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Tom Chaney: The Exhausted Aftermath

Of Writers And Their Books: "The Exhausted Aftermath": The Last Enemy Vanquished. Seamus Heaney wrenches Beowulf free of ancient English and illuminates the original poet's ideas. This column first appeared 20 April 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The Dark Side of History

By Tom Chaney

"The Exhausted Aftermath": The Last Enemy Vanquished

My experience with the Old English epic Beowulf has been spotty.

Parts of the poem were always stuck in the British Literature anthologies -- from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf. Those summaries of the story were usually pretty dull. In its own ancient language it was, for me, unreadable. It was ever there beyond my immediate grasp with no incentive to stretch.

Other heroic epics from other epochs had been rendered into lively modern English. Well-tuned Homer is pretty hard for me to put down until far-traveling Ulysses returns to ever-weaving Penelope and lays waste to the wastrels who want her hand.

Even the Babylonian Gilgamesh fares better than Beowulf.

Until now, that is.

I have just finished reading Seamus Heaney's wonderful new translation.

Heaney, Irish poet and scholar, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.

While he knows the ancient tongue, he is not trying to teach it. Heaney has given new life to a rip roaring tale - gleefully yanking from dusky English classrooms: Grendel eating warriors, blood running down his chin - Beowulf ripping off Grendel's arm and hanging it in the rafters of the mead hall; then diving to the depths of the mere merely to get at Grendel's dear old mother after she steals the hall decoration; and finally slaying a dragon for dessert.

And that's about the plot of it.

Leave it to an Irish poet to wrench Beowulf free of the impossible tenth century English and to illuminate the original poet's ideas beneath the surface tale. Beowulf's poet is given a twenty-first century vitality hard to put down.

But it is not just a bloody tale.

Heaney's translation clarifies the subtler thrusts of the story.

Most vivid is the ennui which follows crisis. Grendel is killed. Mama is chased to the depths of the mere and neutralized.

And then what?

What is to become of the still vital warrior who has slain his last fierce enemy?

The poet Tennyson picks up the story of Ulysses years after his return to Penelope. The aging warrior turns over the farm to son Telemachus, bids Penelope farewell, and sails away in search of new conquests or death.

The allies vanquish the axis regimes in 1945 and go to squabbling among themselves.

Robert Penn Warren in Dragon Country postulates to what old night sweats, what joyless sex, and what dull ennui life might return once the dragon is removed.

And that is just what Beowulf must fight against.
"He suffered in the end
for having plagued his people for so long:
his life lost happiness.
So learn from this
and understand true values. I who tell you
have wintered into wisdom."
He is given a last chance at glory in his fight with the dragon and wins in a pretty equal contest.

The final battle won; he is dying from the dragon's fiery wounds. Beowulf commands a funeral pyre to consume his body and a barrow for his treasure.

As translator, Heaney works as a magnifying glass in the sun capturing the "indomitable vitality" of the poet; transforming it with his own "poised music." "In some way he is also celebrating the lineage of poets writing in English which springs from the Beowulf poet."

And here a millennium later we have a marvelous storyteller bringing life to an ancient one of his craft.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-04-21 01:50:00
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