This old dragon still breathes fire

BEOWULF By Seamus Heaney Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 213 pp., $25

Speaking from the 6th century across 1,400 years of tempestuous history, what does Beowulf, the high-minded king of the Geats, have to teach us as we strive to outmaster the Grendels and dragons of our own place and time?

But first, another question that springs from my admiration for the Beowulf saga as a work of art: How did he do it? How did Seamus Heaney fashion verses, singularly handsome verses that not only capture the somber grandeur and mythic vigor of the Anglo-Saxon original, but also reflect the rhythm and timbre of the English we speak today?

The answer to this question you must find for yourself by reading the epic, which I urge you to do. Fashioned by an Irish poet of surpassing power, this newborn translation makes accessible to everyone the first supremely great poem to be written in the English language.

Beowulf was composed about the year 700. Because of linguistic fossils embedded in the West Saxon dialect of the manuscript in which the epic has come down to us, we conjecture that its unknown author lived not in the kingdom of the Saxons but in Northumbria.

By the 8th century, this part of England had become one of the most illustrious centers of learning in Europe. Its fame was founded upon the labors of the Venerable Bede and other scholars attached to the twin monasteries of Jarrow and Wearmouth.

Three of the languages that nourished civilization in the antique Mediterranean world - Greek, Latin, and Hebrew - were the battle flags of Bede's educational crusade in Northumbria.

So it is not a complete surprise to discover that the author of this epic had read Virgil's Aeneid. The echoes are too numerous to be accidental. Thus, although the classical world lay in ruins, its glory could still be felt in Northern Europe where a new civilization was rippling its muscles, a civilization facing the Atlantic.

Just as the epics of Homer and Virgil dramatized the values of the classical way of life, so in Beowulf we see enacted the aspirations of the primitive Germanic culture that the poem celebrates, a warrior society governed by deep and sacred loyalties to kin and king.

A hero for all seasons - back for another battle

But like other epics, Beowulf embodies a theme that transcends ethnic and geographical boundaries. The monsters that the hero defeats are emblems of immemorial evil. Grendel and his dam are incarnations of moral depravity, while the dragon is a symbol of the suffering inflicted on humankind by nature.

In his clash with the fire-drake, Beowulf lays down his life, thereby blessing with fresh energy the ideal of courage for which he dies. The truth made manifest in his life and death - defiant opposition to whatever would bind with chains the driving spirit of man - is also mirrored in the epic adventures of Aeneas. To despise evil and defy oppression, this is what the Geatish chieftain has to teach us.

In the poem's final scene, the fallen hero-king is placed upon a pyre and given over to the flames amid the lamentations of his people. They erect over his ashes a royal barrow in which they hide the dragon's treasure. Twelve warriors circle the mound on stalwart steeds, praising the virtues of their slain leader.

If I could, I would honor Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate, with a golden goblet from the trove buried in Beowulf's barrow. Were he here to see this, the miserly dragon would be furious, but Beowulf, the most mettlesome, the most bountiful of kings, would be glad.

* Colin Campbell teaches English at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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