Sunday, December 16, 2012

Beowolf translated by Seamus Heaney photos edited by John D. Niles

   For twelve years King Hrogarth and his Danish warriors have been terrorized by the monster Grendel who has invaded their hall and attacked and eaten many of the men.  A hero comes across the sea who kills the monster-and later the monster's mother.  His name is Beowolf and his epic saga has been read for the last thousand years in the original Old English as well as various translations. 

  I won’t go into the entire story but it is one that shows the reader a culture of heroism, early medieval life and the transition from pagan beliefs to Christianity in Scandinavia.  What’s especially interesting is that Beowolf was written in England at a time when that country was still recovering from the scourge of Viking invasions that had started a couple hundred years previously.  One wonders why someone from England would want to write a heroic saga about Scandinavians.  If you know the answer to that, please tell me in the comments box.

   The purpose of this review is to comment on the recent edition that has come out with Seamus Heaney’s translation.

   I had read the translation of Beowolf by J.R.R. Tolkien many years ago but frankly had a hard time understanding it.  I attribute that more to my youth than Tolkien’s translation.       Nevertheless, when I saw Heaney’s translation in the book store, I couldn’t resist buying a copy for myself.  It’s a beautiful book. 

     There are actually two editions.  One has the original old English on one page with Heaney’s translation on the other.  I can’t read old English so I didn’t need that version, although I’m sure it would be a great resource for English Literature students.

     The edition I bought has the poem on one page and a photo of Viking artifacts and Scandanavian scenery on the adjoining page.  The translation is beautifully rendered and easy to understand.  I read through the epic poem in a short amount of time.  What makes this book worth buying, however, is the photos. 

     This edition is a photo illustrated version of the saga.  Each photo depicts some part of the poem.  If the poem on the adjoining page is about the bogs of Norway, the accompanying photo is of a bog.  If the poem is talking about the boat, clothes, weapons or housing the Vikings used, the photo will illustrate that.  The pictures provided a wonderful visual companion to the poetry.

    Bottom line:  I found the poetry beautiful, the story as interesting as ever and the photos a great enhancement.  I would recommend this edition to anyone interested in this famous epic poem.

I bought this book.

Bilingual Edition:

Kindle Edition for $8.52:

Illustrated Edition:

For further links on Beowolf:


  1. Good job on the review and actually reading this epic poem, I don't think I could have done so.

    1. I think you could. The poetry flows pretty fluidly.

  2. Thanks for the review. I had read a different translation about ten years ago. I remember I had a "double edition" with Old English on one side. Though I do not read Old English either it was interesting to glance over and compare. I wonder how many people can read Old English these days.

    I had heard of this translation and have had my eyes on it.

    1. Brian: This is a beautiful book and I'm glad it's a part of my library.
      Regarding reading the Old English translation: my sister, in her Master's degree program for Eng. Lit had to read the entire thing in Old English.

  3. Sharon, I was reading this and though that this book is right up your alley.

    From Gabriel to Lucifer: A Cultural History of Angels by Valery Rees via @guardian

    1. Thanks, Zohar. I will look it up. (Just what I need; one more book to buy:)


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.