Two summers ago, I read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf by the pool after marathon swims in the lap lanes. My local pool is a particularly relaxing place: seldom too crowded, grassy, shaded. When I swim, I strive for endurance, often swimming a mile each session. For as long as I’m in the water, my body feels no consequence from this exertion. It is only after I get out that fatigue relaxes into my bones.
It was in a series of these post-swim quasi-meditative states that I stretched out on a plastic-banded municipal pool chaise and read Beowulf. I read it — and Heaney’s introduction to it — surprisingly quickly. It’s one of those works that seems totally unapproachable and unappealing until you actually read it and discover it’s a page turner, among all its other, more esoteric attributes. In terms of sheer suspense and pleasurable readability, it’s Stephen King or Michael Crichton, a thousand years earlier. In part, this is because Heaney himself saw Beowulf as “attractively direct” and translated it accordingly. When you read Heaney’s Beowulf, you know you’re reading something that’s ‘Good for You’ but you’re too absorbed in the story to realize it until afterwards.
Today, as I breastroked my way through the last laps of the summer at my local pool, I kept returning to Heaney’s word “so,” which he uses to start his translation. It is for me one of the iconic choices in literature, one of the turns of phrase that I store in my literary memorybanks for the days I’ll need to have it handy. “So,” Heaney starts the elsewhere esoterically-translated Beowulf. “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”
In his eloquent and personal introduction (which you must read… it’s brilliant), Heaney himself explains this choice:
Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and — more colloquially — “listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But… the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was…
So. If you have not already, consider reading Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. It will get your immediate attention. And afterwards, it will relax into your bones.