I had a hipster Freshman English teacher. He wore his hair long and his jeans were faded. He played ZZ Top and the Doobie Brothers (yes, yes, stop snickering—I am that old) in his classroom during lunch and invited students in to “rap.” He was fun, cool and he didn’t like teaching literature. He preferred teaching films. It’s thanks to him that I can deconstruct a Hitchcock film without batting an eye, not that I’d want to because we spent so much time on Hitchcock films I now can’t stand them. He also killed any love I might have had for any Shakespeare that had been turned into a film, with the exception of West Side Story, which he showed but never asked us to dissect. He did what he was required of him with literature—he dragged us through Silas Marner and we actually read Romeo and Juliet out loud, stopping every few lines for the “what is the writer saying here?” conversation. He balked at Beowulf. He told us he hated it and since he had a choice we would skip it in favor of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. To this day I am grateful because in no way possible would I have ever liked the Keyes book so dissecting it to death didn’t matter. However, I love Beowulf and that love might not have survived six weeks of Freshman English.
When I was a new librarian I was invited to visit a seventh grade classroom in order to convince the students that reading could be fun. It was grim work and in desperation I turned to my unpolished, condensed storytelling version of Beowulf. What had been a painful half hour of trying to be heard over a roomful of wildly bored adolescents turned into dead quiet by time I got to the part where our hero rips Grendel’s arm from his body. By the time Grendel’s mama came to call they were putty in my storytelling hands and begging for the book. That, my friends, is the power of Beowulf. Sadly, I didn’t have a gripping but resonant translation for them, but these days we are rich in various versions. Michael Crichton did a wonderful job in his retelling, Eaters of the Dead, Gareth Hinds presented it as a graphic novel adaptation and John Gardner gave us the monster’s version in Grendel. Of course there are also movies: The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas was made from Eater’s of the Dead (sadly, now out of print and all DCPL copies are gone) and in 2007 we saw the latest Beowulf movie, this one starring Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie. All of these are fine versions, but if you want to truly fall under the spell of this mythic hero you need the result of 15 years of work in the hands of a master poet. You need Seamus Heaney’s translation. It is accessible, riveting and uses the power behind the cadences of Old English poetry to break the reader’s heart. His translation will be the ultimate translation for a long, long time.