Every act of translation is simultaneously an act of interpretation. With regard to Beowulf’s last scene and final words to the young warrior Wiglaf, an analysis of three translations of the poem, by E. Talbot Donaldson, R.M. Liuzza, and Seamus Heavey, demonstrates this general principle. Each version of the passage between lines 2799 and 2820 offers a reading of the underlying ambiguity between Christian and pagan worldviews that is one of the core tensions within Beowulf as a whole. The intersection between the concepts of predestination and individual agency both within and between these worldviews shifts substantially between these translations.
While a significant governing force in all three passages, Beowulf’s struggle against fate is deemed most futile in the interpretations of Heaney and Liuzza. In the beginning of this passage, following his fight with the dragon and consequent fatal wounding, Beowulf is foremost concerned with securing a leader for his people, through the young thane Wiglaf, and in constructing a physical legacy through the “barrow” monument overlooking the sea. While the notion of a monument constructed to aide those traveling by sea is a noble endeavor, the use of the word “barrow” denoting a burial site dampens such intentions and reiterated by the imagery of darkened waters surrounding it. The aspects chosen to emphasize this mood differ within all three translations. Whereas this proposed “reminder” for his people carries connotations of dignity and strength in Donaldson, where it will “stand high,” (Donaldson, XXXVIII) and in Liuzza, where it will “tower high,” (Liuzza, l. 2805) Heaney’s description in which “it will loom on the horizon” carries a somewhat altered and more sinister meaning (Heaney, l. 2805). Notably, this translation may be more suited to the following description of the “darkness of the seas” (Donaldson XXXVIII), the “shrouded waters” (Heaney, l. 2808), or the “darkness of the flood” (Liuzza, l. 2808). Similarly, this latter description by Liuzza carries a Biblical allusion to Noah’s flood that creates a mood of future or perpetual catastrophe, ultimately dictated by the indifference of wyrd, which is akin to Heaney’s tone. In utilizing a pivotal moment of the Old Testament where the social order was in crisis, Liuzza appears to be channeling the tumultuous historical and socio-political implications of Beowulf’s death. In both cases, Beowulf’s attempt at securing a worldly immortality as dictated by the heroic code carries a darker quality in the readings of line 2804 by Heaney and line 2807 by Liuzza, as opposed to the plainer reading by Donaldson.
The extent to which Beowulf has chosen his “destiny” or laboured fruitlessly under a limited individual agency, as dictated by either the pagan concept of wyrd, or fate, or through the determining will of a Christian God, also varies significantly between these three interpretations. The fundamental ambiguity surrounding both individual and societal agency is seen in this passage through Beowulf’s instructions to Wiglaf. There is a considerable difference between Liuzza’s choice of the pronoun “they” in line 2799 and the decision of both Donaldson and Heaney to employ “you,” meaning Wiglaf. Consequently, according to the readings of Donaldson and Heaney it is Wiglaf who is given the individual responsibility of ensuring that the treasure that Beowulf has secured through his confrontation with the dragon is used to meet the “needs” of the people. In contrast, Liuzza’s reading indicates that it is foremost the treasure itself, not the mediation of Wiglaf, that will “attend to the needs of the people” (Liuzza, l. 2800-2801). Both decisions contribute to the notion of individual agency in this passage; that is, to what extent is the social order determined by individual will or socio-political and historical circumstances?
