Beowulf

Beowulf

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Beowulf

The poem Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, is largely based around the monstrousness of Grendel and his mother. It was a difficult task for Heaney to translate the poem into Modern English while maintaining the beauty of the language and capturing the horror of the monsters. He utilises devices such as structure, literary devices and characterisation to emphasise the fear apparent in the text. Though Heaney’s writing is effective, it is impossible to use the incidents in the poem that relate to events which took place centuries ago to instil fear into the story. Though many of the issues in Beowulf are no longer relevant, Heaney is still able to capture the monstrousness of Grendel and his mother.

The poem Beowulf was composed some time around the mid Seventh Century in Anglo-Saxon English. It is over three thousand lines long and stands as one of the foundation works of poetry in English. It is an imaginative work where the structuring is as important as the language. Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was labour intensive, slow work. He tried to pick a way through the syntax, get the run of the meaning establishes and then hope that the lines could be turned into metrical shape and raised to the power of verse. Seamus Heaney began his translation of Beowulf in the mid 1980s and it took him until 1999 to finish capturing the beauty of the poem in Modern English.

The structure of Beowulf is first involved in capturing the monstrousness of Grendel by stating his ancestry and background:
“Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts.” (Lines 102-107)

After Grendel’s first attack the poet allows a large amount of time to pass to give the reader a sense of despair and to emphasise the impact that Grendel had on Hrothgar’s people:
“For twelve winters, seasons of woe, the lord of the shieldings suffered under his load of sorrow; and so, before long, the news was known over the whole world.” (Lines 147- 150)

The poet builds up the monstrousness of Grendel’s attacks by recounting them so that the reader absorbs the force of the battle. He also repeats the pattern of Beowulf’s victory ie.

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A threat arises, the hero boasts, the conflict takes place, the hero is victorious and there is a celebration. The battle becomes harder for Beowulf each time. The enormous significance of Beowulf’s victory is continually restated so that the reader absorbs Grendel’s monstrosity.

Beowulf is a poem to be performed and therefore literary devices are very important. Alliteration is frequently used:
“…a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.” (Lines 5-6)

This builds excitement and accentuates action. Foreshadowing is used a number of times in Beowulf eg. The song of Sigmund (Lines 886- 914) suggests what Beowulf is to achieve later on. This, along with other language devices, adds to suspense. The poet mixes a use of ensanguined details to emphasise the monstrosity of Grendel and his mother while also exhibiting a lack of description of Grendel’s appearance to build fear, as Grendel is what the reader imagines him to be. Dramatic irony is another literary device used in Beowulf so that during battle scenes the reader knows who will win and is therefore more concerned with the horror of the fighting.

The characterisation in Beowulf adds to the monstrosity of the poem in many ways. He dehumanises the monsters by giving very few details of their appearance, he does, however, describe Grendel’s arm:
“Every nail, claw-scale and spur, every spike and welt on the hand of that heathen brute was like barbed steel. Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade that could cut his brutal, blood-caked claw.” (Lines 983- 989)

Grendel’s frightfulness is heightened by his gradual characterisation throughout the beginning of the poem. He is antagonised in the fact the he hates the sounds of joy and singing that come from Heorot Hall. He is likened to a king opposite Hrothgar to show how powerful he is. After Grendel is built up in his monstrosity, Grendel’s mother is introduced into Beowulf. Her hellishness is, in comparison to Grendel’s, far greater.
This can be seen in the fact that Beowulf was able to kill Grendel with his bare hands while he needed full armour to defeat Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s mother is described as a: “…monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs. She had been forced down into fearful waters, the cold depths, after Cain killed his father’s son, felled his own brother with a sword.” (Lines 1261- 65)

There are a number of aspects of fear apparent in Beowulf that an audience in the present generation wouldn’t understand. There are incidents in the poem that relate to events which took place around the time that the poem was written and so today’s audience wouldn’t understand them. For example, Grendel’s attacks took place at night and in Viking law an attack at night was considered murder.

Seamus Heaney was able to translate the poem, Beowulf, in such a way that the monstrousness of Grendel and his mother is still very evident. This was obviously not an easy task. He did it through his use of structure, language techniques and characterisation. The horror of the two antagonistic characters is continually built up throughout the poem until their death.
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