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Sunday, 30 March 2008


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:

"'Boar-shapes flashed
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!


Conda Douglas said...

This version of the Beowulf poem is enjoying a tiny bit of bestsellerdom in the states right now because of the movie. I saw the movie in IMAX and 3-D, and while the technology was gripping and intense the story was still a little...flat. Even in 3-D.

Lucy said...

I have to say I'm a little tempted by the movie, though preferably if I could see it in IMAX, because really it's the visuals that interest.

I rather enjoyed studying Beowulf at university, chiefly because by then not many people did, and I derived a perverse satisfaction from hunkering down in a small room with a handful of others and an old bloke called Bill who smoked a pipe while the rest of the students traipsed off to have Marxist-feminist aggro sessions in the modern critical theory class. I liked taking its structure apart, I liked deciphering the Anglo-Saxon, though I've forgotten it all now, but the Norse sagas, with their slightly soap opera appeal, casts of characters, ins and outs of feuds and building up of motive and consequence, the imperative to order and civilize, were indeed much more satisfying.

Someone brought me over a copy of the Seamus Heaney, and I got through a fair bit of it but lost interest. I think I'd probably enjoy the picture book version.

I liked the shorter more elliptical Angl-Saxon poems, however: Wulf and Eadwacer, the Seafarer, even the Dream of the Rood and had a peculiar interest...

Dave King said...

Thanks, Conda and Lucy, for your comments. I think that's quite an achievement Conda, to be flat in 3D!

I think your reaction, Lucy, is very much what I imagined mine would be. This is a book to browse before deciding whether to buy, I think.

Thanks again, both of you, very helpful.

swiss said...

pictures are props! lol that's fighting talk! and a stand alone art work? woudl seemto meto be a bit of a contradiction. but each to their own and all that. we can't all like everything!

as for beowulf. not unlike your post on haiku, you're reading it in the wrong language for a start. and you're reading it! listening to it in old english is another thing entirely and being able to spak it, which i once could, badly, is great fun. for me, there's bits i like and bits i don't but reading it is liking seeing a shadow of all those things around it that've been lost

Dave King said...

Hi Swiss, and welcome. Many thanks for taking the trouble to stop by.

Yes, of course, I take your point about reading it in the wrong language, but there's no alternative, except going to the trouble of learning the language. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a revelation read the way Chaucer would have spoken it, but when deciding whether to buy the book or not I have to decide on the basis of what it offers - Beowulf in the wrong language - or buy The Fifty Minute Mermaid. I envy you your ability to speak the lingo, even if it is not what it was. Something no doubt remains that allows you to appreciate such works in ways that are beyond most of us.

By "stand-alone" I meant, of course an artwork that does not need to come complete with explanation or apology to make it comprehensible.
I would hate to think that a contradiction in terms.

Thanks again for the points raised

swiss said...

no worries. i kind of missed nuala ni dhomhnaill's name (neil of gallagher?) on the fifty minute mermaid. to dodge ni dhomhnaill in favour of beowulf would be madness indeed if there's even the shadow of a doubt. i'm enthusiastic about her the way i am about meg bateman. she's fabulous and if you look at the blog you'll find examples here
and (by muldoon)here

Dave King said...

Many thanks for the links. The first one was quite ravishing, I thought, even in translation; the second intriguing. Reminds me somewhat of W.S.Graham. The Fifty Minute Mermaid it is, will be, I am sure (almost).