In lines 2814 to 2816 of all three readings, it is the pull of history and the underlying principle of wyrd that ultimately trumps the possibility of autonomous human agency. Beowulf’s last words are informed by a worldview of fate and destiny that is dictated by the history of his own “kinsmen” (Donaldson, XXXVIII). Given that “fate” has “swept away” his family, Beowulf submits to this force, telling Wiglaf, “I have to go after [them]” (Donaldson, XXXVIII) or “I must follow them” (Heaney and Liuzza, l. 2816). Such acquiescence is complicated, however, by later descriptions of his soul. Although choosing the agency of treasure over that of Wiglaf himself, Liuzza’s translation suggests a considerable amount of human agency in the last lines of this passage. Beowulf is said to have “chose the fire” and, effectively, his death: “from his breast flew his soul to seek the judgment of the righteous” (Liuzza, l. 2818-2820). The verbs “chose”, “flew”, and “seek” imply that Beowulf holds a substantial amount of self-determination and personal autonomy both prior and following his death. Such an element of choosing one’s destiny is lost, however, in the readings of Donaldson and Heaney. In the former, personal volition is removed from Beowulf’s soul as is deemed “the soul” (Donaldson, XXXVIII); emphasis added). While the verb “seek” is used in the same position as Liuzza’s reading, any personal agency its hold is lost to the line’s impersonal subject. Heaney’s reading is closer to Liuzza’s but connotes a certain divide between the earthly and the otherworldly that is consistent with Christian conceptions of death and afterlife. While retaining the personal pronoun denoting possession, “his,” Heaney’s translation uses the verb “fled” to describe Beowulf’s death. This choice connotes a sense of escape, into the “destined place among the steadfast ones” (Heaney, l. 2820). While there is a significant overlap between this description of an afterlife and Liuzza’s translation of this line as “…the judgment of the righteous” (Liuzza, l. 2820), Heaney’s reading more concretely signifies a certain Christian discord between the ideal of the otherworldly and disdain of the earthly realm. Rather than simply choose his passing, the use of “fled” suggests an anxiety to escape the world into the proper, inevitable refuge of the afterlife. This dualistic tension between an imperfect world and the perfection that comes following death effectively removes the element of choice that is held in Liuzza’s reading. In this sense, in Heaney the acquiescence to wyrd is reinstalled in a Christian framework while Liuzza’s reading maintains an ambiguous tension between the absolutes of human agency and divine determination.
Alongside these conceptions of individual agency, or lack thereof, we may also ascertain the value judgments that all three translators placed on the worldviews within Beowulf. In this regard, perhaps the most substantial variation between these three passages occurs in the final lines of narration that describe Beowulf’s death. In particular, the characterization of the fire on Beowulf’s funeral pyre is indicative of the metaphysics informing the respective reading. For Heaney, the passage is informed by a Christian metaphysics. Beowulf’s death is a violent one; the fire contains a “furious heat” within which the “pyre would assail him” (Heaney, l. 2818-2819). Such a violent description is paired with connotations of escape and refuge whereby “his soul fled from his breast,” as noted earlier (Heaney, l. 2819). Similarly, Donaldson reads the funeral pyre as “hot hostile flames” that Beowulf “should taste” and through which his soul “went from his breast to seek the doom of those fast in truth” (Donaldson, XXXVIII). As in Liuzza’s interpretation whereby Beowulf’s soul seeks judgment, there is a sense of moral evaluation that is to follow Beowulf’s death. According to Liuzza’s translation and accompanying footnote, whether Beowulf will receive a positive judgment or be deemed an irredeemable pagan is unclear (Liuzza, l. 2800). Heaney, on the other hand, suggests that Beowulf does ascend to Heaven; his soul flees to a “destined place” that is alongside “the steadfast ones” (Heaney, l. 2820). In contrast, Donaldson’s reading implies that Beowulf is to suffer the hostility of a negative judgment whereby he is to be condemned. Rather than denoting a refuge or escape from the world, Beowulf’s soul, emptied of personal volition, is met with an afterlife of “doom” that denotes the workings of wyrd (Donaldson, XXXVIII). Liuzza’s interpretation strays from the readings of both Donaldson and Heaney. Rather than employing personified descriptions of the fire as angered or “hostile,” Liuzza describes the funeral pyre as “hot surging flames” through which Beowulf chooses to travel. In this sense, fire is a signigicant motif that recalls the purifying fire that Dante must walk through in the Inferno. Where Donaldson interpretation suggests Beowulf’s soul is sent to Hell, and Heaney suggests Beowulf ascends to Heaven, it may be suggested that in Liuzza’s reading Beowulf must undergo the active process of purgation, as Dante undergoes in The Divine Comedy.
Apart from such interpretive suggestions regarding whether Beowulf’s soul goes to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell, these translations raise an interesting related question: Which is more important—what Beowulf is leaving behind as his legacy, or where his “soul” is going following the fire of the funeral pyre? Each of these translations offers a slightly different response. Until the final lines of narration, Beowulf is clearly concerned with what he is leaving behind. Although resigned to fate and destiny, in all three translations he wishes to secure a level of earthly immortality as embodied in his “barrow” and to establish a successor for his people in Wiglaf. The undertones of a pagan concern with immortality through historical memory are complicated by the situation of Beowulf’s soul. Donaldson’s interpretation shows a disjunction between Beowulf as an individual and the agency of his soul; the latter is seen as a mere extension of the former that follows through the course of wyrd into the “doom” that is, as Heaney writes, the final conclusion of all those subject to fate (Heaney, l. 2816). In other words, death is a finality whereby the soul retains no personal volition. It is “the soul” (Donaldson, XXXVIII; emphasis added), not “his soul” (Heaney; Liuzza, l. 2819-2820). In contrast, Liuzza’s reading maintains a strong sense of pro-active self-determination in both the person and the soul of Beowulf. In choosing death, Beowulf is able to transcend the grip of fate and destiny that is wyrd. In this sense, Liuzza’s interpretation can be seen to denote a certain disjunction between the wants of the conscious self and the wants of the soul, or unconscious self. It is the latter that is attuned to the will of God, to adopt Christian terminology, while the conscious self interprets the workings of divine determination as the futility and “doom” of the heroic ideal but nevertheless strives to retain immortality through earthly achievement and historical legacy. In Heaney this tension between pagan worldliness and Christian other-worldliness is read as a fusion of the pagan conception of a “final doom” that is met with the “assail[ment]” of the funeral pyre” from which Beowulf’s soul is able to flee to the place where it belongs, amongst the “steadfast ones” (Heaney, l. 2820). In this sense, the ambiguous tension of Liuzza’s reading is resolved within Heaney’s interpretation through a confrontation between Beowulf’s personal hold to fate and destiny and the rightful place of his soul, where the latter succeeds over the former.
As all three of the translations discussed above did not limit themselves to a restrictive form, to varying degrees, the amount of interpretive freedom within each is considerable. While both Liuzza and Heaney chose to write in verse, they did not restrict themselves to the conventions of the form. Rather, they chose to grasp and replicate the essence of the poetic style, which is in itself an act of interpretation. For Heaney, this became a “big-voiced” tone that sought to imitate the directness of the Beowulf-poet. In contrast, Liuzza chose a “…poetic idiom that is analogous to, not imitative of, the character of the original; the end result has been a translation which is somewhat quieter than most others” (Liuzza, 47). In contrast to both of these approaches is the aim of Donaldson, who sought to avoid how poetic diction, whether analogous or imitative, can obscure; rather, Donaldson attempts to “preserve” the “richness of rhetorical elaboration alternating with…the barest simplicity of statement (Donaldson, xii). The result is a translation that is as “[literal] as possible” (Donaldson, xii). This plainness, however, lessens the interpretive participation of the translator. Whereas both Liuzza and Heaney accepted their subjectivity and presented varying readings of the passages discusses above, Donaldson’s translation appears to remain silent on a number of the poem’s themes and tensions, including those addressed in this essay.
Given that the translations of Liuzza and Heaney take the most substantial risks and embrace their stylistic decisions, it is understandable that the tensions between individual agency and historical determinism, between pagan and Christian, and between wyrd and divine predestination are thus considerably muted in Donaldson’s interpretation of the passage between lines 2799 and 2820. In contrast, the translations of Liuzza and Heaney offer a significant interpretive contribution to our understanding of Beowulf’s final words and death, and by extension to the birth of a new worldview that was emerging at that time. Nevertheless, each of these three translations offers both a reading and to a certain extent a resolution of the complexities between pagan notions of heroism and fate and the otherworldly implications of Christian doctrine. Having grasped the implications of each of these readings, we may follow them through to their logical conclusion to find that they each represent a certain position within this spectrum of tension between the worldviews of paganism and Christianity, and ultimately on the precarious position of personal choice and self-determination that permeate these tensions.
Donaldson, E. Talbot. Beowulf: A New Prose Translation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1966.
Heaney, Seamus. Edited by Daniel Donoghue. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Nortion & Company, 2002.
Liuzza, R.M. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Canada: Broadview Press, 2000.