Book Review: Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney

Just a quick review today for a very quick read.  I’m ashamed to say this is the first time I’ve ever read Beowulf, Vikings fanatic that I am.  I am happy to say, I was not disappointed.

Beowulf Seamus Heaney

Rating:  ★★★★

Book description: This is the story of a famous Swede named Beowulf and his many amazing feats of heroism.

I read the Heaney translation because I see it recommended everywhere, and also because I have heard that it was the most accessible.  I have too much on my plate right now to spend a lot of time agonizing over the meaning of words, so I went with Heaney.  Sometime in the future I do think I’d like to check out the Tolkien translation and see how that pans out.

I am happy to report, it’s as readable as everyone says.  I didn’t have to puzzle much over words.  There were a few sections I had to re-read, just to be certain I had the gist of it, but nothing too time consuming.  It never hindered my enjoyment of the book.

The first thing I noticed was the presence of a very Christian God.  I don’t know why I didn’t expect this.  The likelihood that this was translated by a priest somewhere in time is very high, and even if it wasn’t a priest it still would have been someone of the Christian faith seeing as how the Norse didn’t have a system of written language outside of runes.  Though I’m certain some of them may eventually have learned, they likely would have been Christian too by then.

Yet the text still maintains many of it’s original Norse mythologies.  We see some references of giants and elves and omens.  It was a painful reminder about how many histories have been over or rewritten throughout time.  That’s just my guess though.   The Norse people did convert in the end so I suppose it’s equally as possible that the story was retold by one of their own.

I don’t know if one of my favorite authors or series was ever influenced by Beowulf, even if it was just the language, but my heart overflowed with joy to hear talk of the sword-Danes, spear-Danes and shield-Danes, along with gold givers and ring givers.  I was taken aback by just how much Beowulf probably has influenced in all the years to come.  I would very much like to re-read The Lord of the Rings and see what new meaning I can take away from it.

There are a lot of things about the text that are wholly unbelievable.  Early on, Beowulf claims to have swam in the water for five days straight while wearing mail and swords.  I just don’t believe this is possible for even the most in shape dude on the planet.  I think you’d have to be Superman or something.  So even though it was kind of silly, I still appreciated it as a way of having pride in one’s culture.

**WARNING: Here there be spoilers.***

I only deducted a star because the ending felt very disjointed to me.  Perhaps I misunderstood, but it seemed like we flashed forward to what life would be like without Beowulf and then flashed back to Beowulf lying dead on the beach.  Being that it’s in verse, the only real transition we get is one of Heanus’s “chapter” headings.  So it was very jarring.  In a novel, I think it would have been fine if these had been projected as a vision or something from Beowulf’s own mind.

***End Spoilers***

This is a must read for fantasy fans and history lovers alike.  It’s about the length of a novella/novelette so it can be read in just a day and is worth the time investment.

Next week I’ll be reading The Mere Wife, a modern suburban retelling of Beowulf and I can’t wait to start!

Beowulf can be purchased on Amazon here and found on GoodReads here.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney

    • Thanks Lydia! I know I didn’t talk much about the book itself, I just figure so many people have read it already.

      And I wish we knew more about it too. Some epic poems were based on real people, a lot like the ones in this story, but I don’t know if all the exaggeration is typical for such tales.

      Liked by 1 person

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