The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.
Since I’d listened to The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, I figured I should go ahead and do Beowulf as well. I’d read part of Beowulf in high school (though I hardly remembered it) and hadn’t really realized there was more. As with the other two epics, I chose to listen to Beowulf; I love hearing these ancient texts read aloud, and this was no exception. I chose Seamus Heaney’s translation because of how lovely I’d found his The Burial at Thebes, his version of Sophocles’ Antigone. Heaney himself was the reader, which was a treat.
Set in Scandinavia and composed by an anonymous poet between the 8th and 11th centuries, Beowulf tells of a great hero of the same name and is considered to be one of the great works of Anglo-Saxon literature. The epic opens with the lineage of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, and then focuses on a point during Hrothgar’s rule when his mead hall is being repeatedly attacked by a monster named Grendel. Hearing of the Danes’ woes, an exceptionally strong hero of the Geats named Beowulf sails to Hrothgar’s aid. The story that follows encompasses Beowulf’s three major battles, two in service to Hrothgar and the last back in his homeland.
One thing that stood out to me about Beowulf is the way it’s structured. It opens with Hrothgar’s story and problems; I assumed Beowulf would come from amongst the Danes to save the day. I did not expect him to come sailing across the sea out of nowhere. And once he did so, and had fought his battles, I figured the story would be over, seeing as Beowulf was no longer needed in Hrothgar’s kingdom. Instead, the epic followed Beowulf back to his homeland and traced the rest of his life. I liked this structure. It was like having a stage set, having a great and unknown hero suddenly stride across it, and then getting a look at the man behind the heroic deeds.
Of the three epics listed above, Beowulf was my second favorite. The Epic of Gilgamesh would be hard to beat out as my favorite, and though I certainly enjoyed it, The Odyssey is perhaps too long and too familiar to climb higher on the list. Beowulf is not as old as some of the other famous epics, yet I found Beowulf shared certain characteristics with the others; all are episodic stories of great heroes facing monsters. Beowulf and The Odyssey shared more: the emphasis on storytelling within the stories, for instance, and the recounting of lineages and personal histories.
Yet despite their similarities, it amazes me how different the flavors of the three epics are. I’m having a hard time putting their particular characteristics into words. Each evoked for me a very different world and culture, both within the stories themselves and of the society that produced them.
Heaney’s translation was, as I anticipated, quite wonderful. I loved hearing him read his own words. He read slowly, but I never felt bored or tempted to increase the playback speed. My one complaint–and it’s certainly not against Heaney–was that I couldn’t figure out if the recording I had was abridged or not. Most sources said yes, it was, but the recording was the same length as another translator’s unabridged reading I came across. Either way, I ended up feeling like I’d heard the whole story, and I’m happy I chose Heaney’s translation and reading over the alternative.
On the whole, I’m quite surprised by how much I’m enjoying all these old stories. Do you happen to have any favorites you’d like to recommend?