A Parable of Power

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Actually, Beowulf was nude mostly, but this is a seventh century helmet.

hide captionActually, Beowulf was nude mostly, but this is a seventh century helmet.

Source:Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

English students all over owe Seamus Heaney a great debt — and if you are one, you can thank him on the show today. His 2000 translation of the epic poem Beowulf changed an oblique and sometimes frustrating literary artifact into a living, heaving adventure story. (The emphasis in the new film of the epic is much less on living than on heaving.) The 1995 Nobel Laureate filled his translation with suspense and alliteration and emotion, all while maintaining what Heaney calls "the attractively direct" style of the original poem. It's impossible to read without wanting to murmur the words out loud, partly because there are so many brilliantly quotable moments, and partly because it scans so beautifully. (What's better than one poet? Two.) Heaney and the Beowulf poet really understand power, though sadly, many of the lessons they teach are not as popular as the myriad lessons on the poem itself. The poem begins, "Behavior that's admired is the path to power among people everywhere." One certainly wishes it were so.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Fascinating subject. I'm particularly interested in the glimpse of the natural history of post glacial northern Europe as revealed indirectly in the story.

Sent by doug l | 3:52 PM | 11-19-2007

I always remember the concept of kennings, how the poet of beowulf extended the language by creating very descriptive new nouns for familiar things. Like calling blood, battle-sweat or death the sleep of the sword. There were valuable lessons to would-be modern poets left even back then.

Sent by John Tynan | 3:54 PM | 11-19-2007

Why does beowulf stand out among other stories? It is one of the top ten most read books of all time

Sent by jen | 3:57 PM | 11-19-2007

Jen, Have you read Beowulf? It is a magnificent story, timeless in so many ways, and told with such splendor by Mr. Heaney. If you read a different translation, you owe ot to yourself and the story to read Mr. Heaney's version.

Sent by Blaine | 9:28 AM | 11-22-2007

Support comes from: