Going Gaga for the Saga: Seamus Heaney Translation Makes 'Beowulf' a Bestseller

Lo, comes the poet Heaney 

Who came to aid of Hrothgar, grandson of the son of Shield Sheafson the Dane

Known as Scyld Sce{ndash}fing in the olde English that no one understands 

And, 1,000 years after the tale first was told,

finds himself selling many volumes

In the bookshops and cyberstores of the new millennium

Hwaet 

A new translation of "Beowulf" by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is creeping up the book charts, and stunning those who think the American reading public is just a bunch of barely literate self-help diet and sex book-addicted fools.

The book was No. 3 on Amazon.com's fiction list this week, and is "hovering below list" on both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists, according to publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux. They've ordered a fifth printing, which means about 45,000 copies total, and spokesman Pete Miller proudly predicts a sixth.

True, this does not place "Beowulf" in the "Angela's Ashes" (more than 2 million sold) category, but for a really, really old story, this kind of business is surprising--especially considering that other fiction bestsellers like "Daughter of Fortune" and "Gap Creek" had the benefit of being picked for Oprah's Book Club. ("Beowulf" is the choice of the NPR Book Club for April, however, which sounds like a better match.) 

"It's flying off the shelves," crows Terri Merz, co-owner of Chapters Bookstore, Washington's self-proclaimed poetry headquarters.

"We're selling the hell out of that book!" echoes Carla Cohen of Politics and Prose.

There are a number of reasons for this run on the earliest-known poem in the English language. Heaney is enormously popular, and his translation--while not criticism-free--has been hailed as newly accessible in prominent reviews. "Tedious Torment Transformed by Savage Intensity," headlined a story in the London Independent, summing it up neatly. Originally commissioned in the mid-1980s by the editors of the powerful Norton Anthology of English Literature,Heaney has been letting out dribs and drabs of the work for years, whetting appetites with a section embedded in a poem in the New Yorker last year and half-hour excerpts at readings.

Also, the U.S. publication follows 50,000 books sold in Great Britain, where sales were fanned by a delightful controversy over the recently awarded Whitbread literary prize, an annual event of such significance that the winners are announced on prime-time television with Oscar-like suspense.

This year, "Beowulf" was pitted against "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," leading to what one newspaper called "outbreaks of pro-Heaney pompousity" by one of the Whitbread judges, Royal biographer Anthony Holden, who threatened to resign if the children's fantasy was chosen. Bookies picked "Harry Potter" by 2 to 1, and anxiety was heightened by the appointment of former model Jerry Hall to the panel of judges, she being known primarily as the ex-wife of Mick Jagger rather than for her appreciation of English literature.

But Heaney won by a single vote, and Hall threw herself on the white-haired poet for a congratulatory hug when the prize was announced. Heaney was also the favored choice of poetry fanatics, who were on a roll with previous Whitbread wins by the late Ted Hughes, who was reported to be Heaney's best friend and to whom "Beowulf" is dedicated.

It all made for a very cozy package, and some of the buzz crossed the pond.

"We have a large group of readers eager to read the classics," said Kerry Fried, senior editor of literature and fiction at Amazon.com and holder of two degrees in English from Oxford University. "One of the finer moments of my life was to see it coming in ahead of 'Bridget Jones' " on the best-selling list.

Fried also notes that the new Beowulf book has "a great jacket"--a weird picture of head-shaped chain mail--that surely helps attract buyers.

But why would anyone want to actually read this 3,182-line epic? Or the original old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon) that is printed opposite the text? 

For one thing, it is a stirring tale with many themes and battles. Beowulf, a Geat, comes to save the Danes from a man-eating monster, Grendel, whom he slays. Grendel's mother seeks revenge and there are more battles, and she is vanquished. After 50 years of peace, Beowulf takes on another foe, a dragon. Aging, deserted by all but one kinsman, he slays the beast but dies in the attempt, knowing his death will be the end of his people. It is a story about valor and courage even in the face of fading strength and daunting odds.

