The Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf has a cool cover. A chainmail hood. This Beowulf has no face. Maybe that’s why I snapped up the book shortly after it came out in hard cover in 2000. I was working at a Barnes and Noble, having returned from a two year post-collegiate adventure in Germany, and was feeling massively depressed about living with my mother.
Faceless, I probably thought. I got that. I put the book on my bookshelf and promptly neglected to read it.
I read, and write, about the same things, over and over, and though Beowulf has become one of those things, I came slowly to the poem itself. At some point, I read a pretty listless prose translation—maybe I thought the Heaney translation, which I owned by this time, would be difficult to comprehend? I was preparing for some sort of literature subject test, and feeling panicked about closing the massive gaps in my knowledge. I was reading a lot of canonical stuff, and quickly, and the Beowulf prose translation, for its part, was boring me to tears. Around the same time, I read the Cliff Notes for the poem, and was bored by them as well. From the Cliff Notes, I learned the usual basic stuff. The poem can be divided neatly into three parts, blah blah blah. The poem was written by an anonymous Christian poet about a pagan society, blah blah blah. Stuff like that.
Meanwhile, I had no real life. No real face. I did not understand how to come back from the unusual, how to reinsert myself into the humdrum of everyday life.
Years passed, as they do. I ended up living halfway across the country in Oakland, California, in a cheap rented room, after two failed relationships and lots of insanity. I was on a number of meds, and I honestly cannot say they were helping all that much.
Again, I was working at a bookstore. On one particular year, the high strung, whirlwind retail Christmas season came upon me, and I thus found myself alone on the day itself. With only the one day off, it was impossible to travel back to Illinois to see family. Quite honestly, I was okay with that.
I like being alone. I made coffee. I curled up in bed, under my knitted afghans, with my cat at my side. He’s a very trusty sidekick.
That morning, I started reading Beowulf, the Heaney version, with the chainmail hood cover shining dull, cool silver against a plain, black, depthless background.
So. That’s how the Heaney’s version starts. I was sold. Somehow, along the way, I must have picked up that hwæt, the first word of the poem, is often translated as lo, and that harkening never worked for me. Lo is intricate, and ornate. Very lofty, at least to my ear. So, on the other hand, spills over with flesh, and blood, and bone. So is living and breathing.
So is how people actually talk.
So. A talking, faceless man, written down into posterity by an unknown poet. (I decided this conundrum was part of the epic.)
For a long time, I had no face, or, I did, but I didn’t like that face, at all, so facelessness appealed to me. Like I said, the meds weren’t really helping. I was battling a lot of my own monsters, and I was losing those battles, in spectacular, often highly-destructive ways.
With that one word, I embarked on a journey to find a new face, although I didn’t know, at the time, that this was what I was doing. I didn’t know that my engagement with what is essentially the ur-epic of English literature was going to become, among other things, kind of therapeutic. (More on this at some future date.)
More years pass, many of them. I’ve slain some monsters along the way. By this point, I’ve reached a certain level of geekiness when it comes to this poem. I now collect translations, versions, graphic novels, and movie adaptations. I’ll unpack my various reactions to some of these in future blog posts.
What I also know is that I am not the only person who feels drawn to Beowulf. The April 2017 online issue of The Atlantic features an article entitled “Beowulf Is Back!” The subtitle, however, does a better job of describing the actual content of the article. “What’s behind the running pop-culture engagement with the epic poem?” the subtitle asks, which, I think, belies the title. The truth is, Beowulf has not come back from anywhere. No. The truth is, Beowulf never left.