by cheri block
Until Seamus Heaney, Irish poet (and Nobel Prize winner) rendered his lyrical translation of Beowulf, I must admit that this Nordic epic story—the first English poem–sent me to the refrigerator, looking for a snack. On my second read, I found myself craving kippered herring and mead (Ur, I mean beer) as I romped along with the Geats and the Danes, following the travails of their hero Beowulf.
Let me summarize the story for those of you who haven’t read it.
Beowulf, a Geat from what is now Southern Sweden, comes across the sea to aid King Hrothgar, the Danish king whose kingdom the monster Grendel is terrorizing each night in the King’s mead-hall, Heorot. Beowulf not only kills the monster by ripping its shoulder and arm off, but also slays Grendel’s mother the next day in a watery undersea battle. Fifty years later, King Beowulf again confronts and kills another monster—this time a dragon. But in that fight, Beowulf dies.
I have ideas about the meanings of these battles, but more about those on another day.
More than the story itself, I loved the language, the kennings, figures of speech used by early Icelandic, Germanic, and Nordic storytellers and poets to name nouns by replacing them with other nouns, usually compound and always clever and creative.
Beowulf the poem abounds with kennings. For example, the sun becomes a sky-candle. King Hrothgar’s throne becomes a mead-bench. The sea is a sail-road. Mr. Heaney translates the West Saxon Old English into an earthy retelling. I suspect his Irish thirst to maintain the poem’s integrity mixed with his linguistic brilliance helped him to render this gem of a translation.
My soul-quake and realm-tickle help me to unlock the messages in Beowulf.
And I am also making up my own kennings, for fun, of course.
Can you figure out what the two above mean?