When I heard the late Seamus Heaney’s reading of his 2000 translation of Beowulf on CDs, I was so struck by the golden language and Heaney’s glorious lilt I’ve recommended it to folks ever since. If you’ve never heard it, don’t miss it. Appreciative as I was of the original Beowulf’s heraldic detail (many sub-stories of kings and feuds, which go on and on like begats in the Bible), I wondered whether I might be able to create a bardic version of it, as I’ve done with other epics, that simplified the language and content enough to make the old story itself more accessible, while cleaving faithfully to its soul.
So a few years ago I set about to create characters and music for it, performed it at the University of New Hampshire once, and a couple of other times since, watching it and its musical score grow in my imagination. I purposefully left out the long-winded heraldic speeches, since unless you’re a medieval scholar they won’t mean much, and instead focused on a few characters. Hrothgar, the old king of the Danes. Grendel, the beast that haunts his mead hall for 12 years, killing men every night. Beowulf himself, of course, honor-bound, preternaturally calm and good-natured in my version, who’s not much of a trickster. Grendel’s Mother, a terrifying demon. Unferth, the drunk who insults Beowulf but ends up lending him his sword. Wyglaf, Beowulf’s faithful cousin, and a few other voices for thanes and thieves. Enough of them, I think, along with the narration and the music, to tell the tale I want to tell, because from my familiarity with various versions, there lies a literary theme in Beowulf that has yet to be explored.
The theme is this: how, at the end of his life, does a man like Beowulf feel about being “the only one?” He’s the only one brave and grateful enough to journey to Denmark and offer to free Hrothgar of his curse, but also the only one responsible for keeping the peace for fifty years afterwards back home among warring Franks, Friesians and Wylfings. And most heartbreakingly, the only one brave enough to face a fire-dragon that’s awakened, even though Beowulf knows he’s going to die for doing it?
Mulling this over, and reflecting on Beowulf’s stunning statement (in the original), “Fate often saves an undoomed man if his courage holds,”–my favorite line in the story, which I feature three times in my version in Beowulf’s deep voice–I placed him on the battlements with Wyglaf, wondering aloud whether if something terrible happened now that he’s old himself, if some young man would come to rescue him? Beowulf is not who he was. Still big, but white-bearded and tired of strife.
Wyglaf says no, and then the dragon appears.
Beowulf: The Only One will be coming out this fall as a download from my shop at www.oddsbodkin.net. To explore other epics, feel free to visit.