Composed towards the end of the first millennium, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is one of the great Northern epics and a classic of European literature. In his new translation, Seamus Heaney has produced a work which is both true, line by line, to the original poem, and an expression, in its language and music, of something fundamental to his own creative gift.
The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed, in that exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels between this story and the history of the twentieth century, nor can Heaney’s Beowulf fail to be read partly in the light of his Northern Irish upbringing. But it also transcends such considerations, telling us psychological and spiritual truths that are permanent and liberating.