There Be Dragons

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Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf," Woody Allen advised Diane Keaton in the film Annie Hall (1977). The throwaway line drew laughs from Allen's core audience of university grads, especially the one-time English majors among them who had learned to dread-if not actually read-what they had heard was a grim Anglo-Saxon epic filled with odd names and a lot of gory hewing and hacking.

The joke, it turns out, was on the chucklers. In January, a British panel chose Beowulf for the Whitbread Award as the best book of 1999, with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban running a close second. But these judges, of course, did not suddenly come to their senses about the merits of a manuscript composed sometime late in the first millennium. They gave their prize-and an instant spot at the top of British best-seller lists-to a new verse translation of Beowulf by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Heaney's Beowulf (Faber and Faber; 106 pages) has now been published in the U.S. and elsewhere, giving readers the chance to take the measure of this Harry Potter slayer, the deadest white European male in the politically incorrect literary canon. Judging by the electronic-sales ratings updated constantly by, Beowulf is going boffo on the other side of the Atlantic as well.

Credit for this surge of interest should rest squarely on the marvelous language that Heaney has found to set this old warhorse of a saga running again. All translations, especially of poetry, involve constant compromises between sense and sound, between the literal meanings of the original words and the unique music to which they were set. The Anglo-Saxon idiom of Beowulf sounds particularly alien to modern ears: four stresses per line, separated in the middle by a strong pause, or caesura, with the third stress in each line alliterating with one or both of the first two. Heaney follows these rules to the letter in such lines as "No one could miss their murderous feuding" or "The shepherd of people was sheared of his life." But he also regularly works supple variations on this pattern, letting the Anglo-Saxon rhythms echo as an undercurrent in lines that would seem, in another context, almost prosaic: "She turned then to the bench where her boys sat."

Much that seemed off-putting about Beowulf to modern readers becomes, in Heaney's retelling, eerily intriguing instead. Yes, the Scandinavian hero kills three monsters: a scaly maneater called Grendel (Beowulf rips off the creature's right arm at the shoulder); Grendel's aggrieved mother; and, 50 years later, a fire-breathing dragon that mortally wounds Beowulf before expiring. But these bloody deeds actually occupy fairly few of the epic's 3,156 lines. The Beowulf poet, who is recounting legends that were passed down orally from several centuries earlier, is interested less in violence, which appears to be inescapable in the world he portrays, than in the workings of fate (wyrd) in human lives.

The extent to which this poet or bard can be called a Christian has prompted much scholarly disagreement. He alludes to the Old Testament and expresses a monotheistic religious faith: "Almighty God rules over mankind/ and always has." But the characters in the poem behave according to a moral code in which loving one's enemies and hoping to be redeemed in heaven figure not at all. As Beowulf prepares to fight his second monster, he announces his credo: "It is always better/ to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning./ For every one of us, living in this world/ means waiting for our end. Let whoever can/ win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,/ that will be his best and only bulwark."

Beowulf may, by modern standards, seem bloodthirsty and deluded, but Heaney's poetry makes eloquently persuasive the hero's tragic stature. And when he dies, his people mourn not just in sorrow but in fear of the enemies who will surely descend on them now.

In his preface, Heaney acknowledges the irony of a Celtic poet's attempting to revivify an Anglo-Saxon poem. When younger, he notes, "I tended to conceive of English and Irish as adversarial tongues, as either/or conditions rather than both/ ands." But this notion faded the deeper he got into his translation. Digging, delving into the loam of language, has been a central metaphor throughout his poetic career. (A recent selection was titled Opened Ground.) What Heaney has brought to the surface with his Beowulf is an old and newly burnished treasure.