Book Of A Lifetime: Beowulf
Friday 17 June 2011
So, in 1983, I was 12, and my parents took me to see an actor who had been in 'Star Wars', performing in York Theatre Royal. I felt a little self-conscious as the lights went down, a harpist plucked out a strange tune, and then a single man, in fur and cloak, appeared under a lone spotlight. "Hear," he said, "Listen!" So Julian Glover began his rendition of 'Beowulf'.
The tale describes a battle with three monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and finally, when Beowulf is an old man, a hoard-guarding dragon. I was rapt. The tale spoke to me of dark winters, and late summer evenings, alone and walking the dog between the black thickets, the dark wild landscape as terrifying as it had ever been. Glover's version conjured all the light and dark and humour of the poem. We could have been with Beowulf in the Danish hall, fighting the dragon, or sitting close by as he breathed his last. At the intermission, stout ladies walked down the aisles to sell ice cream but I bought a cassette of the performance, and for years after, listened to that tape and soaked it deep.
I was lucky to come to it, not as a book, or a passage in 'Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer', but as a story recounted to an audience. The story as it had been meant to be received: in a hall or round a fireside. And I did not stray from Glover's version (which combined versions by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan) until Seamus Heaney's 'Beowulf', which riffed on the Old English, re-shaped it, and delighted me with its differences.
So where I knew "A foam-throated seafarer on the ocean's swell", Heaney had "A lapped prow loping over currents", which brought to mind packs of longships hunting along the coastline. Where Glover described how God "loaded the acres of the world with jewelwork/Of branch and leaf, bringing then to life/ Each kind of creature that moves and breathes", Heaney had "[He] filled the broad lap of the world/with branches and leaves, and quickened life/ in every other thing that moved."
Each translator resurrects the Old English into modern and this keeps this ancient poem fresh and fascinating. Now, at last, I'm coming to 'Beowulf' in the original Old English, and it continues to surprise and delight as I rephrase it into my English.
But ultimately the magic of any much-loved piece of literature lies perhaps in the moment we first discovered it. 'Beowulf' seemed immediate and relevant to the 12-year-old me in a way that much else I had read did not. When Beowulf lay sleepless in Heorot, I understood the fear of the dark. When he battled Grendel's mother, I felt the terror when his sword broke on the giantess's skull. When he set out to face the dragon, old and weary and certain of his own death, I understood his mood as he tried to cheer his followers. And when he dies, Beowulf has much to both regret and be content for, but most importantly he is well-remembered among his people. The best immortality I think, or – as the old poets said – is it that when all else fails, "Word alone endures"? A fitting message, perhaps, from one writer to another.
Justin Hill's novel 'Shieldwall' is published by Little, Brown
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling