large colour picture of a carefully-wrought boar surmounting a helmet excavated from Benty Grange, Derbyshire."
I have not yet seen the new edition. I may well sport out the £13.99 being asked for it, but if I do I shall be buying it for the graphics, not for the text, for the images do indeed sound well worth the outlay. As to the text, the one fact that might have won me over to it seven years ago, the knowledge that Seamus Heaney had thought it worth his while to translate it, failed to do so. My world will be shaken to its foundations if it turns out that pictures (props, which ever way you look at them) achieve what he could not. I am sure it is a fault in me, but the issue I am hammering on about is whether we should require a work of art to stand alone, or whether there is a place for props, and if so, what that place might be. Should we be swayed in our judgments by external factors, however inspiring or enlightening? I can accept props as an introduction, say in school, remembering that we are going to journey beyond them for our final understanding. I can see them as they are used in this new edition of Beowulf to provide insight into the poem's background and the society that produced it, or to correct misconceptions concerning that society. That is why I might yet buy the new edition. But such pictures are at most guide book illustrations to give us a taste of what lies before us or to explain its history, its culture or its politics. If the terrain, when we visit it, turns out to be "brainless macho trash", the photographs in the guide book, however appealing, will not alter that. Not unless it is that we are seeing what we are told to see and not what is in us to see.
I shall visit my local bookshop and have a look. I may, as I say, even buy the book... but then again, don't hold your breath, for on the same page of The Guardian Review was a very enticing write-up on Paul Muldoon's translation of Neil O'Gallagher's "The Fifty Minute Mermaid". If the Virgin shelves happen to be carrying that, and if it's half as seductive as the review makes it out to be, then that's where my cash is likely to be going. Unless my foundations do get thoroughly rattled!
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