Countless English students have struggled with it for eons, either translating it themselves or using one of some 65 other versions. It was J.R.R. Tolkien (you thought "Lord of the Rings" came out of nowhere?) who prompted the modern revival of interest in Beowulf with a 1936 essay.

"He began to point out that you have to stop looking at the monsters and dragons as the stuff of fairy tales--they are no idle fantasies--but they are the heart of the things we fear, and the story is about meeting those fears," said Patrick Connor, the head of the English department at West Virginia University, who has taught Beowulf since 1976.

I had a fixed purpose when I put out to sea.

As I sat in the boat with my band of men, 

I meant to perform to the uttermost 

what your people wanted or perish in the attempt, 

in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose, 

prove myself with a proud deed 

or meet my death here in the mead-hall.

Connor has used the Heaney translation since it became part of the Norton anthology a year ago; before that there was a prose version by one E. Talbot Donaldson. "Students found it rather boring," Connor said.

As part of his research into medieval texts, Connor has actually seen the original "Beowulf," kept in the British library. He reports that "it's little, ugly and it's dirty." It is little (about 5 inches by 7 inches) because making parchment out of sheep was quite expensive; it is ugly because since it was not a religious text there are no pictures; and it is dirty because it was singed during a fire long ago.

The author of "Beowulf" is unknown, and the date he (or she) wrote down the saga from the oral original is a subject of much debate, ranging from the late 7th century to the end of the 10th. It was written in England about events in Scandinavia. But we digress.

"It's a very manly poem," suggests Daniel Tepfer, a floor manager at Politics and Prose and a poet who has read the new translation. "It appeals to the same people who remember 'Treasure Island' as their favorite children's book."

His colleague, Noah Bickart, attributes the enthusiasm simply to "Hype and Heaney," yet he adds, "It was fun to read."

Kelley Wickham-Crowley, an associate professor of English at Georgetown University who teaches Beowulf to undergraduates, finds that the story resonates with her students who have grown up with "Dungeons and Dragons," science fiction and Tolkien. They also have lively discussions about the ending of the story. "The hero dies. Should he have fought the dragon? Was he going out in a blaze of glory? Is it about overreaching yourself? Did he forget his responsibility as a king to his people? There's a lot to talk about."

Adult readers have other reasons for buying the new edition. "I don't believe we can understand what's going on in Europe today without having some notion of where everything was back in pre-history and the beginning of tradition," said Deena Flinchum, who works around the corner from Chapters at the AFL-CIO in the information technology department and bought the book Wednesday. She said she dropped out of Virginia Polytechnic Institute 33 years ago, but when she retires, "I want to get a degree in classics."

John Hockenbury, another happy customer, already has degrees in English, which he taught, and law, which he now practices. "I think it's about aggression and responses to aggression," he said. AHeaney fan, he also angled toward "Beowulf" through reading "Grendel," a 1971 novel by John Gardner that tells the story from the monster's point of view.

Some of the book's buyers are undoubtedly to be found among the small but energetic community of medievalists, academic and otherwise, who produce papers, journals, Web sites, chat rooms and so forth. A new "Electronic Beowulf" reproduces on two CD-ROMs the pages of the original manuscripts. At the other end of the technological spectrum, a man named Benjamin Bagby performs 90 minutes of the saga in the original Anglo Saxon, appearing at conferences and other venues around the country before enthusiastic crowds.

"It is truly spine-tingling," avows Wickham-Crowley.

'BEOWULF': A COMPARISON

The first lines of the epic poem "Beowulf":

Translation by Seamus Heaney: 

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by 

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, 

a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

This terror of the hall-troops had come far.

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on 

as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts 

beyond the whale-road had to yield to him 

and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Translation by Robin Katsuya-Corbet: 

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings 

of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, 

we have heard, and what honor the athelings won! 

Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes, 

from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore, 

awing the earls. Since erst he lay 

friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him: 

for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve, 

till before him the folk, both far and near, 

who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate, 

gave him gifts: a good king he!

 
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