Beowulf, Kevin Crossley-Holland, illus. by Charles Keeping (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 (1982))
Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (London: Faber & Faber, 2000 (1999))
Dragon Slayer: The Story of Beowulf, Rosemary Sutcliff, illus. by Charles Keeping (London: Puffin Books, 1966 (1968))
‘I’ll fuel you,’ he said, ‘with a true story, and one close to my heart. This story of past and present and future.’ ‘True?’ called out a young man, the king’s nephew, Beowulf by name. ‘How can it be true if it’s in the future?’ ‘Because it is not finished,’ said Wanderer. ‘You must finish it.’ (Crossley-Holland, p. 3)
And now this is ‘an inheritance’ – / Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked / In the long ago, yet willable forward / Again and again and again. (Seamus Heaney, Introduction, p. ix)
If you take Beowulf’s battles, first against Grendel and his hideous mother, then against the dragon half a century later, as emblematic of a neverending struggle between good and evil, then we are reading a story we must finish. Grendel is the loping bolus sum of all our fears and nightmares, the prowling menace, the attack down a dark alley, the knock of the secret police on the door at midnight, gorging hatred unchained. The story is an inheritance, yes, but it is also ‘willable forward’, and it is for each generation to finish it as best it can.
‘Brave words,’ said the coastguard. ‘But every wise man knows that a wide ocean divides words from deeds.’ (Crossley-Holland, p. 9)
Beowulf bridges that wide divide with his bravery. He offers to rescue the Danes from the fiendish, hellish thrall of Grendel. I recently revisited this poem which has perhaps been a singular memory transmitter of Britain’s Scandinavian origins. And an unsung miracle of the durability of fragile materials – written between the 7th and 10th centuries, according to Heaney’s introduction it ‘exists in one manuscript only’ which was almost destroyed in an 18th century fire (p. x).
The first version I read as a child, Dragon Slayer, was a Puffin paperback by Rosemary Sutcliff with a vivid front cover illustration by Charles Keeping in a style that only appeared in the 1970s and which still transports me to my first decade of reading. It caught my eye on our bookshelves and I can remember the room where I took it down to read.
Then it sank into the geology of reading until I met Kevin Crossley-Holland who gives us a beautifully wrought short translation, with flowing text complemented by Charles Keeping’s throat-clutching black-sketchy depictions of the limb-tearing man-eating monster.
I decided to read it alongside Seamus Heaney’s translation – they work wonderfully well together, so this review has nothing to do with recommending one over the other, though this version of Crossley-Holland’s is more suited to children. I should mention that Crossley-Holland has a full-scale translation of Beowulf in the Oxford World’s Classics series, Beowulf: The Fight at Finnsburh, which I will review in future since, as a tutor at university put it, ‘I always read books I review’.
‘Men will send gifts over the seas where gannets swoop and rise.’ (Crossley-Holland, p. 37)
In re-reading Beowulf I enjoyed echoes of the Odyssey: the ringing heroic tone, sea-braving mariners, gift-giving hospitality among rulers, and the role of queens in providing a regal, gracious, civilized aspect to an often violently male world, and a blessing to the hero in his chivalrous quest:
Wealhtheow came in,
Hrothgar’s queen, observing the courtesies.
Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted
the men in hall, then handed the cup
first to Hrothgar, their homeland’s guardian,
urging him to drink deep and enjoy it
because he was dear to them. And he drank it down
like the warlord he was, with festive cheer.
So the Helming woman went on her rounds,
queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,
offering the goblet to all ranks (Heaney, p. 21)
Heaney’s introduction is simply voiced, itself rich with metaphor and triologism, and giving fresh angles to a familiar story: Beowulf as ‘three agons in the hero’s life’ or a poem which ‘contemplates the destinies of three peoples’ as their stories interweave through one man; the Danes, ‘in the full summer of their power’ (Bright-Danes, they are also called); the Geats to whom Beowulf belongs; and the Swedes, as a distant menacing people that ‘constantly stalk the horizon of dread’ (xiv-xv).
Beowulf is an old story, Beowulf is a story of today, which makes sense if you allow that:
‘True heroes defeat place and time.’ (Crossley-Holland, front cover)
May the Beowulfs of our world keep us safe from Grendel, whom Heaney describes unforgettably as ‘a kind of dog-breath in the dark, a fear of collision with some hard-boned and immensely strong android frame, a mixture of Caliban and hoplite’ (p. xviii).
Remind you of any futuristic dystopian Hollywood movies?
Note 1: Heaney’s introduction praises Tolkien’s ‘epoch-making paper’, a lecture delivered in 1936 entitled ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’. I found several versions online and liked one covered in the handwritten notes of a previous reader.
Note 2: Heaney’s version has a design element which seems to have vanished from book printing – the marginal glosses you used to see in tomes on the History of Rome or Greece. They help locate you in the story and are unobstrusive: let’s launch a campaign to reinstate them.