2004-05-31: Beowulf [Heaney]

Beowulf (~700, tr 2000)

by The Beowulf Poet (~700), tr Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

This edition has the welcome feature of being bilingual: it has the Anglo-Saxon text on the left page, and Heaney’s translation facing it. I didn’t spend much time on the Anglo-Saxon, but was glad it was there. I saw where in line 112 the word orcneas appears, apparently translated as ogre or some such thing. It made me think of Tolkien’s Orcs.

I read this shortly after reading Burton Raffel’s translation, on which I’ve also reported. I preferred the Raffel translation. It seemed to convey the atmosphere of the original in a more pleasing way; Heaney’s translation seems more modern somehow. I could recommend either one.

I have copied both versions of a section of the poem for comparison, lines 2602-2613 and 2625-2656. This is where Beowulf is fighting the dragon, and in serious trouble. All of his chosen companions have fled, except Wiglaf. Here is what Wiglaf thought and said, Heaney’s version first:

His name was Wiglaf, a son of Weohstan’s,
A well-regarded Shylfing warrior
related to Aelfhere. When he saw his lord
tormented by the heat of his scalding helmet,
he remembered the bountiful gifts bestowed on him,
how well he lived among the Waegmundings,
the freehold he inherited from his father before him.
He could not hold back: one hand brandished
the yellow-timbered shield, the other drew his sword–
an ancient blade that was said to have belonged
to Eanmund, the son of Ohthere, the one
Weohstan had slain when he was an exile without friends.
. . .  And now the youth
was to enter the line of battle with his lord,
his first time to be tested as a fighter.
His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade
would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered
as soon as they came together in the combat.

Sad at heart, addressing his companions,
Wiglaf spoke wise and fluent words:
“I remember that time when mead was flowing,
how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall,
promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,
make good the gift of the war-gear,
those swords and helmets, as and when
his need required it. He picked us out
from the army deliberately, honoured us and judged us
fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts–
and all because he considered us the best
of his arm-bearing thanes. And no, although
he wanted this challenge to be one he’d face
by himself alone–the shepherd of our land,
a man unequalled in the quest for glory
and a name for daring–now the day has come
when this lord we serve needs sound men
to give him their support. Let us go to him,
help our leader through the hot flame
and dread of the fire. As God is my witness,
I would rather my body were robed in the same
burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body
than go back home bearing arms.
That is unthinkable, unless we have first
slain the foe and defended the life
of the prince of the Weather-Geats.

Raffel’s version:

His name was Wiglaf, he was Wexstan’s son
And a good soldier; his family had been Swedish,
Once. Watching Beowulf, he could see
How his king was suffering, burning. Remembering
Everything his lord and cousin had given him,
Armor and gold and the great estates
Wexstan’s family enjoyed, Wiglaf’s
Mind was made up; he raised his yellow
Shield and drew his sword–an ancient
Weapon that had once belonged to Onela’s
Nephew, and that Wexstan had won, killing
The prince when he fled from Sweden, sought safety
With Herdred, and found death. . . .
. . . He’d never worn
That armor, fought with that sword, until Beowulf
Called him to his side, led him into war.
But his soul did not melt, his sword was strong;
The dragon discovered his courage, and his weapon,
When the rush of battle brought them together.
And Wiglaf, his heart heavy, uttered
The kind of words his comrades deserved:
“I remember how we sat in the mead-hall, drinking
And boasting of how brave we’d be when Beowulf
Needed us, he who gave us these swords
And armor: all of us swore to repay him,

When the time came, kindness for kindness
–With our lives, if he needed them, He allowed us to join him,
Chose us from all his great army, thinking
Our boasting words had some weight, believing
Our promises, trusting our swords. He took us
For soldiers, for men. He meant to kill
This monster himself, our mighty king,
Fight this battle alone and unaided,
As in the days when his strength and daring dazzled
Men’s eyes. But those days are over and gone
And now our lord must lean on younger
Arms. And we must go to him, while angry
Flames burn at his flesh, help
Our glorious king! By almighty God,
I’d rather burn myself than see
Flames swirling around my lord.
And who are we to carry home
Our shields before we’ve slain his enemy
And ours, to run back to our homes with Beowulf
So hard-pressed here?


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