Beowulf remains one of the archetypal texts of the medieval heroic age. We push to one side, perhaps, the constant problem of dating the world it depicts and instead embrace its depiction of the storied warrior world. All the hallmarks are there: warriors coming in from the sea and being met by a mounted guard; the wisdom (and impotence) of an aging king; a vicious monster (or three); the glamour cast upon the eponymous hero, and on all his singularly special armaments. The landscape is archetypal as well: from craggy coastlines to the splendour of the mead-hall, the abandoned, ancient tombs where dragons dwell and hoards are kept, and those darker, deeper, demonic meres.
It is no surprise that Seamus Heaney's introduction to his translation focuses on Tolkien's pivotal 1936 article on the way that Beowulf was approached as a work of literature, arguing for the treatment of the poem as an imaginative construction of a unified world, giving life to a fantastical age in poetic detail. Certainly Heorot, 'a sheer keep of fortified gold', may have inspired Tolkien's Edoras, and there are parallels between the heroic standards present in Beowulf indicated above and the typology of a thousand fantasy epics since Lord of the Rings [End Page 214]
The poem's appeal therefore straddles the medieval and the medievalist – it is a good place to start to trace Germanic cultural narratives, the beliefs and systems that developed into Anglo-Saxon identity, and the tropes that medievalism and medieval fantasy especially have inherited since then. Heaney's introduction to the epic displays a fine understanding of the place of Beowulf in the academic context, and also demonstrates his own concerns as poet and critic in wrangling with the language.
His translation – which the commentary by John Niles calls 'extravagant' – is on the face of it, anything but. Heaney's words are solid, recalling lost glories with an archaic air that is far more wistful than pretentious. It reads less like extravagant and more like down to earth. Niles also takes exception, when preparing the accompanying illustrations, to some of Heaney's liberties with the text and informs the reader of a direct translation. As fine as the concept of an illustrated edition is, and as superb as its execution is, it might have worked better if the illustrations and accompanying commentary were provided by an academic who did not feel the need to pick at the translation here and there.
The narrative of Beowulf itself is not known in the same way as such classics as The Iliad or The Odyssey, but the stew of medieval and heroic trappings that modern viewers have taken in for the past few decades has probably rendered it predictable. What reading Heaney's translation reminds the reader is that beyond the obvious basics – hero kills monster, becomes king, dies in combat – the world of Beowulf is blessed with a narrative and thematic complexity that belies any labelling of the 'Dark Ages'.
As the accompanying notes to this translation state, the world of Beowulf would have been a pagan one, but poetic interpolations have muddied the waters: the Danes make sacrifices to heathen gods one minute, then thank God for sending them Beowulf and salvation the next. And for all the many references to God's divine plan, there is no mention of Christ – a puzzling omission. Sadly the text is largely devoid of academic or deep critical commentary. Apart from the Tolkien reference, there is only a very basic overview of academic responses to Beowulf. A deeper introduction or a review of the literature would have proved enormously helpful for any reader hoping to take their understanding to a higher level.
The illustrations and accompanying essay and commentary, however, justly provide the reader with a luminous sense of the artefacts, landscapes and scenes that made up the world of those living in Beowulf's time, and those [End Page 215] making sense of it several hundred years later when the...