When Harry Met Grendel

Beowulf: From dreaded high-school assignment to smash hit.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, just out in paperback, has become one of poetry’s rare success stories, selling 200,000 copies in hardcover in the United States and reaching its 18th printing. Its success is all the more unlikely because Heaney’s translation project of the 1,300-year-old epic began humbly as an academic, and acoustic, experiment.

Heaney—whose early poems of rural Ulster childhood took their flinty sound from Ted Hughes—was first led to the epic by his ear. After decades of listening to mellower tones—including “the untethered music of some contemporary American poetry,” as he writes in the introduction—Heaney found himself wanting to hear that hard sound again. He came to his translation of Beowulf, he writes, as “a way of ensuring that my linguistic anchor would stay lodged on the Anglo-Saxon sea floor.” “It was also sort of a day job. I approached it in the spirit of somebody training, you know? Getting back into shape,” he told me in a recent interview. The translation was such an arduous task that after translating 100 lines, he put the job aside for a decade. An editor finally goaded him into getting back to it. “Nevertheless, as I worked on it, it grew powerfully on me. I actually love the poem, in a kind of unshakeable way, toward the end.”

Beowulf, its author long lost, is the eighth-century tale of a Scandinavian prince who slays a fearsome dragon that’s been terrorizing a Danish kingdom. Those who pick the book up will find that it lacks the mellifluousness of most poetry but makes up for it with vigorous storytelling and a truly strange tone. Here’s what makes it so weird: Beowulf is set amid a mead-swilling pagan culture headed by its warrior caste and defined by an ironclad sense of honor. But the tale’s narrator was a Christian, and the church was spreading across Northern Europe as it was written. So lodged in among the sea voyages and invincible armor are moralistic epigrams like: “Behaviour that’s admired / is the path to power among people everywhere.” Grendel, the man-eating monster—who seems to spring right out of the Germanic imagination that brought us the Brothers Grimm and, later, The Lord of the Rings—is instead, we’re told, a descendant of Cain. (In case we’re wondering who to side with, the narrator assures us that Cain was a really bad guy, and “out of the curse of his exile there sprang / ogres and elves and evil phantoms …”)

Generations of high-school and college students have dreaded reading the poem nearly as much as the Danes feared the monster’s approach. (The generations of animus against Beowulf make you wonder just how bad previous translations must have been.) How else to explain the thundering success of Heaney’s version? Some have linked the success of the book to perpetually high-selling warhorse heroic texts like The Aeneid, even to the film Gladiator—explaining that these old-school pleasures satisfy nostalgia for a heroism that’s hard to find in a current literary scene dominated by ennui and irony. It helps that, like The Aeneid (a work it resembles in its deep sadness and its status as a culture’s founding literary work), Beowulf is a kind of boy’s adventure story writ large. It’s got bloody battles, carnivorous monsters, and swords with flashy names. It’s no surprise that J.R.R. Tolkien was drawn to the tale—and even turned the tide of Beowulf criticism with a 1936 essay that took the tale seriously. Heaney has his own theory: He thinks it was a combination of dumb luck and a children’s book. “It was in the media, because of Harry Potter, as much as anything,” he laughs. “What I liked about it was that my name wasn’t mentioned that much, nor was J.K. Rowling’s name mentioned; they talked about these two fictional creations, Harry Potter and Beowulf. And there’s a tower of strength feeling about the name ‘Beowulf.’ ” Well, perhaps, at least for people who don’t remember Woody Allen’s advice to avoid any English class where they make you read it.