Monday, June 7, 2010

No One Writes Epic Poetry Anymore

...at least not that I know of. I guess it's a genre that has outlived its time. I don't see any of the poets I've met (who are mostly interested in being poets, rather than writing poetry) taking up a pen and leaping into line after line of iambic pentameter.

But lately, I've been reading a bit - particularly a new translation of the legendary classic Beowulf by Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney. And guess what? It's awesome.

So much of the epic poetry we had to read in college was translated in Victorian times, or early in the 1900s, and it seems stilted and formal. I read Beowulf in high school (in the incomparable Kingdon Anderson's English Lit class) and, while I was (and am) enough of a fantasy geek to be interested in the subject matter, I found it difficult to read, and felt a bit lost, bereft of context and whatnot.

This particular translation by Seamus Heaney garnered a lot of great reviews - or so I noticed after picking it up at the bookstore, having been impressed by the minimalist design of the cover - and, after a few seconds flipping through it, I could see why.

Heaney has re-established the sense of rhythm and immediacy listeners must have felt in the old poem, which was part of the Baltic oral tradition and was meant to be heard aloud (never mind that it was later written down by some monk, giving it the distinction of being the oldest extant poem in English). I didn't feel like I was reading a boring old poem for an English class, I felt like I was reading a gritty, violent, fantastical adventure story.

I picked up the bi-lingual edition, which has Old English on each left-hand page, and Heaney's superb translation on the right-hand page. It was fun to try to match up modern words with the Old English words, which almost seem like a different language. Every now and then I recognized a word, but it seems clear that modern English bears very little resemblance to the English used by whatever mystery man finally wrote down (and Christianized) this legend.

Once you get the flow of the language, this is a fast read, and I'd recommend it to anyone who a) likes historical epics; b) likes words and likes seeing them cleverly and rhythmically composed, and c) anyone who likes a good fantasy story about guys fighting monsters.

What interested me most were details that resonated with other things I've read: at one point, Beowulf forces a thief who had stolen a treasure from a dragon to guide him across the wastelands to the hoard. This reminded me a lot of Frodo and Sam press-ganging Gollum into leading them through the land of Mordor to Mount Doom in Tolkien's work. Another bit described how the thief stole a goblet from the dragon's hoard in the first place, which reminded me of Bilbo tricking Smaug in the Hobbit. The kings in the story are constantly referred to as "ring-givers," which again seemed Tolkienesque. This isn't surprising, since Tolkien wrote an epochal paper on Beowulf early in his scholarly career that (from what I understand) changed people's opinions on the context of the story and reawakened scholarly interest in the tale.

So if you have any interest in this sort of thing, grab a copy of this and check it out! If you do, I recommend trying to imagine it in a thick Scottish brogue as you read it - it fits.

1 comment:

  1. The best part of struggling through learning Old English in college was reading Beowulf in its 'original' form.

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