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About The daily Nebraskan. ([Lincoln, Neb.) 1901-current | View Entire Issue (Feb. 28, 2000)
‘Beowulf new edition
to be released in U.S.
NEW YORK (AP>- In the United
States it’s been one of those books
you had to read for English lit. But in
Britain it’s hotter than Harry Potter.
It’s topped the best-seller list and won
the high-profile Whitbread Prize,
beating out J.K. Rowling herself.
So will U.S. readers catch
This week, Farrar, Straus &
Giroux is releasing a new edition of
the epic Anglo-Saxon poem, written
more than a thousand years ago.
Translated by Nobel Prize-winning
poet Seamus Heaney, “Beowulf” has
sold more than 50,000 copies in
Britain and already has reached the
Top 20 on Amazon.com, virtually
unheard of for a work of poetry.
“We think we can have a pretty
broad reach with this book,” said
Laurie Brown, FSG’s vice president
of marketing. “‘Beowulf’ is part of
the canon, and we think there are
some readers who rarely buy poetry
that will find themselves inclined to
buy this and give it a thorough read
New translations of classics come
out all the time, with the great major
ity only reaching the classroom. But
occasionally a book attracts general
readers. A re-issue of Stendhal’s
novel “The Charterhouse of Parma,”
translated by the Pulitzer Prize-win
ning poet Richard Howard, sold thou
sands of copies last fall. A few years
ago, Robert Pinsky’s translation ol
“The Inferno” also sold surprisingly
Like literary novels or art-house
movies, such publications depend on
reviews and word of mouth.
Publicity, too, plays a role. At year’s
end, Miramax Films is expected tc
release a movie adaptation.
Meanwhile, the Whitbread prize
brought the book some invaluable,
and unusual, attention.
The nine-judge panel split 5-4
last month, with supporters ol
“Beowulf” exchanging insults with
backers of Rowling’s “Harry Pottei
and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
Biographer Anthony Holden
who voted for “Beowulf,” labeled the
Potter book “derivative, traditiona
and not particularly well-written.” A
Potter voter was heard dismissing
“Beowulf” as “a boring book abou
Among those in the majority:
model Jerry Hall, known to rock fans
as the longtime wife of Mick Jagger.
“Beowulf” is the elegiac narra
tive of the adventures of a
Scandinavian hero who saves the
Danes from the seemingly invincible
monster Grendel and later from
Grendel’s mother. He returns to his
own country and dies in old age in a
vivid fight against a dragon.
More than 3,000 lines long, the
poem was believed written in
England sometime between the sev
enth and 10 th centuries.
The author is unknown and
“Beowulf” exists in only one manu
script, charred by a H^-century fire
and currently stored in the British
Library in London.
Two different U.S. publishers are
using Heaney’s translation. The new
“Beowulf” already appears in W.W.
Norton’s latest anthology of English
literature, which came out recently.
Norton, whose English anthologies
long have dominated the academic
market, commissioned Heaney for
“Beowulf” in the mid-1980s.
“His translation is a wonderful
achievement and event,” said John D.
Niles, a professor of English at the
University of California at Berkeley
and director of the school’s medieval
studies program. “Other professors
are just as excited at this very artful
Niles also noted that some Anglo
Saxon scholars look upon Heaney as
an “interloper.” But he defended the
Irish poet, saying that the “Beowulf”
translation was a “culmination of
decades and decades of engagement
with the early cultures of Northwest
Heaney has admitted that he
found himself as concerned with the
spirit of the work as with the literal
translation. He writes in the book that
he didn’t always listen to ,a
“Beowulf” expert, Alfred David,
appointed by Norton to help him.
“A1 ’s responses were informed by
scholarship and by a lifetime’s expe
rience of teaching the poem, so. they
were invaluable,” Heaney explains.
“Nevertheless, I was often reluctant
to follow his advice and persisted
; many times in what we both knew
: were erroneous ways.”
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