By Seamus Heaney
Why this book?
A story about monsters, how to fight them and what it costs. Beowulf is so ferocious he can rip the claw of the demonic Grendel and plunge into the mere to face the monster’s horrifying mother. But the cares of kingship weigh heavily on his shoulders and his death by dragon-fire presages the collapse of his kingdom.
Written down circa 1000AD and hailing from even earlier, the English language’s first masterpiece is full of melancholy poetry, balancing the glamour of the mead-hall with the wistful memory of fallen warriors. I’ve heard it recited in the original Anglo-Saxon, and it’s a moving experience, a worm-hole down the ages, feathered with echoes of the language we use today. It’s a tale of monsters for sure (famously, it was a big influence on Tolkien), but it’s also a tale about diplomacy, kinship and honour, themes that recur throughout the history of epic storytelling.
Which version to read? Seamus Heaney’s translation is the most poetic, but to experience the thrill of the original, I’d recommend Professor R.M. Liuzza’s bilingual version, so you can enjoy the rich textures of the original alongside a modern translation.
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